Once again, thank you for all the reviewers! It's always great to hear from the readers. And 19x19, I totally don't mind "nagging"! (I practically asked you to, didn't I?) Everyone else, too: if you notice any mistakes, feel free to point them out!
It was the first day of the third month, the first day of the Snake, and this was the day for the Kyokusui no En, the Feast of the Meandering Stream. It was held in the garden of the Kakugan-ji temple through which a little stream wound its way, with a strong enough current for the day's purposes.
Sai was a little nervous when he arrived at the place with his second cousin. He had never before taken part into this festival, not on this scale. The feasts they had had in Musashi had been very small happenings, and rather informal too – at least compared to this. The whole way there Nobunori had been impressing on his mind the importance of this day, how there would be countless Very Important People present there, and it might be decisive for his future to make a good impression. This had not helped him to calm down at all.
As they arrived, he watched with mild jealousy how effortlessly Nobunori mingled with the people, chatting about this and that, being witty, charming, and altogether a model young gentleman in every regard. It wasn't that Sai himself wouldn't normally have been just as relaxed and easygoing, but this day he tagged after his cousin fingering his fan anxiously and wishing the whole thing would be over soon, or better yet, that he weren't there at all, but home playing go with Hikaru.
The program started. First there were dances performed, and Sai had to admit he had seldom, if ever, seen dancers of such quality. And the music as well… he wished no one would ask him to play anything. He did play the flute, and not badly, all things considered, but go was his real strong point and at this place he felt quite out of his water.
Then it was time for the main event. Everyone gathered to the stream, settling down by it here and there. They had long sticks with them, and little tables with writing utensils and strips of thick tanzaku paper. Upstream, little boys set lacquered sake cups afloat down the stream. When the cups passed the participants, they would pick them up, using the long sticks to reach them, drink a little, compose a poem and then recite it.
Sai found this a rather peculiar pastime. He didn't really know what all this had to do with the snake – except that the stream was to be winding, and as such it reminded a snake. Other than that, he figured it was just an excuse to write more poems and drink some sake. His thoughts started wandering as he waited for the first cups to reach him – he was sitting quite close to the other end of the stream – and he started to plan a go-playing version of this. The people on his side of the stream would play black, and those on the other side would play white, making two teams, and when they picked up a sake cup, instead of a poem they would declare their move. That would make quite an interesting game, combining the skill (or the lack of it) of so many people! He should talk about it to his father some day, maybe he would like to arrange an event like that. Kyokusui no Go, Go by the Meandering Stream.
He realized with a start one cup had already passed him, and reached quickly out with his stick to get the next one. Thinking about go, he had forgotten to prepare a poem, but luckily he had been thinking about possible poems and metaphors the whole day, so he could muster something up quite quickly.
Sugawara no Akitada was among the guests. Sai had noticed him early and exchanged polite nods with him, but hadn't had a chance to converse with him. And after all, this wasn't a night for go, he reminded himself. He had strictly told himself to try to forget go this day, and not pester anyone for a game, but watching the emperor's go teacher on the other side of the stream he couldn't help thinking about the game they had played at Masatsune-sama's house. He had thoroughly enjoyed that game, but he couldn't help wondering if the same was true for his opponent. The man had been strangely dismissive after the game, as if he didn't find it quite as great a game as everyone seemed to think. And Sai had thought he had played really well, for a while even had upper hand.
He wondered if he possibly could be mistaken, if Akitada-sama in fact had been in control of the game all through it. If he had been testing him? He twitched a little, feeling uncertain. If that was true, then Akitada-sama's skill had to be even greater than he could fathom. But still, he couldn't quite understand the man's coldness. He had hoped they could form a – if not a friendship, then at least some kind of a relationship as fellow go players, but it seemed Akitada-sama wasn't at all interested in him. Of course, he was an older man, maybe in his mid-forties, Sai thought, while he himself was still in his teens, and they didn't have much else in common but go.
He picked up the next cup coming his way, raised it to his lips and took a sip – a very careful one, for he didn't care to get drunk right then. He could imagine that wouldn't help him to create that favorable first impression Nobunori had been talking about.
Right when he thought of his cousin he heard him recite a poem, one to praise the birds that had been singing in the garden's trees. It was a clever poem, very much in Nobunori's style, and he thought he should probably try to make some kind of a reply to it. But he had other things in his mind.
He picked up the brush and wrote: Such a quiet night, even the small birds were hushed… one sound in my ears: soft pachi of stone and wood, and I needed nothing more.
He read it out in a strong, clear voice, and wondered what others would think of it, if they would get it at all. Out of the corner of his eye he saw his cousin give him a look, and though they weren't sitting close to each other, he could read in his position that he wasn't quite happy with his poem – he probably did get it, but found it too informal and personal for the occasion. But then Akitada-sama raised his voice to read a poem of his.
On that night, indeed the birds were quiet, or did we just not hear them, lost in a world where all things of life are but an echo.
Sai looked at him and couldn't help smiling. Maybe he was foolish to think Akitada-sama was looking down on him – he had to be a busy man, as the emperor's go teacher he had such an important office that how could he have time to think of young newcomers who yearned to play games for fun.
Akitada nodded at him, very slightly and if he had not been watching the man so keenly he might have missed it. He nodded back, deciding to go to pay a visit to him as soon as he possibly could.
The next morning he slept long, and woke up with a mild headache. He had not drunk that much, but apparently even the little had been too much. The day was bright, almost too bright for his eyes. He declined a breakfast, but ordered the servant to bring him water, much water, and cold. He drank a part of it, sprinkled the rest on his face, and felt a little better.
There was no word from Nobunori which was a little unusual, but then again, he had been properly drunk by the time they had left from the temple. In Nobunori's case it wasn't so serious, for he got intoxicated very pleasantly, one had to know him well to realize how drunk he was. But Sai had noticed how much he had had to concentrate to climb down the stairs from the temple, and he had seen the light frown on his face as he fought to make things stay sharp, and so he wasn't too surprised not to hear from him next day. If he had headache, he didn't want to know how Nobunori felt.
Then he remembered Sugawara no Akitada (who, as far he could tell, had not got drunk at all during the night), and the poems they had exchanged, and remembered his resolution. At the temple, after they had finished with the poetry and were listening to an impromptu night concert, he had seen Nobunori talking with Akitada-sama, but the latter had left before he had had a chance to join the conversation.
Now he wondered a moment if it would be too pushy to invite himself over, and also if someone like him, a son of provincial governor though he was, could invite someone as important over. Then he decided on a compromise, and, having ordered a servant to bring paper and his brushes, he settled down to write a letter to Akitada – not inviting anyone anywhere, but merely stating how their game had left him a wonderful memory, and he would delight to create more memories like that. He wondered if he was being too vague – for what he really wanted to say was "I want to play with you, now!" – but he couldn't really be that forward.
So he sent his letter and, with the nervousness a young lover might feel waiting for a reply to a declaration of love, he waited.
To his delight and surprise, he didn't have to wait for long before a reply arrived. The tone of the letter was cordial. Akitada apologized for not contacting him earlier, for he too had remembered their game fondly, and it would bring him pleasure to play with Sai again. In fact, if it wasn't too sudden, maybe Sai could come over that same day, for he was staying in his city mansion, resting after the feast, and a game of go would be an ideal way to pass time…
Sai couldn't conceal his excitement when he read the letter. He read it again, and a third time just to be sure he hadn't misunderstood anything. Then he jumped up, and was ready to rush out right away, but luckily the servant who had brought the letter managed to point out that for one thing, he wasn't properly dressed, and for another, he should send a letter first thanking for the invite and not just appear behind the gate like an overeager teenager.
His enthusiasm a little deflated, Sai sat down to write a proper and polite acceptance of the invitation. He watched a moment after the messenger who left to deliver the message, and started then to get prepared. He put more thought than usual into the color his clothes and the exact scent he would use. He wanted to make a lasting impression on Akitada, who, he had come to realize on these two occasions he had met the man, did value such things, or at least he himself was always immaculately dressed, and used only the finest perfumes.
He waited a moment after he was ready, dressed in an attire of suitably respectful medium blue, his long hair neatly combed and tied. He didn't have the patience to wait long, though, and he worried he had come too early, even if he had expressed his eagerness in the letter.
If he was early he couldn't see a trace of it on his host's face. Akitada welcomed him warmly and lead him to the terrace by his garden where they spent a moment admiring the first flowers that were beginning to bud. Then Akitada turned to his young companion with a smile.
"I assume you are just as eager as I am to sit down by a go board." As Sai nodded, smiling brightly, he clapped his hands and a servant carried a go board for them, another one bringing the bowls. "Let us get started, then," Akitada said with a tiny smile tugging the corner of his mouth.
This game was quite different from the first one they had played. For one thing, now Akitada concentrated seriously from the very beginning. Sai could see the difference right away, and he knew he had to play his absolute best to be able to… well, he couldn't really believe that even with his absolute best he would win the game. But that didn't stop him from trying.
Hikaru had left early – or at least what was early for him – to Sai's home, though he had been distracted on the way by some kids who were sparrow hunting. When he arrived to the mansion Sai was gone, and no one could tell him with certainty when he'd be coming back.
"He went to visit the emperor's go teacher," Ayaka told him. "They're most likely going to play go all day. We are lucky if he remembers to come home at all."
"Oh." Hikaru was disappointed, feeling almost like he had been dumped. "Well, whatever. He can do what he wants. You've got work for me today?"
Ayaka thought a moment. "Not really. I can ask…"
"No need, it's fine," Hikaru cut her off. "I'll have another day off, that's great." He was about to leave but remembered then Akari. "Say," he said when he turned back to Ayaka, "I've got this friend, or actually she's just our neighbor, and she'd kinda need…"
Ayaka was shaking her head, guessing what he was saying. "We don't need any more people. In fact, I don't think we'd really need you either – it's so quiet here, with Sai-sama being the only one living here, and he never holds any feasts or other happenings." She shot him an apologetic smile. "Sorry, no."
Hikaru just grinned easily at her. "No problem. I wouldn't want her hanging around here, anyway."
He had spent the previous day mainly with Akari, so now he headed downtown to hang around with his other friends. They spent the day doing nothing productive whatsoever, dallying away the time in the streets and market places. In the evening he passed by Sai's mansion on his way home, wishing he'd be there, but in vain, so he returned home, feeling as if he had wasted a day. It was a very strange and new feeling to him, and he didn't really like it.
As for Sai, the day had been full of great delight. As it was, he had managed to win only one of the many games he had played against Akitada. He hardly minded, though – in fact that one win was enough to make him almost giddy, and besides, the games and the discussions they had had after them surpassed even what he had dared to hope. He thought what a wonderful game it would be if his father and Akitada were to play. He said this aloud, and Akitada smiled.
"I would love to play against your esteemed father," he said, "if he ever comes to the capital. I wish I could go to him, but I could hardly leave my place for such a long time."
Sai sighed. "Yes… I can understand why father doesn't want to move to the capital for good, but I wish he would at least visit at times."
Akitada just kept on smiling. They were enjoying hot drinks on the terrace, covered with extra robes, as the evening was quickly cooling. Sai knew he should be heading home soon, but he didn't want to leave yet. Akitada didn't seem to mind him staying, though, so he decided he could linger there still a moment.
"I was so happy of your invite, Akitada-sama," he said. "Certainly there are many other worthy players in this city, and I have enjoyed my games with them as well, but with you it feels I can reach a completely new level. It is almost like playing against my father – but him I have played so often that there is nothing new in that feeling."
Akitada's smile twitched a little at this second comparison to his father, but was soon again flawless.
"I am happy you came," he said. "I have played against your second cousin a few times, and though his game isn't bad either, it was a surprise to see how strong players there are in his family." Sai bowed his head a little in thanks. Akitada went on, "I assume you are close with your cousin?"
Sai nodded. "I have spent many days with him during my time here in the capital. We started attending the university at the same time, too."
"Yes, you are in the university. How are your studies going?"
"Well enough," Sai said. "My only complaint is how much time they take from go."
Akitada laughed out loud. "Spoken like a true go-player!" he exclaimed. "I take it your cousin does not mind it so much. He doesn't quite share your passion, does he? And I am sure he has his ambitions elsewhere than go, being his father's son."
Sai tilted his head a little, in a gesture that was half a nod, half a shake. "I guess." Nobunori's father, Fujiwara no Tadahira, was the sadaijin, minister of the left – and as such the Senior Minister of State, holding the highest position after the emperor himself. A regent would have stood over him, too, had there been one, but ever since the death of the previous one almost twenty years before, the emperor had held power himself.
"We don't really talk much about those things," Sai confessed. "I am not that interested in politics."
"Hmm." Akitada took a sip of his drink. "Yes – what is it all to us, after all? We don't require that much to be happy, just a soft pachi of stone and wood, that is all."
Sai bowed, feeling himself blush a little. "Indeed," he muttered. "What is politics to us."
Later in the night, when his young quest had left, Akitada sat alone on his terrace and watched the darkening garden that was illuminated with a few tactically placed lanterns.
He didn't need to worry. This product of the provinces clearly had no idea how the real world worked. He was a little disappointed in the way he had avoided his questions about politics – had he been honest, or was he really as uninterested as he claimed? As strange as it was, somehow Akitada was bound to believe the latter. But that might be a blessing in disguise – the boy might let something slip without even realizing what he was saying.
His brows furrowed as he thought about the Fujiwara family. He knew they were up to something – weren't they always? – but hadn't yet been able to find out what. He had hoped that talking with the son of the Minister of the Left he would have been able to uncover something, but the boy had been annoyingly slippery, avoiding all traps. His father's son, truly.
It was now twenty six years since the brother of this esteemed minister, himself a regent back in those days, had with his wild accusations caused the exile of Sugawara no Michizane, the uncle of his, Akitada's, father. Akitada remembered fondly his visits to great-uncle Michizane as a boy, and what a gentle, learned man he had been. To think that he had had to die in exile in such a horribly removed place! And now there was this foolish boy talking about the provinces with such devotion. In a sudden burst of anger Akitada almost decided to arrange for him to be sent to some far-off place for good. Maybe that would bang some sense into his head.
He took a deep breath and forced himself to calm down. It had not been easy for him to build such a career for himself after the disgrace of his great-uncle, even though the man had been posthumously pardoned. If anything, he had learned patience during those years. The skill to wait for the apt moment, and grasp it when it arrived. He would wait, now, too, and sooner or later he would find out what was going on. Perhaps that young provincial would prove to be useful, or perhaps not. But if he, in the end, turned out to be a nuisance, it would be more than easy to get rid of him.
Time passed, and spring turned into summer. Hikaru went to Sai's mansion most days of the week, but he didn't get to play quite as much go as he would have wanted. Sai had decided to take a more diligent attitude to his studies, and so his days were filled with Chinese history and classics. He had attempted to introduce these things also to Hikaru, but once the boy fell asleep while he was reading aloud Confucius' works, he decided the idea might not be so very good.
And so they made a deal: he would spend the first two days of a week wholly at the university, residing in a dormitory, and rest of the week the evenings would be devoted to go – unless there were other duties on his schedule. Sai himself did go, as often as he could which wasn't as often as he would have liked, to visit Sugawara no Akitada who he considered one of his best friends by now.
One day as Hikaru had finished his chores (he had been helping to renovate one of the garden's bridges – after having helped his father to fix their house, he did know quite a bit about carpentry) he was waiting for Sai to return from the university for their evening go session, when a messenger arrived, saying that this day Sai would be home quite late and there was no point for him to wait.
So he headed home. It had been a nice day of late summer, not so horribly hot, and the evening breeze was cool and pleasant on his brow as he walked onward. As he approached his home, he saw from far Akari waiting for him. Having noticed him, the girl rushed to him and greeted him with a wide smile.
"What are you doing here?" he asked, a little annoyed. "You know I normally come home much later."
"Yeah… but I've got news! You'll never guess!"
"What, your mom finally confessed you're a foundling, abandoned by a group of oni who could not stomach your screaming?"
Akari shot him a glare. "I got a job", she stated coldly. "A great job. But I'm not going to tell you more anymore."
"Someone's hired you?" Hikaru sounded genuinely surprised. "To do what? Wipe floors?"
She stuck out her tongue. "Not telling. But it's a good job. Most likely much better than yours. I start tomorrow."
"Whatever, it's not like I were interested," Hikaru shouted after her as she ran away.
Later that night, as he was finishing the evening meal with his parents, he said in passing that he heard something about Akari getting a job.
His mother nodded happily. "I'm so glad for her," she said. "I hear there was some lord's son moving to his own mansion, and he needed more staff. Akari is such a diligent girl, no wonder she got a place. And you know how nicely she plays flute, I'm sure it helped too."
"Hrm." Hikaru made a noncommittal sound. "I guess."
Next evening, despite himself, Hikaru was curious to meet Akari, but there was no sign of the girl. He thought he should have asked if she was going to move to the mansion of her new lord or lady, but didn't want to make it look like he was interested, so he said nothing about it. Two more days passed without him hearing anything from her. Then one evening when he happened to be home as Sai was busy, Akari's father came to see them, tailed by his other daughter, Akari's elder sister Akane. Hikaru couldn't help noticing how worried they both looked, and so he too stayed there to hear what was the matter.
After exchanging their greetings, Akari's father turned to him. "It was in fact you I came to see, Hikaru," he said. "These past few days… have you seen Akari?"
Hikaru shook his head, surprised. "No, I've not seen her since she told me about getting a new job. She said then she was going to start on the next day."
"What is it?" his mother asked, worried at the tight-lipped look Akari's father was wearing.
"We've not seen her since she left," he said. "At first we thought she was just kept busy at her new work, but yesterday Akane went to see her and… she didn't even find the place where she was supposed to be working. It's as if she's vanished in thin air, we haven't been able to find a trace."
Mitsuko let out a little gasp.
"Are you sure?" Hikaru's father said with a deep frown. "Did you go to the right place?" he asked Akane. The girl nodded.
"Definitely. We had the exact address. There was no one living in that place. The neighbors said there had been some people there during the past few days, but they didn't know who they were."
"We've reported this to the police, but they aren't too interested in looking for some common girl. We don't really have a clue what to do. No one has seen her, or heard anything. Her supposed employer doesn't seem to exist."
Masao shook his head. "How did that happen? Didn't you check…"
"Of course I did! Everything seemed to be fine. But now…"
Hikaru listened with an unreal feeling as his parents continued talking with Akari's father. It didn't seem possible that something like this could happen. And they just talked, on and on, obviously without a clue what to do about it.
He jumped to his feet. "I'm going to see Sai," he said, and rushed away before anyone could stop him.
It was only when he had ran quite a while that he remembered that Sai wasn't home. He stopped, wondered a moment what to do, but in the end rushed to Sai's mansion anyway. Maybe he had already returned.
A/N: I was going to end this chapter after the Sai & Akitada scene, but I thought it was a bit short, so... decided to add the bit about Akari here. Not sure if it's a little disconnected, though...
Akitada's poem didn't agree to fit the form (5-7-5-7-7), but then I figured it really doesn't matter. Anyway, at least it's altogether 31 syllables...
Kyokusui no En This ceremony is still practiced at some shrines in Japan. My description is mainly based on descriptions of these modern day versions – I don't know if there are many differences to what it was like in the Heian age.
Sugawara no Michizane, a scholar, poet, and politician, banished in 901. Later deified as Tenjin-sama, the kami of scholarship. (The current year of the fic, btw - if I haven't mentioned it yet - is 927.)