Hello and welcome! A couple of things before we begin... First of all, this fic is a prequel to my (Always and Forever) Untitled Heian Fic – but being a prequel it's of course not necessary for you to have read that fic.
This fic is also my nano novel from last year – at the moment there's over 70,000 words of it. Lot's of editing to do, and it's not yet finished... just so you know, this is going to be a long one. I'll try to update pretty frequently, once a week or so – but as I said, there's lot's of editing, so I promise nothing.
This first chapter's pretty Hikaru-centric, but this fic is mainly about Sai's life. Of course, Hikaru will be an important part of it. No romance of any kind in this one, at least not in these first 70k I've written (and most likely not in the rest either).
And, lastly... a fic that takes place in the Heian age isn't the easiest to write. I've done a bit reading about the time period, but I'm still sure this fic is full of mistakes. It vexes me a little, but at the moment it can't be helped. So, keep that in mind and don't take everything I say for the absolute truth. Meanwhile, I'm doing my best to keep this as historically accurate as I can...
Okay, I managed to do something really bright when I was editing this fic - accidentally deleted chapter 2 (I somehow imagined I was at the doc manager deleting just the exported doc). As I'm not sure how to put it there in the middle without removing other chapters and then uploading them again, I'll add it here after the first chapter.
Crossing the Bridge of Dreams
"I see you've got a new go board."
Two young men, not yet past twenty years old, were settling down on the floor next to the subject of the comment. The speaker reached out his hand and touched the shining, smooth surface with one finger.
"It is beautiful," he went on. "But what about the old one?"
"It was a rather annoying accident," his companion replied, arranging his clothes as he took a more comfortable position. "I was replaying some old games in the garden the other day – the weather was quite perfect, and it was such a lovely, quiet evening that I simply could not stay inside – but when the servant was carrying the board back inside, he stumbled and dropped it, and its corner cracked. So I had to throw it away."
The other shook his head sadly. "It's a shame… I liked that board. It might have been old, but it served us well – we played many a memorable game on it."
"Oh, Sai, memorable to you, maybe," his companion replied with a laugh. "Maybe on this board I could for once win."
Sai smiled. "Well, we could increase the handicap…"
"Oh, be quiet! I refuse to have any more stones, I'm already embarrassed. I am older than you, you know."
"Come now, Nobunori-sama, age matters but little here. Beside, three years isn't that much."
"Three years are enough to embarrass me," Nobunori stated with a snort while grasping a black stone placing it on the board. "Here I thought I was a good go player, but then you came along…"
"But you are a good go player!" Sai protested, playing his opening move.
"Oh? And yet I never win against you. Say, if I'm good, then what are you?"
Sai just smiled and didn't reply.
"Hikaru? What are you doing?" A young girl watched curiously as a boy of her age struggled down a street carrying something that looked like a big wooden box. "What is that thing?"
The boy grinned at her over the box. "You wouldn't know, would you?" he just said, and the girl hissed in annoyance.
"You don't have to be mean!" she exclaimed. She rushed after the boy as he entered the yard of a small mansion that had seen better days. The plants in the yard were growing wild, and the little pool in the middle of it was almost completely overgrown. There was hardly one wall that stood straight in the building itself, and one wing was partially collapsed. Still, one could see there was a light inside, a fire that shone warmly and invitingly into the cooling night of late autumn.
"So what is it?" the girl asked stubbornly, walking by the boy's side. "Come on, tell me! Tell me already, Hikaru!"
"If you won't shut up I…" the boy started to snap, but stopped suddenly. A man had stepped out of the house, and despite of the dark, it was easy to see he was angry.
"Where have you been?"
"I… umm," Hikaru fidgeted and tried to get a better hold of his burden. "I was… well, I went…"
"What's that thing?" The man strode to the children with a few steps. "Why do you always have to drag some garbage back home?"
"It's not garbage! It's a go board," Hikaru stated in an indignant tone. "I didn't steal it!" he added hurriedly when the man's face darkened. "I found it, I really did, I promise! Someone had thrown it away, see, it's a bit cracked on that side…" He tried to turn the board and almost dropped it. "So… I thought if they don't want it, I could take it."
Akari was giggling. "A go board? You're so silly."
The man wasn't amused. "You throw that thing away. Away, I said!" he yelled as the boy started to protest. "Here I am, waiting for you to come to help me with the repairs so that we get this place fixed before winter comes, and you run around collecting worthless crap like that! What am I to do with you?!"
"Masao?" a woman's voice asked behind his back. "What is it?"
"Just look what this son of ours dragged home this time!" He turned to her with an angry swipe toward Hikaru. "A broken go board!"
The woman gave a little laugh. "A go board? What on earth are you planning to do with it, Hikaru?"
"I… I just thought it could be fun to have it… we could play five-in-a-row or something…" Hikaru shot a worried glance at his father and his voice trailed off.
"Playing silly games won't feed anyone," the man muttered. "The Good People might be able to waste their time on nonsense like that, but I don't want to see that thing here ever again. Throw it away and go to bed. You won't be sleeping long in the morning. We have a lot to do."
Hikaru stared after him sullenly as he returned to the house. Akari shot one glance at the boy, and seeing his expression decided to withdraw quietly.
The next day Hikaru was kept busy, as promised. His father headed to the Katsura river, to his work as a fisherman, but the boy was left with such an exhausting to-do list that he couldn't even think about wandering off now that he was unsupervised. Or… he did think about it, but decided it was best to take no chances. At one point, Akari came to watch him and offered to help, but he chased her away angrily. "Girls are just on the way in carpentry," he muttered, and Akari stomped angrily away.
Hikaru shot an irritated glance after the girl. "If it wasn't for her stupid folks, I wouldn't have to be fixing up this stupid house in the first place," he muttered to himself and got back to work. After all, it was Akari's parents who had put the idea of moving into the city in his father's head. There had been no shortage of possible houses to take over in this area. The house they had moved to stood at the very edge of the city, by the western border. The area had originally been meant for high nobles, but the western quarter had started declining early, and by now many of the buildings were completely abandoned. Hikaru's family wasn't the only one that had moved there, quite different from the original inhabitants.
Their new home was a rather typical nobleman's house, though a small one. There were white walls going all around it, though behind the main building they had partially collapsed, and Hikaru's father wasn't going to bother to fix them. There were three separate pavilions, connected with covered galleries, but at the moment they were using only one of them. Maybe, next year, if there was time and materials, they might fix up also the other parts, but for now the main building was enough for them. The outbuildings they had practically torn down to get building materials – and they hardly needed a stable, anyway.
Although in disrepair, it was still a rather grand place for a fisherman's family. Hikaru knew his father had decided they would move there mainly because of his mother – he wanted to offer her more than just a little hut by the river. After all, Mitsuko came from a better family, and Hikaru suspected his father still had some funny need for recognition, though her parents were long dead, a need to show that he could offer her just as much as anyone else. Hikaru thought it was all just silly cause mother had been happy at the little hut by the river, but he didn't – usually – complain. In truth, he liked the old place and its wild growing garden, and the idea of living in a mansion like that really appealed to him.
If only there hadn't been so much repairing to be done.
The day after that, her anger faded, Akari came to look for him again and his mother told her Hikaru was out somewhere, this time with permission. The girl considered a moment, and decided to check their hiding place, one of the abandoned houses in the neighborhood that was in such a bad repair that no one would move in there. In fact, there was just one room in the whole big building that was safe to be used at all.
And sure enough, Hikaru was there, kneeling on the ground and watching something with obvious satisfaction.
"Hi!" Akari stepped in carefully. In truth she was a little scared every time she entered this house, certain that some day the ceiling would fall on them or the floor would break under her feet – she did hide that fear strictly from Hikaru, though. "What are you doing? Hey, it's that go board!"
She knelt down beside Hikaru and touched the board with her index finger. "Wow. It is really neat. Even if it's cracked." She glanced hesitantly at Hikaru. "But your father will get angry if he finds out…"
"Then he'd better not. Got that?" Hikaru looked at her strictly, and she nodded eagerly.
"My lips are sealed," she whispered.
"Good." Hikaru straightened his back. "Now that you are here, I guess you could make yourself useful and play with me."
Akari grinned. "Really? What shall we play? Five-in-a-row?"
Hikaru snorted. "Don't be stupid. This is a go board. You play go on a go board."
The grin on Akari's face twitched. "Go? Do you know how it's played?"
"Of course." Hikaru pointed at the pile of stones he had on the floor by the board. "First of all, you've got these black and white stones. And then…"
Akari picked one up. "Is this one black or white?" she asked, twiddling it around.
Hikaru glanced at it with a frown. "Black. Don't interr…"
"I think it's closer to white than black…"
"Well, okay! It's gray." Hikaru snatched it from her hands and threw it away. "Do you want to learn or not? Then shut up!" He cleared his throat. "You put the stones on the board like this…" he placed one on it, "and… you're trying to… with these black and white stones…"
"Yes?" Akari looked at him expectantly.
"Well, you make… different… formations." Hikaru placed more stones on the board so that they formed a cross. "Like this. And you get points, umm, based on how complicated forms you can make. And you try to stop your opponent from finishing his."
"Okay…" Akari didn't sound certain. "Are you sure?"
"Of course I'm sure!" Hikaru exclaimed, indignant. "Now, do you wanna play or not?"
"Yes!" she exclaimed happily, and they started their game. Quite a lot of yelling and arguing took place before it reached its questionable end, the winner still undetermined, but at the very least they also had quite a lot of fun.
The problem was, Hikaru mused when he was lying in his bed that night wide awake, that the point wasn't just 'having fun'. In truth, he couldn't quite say exactly what the point was, but he couldn't help feeling they were just fooling around. And though fooling around wasn't something he normally minded, that wasn't what he had had in mind when he had decided to keep the board. Well, alright, he had kept it just to spite his father. And as his father didn't know about it, maybe the whole thing was quite pointless, but... still. He had a strange, indistinct feeling there had to be more to this game, though he didn't quite understand what or why.
And so, when one day he was making his way home and happened to spot two men engaged in a game of go on a terrace of what seemed to be the backside of a small shop, he did his best to sneak closer. He couldn't quite get close enough, though, and he couldn't remain for long or he'd receive yet another scolding, but at least he saw enough that he could instruct Akari the next time they played.
"If you surround your opponent's stone, like this," he said in the middle of their game, "you can remove it." And he picked away one of Akari's white stones.
"Hey, what!" Akari exclaimed. "You can't make up new rules just like that!"
"I didn't make it up!" Hikaru glared at her. "It's a real rule! We, umm, we were playing on a lower level before. Because I thought this'd be too hard for you."
Akari returned his glower. "Oh, really? Well, I guess I'll take your stone then!" She snapped a white stone down and surrounded a black one.
Hikaru blinked as she removed it from the board. "I knew you could take that. I just wanted to see if you'd notice it," he said nonchalantly.
Akari said nothing, just waited for his move with a sharp look in her eyes.
Hikaru made a habit of trying to linger around that little shop when ever possible, always passing it on his way home, just in case he'd see the men playing again. This did happen a few times, but he learned annoyingly little. He couldn't exactly stop to watch their game, worried that they'd chase him away for good or go to play inside, and what little bits he saw, he didn't really understand. But one day only the go board sat alone on the terrace, a finished game on it. There came voices from inside the shop but there was no one near by, and after a short moment of hesitation he dashed to the board to examine it more closely.
He could make no sense of the formations of the stones. Was the game even finished? How could you tell? Who had won? He leaned closer, trying to find order in the chaos of the stones. Some areas were clearly the territory of one or another, but others… was there some meaning in the haphazardness?
He picked up one black stone and looked at it thoughtfully. Then he tried to snap it on the board the way he'd seen the men do, but it fell from his fingers and rolled down from the board. He reached to pick it up – and froze. The stone had come to stop in front of a pair of wrinkled feet. The owner of the feet bent down, picked up the stone, and gave him a look he didn't quite comprehend – somewhere between curious, amused, and a little annoyed.
"Careful with the stones, boy," he grunted. "They chip easily."
"Ah…I'm sorry," Hikaru stammered, finally snapping back to life. He rushed to his feet and attempted to run away, but the old man – owner of the shop and one of the players – reached out and grasped his arm.
"Hold it." He kept on watching the boy through a slightly narrowed eyes. Hikaru gulped, wondering just how deep trouble he'd this time landed himself, when the corner of the man's mouth twitched a little. "I've seen you before, boy. You tend to hang around quite often here."
Hikaru's eyes darted restlessly around, trying to spot something that would save him. "Well, I… I just…"
"What's it in go that interests you, boy?" the man asked without giving him a chance to finish his sentence.
"I…" Hikaru paused in his struggling and looked at the old man suspiciously. "I just think it's fun," he muttered.
The corner of the man's mouth twitched again. Then he burst into laughter. "You find it fun? Here I am, trying to get my grandchildren interested in the game, quite in vain, and then some street brat shows up and says he likes it?"
"I'm not…" Hikaru started to protest, but the man didn't listen to him.
"Well, sit down, then, boy," he said and pushed Hikaru toward the go board. As the confused boy just stood there, not knowing what to do, he whacked him on the head with his fan. "Sit, I said! Let's play a game."
Hikaru's instincts told him the smart thing to do was to run away. Sure, they were both commoners, but still not quite in the same league – he the son of a simple fisherman, this man a successful merchant. But, as usual, curiosity took the better of him, and he settled down by the board opposite to the man.
"So, you say you play?" the man asked, and Hikaru jerked his head in a way that might have been a nod.
"How many stones do you need?"
Hikaru blinked. How many stones? Weren't he supposed to use them all? "Umm…"
"Ah, a difficult question, of course, as you don't know my skill. Say, let's play an even game. It is the best way to find out the skill of your opponent."
"Yeah, sure," Hikaru agreed, though he didn't quite know what the man was talking about.
A moment they sat there in the silence. Then the man motioned with his hand. "Go on, you begin."
"Oh." Hikaru gave a start. "Yes. Of course." He picked up a black stone and licked nervously his lips. His first real go game! He'd better not mess this up.
As he had watched the men play, he had noticed they usually placed the first stones into the corners, so that was what he did. Having played his move he leaned back, waiting for the man to play. But instead of taking a white stone, the man stared at his stone, then at him, and then again at the stone. Then, without saying anything he pushed the stone a little with one finger, so that instead of being in the square, it lay at the intersection of the lines.
Hikaru felt himself blush a little. Alright, one more thing to teach Akari. The stones weren't played in the squares but on the intersections. How would he ever make it seem as if he had always known that?
With a blink he realized that it was his move again, the old man had played his stone in another corner. He picked a stone and placed it down on the table, this time not in the corner but on the right side, close to the edge. He wondered if he should confess that he didn't have a clue what he was doing. But he was worried that maybe then the old man would get angry and drive him away. This was his best chance to learn any real go at all, and he didn't want to miss it.
And so they played on, placing black and white stones by turns on the board in deep silence. The game hadn't gone on for long before the old merchant paused and shook his head. "I thought you said you know how to play," he stated dryly.
"Actually, I didn't," Hikaru shot back. "I just said I play. I didn't say what I play or if I'm any good or anything like that."
The man glared at him, but barked then a short laugh. "Do you even know what the goal of this game is?"
"Well, I…" Hikaru stared at the board, hesitantly. "I know you can capture the opponent's stones if you surround them, so… maybe you should capture as many stones as you can?"
"Not quite. You want to secure your territory, capturing stones is only a part of it. Sometimes it is better not to capture them."
Hikaru blinked. "Why?" he asked, genuinely curious.
"Why do you want to learn?" the man questioned him in return. Hikaru shrugged.
"I don't know. As I said, it seems fun."
"Fun," the old man snorted. He watched the boy a long while a thoughtful expression no his face. "Fine," he suddenly said, as if coming to a conclusion. "I'll teach you. How about that?"
"Are you serious, father?" came another voice. A younger man had emerged from the shop. "You are going to teach this… this…" He gave Hikaru a contemptuous look and left the sentence hanging in the air.
Normally his tone would have received an angry retort from Hikaru, but now the boy let it pass, watching the old man with nervous anticipation, not himself quite believing what he had just heard.
"And why not, if he wants to learn? Unlike you, dear son of mine, only interested in making profit, too busy to learn an intriguing game. Now," he turned back to Hikaru. "What do you say?"
A slow grin spread on Hikaru's face. "It would be brilliant. Sir," he added a little belatedly. "Totally."
"So we've got a deal. What's your name, boy?"
"Hikaru," Hikaru replied, and then man gave him a solemn nod.
"Good to meet you, Hikaru. My name's Shinpo Heihachi. And you'd better stop calling me 'sir' right away."
And so Hikaru got his first go teacher. On that first day, he stayed there much too long, simply not realizing how fast time flew, and so he received quite a lecture once he finally came home. He didn't care though, for he had learned so much. This old man had lifted the veil on the mystery of go, and though it all had began of nothing else but a childish obsession, now Hikaru found himself truly mesmerized by this seemingly simple but so very deep game that he almost felt he could drown into its whirlpools.
Akari didn't quite understand what to make about the changes in the game. "If this is go," she wondered, "then what did we play before?"
"Children's games," Hikaru replied a little haughtily. "This is the real thing."
Sai was once again in the middle of a game with Nobunori, when a message arrived from his father. The two of them were so immersed in the game that they didn't even notice the arrival of the messenger, and the servants knew them well enough to realize there was no point to try to disrupt their game, especially as the message was not urgent.
They didn't have to wait long, though. Nobunori grasped a handful of stones and dropped them on the board, exasperated. "I've lost," he stated flatly. "Once again."
"Thank you for the game," Sai said, bowing his head, and "Thanks for the game," his opponent replied sullenly.
Starting to pick up the stones from the board Sai attempted, very carefully, to suggest that maybe next time there could, in the end, be one handicap stone more, but this just earned him an annoyed sigh.
"Whatever. I swear, I play worse games on this board than on the old one!"
"I wouldn't say so…" Sai tried again, but he wasn't given a chance to finish his sentence.
"But I would! Like this move…" Only now they noticed the servant who was trying to get their attention.
Sai was, in truth, relieved to get the message and so a way to change the topic. He enjoyed playing go with Nobunori – a second cousin of his, and his main companion and guide ever since he had arrived to the capital after having spent over a decade in the provinces. His moves were innovative and often surprising in their simplicity, but unfortunately he couldn't quite connect all those brilliant moves to each other. He made mistakes, not always bad ones, but a player of Sai's quality simply couldn't leave them unexploited. And though Nobunori wasn't a bad loser, he tended to get a bit moody after many consecutive losses. At times Sai thought that maybe he should go a little easier on him, but he was afraid Nobunori would notice that, and get even angrier.
"Any news?" Nobunori asked as he read the message.
"Oh, nothing particularly interesting," Sai stated, eyes still scanning the message. "He is just recounting some little things that have happened." Little things that his father found interesting, that was, and he enjoyed hearing about them, but he had a feeling Nobunori wouldn't appreciate them. "Everything seems to be going well there. But here, look! He sent us a game record. A game he played against a passing traveler. Shall we play it out?"
"Why not." Nobunori shrugged, not very eager. "Does he say if he is coming to the capital some day?"
Sai shook his head. "No. He seems to be quite busy."
Nobunori snorted. "He is much too diligent. One could almost think he prefers living in that far-off place over the capital."
Sai smiled. No need just to 'almost' think so, he thought, but didn't say it aloud. He knew his cousin wouldn't understand. "It would be great if you met him some day," he said instead. "I know he would love to have a game with you."
Nobunori snorted. "Love to beat me, you mean."
"Well, he is a better player than I am," Sai replied with a laugh. "But he loves to play against different people, to see different styles of play."
"Then one would think he would come to the capital," Nobunori stated as they started replaying the game. "All the best go players are here."
Sai nodded eagerly. "Exactly why I am here," he said solemnly, and his friend laughed.
"What, I thought you came to study in the university, so that you can take the examinations and become an official."
"Well, that too, I guess. But go is what is important – and here, among all the best players, one can truly hope to each the divine move some day. I just wish I could take those examinations already! The studies take too much time, time I could spend playing."
Nobunori shook his head, smiling a little wryly at his mention of the divine move. "I wonder what kind of an official you would be, just spending your days playing go…"
"Well, I guess I just have to get myself a post where the job consists of playing go," Sai stated jokingly, but the game he was replaying was beginning to win his interest. "Oh, look here!" he exclaimed. "Isn't that an ingenious respond to my father's hane here! No wonder he sent this game to me."
"True." For a moment both bent over the go board, examining it carefully. Then Nobunori looked up at his friend.
"Say, are you coming to follow Masatsune's poetry competition next week?"
"Me?" Sai looked at him in surprise. "I… I don't know, I don't really care so much of those…"
"You should. You've been here for months, it's about time you start forming right kind of connections. Besides, I've heard that the emperor's go teacher comes there. You might have a chance to play a game with him."
Sai's whole face lit up. "He does? That would be marvelous! Are you sure I can come? Do you think he would play with me? I wouldn't want to be pushy, it's about poetry anyway, isn't it, and not go, but it would be so great, and if you think I can come, I certainly will, though…"
Nobunori laughed out loud. "I'm sure it's alright! You can come with me. I'm sure everyone will be happy to meet you. And even if you can't play then, surely you will get a chance later. The important thing is to meet the correct people."
Sai nodded eagerly, eyes still shining. "Emperor's go teacher," he said dreamily. "That must be the best job there is."
"For you, maybe," Nobunori replied, still smiling. Then he shook his head. "I still don't understand how a go player of your father's quality can remain in the provinces. Luckily at least you are more sensible."
Sai let the comment pass with a smile and went on replaying the game. The truth was that he himself at times missed his old home province where he had spent most of his life. The peacefulness of the place, certain cordiality that people there had that most his new acquaintances seemed to lack. The great plains, and the sight of Mount Fuji in the distance, more amazing than he had been able to convey in the poems he had attempted to write.
Some day he would yet write that poem that would make everyone to understand the wonders of Musashi province. But now, there was this intriguing record in his hands, and he bent eagerly over the go board the replay it. Yes, Musashi had its points, and at times it happened that some traveler passed by who could truly play great go, but in the end, he couldn't have moved back there. Not to stay, at least. The capital was full of wonderful go players, and he hadn't yet been able to play with but a few of them. His father might prefer the solitude of the provinces, but he… he would not leave the capital anymore.
A/N: This old merchant is, of course, Hikaru's grandfather. I changed the last name a little – Shindou has two kanji: "advance; proceed; progress; promote" and "wisteria". The first kanji of Shinpo is the same, but the word as a whole means "progress; advance; improvement; development."
Not that much happened yet, and it'll be a while before Sai and Hikaru can meet - they don't exactly belong to the same circles. But Sai'll get a game with his rival-to-be in the next chapter. As I said, I'll try to update weekly, but we'll see what happens. All comments are always appreciated!
A few weeks after Hikaru had met the old silk merchant, he once again sneaked out of his home to play go with him. He couldn't go there as often as he would have wanted, and it had been a week since the previous time. It wasn't just about fooling his parents, but Akari too, and honestly, escaping his parents was easy, but Akari could be just impossible. Thinking about it, the old man Heihachi would have probably been thrilled to get another student, even if it would have been just a girl, but Hikaru wanted to keep him for himself. He liked the old man. He was strict, sometimes annoyingly so, but he didn't get angry just because some kid disagreed with him or challenged his point of view – well, except when he really had a reason. But he listened to Hikaru, and this was something new to him. Even his mother, who in general was much easier to get along with than his father, didn't really seem to pay attention to what he had to say. Simply put, he enjoyed this new attention.
He slipped in from the backdoor – at first he had used the front, but Heihachi's son, who helped him to run the store, had complained that the sight of a shabby street kid like him frequenting the place would give the shop a bad name. Hikaru did not like the son – or his wife – much, and the feeling was mutual. This time, luckily, neither of them was in sight.
"Ah, good evening, Hikaru!" Heihachi exclaimed seeing him. "I was wondering when you would come."
"Hi, ojiisan. Sorry I've been away… my parents didn't give me permission to come here before now." Of course, his parents hadn't given him any permission now either, in fact they thought he was out collecting firewood with his friends (he had a little pile hidden, one he had gathered stick by stick during the previous days, so that he'd have something to show them when he'd go home.) He wasn't about to tell this to the merchant though. He had learned his lesson – once he had made the mistake to say that he'd sneaked away without a leave, and no matter how hard he had tried to explain that his father would never let him to waste time learning something as trivial as go, Heihachi had still angrily sent him back.
"Be that as it may, they are your parents," he had grumbled. "If they don't say you can come, then you can't."
Now, as Hikaru sat down by the go board, the old man smiled at him cordially. "How's everything going?" he asked. "It really has been a while. I take it you've been busy."
"Yeah." Hikaru stretched his back. "Dad's finally getting done with the house, though. About time. It's getting awfully cold."
They started the day's lesson, a simple game of capturing stones on a nine times nine board. It didn't take long before Heihachi paused and gave the boy a thoughtful look.
"It looks like there's something on your mind," he stated. It was quite obvious that the boy wasn't concentrating on their game with his usual zeal.
Hikaru shrugged uncomfortably. "Father's been talking that I should be apprenticed to someone. I'm twelve already, so I guess it's high time. He says it's obvious I don't have a calling to be a fisherman – and he's damn right about that – but I don't know. I don't really like any of the possibilities he's been talking about. But it sounds like I don't have much choice here…"
"But your father is right," Heihachi pointed out. "Life will be much easier if you get yourself a proper occupation. Unless you want to spend your days cleaning the streets, or something like that…"
"Definitely not!" Hikaru burst out. "I just don't know what I'd want to do…"
"Isn't there anything you are interested in?"
Hikaru thought a moment. "Sure. Playing go."
The old man gave a laugh. "I'm afraid you would find it hard to make a living playing go."
"That sucks. Though, why not? I could start a go school or something. Hey, maybe I could get apprenticed to you, learning go! How about that?" He looked up at the old man, excited. It sounded like a crazy idea, but who knew.
Heihachi smiled at the boy's eager expression. "I don't know about that… but I could find you job in my shop, if you wish."
"Oh…" Hikaru's face fell. "Well, I guess… beats cleaning the streets." He thought about having to work with Heihachi's son and daughter-in-law, and grimaced. "Maybe…"
"It certainly does!" Heihachi snorted. "This is a fine store, we sell the best silk in the city! But we must work on your manners – and appearance – before you can be allowed any contact with customers."
"And what's wrong with my manners and appearance? Too shabby?" His face grew so dark that Heihachi burst into laughter.
"My son's manners could improve as well, but he does have a point, you know. Someone dressed like you working at the finest cloth store? No. Not good." He shook his head looking at the boy's clothes. They weren't that bad, really – Hikaru's mother saw to that – but still, the very quality of the cloth made him want to cringe, and though the clothes were mainly clean, Hikaru didn't seem to be paying much attention on exactly how they were hanging on him.
"Well, think about it, see how you feel about it, if it's the right path for you. We can talk more next time you come. But now… if I go here…" he placed down a stone, "what should you do?"
"Mmh." Hikaru bent over their little board, blinking. He didn't really have any idea. "Something like… this?"
"And if I go here?"
"Oh… oh, damn, I don't know. Maybe… damn. It just doesn't work, does it?"
Heihachi shook his head with a smile, and bent over the board to show the boy the right path.
The gathering at Tachibana no Masatsune's home had been a rather pleasant event so far, although to Sai's disappointment he hadn't had a chance to bring the topic of go up in a conversation, even in passing. He had exchanged some pleasantries with Sugawara no Akitada, the go teacher of the emperor himself, but soon the man had been whisked away – he was a part of the men's team in the poetry contest Masatsune was holding.
Although it wasn't quite his forte, Sai did enjoy good poetry just as much as any other guest present, but though many of the poems exchanged that night were quite masterful, he could not help wishing the contest would soon be over so that he could try to see if he'd be able to get a game.
It was now the ladies' turn. From behind the curtain of the state a charming voice recited,
"From the mountain top storms blow the cherry flowers, so quickly scattered… your own fickle affections are just as vain and fleeting."
Someone from the gentlemen's team was quick to reply. "Mount Asaka is known for its shallow springs. Shallow I am not. Then why is the mountain spring I long for so distant from me?"
And so it was the ladies' turn again, and with a little laugh someone recited a reply that made everyone else laugh as well, as it with clever puns made the previous one sound quite hypocritical.
It was, in the end, the ladies' team that won the contest by general consensus. Sai waited a moment – a very short one, for his patience had run thin – and approached then the go teacher. Sugawara no Akitada was sitting together with a couple of other court nobles whose names Sai didn't remember, though he was afraid they had been introduced to him earlier. His attention had been quite elsewhere.
He sat down with a bow and congratulated Akitada on his poems in the contest. "I especially enjoyed the one referring to a game of go," he said, feeling suddenly a little shy. He didn't quite know where went the line between honesty and flattery. He did not want to appear as if he was trying to sweet-talk his way into this go players favor, but he knew that his over-enthusiasm could easily be misunderstood if he didn't try to control it.
Akitada bowed his head a little for thanks, a small smile playing on his lips. "And do you play, Sai-sama?" he asked, and Sai started nodding eagerly.
"I love the game," he said, and despite his efforts his enthusiasm began to flow over. "No, I don't think love is strong enough. There simply isn't anything as magnificent in the world as go."
Akitada laughed out loud. "My, I think you are even a worse zealot than I," he stated. "If your skill is anywhere close to your passion, you should be a great player."
"He is," another voice said. Nobunori joined their company. "I have never been able to win against him, not even with a three stone handicap." He sat down with a sigh. "I guess I'll just have to swallow my pride and get one handicap stone more."
"Really?" one of Akitada's companions looked at Sai with interest. "But you are not a bad player, Nobunori-sama. It might be quite interesting to play a game with you," he said, indicating Sai with a nod of his head.
"Oh, I would be happy to play with you!" Sai exclaimed. "There is nothing better than playing as many games as possible with as many different players as possible! And of course…" He hesitated as his eyes traveled again to Akitada.
"It would be a pleasure," the elder man said with a smile. "I meet seldom people with such a shining passion for go. I am sure the experience will be rewarding."
Sai smiled brightly. He wanted to jump up and go to find the nearest go board right away, but managed to control himself. His second cousin was watching him with a smile, most likely knowing what was going on in his head.
"Would it be too much of trouble for you to play a game now?" Nobunori asked. "For this is a game I very much would wish to see."
Sai was nodding eagerly. "Well, Masatsune-sama!" one of Akitada's companions, the one who had expressed interest in playing with Sai, exclaimed. "Get out your go board! There is a game about to start!"
This got the attention of other guests as well, and very soon Sai found himself sitting in front of go board, opposite to Sugawara no Akitada. They were attracting quite an audience, but their host did not seem to mind this new addition to the program, quite on the contrary.
The players bowed at each other, and the game began, Sai playing black.
He fought to keep the grin from his face as he made his first move. He hadn't believed he would be able to get to play this man so soon. He was thankful to his cousin – he couldn't have been so pushy about the game. He looked at the man opposite to him. Akitada was sitting in a rather relaxed pose, playing his moves with a careless air. Perhaps he didn't know that Nobunori truly was a good player. He didn't know who he was facing. The smile tugging Sai's lips changed, turning into a more tight-lipped, determined look. His opponent was in for a surprise.
It did not take long for Akitada to get a more serious attitude toward the game. Their audience followed it in silence, and even those who weren't any great go players saw that this was a game between two masters, as surprising as it was that this youngster no one truly knew could challenge the best player of the city – if not the country, as they had often thought.
As for Akitada, it was his turn to fight to keep his expression neutral. There was depth in this game that he would have loved to explore more boldly, but he did not dare to – he had to be careful not to lose this game. Perhaps, if he did lose, he could play it down, say he hadn't been playing seriously from the beginning – which was quite true – but still, it would start unwanted rumors. What would the emperor say if, or, rather, when, he would hear that some young nobody who had recently moved to the capital from the provinces had easily defeated his go teacher? No, that was a scene he wished to avoid at all costs.
And soon he had his chance as his young opponent made a move – not a bad move, truly, but still a move that opened him the way he had been looking for. Sai didn't seem to notice it at first, but when he did their eyes locked for a moment, he was shocked to see the look in his opponent's eyes – never before had he met anyone so young with such a piercing gaze.
In the end he was saved, and the game ended in his win by two moku. The silence lasted long, as everyone sat quietly watching the board. Then Sai bowed his head. "Thank you for the game," he said. "Thank you very much."
Akitada bowed in return. "Thank you for the game," he replied, seemingly quite nonchalant. But as he straightened his back, his eyes dwelt long on his opponent. A face and name he should not forget .
"A fantastic game!" someone finally cried out among their audience, and as if that one exclamation had broken all the barriers, everyone started talking at once.
"Truly, truly brilliant!" the one who had expressed his interest to play with Sai declared. "I wonder just how many stones I would need…"
"All things considered, maybe I shouldn't feel so bad about always losing," Nobunori pondered. "Say, Sai, think I could have five stones from now on?" He was only half joking as he looked at his second cousin with new eyes. He hadn't ever truly realized the depth of Sai's skill before.
Sai merely smiled at him. "Would you want to discuss the game?" he asked, turning to Akitada. "I feel like I learned so much from it, and…"
"Oh, yes, it was a good game," Akitada cut him off, fanning himself calmly with his fan. "A very good game. You certainly surprised me. We need to play again some day. But now…" He covered a yawn with the fan. "It was a rather long game, and it is getting late. I would yet wish to see the manuscripts Masatsune-sama was talking about before take my leave." And he stood up, turning to their host. "Would you be so kind?"
Masatsune got quickly to his feet as well, and started guiding him elsewhere. "Oh, certainly, certainly! I am sure you are bound to appreciate the precision…."
The two of them disappeared from the room, followed by some other people. Sai shot a disappointed glance after them, but he didn't have long to dwell on it, for there were others who found the game much more interesting than some dusty old books, and they talked of it long into the night.
Hikaru had wished he'd be able to meet the old merchant soon again, but as before, he hadn't got the chance before over a week had passed. He had been thinking about the man's suggestion. He wasn't quite sure if he was that interested in working for a cloth merchant, but if it was this particular merchant… maybe he would be able to deal with annoying people like the son and the son's wife.
And if he were working for the old man, maybe even moved to his place, they would certainly have many chances for playing go.
He hadn't yet mentioned anything to his parents. Luckily his father had been too busy to bother him with any talk about apprenticeship lately, but Hikaru knew he hadn't forgotten it, and it was only a matter of time when he would come home and tell him it was all settled, and there would be nothing he'd be able to do about it.
It was getting late in the evening as he rushed through the streets toward the merchant's home. The sun had set, and during the recent days the nights had become quite cold. Hikaru jogged on briskly, a little cloud forming in front of his mouth at every breath. He had made his mind – if pretending to be a merchant would give him a chance to continue playing, he would do it.
He reached the old man's home, ran straight to the backdoor and entered without even knocking, but came soon to an abrupt stop. He heard many voices from ahead. Did they have visitors?
He tiptoed quietly closer and peeked into a room where the voices came from. The merchant's son was there, talking with two other men, and they all looked quite grim. Hikaru stood in the doorway, straining his ears to hear what they said, but their voices were too low.
The daughter-in-law was there as well, and she was the one to notice him. She hurried to him briskly, soundlessly, making shooing gestures with her hands. "Go, go," she whispered sternly. "You have no business here."
Annoyed at her tone, Hikaru stood his ground. "What do you mean?" he said aloud, making also the men notice him. "I came to meet Shinpo-san."
"You can't meet him," the woman snapped, still in a low voice. "Go."
"What do you mean I can't meet him? I'm sure he's expecting me, I'll…"
"My honored father," the merchant's son cut him off, approaching them, "passed away this morning. Now that he is gone, there is no point for you to come here anymore."
Hikaru stood still, uncertain and unwilling to believe he had heard right.
"But… how?" Last time they had met, the man had seemed the paragon of health. Of course, he was old, but still. How could he just die, so suddenly…
"His heart failed," the woman said curtly.
Hikaru stared at the four people in the room. The merchant's son and his wife looked at him as if he were something dirty in a newly cleaned room, and the two strangers behind them were staring at him with evident confusion and curiosity. He turned slowly on his heels and walked away. No point to ask if he still could get a job there, crossed in his mind, and he shook his head angrily.
When he came out he started running, just running without any real goal. Something burned in his eyes, and he fought to keep the tears back. The cold winter air was painful in his throat as he ran, but he didn't care.
He didn't stop before he arrived to the wide Suzaku Avenue. Panting he stood at the Avenue's edge, staring at the people who walked by him without really seeing them. Then his knees gave in under him and he fell on the ground, sniffing.
He had never known his grandparents. His father's parents had died before his parents even got married, and his mother had come to the city from the countryside, as a servant of a minor lady, and though there had been talk about her parents moving to the capital as well, the sudden death of the lady which led to his mother losing her job had changed those plans. Mitsuko herself had been about to return to the provinces, but then she had met Hikaru's father and married him. Her parents didn't quite approve of the marriage, thinking she could have found a better match, and had never visited the couple, and so they too passed away without Hikaru ever meeting them.
With this old merchant Hikaru had got his first glimpse what it might have been like to have a grandfather – he had even started calling the old man ojiisan, which Heihachi hadn't seemed to mind. But now, just when he thought his life in fact might take a turn to better, something insane like this happened.
"Damn you!" he yelled suddenly at the dark sky above him, earning a couple of weird looks from passers-by. A moment he stared at the sky, angry and unyielding, wanting to deny the gods themselves. But cursing wouldn't help, and didn't help. In the end he had no other choice but scramble back on his feet and start shuffling back home.
A/N: The poems are from The Tale of Genji.
There is the second chapter, a little shorter than the first one, but this was a logical place to cut it off. Actually, I was going to ask already in the first chapter what you think would be a good length for the chapters... at the moment they're around 4000 words. Is this okay, or would you like longer chapters? (That'd mean, of course, a bit longer intervals between the chapters.)
Anyway, once again, thank you for the readers, and especially for the followers and the one and only reviewer so far. *insert here a heart*