An Approach to Tsumego, Part 2
Tenryaku 2, the 2nd day of the 2nd month 15 march 948
He kept turning his fan around in his hands, too anxious to be still. He had been smiling since last week, when the final arrangements had been made. With the excitement and anticipation, however, there was something else, something he hadn't felt in ages. It was like excitement and anxiety merged into one bursting emotion. He bit his lip, trying to hold still while Jirou pulled roughly on his hair as he tied it back.
"Master, are you certain this... is a good idea?" Jirou whispered.
Sai almost laughed, but he respected his servant too much. "Because I might lose?" Jirou's hands froze, and Sai gave into the need to laugh, covering his mouth before he got hysterical. "Have some faith in your Master! Besides, even if I lose... I don't think the Emperor will throw me out of the palace. And even if he did, well. I'd still be that much closer."
Before his eyes, the world shimmered with color and light like no one had ever experienced before, but he was oblivious to the glean of fantasy. Jirou sighed, and came in front of Sai, making sure his cap was straight and all of his ties were done up perfectly. "Master... I shall only wish you a good game, then."
Sai rewarded him with a brilliant smile.
The court was buzzing just a bit, the spring air energizing the lethargic nobles to become excited about something even as simple as a game of go, though no one had played like this before. Sai had promised the Emperor the best game of his career, and to that end, he'd convinced the Emperor to allow Sanchi to play before him again, this time as Sai's opponent. There would be no time limits, and Sanchi promised to play with due deliberation and solemnity, as befitting such a game.
To make sure that all due propriety was observed, Sai had arranged for Sanchi to be dressed at least as well as the court messengers for the occasion, so when he entered the appointed place, he was a bit taken aback when he realized that his opponent was waiting for him as Sai truly didn't recognize him at first. They bowed to each other respectfully, and then grinned.
"Sensei, I'm starting to get nervous. You'll show me pity, of course?" Sanchi teased.
Sai was aware, as Sanchi probably could not be, in the twitter behind fans of those onlookers already present, but he wasn't going to concern himself with politics. Not today. "Do not be absurd. There is no such thing as pity in the universe before us."
Sanchi laughed, causing a greater stir of twittering. "Well, I'll have to remember that. But defeating Sensei here would be terrifying! I think there'd be punishment for such an offense!"
"Perhaps," Sai rejoined jovially, "though I think the punishment would be for me." He could almost feel Jirou's eyes on the back of his neck. He turned his fan in his hand a few more times. This nervous feeling... this excitement... In a sense, it would be like he was lifting a stone for the first time. He remembered it well, despite the fact that he'd only been three. He'd kept his eyes on the shining black stone, but he was aware of his mother and father watching, so he had wanted badly, very badly, to do well.
Such a nostalgic desire!
They went into the palace chamber, and took their respective positions opposite each other at the goban, waiting for the spectators to jockey for their positions. A gong rang three times, and Sai turned, putting his hands down before him and bowing to the emperor. His palanquin was placed down, and the soft breeze moving uncertainly through the room caused the gauzy film of pure white that separated them to rustle.
The gong rang again, and the room became deadly silent. Sai sat up and turned to his opponent, arranging his sleeves.
Sanchi appeared nervous, too, looking around a bit at the spectators and at the Emperor before picking up a goke and bowing once again to Sai. There was a stark contrast between them, between the black, rough cloth that Sanchi wore, and the flowing white silk Sai wore, between Sai's still and perfect posture and Sanchi's nervous fidgeting. Sanchi probably carried the weight of the difference on his shoulders, but Sai was unaware of it. Sanchi won black in nigiri, which disappointed Sai slightly, but it would be like giving up to think that he needed black to win.
The game that he'd longed for since he first watched his mother place her stones had finally begun.
Sanchi truly did keep to his word to slow down the pace. In the first two hours, only six hands had been placed, but to Sai, they were vicious foreshadowers of the game that was to unfold. Sanchi, as always, made bold moves that laid the groundwork for later traps. Sai was aware of them, and aware that Sanchi knew that, as well.
After four hours, they took a brief break for a repast. As arranged, Jirou quietly showed Sanchi to the servants' area so he could refresh himself, but Sai chose to forgo. He sat out in the courtyard, his eyes closed, his face tipped up to the sun. Like a flower, he tried to soak in all of the energy of its light. The game unfolded and refolded and replayed, overlayed on the backs of his eyelids. He was crushing his fan in his hands, but he was not aware. He could not be aware.
Play resumed in the early afternoon, and at twilight, the endgame began. If his body had not been so efficiently designed, Sai surely would have forgotten to breathe, so focused was his attention on the stones. A slight desperation entered into him. Somewhere, just beyond his reach, but close enough that he could feel it in the air, somewhere in the stones before him, it was there. The Divine Move. He chased it, but.
The board was a dizzyingly beautiful array of black and white, but it was close, desperately close. He hadn't found it, after all. It had been there, waiting for him, that perfect move that would make the perfect game more than just a game, that perfect moment where everything that was and ever would be go would be perfectly expressed...
Sai let a student of his perform the final count of territory. He knew the result. He wasn't sure. The game was close. He could only look at the stones as his student rearranged them. He didn't hear the murmurs all around him, or the way that Sanchi gruffly reacted to the student's count. He just watched the stones.
His student leaned back and cleared his throat. "B-black... wins by two."
Sai wrung his fan between his hands, but it wouldn't change anything. He'd known... Two! That was so close! He'd been so close... He was deaf to the murmurs all around them, but he looked up from the stones as Sanchi sighed in relief, falling back. He grinned at Sai, but he kept his mouth shut. Sai bowed low to Sanchi, and then he turned to bow to the Emperor. Slowly, very slowly, a light smattering of applause began, but it died out quickly as well, giving way to hushed conversations.
It had been a gamble from the start, but it had been worth it. Losing to a commoner would make Sai look bad, but the fact that Sanchi could beat him...! Sai was elated, and so frustrated. He wanted to immediately go over the game with Sanchi, but he knew that wouldn't be possible. The Emperor's gong rang out once, and the Master of Ceremonies expressed the Emperor's pleasure with the game. Another light smattering of applause rang out, and then the crowd began to disperse.
Sai ignored Jirou's gesturing, and walked Sanchi out to the gate. Once they were outside the courtyard, he spoke to Sanchi from behind his fan. "Thank you. That game was..."
"It was tiring!" Sanchi complained, laughing. "You looked so strict and stern! I nearly conceded right after lunch just from fear of your glare," he teased.
Sai smiled kindly. "I'm glad you didn't. Come back with me to the Fujiwara estate. I want to go over the game..."
"Sensei," Sanchi whined, yawning. "I need to get home to my family! My wife won't believe I actually beat you. Of course, if you'd been black, it would have gone the other way."
"There's no way to tell that for certain," Sai sighed. "If you have to go home tonight," and Sai didn't understand why he did! "Please promise you'll come to see me tomorrow." He reached out and brushed his fingers over the hem of Sanchi's sleeve. "This was..." He took a deep breath, closing his eyes, his open fan pressed to his lips. "It was the most illumination game of my life."
Sanchi just watched Sai, seemingly breathless for a moment. He bowed low. "Sensei. You are... truly beautiful. My wife will be enthralled when I tell her everything."
Sai didn't quite understand what Sanchi meant, but... "So you will come and see me tomorrow?" he asked eagerly.
Sanchi laughed, shaking his head. Sai looked around quickly. Commoners were so much louder when they laughed! It was interesting. "Yes, yes, I'll see you tomorrow, Sensei. Thank you." He winked.
Sai beamed, and bowed quickly to him. "Thank you! I look forward to it. Oh, and there should have been a delivery to your house today. Please let me know if anything was out of order." He winked at Sanchi, and then started off to the Fujiwara estate. He wanted to quickly go over the game...
Sai turned. One of the Imperial messengers was at the gate, bowing to him. Irritated, Sai went back. "Yes?" he asked testily. The messenger held out a small scroll. Hurriedly, Sai took it, reading it over by the lamplight. It did have the Imperial seal on it... The Emperor himself had written it. Poetry, too. Sai stared at it for a few minutes. He knew it went against custom, but he wasn't that fond of poetry. He sighed, troubled. "I... I'm not sure how to respond..." he told the messenger, biting his hip. He looked around. Was Jirou about?
"Perhaps you should give the Emperor a reply in person, then!" the messenger suggested happily, quickly turning to lead Sai back into the Imperial palace.
Well, that was the idea all along, then, wasn't it? Impatient, Sai trailed after him. The messenger turned and bowed to him at the entryway to the inner palace, and Sai strode right by, following the hallways he knew to the Emperor's chambers. He went straight in, the first time he ever had without being attended by maids first.
"Sai," the Emperor said, as if he were surprised. He took his hands from the koto. "I was just thinking of you, and you appear before me, like a nightingale come to greet the moon."
Sai bowed quickly, which was useful because it hid his expression. Jirou was always telling him that his face was too expressive. "My Emperor. It was foolish of me to have thought Your Majesty had been thinking of me all day."
At least the Emperor laughed. Sai looked up, quickly glancing around the room. The Emperor would not have anything near him unless he wanted it to be so, but Sai was hoping...
"You lost. Are you disappointed, my teacher?" the Emperor asked, sounding like he was playacting at compassion.
Sai felt impatient. "I am disappointed," he admitted. There was no goban visible. "It was, however, the most magnificent game of my life." He closed his eyes, and inhaled slowly. Before his eyes, stones and wood and lines slurred together. Somewhere within those hands was opportunity and promise... He'd been so close. "I am blessed to have participated, but now I am hungry for more."
Unaware of the silence that had followed his words, he was utterly shocked when the Emperor's hands came down on the strings of the koto violently, and jumped back a half step. He raised his sleeves over his face. The Emperor's expression was dark.
"I am hungry, too. Undress."
Sai trembled a bit, and bit his lip. The Emperor's tone had never been like that before. Now, he regretted not being attended before entering. He wasn't any good at this, though! He fumbled with the ties, and got his sleeve caught as he tried to undo his obi. He was a bit scared, which only made his fingers clumsier.
He heard the Emperor chuckle, so he bent his head down lower to better concentrate on his task, but then his cap fell to the floor with a loud thud. And then there were hands on his hands, pushing them away.
"Aren't we nobles helpless?" the Emperor teased playfully. He lifted Sai's chin, so he and Sai were looking eye to eye. He smiled. "I will do it for you. You know, the past week has been agonizing for me. And today was the worst! All day long, I was never more than five paces from you, but not once did you even glance my way. You were lost in a universe I could scarce comprehend. All I knew was that if you lost, it would be the worst possible conclusion."
Red hot heat spread fast over his face. Sai looked away, pouting a bit. "Even a loss can be instructive. It doesn't change that the game..."
"Sh," the Emperor laughed. He pressed a finger to Sai's lips. "It's the worst conclusion, because this means you will be only more fixated on that commoner. Bad enough I have to be jealous of the God of Go, but now I must add a craftsman to the list as well!"
The Emperor was joking, and Sai knew that, but he was deeply offended by the notion of something as dirty as jealousy being connected to that wonderful game. It was a taint! Using his innocence as a mask, he asked, "Did you not enjoy the play at all, my Emperor?"
Smiling like an indulgent father, the Emperor reached back and untied Sai's hair, spreading it all over. Sai hated that a bit. "I could not follow the play at all, not after the first dozen hands. I worked hard to stay awake."
The Emperor pushed his outer robe to the floor, and then opened his inner robes, shocking Sai a bit with the skin to skin contact, even if he should have been accustomed to it already. Sai bristled a bit, though, thinking of the Emperor watching him and barely staying awake. That was insulting!
"It was... mm. An extremely high level of play..." The Emperor's hands were busy working at dropping more layers of cloth from Sai, and tugging at his hair. The Emperor's mouth went to Sai's throat. He fidgeted a bit, uncomfortable. He put his hands on the Emperor's arms, but he still found himself bared of his last covering. "I could recreate the game for you, and explain each hand..." he suggested hopefully.
The Emperor's fingers dug into his arms roughly and the room spun a bit, until he landed hard on the futon, losing his breath. The Emperor climbed on top of him, putting his hands and weight down on Sai's shoulders. "I really do not want to think or hear about go anymore tonight. You are a selfish lover, Sai."
Sai's heart pounded. He put his hands on the Emperor's arms, gently, but it was an awkward angle, because his movement was so restricted. "M-my Emperor. I beg forgiveness... I was not aware..."
"You're never sent me a scrap of poetry," the Emperor continued as if Sai had not spoken. "Never given me any sort of token of your affection. Never initiated any overtures of affection. You don't even ask me anything! I search and search for your heart. Is it trapped in some goban?" he asked, making it sound like an accusation. He leaned back, sighing. He pulled Sai to sit up with him. "I ask you over and over again, my teacher. Do you love me?"
Uncertain, Sai's lower lip trembled. "I do, my Emperor. Please forgive my... my inexperience."
The Emperor's hands caressed his face, and he smiled, but it did nothing to alleviate the feeling of entrapment. "Your inexperience is charming. You are one possession I would be loathe to share. I need to know your heart. Do you know what it means to love someone? You love go so passionately. Can you not show the same fervor to me now?" The Emperor's thumb ran along Sai's bottom lip, and then he kissed Sai.
It was a brutal, emotionless kiss that burned Sai's mouth like a brand.
"At least show me that I mean something to you," the Emperor challenged him.
Sai felt cold sweat on his back. Shivering, he reached up slowly to touch the Emperor's face, and then move his hands down to the Emperor's shoulders. He should undress the Emperor, though his loose robe hardly needed to be removed. The Emperor's piercing eyes were narrowed, and watching everything Sai did, making his fingers clumsy and his arms rubbery. He had to prove his feelings?
Sai didn't know how to do that!
Quickly, he thought back over the Emperor's list of complaints. He couldn't hope to recite poetry in this situation, much less compose any. He had no gifts for the Emperor. He was trying to initiate, but he felt sincerely that he would fail if he chose that path. He needed to play more from his strength!
That left asking the Emperor something... about his life? Politics would certainly be out of the question, since go was. The Emperor was demanding something... personal from him.
He caressed the Emperor's neck and moved in to gently and cautiously kiss his throat. Ah! He remembered what the ladies in court had been gleefully discussing for the past few weeks, and something specific Lady Nariko had said the other day. "Your latest concubine is so beautiful, and young. You must be anxious to see if she can produce an heir for you."
The Emperor's body stilled, and Sai pulled away. He flinched just from the look in the Emperor's eyes. He opened his mouth to try to say something that would please the Emperor, but he didn't get the chance.
The back of the Emperor's hand struck his face so violently that Sai fell down on the futon. It was more the shock of the blow than the blow itself. He cowered a bit, trying to cover his face, but the Emperor grabbed his arm and hauled him up and off the futon.
"Get out! Get out now!" he tossed Sai into his pile of clothes, and then kicked Sai right on the bottom! "Get out!"
Sai hastily grabbed at what clothes he could and scrambled to get out. The Emperor was right behind him, though, his foot spurning Sai on.
"Out, out, get out!' the Emperor roared. Squeaking, Sai just made it out the door before the Emperor slammed it shut.
Huffing, his hands shaking, Sai pulled on a robe. He looked at the meager pile he had managed to grab. He wanted to keep moving, because the Emperor's anger was frightening, and he didn't want to linger, but he had to fasten his ties and wrap his obi a few times at least...
He was outside the antechamber when a small hand tugged on his sleeve. He recognized this tiny maid now. She was one of the Empress' handmaidens. "This way, Sensei. Please."
He didn't question her or resist in any way. They moved fast through the corridors, until they came to a dark corner. She stopped him, and turned to attend to his attire. He sighed with relief. She was much faster and more efficient than he could hope to be.
"I'm sorry," he mourned.
"Have heart," she smiled at him weakly, and then she tugged on his sleeve again.
She led him toward the outer palace, but he wasn't familiar with any of these halls. Once they were outside, too, he knew they weren't anywhere near the courtyard. She looked over her shoulder and bowed shortly. "Please forgive me, Sensei. This is the servants' entrance. It's very close the servants' hall for the Fujiwara estate."
Ah, that made sense. Avoid being seen, of course. He bowed to her. "Thank you." He hadn't even thought of that. This was all such a pain!
She took him right to the gate, and pushed it open, despite its apparent weight. "Go to the right. Look for your family seal on a gate. And Sensei..." She bit her lip and looked away. "No one heard anything tonight, Sensei. Rest peacefully."
He flushed a bit. How... how embarrassing! He bowed to her, low. "Thank you." Turning, his hair swished around, getting caught in his mouth. How irksome! He pushed it quickly out of the way, and rushed, following her orders. Finding his way into the Fujiwara estate was relatively easy, but once inside the gate, he was still disgracefully attired and hopelessly lost. He sighed, and leaned back against the wall, slumping to the ground, his head tilting back. The sky was starless, the moon's light blocked by the clouds that were hidden amongst the dark. He closed his eyes, and the darkness got blacker and blacker... until it started to bead up.
The board in his mind was set on a celestial stage, with droplets of black and white dotting the heavens. He'd really agonized over that late game keima, so he tried to visualize different possible moves. Ah, if he'd done that... but no, he would have ended up sacrificing territory...
He blinked his eyes sleepily to see Jirou looking exasperated above him. "Jirou! It's been an awful night," he complained.
"Never mind that now," Jirou grumbled. "Come on." He tugged on Sai's arm. The Emperor did earlier, too! He wasn't made for tugging! And definitely not for kicking! "Let's get back to your chambers quickly."
Sai sighed. Right, rumors and gossip... It was all so tiresome. Jirou led him through the estate, walking so fast Sai had trouble keeping up. Once they entered a side courtyard, Sai realized he had been in the servants' area. No wonder Jirou was so worried. There would definitely be a lot of rumors about him tomorrow. That was fine, maybe it would distract people from his loss.
He didn't care.
As soon as they got back to his chamber, he went straight to the goban, and started to place stones. He wanted to examine alternatives to that keima, although he wasn't sure that was the turning point in the game. It was so close, though. Just a little bit was all he had needed...
"Master." Sai ignored him, continuing to place the stones. He'd waited so long to recreate the game! "Master, please tell me what happened tonight?"
"Surely you've already heard," Sai replied, slightly testy. He had to focus on what he was doing!
Jirou sighed, and knelt down next to Sai. "Master, one of the guards let me know you'd come home, but you were lost. Are you all right? Something... unfortunate must have happened."
Of course. Considering the time and his attire and his demeanor... but he was working now! So everything was fine. "I displeased the Emperor, and he threw me out," Sai said shortly.
"M-master!" He should have known that would just worry Jirou more. He got to a move... ah! Perhaps he should have done that, though. He might have been able to defend that corner a bit better. He'd have to consider that. "What did you do?"
Sai furrowed his brow. "Why does it have to be something I did? Maybe the Emperor was just in a bad mood! Even Emperors have indigestion at times, I suppose. Anyway, it's just as well! Please, leave me." Ah, no, if he'd gone there, though, he might have lost the stone later on. That would have been no good. But if he'd managed to connect...
"Master!" Jirou put his hand down in the middle of the goban, right on top of stones! Sai glared at him, furious. "I'm sure the Emperor... was in a bad mood. For whatever reason. But he's the Emperor. So that's all there is to it. Just... just please tell me what happened."
Sai pouted a bit. Just because he was the Emperor, he got to always be right? Well, that was true in court... he supposed it was true in bed, too. He folded his hands inside of his sleeves and answered petulantly, "I was summoned to his bedchamber, even though I really needed to go over the game. He was angry at me because I was interested in go." He made sure to say that extra primly. "He demanded I behave... more..." he shifted uncomfortably. "Solicitously. So I, ah, inquired about his new concubine, um, and her... fertility." He flushed.
Well, he tried to say it as innocuously as he could, but even he was beginning to see how that might not be...
"What?" Jirou's hand slid across the goban as he visibly deflated with dismay. Sai's shoulders slumped in defeat. He was never going to get to relive this game! "Master..." Jirou moaned. "Can't you see what you've done?"
Sai looked away, scowling. He hated being scolded! "I understand that it was a poor topic of conversation. But he was being very demanding!"
"You told your lover you'd rather he was spending the night with someone else," Jirou sighed.
Well, Sai could see that now!
"Master..." Jirou looked down at his hands. "Master... do you... love the Emperor?"
That was...! "That's the second time someone's asked that," Sai grumbled. "What do you want me to say? How should I know what that even means!" It was no wonder so much poetry was devoted to love. It wasn't until you were involved with someone that you realized how many different definitions potentially existed!
"It's extremely rude of me, and I beg your forgiveness, but Master... do you... do you enjoy being the Emperor's lover?" Jirou asked, bending his head down in contrition.
Sai flushed, and raised his hands to hide his face. What was Jirou asking!? How crass... he looked away, muttering, "To ask such a thing... I'd certainly say it's not without... its pleasantries. That is to say..." He cleared his throat. Jirou... always helped him, so. "I'm not very good at... the act, I suspect, but I-I enjoy it. And afterward, he can be very affectionate and gentle." He looked at Jirou from the corner of his eye. Jirou was... smiling. But he was smiling like Sai was a cute child!
"Master... ah. Do you... wish to continue to be the Emperor's lover?"
Sai raised his hands a bit more, so he was hiding behind his sleeves. Really! Such questions...! "I... would rather continue than not," he admitted, pouting. Did Jirou have to make him say that out loud?!
Jirou exhaled slowly. "You can understand, then, how the Emperor feels? You should give him a gift to show him how you feel."
How could he do that if his own feelings were unclear? And besides... "What sort of gift? He's the Emperor. I can't give him anything that he can't acquire himself. One is supposed to send poetry to one's lover, right? But I can't compose a line... it would come off childish. My calligraphy is good... but if I copied a poem, it would seem cheap."
"True..." Jirou agreed cautiously. Sai didn't mind the slight, though, because it was just the truth. "A well chosen flower could convey all the meaning you desired, Master."
Sai blinked, nonplussed. Flowers... of course they had meaning. Sai had never been too interested before. "Which flower?" he asked innocently.
"If you'd permit, Master, I can select something for you to give the Emperor tomorrow," Jirou suggested, bowing.
Beaming with relief, Sai nodded to Jirou. "I would appreciate that! Thank you, Jirou. I know... I seem. Well. I do appreciate that you are always taking care of me." He bowed shortly to Jirou.
"M-Master!" Jirou laughed nervously. "Stop! You know it is my pleasure. Do me one last favor, though? Please get a good night's sleep."
Sighing, Sai laughed. "I have no choice anymore, do I? Fine, yes..." He leaned back and yawned. What a day! This was, perhaps, the most significant day in his life. "I will leave it to you, then."
"Good," Jirou smiled. "Your futon has already been prepared."
"You think of everything," Sai complimented. A good night's sleep... well, as it turned out, he was tired. He let Jirou lead him to his bedchamber, and undress him, though in his current state, he could have easily handled the task himself.
That night, his dreams were colored blue. He could see the field of play, bright pools of white and black representing the stones, but he was under something. The universe unfolded the play, but though he tried to reach up to touch the stones, they were too far above him, and he couldn't reach. He waved his arm wildly, but everything was hard, heavy, like the universe was resisting him. Plus, he couldn't meet his feet.
He didn't like having strange dreams, and completely attributed it to not being allowed to discuss the game with Sanchi last night! Therefore, as soon as he was out of his futon, he was anxious to get dressed. Sanchi promised to come over, but Sai had no way of knowing when he would, so he had to be ready!
He impatiently tapped his foot all the time he was being dressed, and skipped breakfast. He was on his way out to the gate to see if Sanchi was on his way to discuss the game, but Jirou grabbed his sleeve.
"Master," he said, his tone warning. "Here."
Sai looked down blankly at the red flower Jirou was offering him. It was pretty, but...
"Master, remember, this is for the Emperor," Jirou hissed, exasperated.
"Ah, yes, that's..."
"A camellia," Jirou sighed. "It's..."
"In love," Sai cut Jirou off, grinning. It was, therefore, a more powerful statement than simply love. It meant he was in love. He'd read enough poetry to know there was a difference. So. "I... should take this to him now?"
"The sooner the better, yes," Jirou replied quickly. "But keep it hidden in your sleeves, otherwise the rumors will go wild."
Sai nodded, a bit dejected. He couldn't honestly object to Jirou's suggestion, because he had no idea when Sanchi would be able to come over. And the Emperor... was, well, the Emperor.
In love. This flower meant that he was in love.
He took it gingerly, carefully pulling his sleeves together over it. He nodded to Jirou, and then headed off to the palace. In love. The only emotion he could really comprehend at that moment was frustration. The most significant game of his life to date was as yet unstudied. If the Emperor was truly in love, wouldn't he understand what Sai needed? The Emperor said he was a selfish lover. Sai had to agree with that assessment, unfortunately, because he had no idea how to be a lover. But he was in love. So he should put his lover first.
That was a difficult concept.
He watched the folds of his pants swaying as he moved. He knew the path to the palace perfectly so he could get there in his sleep, and his thoughts were so clouded that until he heard the hiss behind him, he hadn't even looked up once. The sun was shining brightly, the trees were fully flowering, but the Emperor's guards were lined up along the courtyard, and all the courtesans were huddled under the eaves of the buildings, whispering to each other nearly silently. Sai quickly scooted over to the closest cluster of court ladies. There was a woman at the end in a light pink kimono, very pretty design. He was relatively sure she was Lady Tsukiko and she had a bad habit of forgetting to connect, but he couldn't swear to her name. As soon as he stepped over to her, though, she gave him a very sympathetic look, so he dared to lean down to whisper to her. She accommodatingly shifted her fan to hide both of their mouths.
"What is this?" he asked quickly.
"Sensei..." she quickly looked to her companions, but they just looked back at her, stricken. "It's... there's been a theft from the palace."
"A theft?" he asked, confused. There was a commotion near the Imperial chambers, and the courtyard went completely silent. A line of guards exited in a tight formation. They were clearly dragging the thief out of the chamber, his sentence passed. Faces turned away as they passed, out of some measure of respect for the walking dead. Sai was about to turn his head away, too, but he recognized the rough-cut commoner's cloth of the man's garb. His lips parted, and his body froze, his arms falling to his side, the flower in his fingers slipping down to the ground, unseen and unnoticed.
He met Sanchi's eyes.
His heart hurt so badly he thought he might fall to his knees. The sound of the ocean was fierce in his ears, and he partially understood that it was his blood rushing through his body, but he felt like he was drowning. He couldn't read Sanchi's expression or understand what was going on, but just as Sanchi was about to pass him, he started to smile.
The world was blurry.
He quickly hurried past the court ladies, stepping on the camellia as he did. He brushed against the lines of timidly frightened courtesans as he made his way to the Imperial chambers. The guards at the gate tried to stop him, but he slipped right through, unable really to see in front of him but able to know at least which direction to go.
Once inside, he fell immediately to his knees, prostrate. He put his palms down on the floor and his forehead to the back of his hands. "M-majesty... I-I am deeply grieved. Am I to understand... that is to say... Yesterday..." His tongue was thick and his throat was tight, and he was afraid that if his voice was too shaky, he might be dismissed.
The Minister of the Left spoke in the place of the Emperor, so Sai looked up hesitantly at the man. "Sensei, it is unfortunate, but that person has stolen from the Emperor. His actions are a disgrace and an affront to our Emperor and His court; he has sealed his own fate." The Minister gestured broadly, and confused, Sai's gaze followed the motion, seeing for the first time a jeweled hatpin laid out on a silk cloth before the Emperor's dais.
He swallowed down hard a lump in his throat. It looked familiar to him, so Sai was sure that belonged to the Emperor, but there was no way at all Sanchi could have taken it. Everyone could see that it was absurd, right? "That..." he started, but he had no idea what to say.
Thankfully, the Minister cut him off. "It was discovered missing last night, Sensei. Guards searched his home this morning and found it. There can be no discussion. Facts are, of course, facts." His tone sounded almost pleading and gentle, like he wanted Sai to understand for his own good.
Sai did understand. He looked at the hatpin miserably. Sanchi didn't steal that. What Sanchi took from the Emperor...
He prostrated himself once more. "My h-humblest and d-deepest apologies. If... if at any moment, I had ever imagined that anything close to th-this would occur, I would never have invited... that man into court."
"The Emperor expects no apologies from you, Sensei. Assuming you now understand the situation." The Minister of the Left looked away and swallowed hard.
Sai understood him. He understood completely. "Thank you, Your Majesty. His Highness is... generous. Indeed, very generous." He was nearly choking on the words, and on his tears. He stayed down as he backed out of the room, keeping his eyes on the floors.
Everything blurred and swayed.
He was outside of the chamber, and he was on his feet. He had to move. Jirou was behind him, but he had to move. The whole courtyard was as still as a tomb. Priests had come, and were chanting softly as they spread incense along the path Sanchi had walked. The stain of death...
Sai's whole body shook. Yes, there was a stain of death. It wasn't on the stones or on that hatpin or...
Guards. Guards searched Sanchi's house that morning. Sanchi has disgraced himself and facts were facts.
Sai had to move. Stain of death... he had to hurry.
Jirou kept hissing behind him, but he couldn't pay attention. He couldn't see the sympathetic eyes above the fans hiding faces all around him. He couldn't hear the purifying chants of the priests as they read their holy mantras. He had to move.
Stain of death...
He got outside of the palace and then he balled his stained hands into fists and moved faster and faster. He blinked a few times, and the blurriness burned away into brightness, too much brightness, and his cheeks burned with cold saltiness. He entered the Fujiwara estate, and made quickly to the servants' area. He looked around blindly... where...
"Master!" Jirou appeared before him. "Master," he mourned, "we have to..."
"Get me food."
"Wha... Master?" Jirou fumbled.
"Dried fruits and fish. Rice cakes. Line the bottom of a large basket. Wait. No, prepare a pack... it will need to be carried on the back." She had children. Three children, wasn't it? Two? He couldn't think clearly. "And linens. Hurry. Lots of linens. And money. There's money somewhere, isn't there?" He bit his lip. Dirty. Money was dirty. Stained.
Stain of death...
"Master, I don't understand, you can't..."
"Jirou, hurry!" Sai barked commandingly. He pointed just... away. "Meet me in my chambers, as fast as you possibly can." He spun on his heel and hurried off to his chamber. From the chest, he pulled out a scroll and the inkstone...
His spread the scroll before him and smoothed it across with the stone. He needed water, but the basin was still there from the morning. It was still morning, wasn't it? The sun wasn't yet on top of them. That was good. Very good. They had to move fast. His calligraphy was always so good. His mother used to compliment him. He didn't have words, though. He had the strokes, but not the message. His brother used to tease him, but he never cared.
Lines and curves and flourishes spread out before him in a surreal fashion. This might, indeed, be some sort of terrible and awful dream. If he woke up, he'd be grateful. If he could wake up, then he could hurry to the Emperor, and give him that gift, a flower, wasn't it? And he could recite poetry. He didn't have words, but he could be beautiful. The Emperor loved his beauty and passion.
It was getting blurry again, and a drop of blurry fell down and blurred his strokes, but it was fine, because he was just signing his name. He blotted his work, and then rolled it up, being careful, so careful. It had to be legible when she handed it over...
Jirou came in, looking furtive. Sai nodded, and then pulled off his cap. "Get me out of these clothes. I need to go into town."
"M-Master?" Jirou dropped the pack he had. It looked nice and big. Sai hoped it was well-packed. He stood and held his arms out, and out of habit, Jirou quickly started to untie his ties. "What are you... you need to... Master..." He cleared his throat. "The... the execution..."
"Please don't mention such a horrible concept to me," Sai cut him off harshly. Executions occurred at noon. Or at sunset. He didn't know. It was a dirty thing. Stain... "I need simple clothes only. A dark kimono, fast. Do you know the path to the stoneworker's home?" His voice was clipped and sharp. Since he was standing, things got less blurry again, but his head was pounding. He pulled the tie out of his hair, and started to retie it, but roughly grabbing all of his hair, and tying it up higher than normal.
Jirou came around him to help him with his hair. "Master, I'm not sure what you're thinking..." His fingers were fast and mobile, and soon Sai's hair was pulled uncomfortably tight right at the back of his head, like he was an apprentice to a samurai.
"You don't need to know. Jirou, just do as I say. There is no time to waste. Stay out of sight. I don't care where you go, but don't be anywhere a messenger from court or from the head of the family can find you. I'll be back..." He nodded, and looked Jirou in the eye.
His head throbbed, and everything seemed to waiver.
"Master, you... you can't, if the Emperor..." Jirou hissed, wringing his hands together.
Sai shook his head. "His wife. His children. They haven't been arrested yet?" Jirou didn't have time to answer, but Sai was sure of it. Facts were facts. Everything had order to it. First things first. Second things second. Facts were facts.
"Stay out of sight," he reminded Jirou, and then he took off. He went out the servants' gate, and made his way through the streets fast. The pack was heavy, and where it was tied loosely over his shoulder hurt. The city at large was loud, and crowded, and smelly. He felt sick, and sicker, and sickest as he wound through the streets. He wasn't sure of the way, but he kept moving east, because Sanchi once mentioned the river, and he knew the river was this way.
He had to ask twice, once at a rice merchant's, and once from an old, blind lady who gave fortunes. She offered him a discount, but he told her he couldn't let her touch him. Stained. He found the house. A small girl was outside the door, looking forlorn.
"Hello," he smiled kindly, wrapping his fingers around the cloth of the strap for the pack. "Is this... is your father Sanchi?"
"Is he coming back?" she asked him, her wide eyes nakedly innocent.
Sai's stomach lurched. "I need to see your mother. Right away." He managed to smile for her, but she seemed only more agitated. She led him inside, though, calling for her mother. She was right inside, her face pale and drawn.
"I was afraid it would be guards again! I'm sorry, you are... you must be from the palace?" she asked him, her hands wrapping tightly around a wrinkled cloth.
He smiled ruefully. Of course, he was unable to disguise himself perfectly. He pulled her aside a bit. The baby was crying... his head was pounding. "There isn't any time. I'm... I'm Fujiwara no Sai. Your husband..." His voice cracked. He slipped the pack off his shoulder and knelt down before her, bowing his head. "Your husband has been falsely accused and sentenced to death. Because of me. I can't express to you my sorrow, but there isn't time." He pulled out the scroll from his sleeve, and pressed it to her hands, holding it there. "You must gather your children and your prized possessions quickly, and come with me. I-It won't be safe for you."
He was afraid to look her in the eye, but he could see it all from the way her drawn lips quivered. She wanted to hate him, but she had no choice, no power. He'd heard it many times, from his mother, from his aunts, from the ladies at court.
She had no choice.
"Where am I to go?" she asked, tersely, defeated.
"I will make arrangements. Please hurry. You must be on your way before..." he choked. There might be a chance that if she went to the prison, she could see Sanchi before he died. If she did, though, she'd be a marked woman. Her children would be labeled as offspring of a disgrace, someone who had assaulted Emperor himself.
They had to hurry. All he could think was that they had to hurry.
Enervated by self-preservation, or perhaps desire to preserve her children, she was suddenly a flurry of activity. She bundled the baby to her chest and got her daughter to scurry here and there, grabbing this and that. There were many things around the house that he had given Sanchi. Tokens in exchange for his play.
Each one a stepping stone to his death. She left them all where they were.
She picked up from under a basket a goban, scratched and dented. "Sensei." She looked at him uneasily, as if she didn't like to use the word for him. "Will take this for me? To... remember..."
"I would never forget him," he gruffly said, quickly. He grabbed the goban, and the two goke that were behind it. He wrapped them in linens and then put it in a basket that could be carried on the back. He smiled at Sanchi's daughter. His stomach flipped. "You can carry this for your father, right? It... it will be important. For you and your brother. " He looked at her, desperate.
She put a small rag doll in the basket on top of it, and let him help her put it on. He then helped her mother with the other pack he brought, filling it up with the things she had brought out that she needed. Nervously, he started to talk. He told her about the food in it and he gave her the money. They all looked around, Sanchi's wife rubbing their son's head with a shaking hand.
"We must get to the ferry," Sai said, his hands shaking, too. Stained.
They went out and walked fast to the river, keeping their heads down. Sanchi's daughter had trouble keeping up, so she grabbed his sleeve. He explained on the way that the letter was to an aunt of his. She had inherited her husband's property out in the country, and she ruled her own estate. She was a strong woman but she was a bit bitter about being so far from court, so she entertained her own ideas of things. He had written a letter of introduction. He told her what town to go to and to ask for the Fujiwara house. The letter would get her inside the house and to his aunt, and she would take care of her. He was sure she would take care of her, and her children. She wouldn't need to worry.
The further down the river they walked, the fewer and fewer houses and buildings they saw. Sai was even more uncomfortable out in the open, his eyes darting along the path, watchful in case any traveler might be a spy. He had no idea what spies looked like or why one would come after them...
The sun was high in the sky and pounding down brightly. They reached a dock, and the boats were coming in again. He gave Sanchi's daughter's hand to her mother and went to speak to the boating men. They were rough and their language was coarse and to the point, but he was able to secure Sanchi's family's passage He gave the man much too much money, it seemed, because the man's attitude became much more conciliatory. Sai concealed the rest of the money and made a vague comment about whose wife she was and when she was expected, and the man's eyes shone with falsely obtained certainty. Oddly, Sai felt proud of himself. Like he might be able to go home and tell Jirou how he'd tricked the boating man into thinking Sanchi's wife was the possession of a rich man who would send wolves out after anyone who hurt her.
He went back to Sanchi's wife. Her eyes were getting wet and her body was shivering, now that she was still and she could nothing but think. Her daughter kept looking from her to Sai. He smiled tightly at both of them. "This man will take you. After you get off the boat, you'll have to walk to town, and get directions. You have money... it will take until at least sundown, though. Try to conserve your strength. Make sure to eat." He was nervous, like a wife sending out her husband to war.
Sanchi's daughter looked up at him quizzically. "You're the man daddy plays games with. You're beautiful."
Sai blinked, taken aback. He parted his lips to reply, but she continued.
"Daddy isn't coming with us."
Her voice was flat, devoid of accusation or contempt, but deep with resignation.
Sai closed his eyes. "I'm... I'm sorry."
Sanchi's wife straightened up, summoning up all her dignity at that impetus. She bowed low to him. "Thank you, Sensei." She took her daughter's hand and brushed past him. She kept her head high, and did not look back, but her daughter never stopped watching him, as if she was burning into her memory for all time the sight of the man who killed her father.
Sai stood, stock still, accepting her blame and her loss, and watched them until the boat was floating peacefully down the river, and out of sight. He trembled, and finally turned to leave.
His arms and legs felt numb. He kept his head down, watching the grass and the dirt as he walked. From the moment he realized that Sanchi's family needed to be protected, he had purpose, but now he just had his thoughts. Sanchi might already be dead. Sai's stomach lurched, and he couldn't bear that thought. He turned away from town, crossing the river on a wooden bridge.
He had little understanding of directions, only that the sun was above him and the sky was bright, the ground was dry, and the grass was not yet green, and his hands wouldn't stop shaking. He didn't want to be around anyone. He was stained, filthy from his skin down to the marrow of his bones, a filth so disgusting, he could barely cope.
He turned one way, and then another. His legs burned with numbness and his head swam and he felt weak, but he kept walking, looking down at the ground at his feet, and occasionally at his hands, as if he could see the stain. He was aware that the color was changing around him. What was bright and pale was now shaded and richly colored. He looked up and saw an orange sky, a field that was a sea of swaying amber. In the distance, there was brown and green in a ribbon, and he was aware that it was vegetation surrounding a creek or river. With despondently exhausted legs, he made his way to the water.
There were gods that lived in the waters. These veins brought life to to the land. Waters of life... could purify.
With those sorts of vaguely undefined notions, he walked through the reeds and into the river itself.
He bent down, and put his hand into the cold. It was cold and crisp as it rushed around him. He was in to his knees. The cold stung. He let himself grieve. The moon was hanging above him, and he had killed Sanchi.
If he had loved the Emperor better... if he had not been so selfish, if he had been more attentive. If he'd thought about the Emperor, not just the night before, but every night before. The Emperor believed in him and spared him when he was accused of cheating. The Emperor defended his honor. Sai didn't understand well the concept of love or how the heart worked, but he knew that he owed his life and his love and his passion to the Emperor, who trusted him and made everything possible, but he'd betrayed that trust. He betrayed Sanchi, who shared his passion.
He'd killed him.
He walked in deeper, his feet slogging through the mud. His tears fed the river and his hands moved in deeper and deeper into the cold, until his fingertips brushed against the mud. He wanted to beg the god of the river to cleanse him, but he didn't know how, because he couldn't be forgiven. He'd ended the life of a good man who had a family. He'd deserted the love of a man who ruled the land.
The water was heavy and the mud was heavy, and the air was thick and heavy and he couldn't breathe. The weight... the weight of Sanchi's blood on his hands dragged him down. The weight of his crimes, the bore him down, deeper into the cold and the dark. His tears flowed cold and dark all around him, the rushing making an indistinct sound like a prolonged heartbeat.
He thought about Sanchi, and he thought about Jirou, and he thought about the Emperor, he thought about Murakami, about the Nariakira-shinnou that he'd never noticed and never known. It was cold and dark, and it was all so heavy. He sank deeper into it, too weak to fight, anyway.
He gave his last thoughts to his lover, because he had given him so little else.
Heisei 10, the 11th day of the 12th month 11 december 1998
Sai kept his sleeves up. Even as a ghost, he could get embarrassed, and watching Hikaru get scolded was just as bad as being scolded himself! Even though he very thoroughly did not approve of what Hikaru did! He'd be scolding him if the teacher wasn't! Sai closed his eyes and shook his head. Hikaru was so young, and so... brash! He was so different from Sai himself, or Torajirou. It was really confusing, being with a child like this.
"Hey, Sensei. Have you ever heard of Fujiwara no Sai?"
Sai's eyes opened, and he stared, breathless. Well, he didn't breathe anymore, but. It felt the same. The teacher looked at Hikaru a bit confused, and a bit flustered.
"Fujiwara no Sai? Ah... is that how you became interested in go?" Both Hikaru's and Sai's eyes bugged out. Wait, did this teacher know...? "Fujiwara no Sai was considered the greatest go player in history by Honinbou Shusaku, who is himself widely considered to be the greatest go player in history by most pros in Japan today."
"Ah!" Hikaru bounced on his feet, but Sai suddenly felt very heavy. The weight of the mud, and the river, and thousands of years that had not yet washed the stain from his soul burdened him down. He lowered his chin, and let himself relax... he pulled away from Hikaru, and the further away he got, the more faded everything around him became, like the color just bled away into white. When he could only just barely make out shapes, he stopped, and closed his eyes.
For what purpose was he here? He would have understood being thrown beneath the furnace, or brought back in some lowly form. He never paid enough attention in lessons about theological topics, and perhaps that was part of why he was being punished. He looked down at his hands, indistinct shapes that he could see through, but he knew they were still stained.
How could he fashion his penance with these hands that couldn't feel? Torajirou, a gentle boy who loved go as Sai once had, thought that Sai was unfulfilled because he never finished his rivalry. Torajirou constantly begged him to play, to seek out his passion. Sai didn't think it would work, but Torajirou himself loved to watch the games, and so Sai allowed himself to believe. Hikaru, though, knew nothing of go and would live his life perfectly well without ever knowing of go. And yet, Sai was forever linked to him.
For what purpose did he continue to exist?
"Hey, there you are. Look, that teacher lent me this!"
"Hikaru, be more respectful," Sai corrected under his breath, but his heart wasn't in it. He looked at the book Hikaru was holding out... slowly, his eyes widened.
"Teach said that this was the only surviving record of a game you played. He said I could borrow the book. It's really about that Torajirou guy... Shusaku or something. Anyway. What the heck is this, anyway?" Hikaru made a face, looking over the page.
Sai smiled sadly. "It's called a kifu. It's a way of recording the game, one hand at a time, for posterity."
"Yeah, I get it, I just... don't get it. Uhhh... looks like black won? You were black?" Hikaru peered at the book, his nose all wrinkled up.
Sai couldn't help being a bit amused. "I was white."
"Wait. You lost?" Hikaru looked up at Sai, incredulous.
"It's not always about winning, Hikaru. A game of high level elevates both competitors." Sai leaned back wistfully.
Hikaru gave him an odd look. Of course, he was still young, too young maybe to understand, but it was adorable. "I don't get it. This is the only game recorded, and you lost, and people still think you're one of the best ever? Well, who did you play? Sensei said the name had been scratched out."
Sai's heart twisted. Naturally... "His name was Sanchi. He was accused of a crime against the Emperor, so his name was struck from all official documents." His voice broke there. He looked back down at his hands, more substantial now that Hikaru was with him, but the stain was still not visible...
"Ooh. What did he do?" Hikaru asked, sounding almost gleeful. Criminals always seemed so interesting, huh?
"He took me from the Emperor," Sai replied hollowly.
"Eh?" Hikaru reeled back. "Sai, that sounded very strange!"
Sai smiled, at least heartened by how lively Hikaru was. "Never mind. It was a long, long time ago."
Hikaru looked at him distrustfully, and then he looked back down at his book. "Hey, that old lady told me about a go salon near the station. If we go there, maybe you can show me this game. And we can play! How about it?"
Sai hesitated. Surely... he wasn't still here to play more go, was he? He knew from his time with Torajirou that it couldn't be right. But. Hikaru actually looked interested... Sai smiled. "Let's go!"