title: An Approach to Tsumego
fandom: Hikaru no Go
characters/pairings: Sai/Emperor, Hikaru, original characters
rating: Teen
warnings: sexual situations, politics, death, suicide
summary: Sai's life, with a twist.
notes: for round double-oh-seven of blind_go. also, i'm not a historian, though i tried my best, so please forgive! manymany thanks to sepsku for the awesome links in kifu_archive!!


Tengyou 9, the 28th day of the 4th month 31 may 946

A taste of summer was felt in the wind, lazily stirring. He pushed back his hair, a gesture of annoyance he barely registered. He tipped his head back. He should have gotten properly dressed, and then his hair would be held back, and not all over his face and shoulders, but tonight was a formal evening, and would require extra layers and adornments, so while he could get away with slacking off, he would.

It was going to get hot again soon.

He turned his attention back to his goban, and sank his fingers into the white stones, letting the cool shells tingle his fingertips before he picked up a single stone. He brought it to his lips, just barely pressing it to the underside of his bottom lip as he scanned the field of play.

He took a game as seriously when he played himself as he did when he played anyone else, and often thought these games were the hardest, because he always knew exactly what the other side was thinking. Playing as white or black, he wanted to place strong stones that could capture territory, but it was frustrating that each game ended in both a win and a loss. It was a bitter experience that he secretly felt taught him as much as any other game he played, though indistinctly he was well aware that he needed another player to advance his skills.

Another player as advanced as he was, unfortunately.

He placed the stone with a firm gesture, creating the familiar plunk, and then he folded his arms over his chest, examining the board with a whole new perspective. Ah, he was in a corner now!

"Master!" Jirou sighed, exasperated. His gazed flicked up to the page momentarily, immediately aware that he was about to be lectured, so he petulantly put his fingers into the black stones, ignoring him. "What are you doing?"

Sai's lips quirked momentarily. "That's obvious, isn't it?" He could play there; that wasn't a bad move. But if one played moves that were just... not bad, it was hard to win.

"Master, the new Emperor is being crowned as we speak!" Jirou hissed, looking about. Sai looked up, too, vaguely wondering if the so-called threat was from invaders or pirates or flies or bees. Seeing nothing, though, he blankly looked up at Jirou. Turning his eyes quickly heavenward, Jirou fell quickly to his knees next to Sai. "You can't be seen or heard laying about playing games at such an important time. You should be there, after all!"

Sai just shook his head, looking back to the goban. "No, no," he sighed, restless. He wriggled his bare toes, stretching out his legs. "This is not simply a game, after all. And there will be so many people there, anyway, that I would be far in the back. I'd just be sitting in the sun and heat for hours, not able to see or hear anything, and I'd probably fall asleep and embarrass someone. My brother told me. It's enough if I go to the feast tonight. And tomorrow, right? How long is the celebration?"

"It will last for at least a week," Jirou muttered. "And your brother told you that just to keep you out of the way! You're far more attractive than he is, and he's desperately afraid you'll secure a beneficial marriage before him."

Sai blinked, and looked up at Jirou in shock. "He is? I am?"

"You didn't know? Of course you didn't know," Jirou lowered his head, his shoulders slumping.

"I wonder when study will resume. Will we be able to play during the festivities?" Sai pondered aimlessly. He placed the black stone. Ah... that was a strong move. Now white was in trouble!

"There might be games during the festivities..." Jirou started uncertainly, glancing away at Sai's glare. "Sai-dono... you should think more about your position, though! A new Emperor means... new opportunities. Even with your family name, you must seize the chances you can."

Sai nodded absently, applying Jirou's words to the more concrete example of the shapes before him as he selected a white stone. "Does the new Emperor play? What's his name, again? The former Emperor's... son..."

"The former Emperor had only the Imperial Princess," Jirou replied testily. "The newly crowned - by now - Emperor is his younger brother, and he shall be known as Emperor Murakami."

"Ah... good name," Sai nodded, paying only enough attention to know that it was his turn to speak.

"Master..." Jirou sighed.

Sai opened his fan. It was going to be a hot summer, the court ladies had been saying. He believed it. He didn't like it, but there was nothing to be done about the weather. It looked as if white had nothing it could do, either.


Tengyou 9, the 17th day of the 7th month 16 august 946

He started the game as calmly as any other, the only excitement derived from the anticipation of playing someone of his 'rival's' caliber. He was aware, peripherally, that there were more than go at stake. He knew this because his brother came to watch the game, and his brother rarely had the patience for go. Jirou, too, had tried to impress upon him the importance of winning.

As he waited for his opponent's move, he watched the other man. It... irritated him that all of this was going on, after all. Even though he had fully convinced himself that he need not consider anything other than the universe on the goban, as always, still. That a game like the one they were currently engaged in was being watched for something other than the hands making it up was irritating. That his go was being sullied by his family's politics, as if the two were interchangeable, was irritating. That any man, even the Emperor, especially the Emperor, was to be allowed only one Master for something like go... that was irritating. However, focusing on anything other than go would signal his death, and, in the end, he was confident enough in his skills. In fact, though the game was young, he was disappointed. His opponent must have been distracted, but though it all appeared even, he was steadily building a weight to his shapes. His opponent was not making mistakes, but he wasn't making spectacular hands, either. He was leaving openings.

His opponent's hand moved, but at that moment, when his eyes should have been on where the black stone was to be placed, he was distracted by something else. A pearl of white amid a black ocean.

One of his stones, mixed into his opponent's basket.

He could have, at that moment, said something, but it was undignified. He had a hand to plan out. His fingers sank into his own stones, but while he examined the board, he bit his lip, glancing toward the one white stone in the black. If it was going to bother him, he should most definitely speak up, but if it was going to bother him, he wasn't worthy to play before the Emperor. Resolutely, he lifted a stone to place.

His opponent was well skilled, making use of the movements of hands to mask his other movements. Just as Sai raised his stone, his opponent moved the errant stone. Into the ranks of his captured prey. Sai's hands faltered, and he looked, baldly, to be sure. He knew the count of stones that should have been there, and their numbers were increased by exactly one, and the goke's contents were once again purely black. It was shocking; Sai looked up at his opponent, meeting his eyes. His lips were parted, but time felt as if it had stopped. This man... he... cheated!? Sai couldn't comprehend...

He would have to speak up. It was just one stone, but this was unacceptable. Realizing that, Sai blinked. And he opened his mouth to speak...

"You've cheated!"

A finger was pointed in his face. And. Those words were directed... to him? But... Sai's hand trembled, and his white stone fell back into the goke. "What? That's a lie! You...!"

"I saw you! You moved a black stone into your captured bowl!"

Sai's eyes widened and his jaw went slack. This... couldn't be happening! How could he? They were playing before the Emperor! Before the whole of court! And he was lying! He disgraced his own go to lie and cheat! Murmurs were building up all around them. Suddenly, Sai because hyper aware of the eyes on them, that those words were about them, about Sai, that people were talking about him cheating, at go, cheating at go, him!

Sick, he turned his head toward the raised dais separated by a gauzy film of silk. Even during his lessons, Sai didn't pay too much attention to the Emperor. He was there, above them, watching them, separate and distinct. The Emperor took his lessons, generally, by simply watching his Masters at play and demonstrating games and plays of importance, so he was more like a fixture in the room than a person that Sai could interact with, and, anyway, Sai was more interested in people who could challenge him seriously from across the goban. The Emperor had a lazy attitude toward go, though supportive of its presence in court.

Now, however, the Emperor was the absolute law in a specific situation in which Sai was desperately involved, and Sai needed him to understand. He cleared his throat, and put his hands before him, facing the Emperor, and he bowed. "Your Majesty, Emperor! This... I would not do this! I swear to you... I have not cheated!" Sai begged. That his opponent cheated... he should mention it! But then, wouldn't it be just his word against another?

This no longer had anything to do with go. He had to think of his father's and his brother's lessons on court politics. His cousin's lectures, his uncles stern looks... his head swam. He never had any interest and only paid nominal attention. Should he mention it? What would Jirou tell him to do?

A gong rang out, and there was absolute silence. Sai shook, and looked up at the Emperor. "Clear the room," his silky voice rang out. "Everyone, out. Sai-sensei, stay."

His opponent stood up, looking down at him for a moment with a look of complete satisfaction and triumph. What? Did that mean... the Emperor... wanted to speak to him, right? He looked around wildly, trying to find Jirou, or his brother. All he saw were eyes over fans, and every pair of them looked sinister.

Sai went back to bowing, his shoulders shaking. This wasn't right. This wasn't right!

The room was now quiet, but the Emperor spoke again, perturbed. "I said for everyone to leave! There is no need to stay."

"Yes, Your Majesty!" The Emperor's Minister of the Left bowed quickly, and took his leave. He did give Sai a significant look before he went. Sai shifted uncomfortably. That man was... a cousin or an uncle of his, but he wasn't sure. He should really pay more attention!

He never thought he'd need to know anything about politics for go, though.

All that remained, then, were himself, the Emperor, and a few guards, their faces shielded. They were essentially nothing, so. This was... being alone with the Emperor. It was scary!

He pressed his face as close to the floor as he could. "Your Majesty the Emperor. I swear to you on all that is holy and good... I did not cheat. In fact... In fact, it's disgraceful to say so, but... but my opponent... he is the one who cheated! I swear to you... I would never cheat at go!"

The Emperor... chuckled. Shivering, Sai tried to look up. Beyond the brim of his tall tate-eboshi cap, he could only see the steps leading up the dais, the silky curtain, the Emperor's hand... near the curtain, as if he were leaning toward Sai. "Would you not? Because your Emperor was watching you?"

"I would not sully my game!" Sai hotly retorted. "How can one achieve the Divine Move with such a stain on his soul? It's repugnant!"

Once again, the Emperor answered him with a low, deep chuckle. More bravely, Sai looked up. The Emperor was indeed on his hands, his body like a cat's, watching Sai with a hidden expression. Sai was grateful, indeed, that he could not see the Emperor's eyes. "I believe you, Sai. I do.

"I believe you. Now. My guard will take you..." His hand motioned to one of the monolithic guards, and he stepped forward immediately. "Go with him."

Sai bowed down, still shaking. The Emperor... believed him. Believed in him? He bowed as he stood. "Thank you. Thank you, Your Majesty. Th-thank you." He bowed as he moved forward. He just kept bowing. The Emperor believed him.

He followed the guard. They didn't go out the way Sai normally entered the court. That really wasn't surprising, of course. Out in the courtyard, all of court would be assembled like vultures, waiting for diseased and cursed fleshed to feast upon gleefully. Sai's stomach churned, and his head swam. This was the worst day of his life! But the Emperor believed him...

The guard led him past the halls and rooms he was most familiar with, drawing him toward the inmost center of the palace, but he was so trapped in his his thoughts he passed by the ornamental gardens without so much as a glance. Only when the guard came to a stop did he look up, and upon looking up, realize that he had no idea where he was. He opened his mouth to inquire to the guard just what was expected of him, but a tiny maid opened a door, and bowed to them.

"This way, sensei."

Sai blinked. The guard stood at attention, and then turned to leave. The tiny maid grinned, and beckoned him closer. Confused and still sick all over, he did as she requested. "I'm not sure I quite understand... just what exactly has happened! I think I should find my brother..."

"Don't worry, sensei. We're here to attend you." The tiny maid closed the door behind him. Sensual perfume wafted up in thick, cloudy streams, hitting him like a physical force. We? He blinked, looking around. He was in... an elaborate staging room. Hands took off his cap, and undid his hair, spreading it over his back, and then hands started to work at his clothes. Blushing, Sai looked down, looked around him. A small contingent of tiny maids were undressing him...!

"Ah..." He fumbled, and stumbled, trying to avoid getting in their way while simultaneously trying not to assist them, either. It was difficult.

"We shall attend you, sensei," he was assured. "Please try only to relax. We shall bring wine, and a small meal, as well." She smiled brightly and confidently at him. He was sure that in some way, refusing would be rude beyond measure, so he only nodded dumbly. It was irrelevant, anyway, because their tiny hands were most effective. His hair was free and his clothes were gone and he was pushed toward a mat.

He went down face down, and then multiple hands were kneading into his flesh, massaging in sweet-smelling oil. Was he being purified for something? He sighed, letting out his frustration and anxiety, and closed his eyes. It was a bizarre ending to a painful and disturbing game. And the worst of it was, thanks to that idiot's cheating, Sai could never be sure he would have won! He had a much stronger position, but his opponent's endgame was heralded, and even Sai appreciated the viciousness with which his stones could tear apart shapes. Yes, he'd been confident, but nothing was as certain as doing.

After about ten minutes, he was guided to sit up, and he was given a light robe, and then wine, and lightly steamed fish with rice. He ate and drank calmly while two maids brushed out his hair, rubbing crushed flowers and light oils into it.

He would have liked to have been able to play the man honestly.

He was taken and given a short white jacket, his hair spread flat on his back. Then he was led to another room. He was a bit dizzy from the heat and the wine, and drained from the day in general. As they walked down the passageway, he watched, idly, as the fish in the pond followed them. White koi?

The tiny maid bowed low, and then back away, closing the door behind her as she went. Sai looked around, confused. He had no clue at all where he was. Was he still in the palace?

"Your hair is at such a nice length."

Sai started a bit, but that silky voice was attached to a hand that was now picking up a section of his hair. Sai's jaw went slack. He'd never been this close, after all, to the Emperor. This Emperor was still young... and as he came around, Sai could see him, he was impressed immediately that he was beautiful, with a strong and manly jaw, and clear eyes.

"Y-our Majesty... m-my Emperor..."

"I like that!" the Emperor declared with delight. "I am your Emperor. Does that mean that you love me, Sai?"

Sai blinked. He'd never been asked such a question, not even from his mother. Did he...? "Of course I do," he replied, at least knowing what the right answer was.

"That makes me happy." The Emperor smiled, and then turned, falling to recline on a low and very wide bed. He smiled lazily up at Sai. "It was something of a gamble to take your word, you know. I am the first Emperor to act without a Regent, but many in court complain of the influence of the Fujiwara."

Sai stared at the Emperor mutely. The Emperor's clothing, or lack thereof, was now apparent to Sai. He could see a sliver of the Emperor's chest...

"I have sent the cheater out of my court, and out of my palace. You shall be my only tutor in go. I've also decided that you shall be my lover." The Emperor's voice was so silky and smooth, as if each word smiled. And he sounded so confident! Sai was impressed.

But. What did he just...?

"How old are you, Sai?"

He blinked, and realized that an answer was required, and this was something he should know easily. "Twenty, my Emperor."

"We're about the same age," the Emperor declared happily. "And you are not married?"

"Ah, no," Sai answered, blushing. He never once thought about marriage, but he was practically an old man, wasn't he? He should be thinking about these things. "My parents have not yet arranged a marriage. My older brother is yet unmarried, so..."

The Emperor laughed. "If they are waiting for a maiden to take him, I suppose they will need to find a blind girl." Sai blinked, completely confused. The Emperor reached out to him, and like he'd been drawn by a magnet, Sai reached back, letting the Emperor pull him down.

Onto the Emperor's bed.

"I've been watching you. Even before I was Emperor... when I was only Nariakira, and it never once occurred to me I would become Murakami. I watched you jealously. I had been set aside. Preserved, certainly, but considered unnecessary. From that shadowy place of waiting, I watched you, also the younger in a line of greater men, but you possessed something I had not."

"Wh-what could I possibly have had that you, my Emperor, could not have had?" Sai asked, confused. Confused by the Emperor's words, and by his actions. Confused by the strange heat under his skin, and by the way his heart started to thud painfully in his chest.

"Passion." The Emperor's hand touched his cheek, his fingers splaying out to caress Sai's lips. "Love. I watched you play go, and I saw something pure and passionate and beautiful, and I envied the stones your hands touched with such grace and power." The Emperor leaned in, and to Sai's shock, he pressed his lips to Sai's. It was uncomfortable and awkward, and then he pulled back again, grinning. "Have you never kissed before, Sai? Have you never lain with a lover?"

Sai shook his head, his movements shaky, embarrassment warring with confusion.

The Emperor's eyes gleamed with pleasure. "Then, my teacher of go, let me teach you." He pushed Sai down onto the bed, and opened Sai's robe. Sai's skin trembled as the Emperor's hands moved over him, claiming him.

He was the Emperor's territory.

"Don't be afraid." Sai nodded, but his heart did not obey, pounding. The Emperor's chin dipped down, his lips curled in a smile. "I will teach you well, my Sai."

Sai's breath became halted and broken, and his eyes eventually closed as his legs parted at his Emperor's insistence.


Tengyou 10, the 4th day of the 2nd month 27 february 947

Patiently, he waited while Jirou's quick and clever hands finished clothing him. There was a stark chill in the air, so he almost regretted needing to leave his private chambers, his warm bed, and the fire nearby. Jirou finished securing and smoothing down his obi, so he stepped away, bowing briefly to his Master. Sai lowered his arms, and nodded to his page, and then folded his hands inside his sleeves. At least that was a bit warmer.

The palace had a different light, and a different air in the winter. He had been told, though, that this was the last cold snap, and it wasn't so much how cold it was as that he was ready for spring. As they walked past the courtyards, Sai looked longingly toward the neat rows of cherry trees. When the blossoms were in bloom, it was so much easier to find players willing to spend an hour or more on the veranda, playing a game while enjoying the seasonal breezes!

He stood aside, shielding his face with his fan and Jirou partially with his body, to allow some Ministers to pass. His brother was among them, and he nodded to Sai. Jirou had, it seemed, been right about his brother, since he'd become much more pleasant since his engagement. Or perhaps it was because of Sai's influence on the Emperor, though Sai didn't think he had any. He still couldn't convince the Emperor to avoid his tesuji intoxication.

He went to the study room, pleased to find students at their gobans already. He walked behind them, offering tips and advice, occasionally sitting to go through a lecture or a demonstration. Jirou once again had to remind him of the time so they could break. After tea, Sai sauntered down the meandering path through the trees. He looked up at the skeletal branches criss-crossing the sky, an uncertain shade of greyish blue. There was a feeling similar to the very beginning of a game when he waited for the other player to lay his first stone.

He knew there was a hint of a smile across his lips, and he wondered about it in some recess of his consciousness. He didn't usually feel happy when he wasn't playing, and it had been a bit of a while since he'd felt truly challenged. He needed that. He wasn't any closer to the Divine Move at this moment than he was months ago, so it felt strange to feel content, even excited.


He turned, and bowed briefly to the small gathering of court ladies. They hid demurely behind their fans in teasing reply.

"Sensei, might you have time for a game?" the one in purple requested.

"Lady Nariko, a distant cousin by marriage. There is talk of her being married to the Minister of the Center," Jirou muttered behind him.

"It would be my pleasure, my Lady," Sai replied gallantly. The ladies tittered in delight, and made room for him in their salon, the younger of their numbers going bring the goban.

Lady Nariko's eyes shone at Sai from behind her fan. "Sensei is so kind, always willing to take time to play. I hope it doesn't become boring for Sensei, playing at such a handicap?"

Her question was both polite and baiting, in some ways, but these types of conversations required only politeness to navigate, and he could manage. "It is always my pleasure to play. Any game can offer insight to one who is prepared to learn," he advised. That elicited a titter of admiration from the onlookers, but Lady Nariko's gaze just became more pointed.

"It won't be long before we are celebrating Sensei's brother's wedding. That should be delightful; a spring wedding is very promising, I should think. What about Sensei? You must, too, be in need of a wife?" she asked sharply.

Sai smiled, watching her delicately place her handicap stones. "I would neglect my wife for the stones. Nothing would be sadder! I should think that it would be prudent to wait until I was very old. If I was fat and had a long, grey beard, I could get a sweet young wife, and then I'd definitely appreciate her." He winked at the ladies watching, and then placed his first stone.

"Sensei, that's devious," Lady Nariko accused cheerfully. "It is difficult to even imagine Sensei in such a form! Ah, if only I had such delicate skin..." she demurred tauntingly, enjoying the immediate chorus of assurance of the quality of her skin. Her eyes were fixed upon him, though, so she only acknowledged them with a slight waver of her fan. "Our Emperor has a beautiful wife, such a shining example for all handsome men. And quite a lady she is! I understand Sensei had the pleasure of giving her a lesson as well?"

She was playing slowly, as interested in the conversation as anything else. Probably moreso than in the play, but it was a friendly game, so Sai tried to match her pace. It made him a tiny bit impatient, though. "Our Empress is a peerless woman, quite fitting."

"Indeed," Lady Nariko agreed. "A delicate flower, and accomplished as well. I know that she was interested in go before the wedding, even. Does Sensei find that his attention is now divided by his Imperial pupils?" She laughed, a sound that was pleasing and a bit suspicious.

So, she wanted to know about his relationship with the Emperor and his wife? Even Sai could see through that. He broke apart the meager shape she'd been forming. "On the contrary, the other night, I watched as they played each other. It was a most worthy game."

"Did the Empress have a large handicap?" a bystander asked. Sai smiled at her. He knew her... he couldn't place her name, but she was kind, a tiny bit plump... she had her eye on one of the generals.

And this, too, was a trap he could easily avoid. "Theirs was a jovial and enjoyable game, on both sides." He winked and smiled in just the right way, which earned him the appropriate laughter. It was possible, after all, even for him, to play just to have fun.

"Sensei has such a pure heart," Lady Nariko sighed. "Did Sensei play with his mother, as well?"

"Of course!" Sai answered immediately, without politics. "My mother had a deep beauty to her play. She was most poetic on the nature of go. My father was more strategic. I used to enjoy watching them both."

"Ooh, did your mother play evenly with your father?" someone in pink asked.

"She would not have it any other way," Sai replied kindly. "I was very small and in my mother's lap, watching her raise her stones and place them. I believe that was my earliest memory, the beauty of it indelibly marking my very soul." He smiled affectionately, thinking of it. He'd always been rather single-minded, and a bit of an idealist. But if there was honor and goodness to be found anywhere, he knew, it had to be found in even the smallest gestures.

"Sensei... is very pure," Lady Nariko repeated, sighing. She lowered her fan enough to show her smile. "The Emperor... does not lack for good judgment."

There was a round of agreement, but Sai was slightly troubled by her tone, in case she was not speaking of go. However, his troubles passed within a hand or two, and the rest of the game was peaceful, even affording him the opportunity to pass on a lesson to the group as a whole about transitioning to the end game.

Jirou moved forward discreetly, reminding him of his lesson with the Emperor, so Sai took his leave of the ladies, and rose. It was nearly evening, and the night sky, clear and bright, was becoming more and more visible through the hazy layers of twilight. He went to the inner palace, needing to step aside, once again, for some Ministers to pass. The last one, a short, stocky man that Sai did not recognize, paused to greet him.

"Ah... it's time for a lesson again, I see. It should be comforting, no doubt, to know the Emperor is studious in some regards." He smirked, stroking his short and greasy beard.

Sai managed not to make a face, and inclined his head. "Minister." He slipped right past, keeping his tongue and temper in check.

Behind him, Jirou hurried to keep up. "That was the Second Minister of Ceremonies. He's the highest ranking official not of the Fujiwara clan. Undoubtedly, he's suspicious of an intimately placed member of your clan such as yourself. Those who oppose the Fujiwara clan are pining their hopes on him."

Sai's mouth twisted. "I had gathered that much, at least." He sighed. Matters not related to go could be very taxing. "Thank you, Jirou." He hesitated a moment. "You don't need to attend me any further. Go and tell my brother about this encounter."

Jirou bowed quickly, and then turned and went down a side hallway.

The Emperor was in a private chamber, reclining with his flute. The soft, lilting music caused the strain of court to evaporate. Sai sat down in proper seiza, and closed his eyes to listen. When the Emperor finished, he bowed low in respect. "That was beautiful," he said quietly.

"Ah! Sai-sensei recognizes beauty off the goban! It is truly a special day!" the Emperor teased.

Unashamed, Sai smiled brightly at him.


Tenryaku 1, the 8th day of the 11th month 22 december 947

He should have been sitting up on the platform, at the seat arranged for him near the Emperor. The entire festival had been so exciting, but now that they were nearing the finale, Sai could barely contain himself. To celebrate the solstice, he'd arranged a go festival, with a tournament that anyone from the capital could enter. For the past few days, as the de facto leader of go studies in the Empire, he'd been overseeing the tournament. There were many other forms of festivities going on to celebrate the solstice, but this was the first time there had ever been a go tournament of this nature, and many complained, quietly behind their fans, that inviting just anyone in from the capital was a mistake, but Sai had ardently argued the point. After all, if there was some go master who was not of noble birth, wouldn't that individual be even more interesting? Wouldn't it be even more important to locate such a talent? And there was a prize to be offered the winner! Surely, that would encourage the lower class even more than the upper class, who would be happy enough to play for the Emperor's enjoyment. And that, in turn, would encourage go throughout the capital!

Sai couldn't see anything at all wrong with that plan!

They were down to eight players, paired off before four gobans. Sai moved discreetly behind them, watching intensely. There was a noble from the Ministry of Treasury who was playing quite well against the only remaining lady. She was an older woman, the mother of the Minister of the Center, and most skilled. It would be a close match, so their endgame skills would determine the winner. There was a lower noble, an apprentice stargazer, who was clearly defeating his opponent, a rotund lower noble from the Treasury department. Sai had given lessons to that stargazer, so he wasn't surprised by the lad's success. There was a man from the taxation department that Sai knew nothing about, but he was losing to a lieutenant in the military. He was a good-looking man who had an impressive uniform, so he'd been getting a great deal of attention from the court ladies.

Sai stood over the fourth and final goban, and closed his fan, pressing the tip to his lips.

This match... the progression of stones wasn't immediately obvious! Sai had agreed that only the final match would be recorded, but he hoped someone had been paying attention to this! A commoner was playing one of Sai's students, a man of the Fujiwara clan who worked under the Minister of the Right. The commoner's manners were certainly less refined than all the others, but Sai only nominally noticed.

He stood over their goban, watching enraptured. It was a deceptive game, appearing close, but the commoner had several points of strength. They'd already entered the endgame, and his student was aggressively seeking to disturb the commoner's shapes, but it was a trap. A well-laid out and carefully executed trap. Sai watched, delighted, as the commoner took advantage of one opening and then another, and then he broke Sai's student's shapes, claiming a large portion of the board's territory... His student stubbornly held on for several hands past the point where he could have hoped to win, but he finally did concede. After winning, the commoner exhaled loudly, leaning back in relief. Realizing that people were watching him, he blushed, and bowed in apology, laughing. He looked up at Sai, and flushed right down to his slightly open robes.

Sai was aware of a shift in the Emperor's stance, and he opened his fan, raising his eyebrows. He looked over the goban once more, and then strolled back to his designated seat. The rest of the games finished in short order. The Minister of the Center's mother won by two and a half moku, the stargazer won by six, and the lieutenant won by concession. There was some polite applause, and then the Emperor dismissed the assembly. Sai remained, as he had a lesson with the Emperor, but he turned quickly, hiding his mouth behind his fan. He looked Jirou in the eye steadily. "Find out everything you can about that commoner."

The Emperor rose to depart, and Sai moved deftly to take his place behind him. The procession was, as per the usual, fairly large but Ministers and servants dropped off at various points. The Emperor went to a dining chamber with only Sai and two Ministers. The Emperor immediately went to sit before his koto, beginning to play. The room became very quiet, which was a gift, honestly. The only thing that could follow an afternoon of exciting go was good music, after all. With inhuman silence, the maids brought in the dinner quietly, keeping the dishes covered until the Emperor finished. Then, he sat down, his posture relaxed, and breathed in the scent of the simmering stew.

"I do believe this solstice has been most... illuminating. Would you not say?" His voice was serene, but his eyes quickly narrowed, looking at his Minister of the Left.

The man bowed shortly, pouring the Emperor his wine. "I do believe it has been a testament to His Majesty's greatness that such entertainments of the past week have been so invigorating... for the entire Empire."

The Emperor smiled. "Indeed. Can you even recall when a commoner such as that man has been in the palace!" This time, the Emperor turned his gaze to the Minister of the Right.

Sai's back stiffened, and he slowly sipped his wine. He watched the Emperor carefully.

"It would be impossible to guess, Your Majesty. I would assume, however, that such a thing has never happened," the Minister replied evenly, his tone cool.

"Never! You hear that, Sensei? Never!" The Emperor's eyes twinkled. That was... heartening.

"What would you think, Sensei, if that man were to defeat one of your students?" the Minister of the Left asked archly.

Sai bowed briefly, and smiled. "I suppose my first thought would be that I would wish to play him myself, as soon as possible," he answered honestly, keeping his voice light. The Emperor was watching him keenly. "What a splendid people we have for our most highly esteemed Emperor, that such talent can be found in every corner, do you not think?" he asked, emphasizing the innocent tenor to his voice as Jirou had been trying to teach him to do of late.

The Emperor beamed. "It truly does warm our heart. We hope to see Sensei play whoever wins! It should be good, once and a while, to test our tutors, mm? I hope, for the sake of our Minster, however, that it is Lady Tsuyuki you face!"

Sai laughed with appropriately honest mirth. "I think I find such a prospect to be the most daunting of all!"

"The lady does indeed have presence," the Minister of the Right agreed easily.

The rest of dinner passed with conversation regarding the rest of the festivities, and various topics concerning the palace and the nation. As always, Sai maintained an interested countenance, but he made only the most rudimentary comments when called upon, his thoughts wandering far from the topics at hand. After dinner, the Emperor allowed the Minster of the Right to leave, but he played on his koto more for Sai and the Minister of the Left, until the Minister of the Left took his leave. The Emperor's fingers continued to gracefully tickle the strings, so Sai patiently held his position, and listened. The Emperor was more skilled on the flute, but his koto could sound mournful or delighted, depending on his mood.

Tonight, it sounded playful.

"You've enjoyed this week," the Emperor insinuated, as if it were a secret with which he could seduce Sai.

"I have. I hope you have as well, my Emperor," Sai replied, blushing slightly despite himself.

The Emperor's fingers stilled, and his whole body seemed tense for a moment, and then he relaxed. "Go prepare for bed," he ordered, so Sai stood up immediately.

"As you wish," he bowed. The door opened for him, and a maid quickly stood to lead him away. It was a procedure he had gotten used to, so he was prepared to be disrobed, and then, as he'd come to think of it, purified for the Emperor's bedchambers. He didn't waste much time relaxing, though, and slipped on an extra robe, as it was just getting cold.

As always, the Emperor was waiting for him, already undressed. Sai didn't even wait for the Emperor to hold out a hand to move swiftly to the Emperor's side. The Emperor took his hands, and pulled Sai close. "What will you do, my teacher, if that commoner wins?"

"I will want to play him, as soon as possible," he repeated, moving onto the bed as his Emperor directed.

"You get excited thinking about him, don't you?" the Emperor petulantly accused.

Sai laughed. "I get excited thinking about his go, yes. As my Emperor said, it is good to be tested."

The Emperor sighed, pulling at Sai's robes. "These hands were designed to make music. I need to use them to capture this territory..." He spread his hand out over Sai's heart. "This pure and unfettered territory... it's so easy for me to map its boundaries, but I need to possess it to fully understand its riches. I'm clumsy with my shapes, and impatient, and I try to be too clever..." He smiled, pushing Sai down. "But somehow, these musician's fingers must find a way to capture and win."

Boldly, Sai ran his hands up his Emperor's sides. "I'm puzzled. I thought you had already claimed this land."

"Claimed, yes," the Emperor agreed, dipping his lips down to Sai's neck, his collarbone. "But there's a difference between a claim and ownership."

"I concede to my Emperor's greater wisdom," Sai sighed. "But I offer him no resistance."

"Is that so?" the Emperor grinned. "Then do your Emperor a favor. These nights are getting cold. I do not wish to sleep alone. Does that cause you a problem?" he challenged.

Sai merely shook his head. But wait. That wouldn't be misunderstood, right? "I am at my Emperor's service, as always."

"Good. Even if your eager page lectures you tomorrow?" the Emperor teased.

Sai laughed. "Well, he has to, uhn, have something to do..."

The Emperor then fully opened his robes, and made his advance all over Sai's landscape.

He woke the next morning with the Emperor's hair in his mouth. The two of them were despicably tangled, and messy. If they were going to fall asleep like this, Sai lamented in his heart, they should have tied their hair back first! The Emperor rolled over on him, sticking his elbow down on Sai's arm. Sai's protesting cry caused him to open his eyes, and as soon as he did, he smiled. "Ah... it's that time, then, mm?"

Sai was about to say something, but shockingly, the Emperor decided to kiss him! Deeply, too, despite Sai's morning breath! And, though it wasn't proper to even think so, despite the Emperor's morning breath! After the kiss, though, the Emperor pulled back.

"Ah... wait here just a bit, and someone will come for you. We must be careful, after all." He winked at Sai, and then he got out of bed, throwing on a robe before striding off.

Sai felt a bit foolish and a bit feminine, being left behind in bed, but it was fine. The Emperor had been excessively ardent last night as well, leaving Sai in a modicum of discomfort, but he just needed to freshen up. The smell of the Emperor's oil, though, might linger on his skin. For the first time, he was aware of the inconvenience of the role of the Emperor's lover.

He sat up just as the door behind the bed slid open. He turned, and was immediately embarrassed. The Empress just curled one finger at him, and then the door was closed again. He quickly got out of the Emperor's bed, and put on a robe, following... but... when the Emperor said someone, did he really mean...?

He followed the Empress through a maze of narrow, poorly lit halls. Servants halls? He'd never been in this part of the palace, so he couldn't be sure. When he caught up to her, she looked over her shoulder at him. "Did you sleep well, Sensei?"

He flushed deeply. His hair was a mess and he was aware of the perfumed odor surrounding him... an odor the Empress has to be familiar with... "Ah... my apologies... that is, I mean..."

She chuckled lightly. "Do not be so embarrassed. I'm here to help! Trust me, I am quite pleased to be of any service to you that I can be."

He stared at the back of her head, dumbfounded. "Ah? M-Majesty? I... I confess, I do not understand."

"Do you not?" she looked back at him sharply. "Sensei is quite pure, I have heard it said many times. Well.

"Of all that might share that bed, you are the only one who cannot produce an heir to compete with mine." She ran her hand over her slightly bulging belly, and then slipped into a room. It was her own private rooms.

Sai followed, understanding, but not understanding. "I see... well..."

The Empress motioned him toward a screened off section of the room, and then sat down. Sai realized that a goban had been set up here. "It is so kind of Sensei to bring a bit of the festivities to me, at such an early hour, as well! It is difficult to be so... limited. But one can endure anything for the future of the country," she demurred, once again rubbing her belly.

Sai smiled. Ah, it had been a while since he'd seen the Empress in court. He'd heard the court ladies speaking of it. Her... delicate condition, as it were. She didn't seem infirm in any way, though. "It is my deep pleasure, of course, my Empress." He went behind the screen, as directed, and found two maids, armed with clothing and perfumed oil, a musky, fresh scent. It was a cold way to begin the day, but he endured it, reminding himself that it was supposed to be very healthy for one's spirit. "We all pray for you and for your future child."

"That is so kind. Shall we begin? I'll take an extra stone in handicap, if you don't mind. I sometimes have trouble concentrating early in the day of late," she explained.

They played with the screen between them until he was dressed, and then he came out to sit opposite her. The maids brushed out his hair as he played, and by the time she was ready to concede, he was perfectly attired. They shared breakfast, as well, discussing the festivities, which he could only inadequately describe as he only took any interest in the go tournament. Still, he described every game to her so that she was as versed as if she had been there. When it was time to take his leave, she walked him as close to the outer palace as she could, and he kissed her hand upon parting.

The halls around the courtyard were busy, but he managed to find Jirou easily, anyway. The morning semifinal matches were not long off, so he quickly pulled Jirou to a secluded passageway to talk to him.

"It's useless for me to lecture you, isn't it, Master?" Jirou began, sighing.

"Yes, I know..." Sai started impatiently.

"I suppose it's slightly better that there will be rumors that you've spent the night in female quarters, though now there will be speculation about your upcoming wedding," Jirou continued to grouse.

"The go player, Jirou," Sai hastened him impatiently. "What did you learn?"

Jirou gave him a look, and then sighed. "His name is Sanchi. He's a journeyman stonecrafter. In fact, he has spent much of his apprenticeship polishing stones to be used for go."

"Oh!" Sai bounced happily.

"The Emperor's artistic policies have only increased their business further, so all in the capital are prospering. He has a wife, a girl about six, and a newborn boy."

"Ah! Good for him," Sai beamed.

Jirou looked put out. "He learned go from his grandfather, who was the page to a samurai, but the clan fell to disrepair due to some disgrace, and the page, his grandfather, was let go while still young. His Master, though, gave him a goban as a gift, so he made sure to keep playing. It was difficult for Sanchi to get the time to come here, but the promise of prize money made it worthwhile. He's hoping to buy some things for their house, and some better tools, so he can advance in their workshop."

Sai wasn't that interested in all of that, but he was still delighted by the story. The bells rang, so Sai just nodded to Jirou. "Thank you! I appreciate it!" He quickly hurried out to the main hall. For the finals, they would be playing, of course, right in front of the Emperor.

They drew lots for the semifinal lineup. Lady Tsuyuki was pitted against the stargazer, and the lieutenant against the commoner. The crowd was a bit larger than the day before, and Sai felt he should stay in his appointed seat, to insure that he wouldn't obstruct anyone's view.

Lady Tsuyuki played well, but the stargazer was determined and obstinate, and he carefully picked away at her strategy. The lieutenant made the critical error of underestimating his opponent, and he was in far over his head before the game was half over. After a short break, then, it was the commoner Sanchi versus the stargazer.

Sai's hands were wrapped tightly around his fan during the whole game. Sanchi, who won black, made a bold and somewhat shocking first play of mokuhazushi, but he secured it well. Sai's stargazer was cautious, and didn't take anything for granted, but during midgame, he became more and more aggressive. Sanchi liked to make fast plays, which kept the stargazer guessing, and a bit off-balance. The rhythm of the game was unlike anything he'd experienced, and that worked only to his disadvantage. Sanchi's posture was also lacking, so he fidgeted a bit. It was the stargazer's own fault that he allowed himself to get distracted, so that wasn't an excuse, but the effect was the effect.

Once again, Sai saw it. Sanchi set an elaborate trap for the stargazer, using bold stones to entice the stargazer to try to secure large tracks of territory, but Sanchi quickly shut him out. The stargazer was wiser than Sanchi's opponent the day before. He conceded just at the right time. There was a large gasp of shock, but Sanchi just bowed sincerely, and then turned to bow to the Emperor.

Sai's eyes shone as he bowed to the winner. Applause rang out, and Sanchi became quite embarrassed. As the official, it was Sai's pleasure to announce the victory, and offer Sanchi his prize. He also bowed to his student, quickly moving to go over the game.

The assembly broke up, so Sai, unaware of the Emperor's gaze directed at his back, followed Sanchi out. He had to wait until they were in the outer courtyard to even address him, as Sanchi would only understand Japanese, but Sai immediately began by pressing the man to agree to come and play Sai himself.

"Sensei!" Sanchi laughed, rubbing the back of his neck. "I can feel good about my go, but playing you will make me more nervous than playing before the Emperor!"

"Nonsense," Sai shrugged off, completely ignorant of anything but securing for himself the game he needed. "In the universe on the goban, nothing exists save black and white."

That sobered Sanchi up, and he bowed low to Sai. "Very true, Sensei. Well. Then. I'll see you again, shall I?"

Sai was practically bursting with delight.


Tenryaku 1, the 16th day of the 12th month 29 january 948

Pacing back and forth, Sai held on tight to his elbows inside of his sleeves. The sky was bright but the air was still sharp with cold, and there was a lingering frost on the greenery. He walking in front of the main gate, and down the long road leading into the heart of the capital, but then turned again to continue his pacing. He looked up at the sky, measuring the pace of the sun.

Sanchi was definitely late!

Jirou was standing aside, close to the building. Perhaps smarter, but neither one of them was smart, even if it was at least a bit warmer than it had been. He looked down the road again, and saw a lone figure approaching. He froze, staring intently until it was clear that it was, in fact, his opponent. He rushed right out the gate, going to meet him. "You're late!" Sai complained while Sanchi was still far off, but the other man just laughed.

"You're so eager, Sensei! That makes me happy," Sanchi teased him easily. "Calm down, calm down, I came as soon as I could!"

Sai huffed, frustrated. He grabbed Sanchi's sleeve and pulled him along as a child rushing a parent might. "Fine, fine, but come on, let's go!" He marched a laughing Sanchi into the Fujiwara estate and past a darkly glaring Jirou, to whom he paid no attention whatsoever.

In the courtyard of their estate, several of his family members and their servants were busy at the business of their clan, which was, essentially, running the country. Sai was intent only on getting Sanchi to the go salon, but he knew they weren't alone, and that those around them were paying attention to them. Once they were in the salon, though, Jirou closed the door, and Sai brought Sanchi to the goban. Finally! Feeling triumphant, he sat down heavily on his side of the goban and beamed up at Sanchi. "Sit down, sit down! Jirou will bring refreshments." He waved to Jirou quickly. "Let's nigiri."

Sanchi grinned, and sat down, legs folded in front of him. He took a bowl, and set the lid aside. "All right. Let's go." Sai won black, which caused Sanchi to shake his head and moan. "Ah, you're going to win again, Sensei!"

"Good," Sai grinned. "I don't like to lose."

"Ah, but you can learn as much from loss as you can from victory," Sanchi retorted, affecting an older and presumably wiser voice.

Sai responded by sticking his tongue out.

As always, Sanchi played fast, putting his stones down nearly as soon as Sai put his down. As always, Sai complained to him. "Stop rushing the game! Take time to think, think!"

"It's about instinct, isn't it, Sensei? Especially early in the game! C'mon, hurry up!" Sanchi laughed. "Just feel the stones. Don't analyze so much!"

"If you analyzed more, you'd never lose," Sai bemoaned.

"You hate to lose," Sanchi laughed, replying as quickly as he played. "You'd stop inviting me over to play, then."

Sai just shook his head.

They finished their first game quickly, due to Sanchi's breakneck pace. Sai, of course, won, but they took nearly as long discussing the game as they had played it, at times getting quite heated with each other. Then Sai suggested a challenge. They had been playing like this quite frequently since they'd gotten used to each other's game. Making things more and more difficult, just to see if they could. Playing to tie, for example, or playing with only white stones, or playing with no stones at all. Today, Sai had Jirou move over the other goban, and they played two games at once, one game as black and the other as white. They tried to match pace so that they were laying stones constantly. This satisfied both Sanchi's desire to play fast and Sai's desire to play with strength. After that, they pulled in another goban, and for the third, they both played black and white, just playing the color that was next to play at each turn.

Sai brought out a kifu, then, of a match held a few years ago between Sai's teacher and a Chinese champion. They recreated the game, poring over every hand. Once again, their discussion became heated, but in the end, they agreed on the main points as to why the Chinese champion won.

Jirou had to actually pull on Sai's sleeve to get his attention. His eyes were dark and hooded. "Master, it is time to prepare for the recital tonight at the palace."

"Ah, there's another one," Sai sighed, his shoulders slumping.

"Master!" Jirou hissed, reprimanding.

Sai's back stiffened, and he pouted, which caused Sanchi to laugh. "Well, of course I enjoy them... the music is always beautiful. But this is the third time this month!" Sai threw his arms up.

"You pout just exactly like my daughter does!" Sanchi roared with laughter.

Sai flushed, opening his fan to cover his face. He didn't like being compared to a small child! It was a strange thought, though. The way Sanchi spoke of his children... a session never failed to elicit a comment or two. Sai found it, well, fascinating. He wanted to see Sanchi's house. Sanchi had described it rather fully, and to Sai, it was like hearing tales of China or faraway India. To Sanchi, while he loved go, he also loved his work, and he loved his wife, and he loved his children.

That was very interesting to Sai. Honestly, if he could, and he did try, he would convince Sanchi to become a retainer to the Fujiwara clan. In a sense, Sai wanted to be able to observe and study him at all times and in all lights.

Sanchi looked out toward the door, and asked, his voice a bit tense, "I suppose many of your family will be at the palace tonight, too?"

Sai tilted his head to the side, confused by the question. "Well. Most of my family works in the palace. Some will be at the recital. I don't know how many were invited. Sometimes, the Emperor likes large audiences, and sometimes, he likes very small audiences."

"But you're always there? Wah... the Emperor must really like go!" Sanchi marveled.

Sai just smiled. "I'm fortunate that the Emperor is so supportive. Otherwise, the tournament would never have been open to residents of the capital, and we would never had met."

"That would be sad!" Sanchi agreed, pointing at Sai. "But I bet your relatives would have been happier! Anytime I'm here, they're always watching. Must be quite a topic for discussion."

Sai waved his fan dismissively. "Ah, if they outlawed gossip in the capital, no one would be able to think of a thing to say."

"True, true!" Sanchi laughed. "What sort of things do they say about you, though? I feel like I'm tarnishing you! Always so prim and noble and beautiful... honestly, Sensei, it's discouraging for an ordinary man like me! I think, I should be more like him, but there's just no way!"

A blush stole quickly over his cheeks, embarrassingly. Sanchi said the most outrageous things sometimes! "You'd be surprised by the things they say about me. I'm sorry, but it is time to go." He stood, indicating to Sanchi that he should follow Sai out a different door than they had entered. "Let us go out this way. I do believe the kitchen had an excess of fish; I am embarrassed to burden you, but take some for your family. And please give my regards to your wife and children." The fish were already in a basket, covered with a few robes for Sanchi's family.

Sanchi bowed to Sai, laughing. "Of course, of course! You'll be all we'll talk about tonight," he said with a wink, causing Sai to blush again.

Sanchi really had to stop doing that!

He showed Sanchi out, and then quickly followed a grumpy Jirou. Once they were in his private chambers, he let Jirou push and prod him around, getting him ready for the palace recital. Under his breath, Jirou grumbled, "To think, you compensate that man to play you. If anyone knew the Emperor's instructor had to bribe..."

Sai cut him off, sighing. "He has to give up jobs to come here. He's an even player to me, Jirou; you know that, even if no one else does. He's the only even player I know. If only I could get him to play me more seriously..." Sai practically vibrated with anticipation. If he could...! He felt like he was closer to the Divine Move than he'd ever dreamed possible, but unless he could devote his entire being into one game...

Jirou roughly tugged him around, tying off his obi. "Master, do remember that you're going back to the Emperor's realm now. Please try to stay focused."

"Yes, yes," Sai sighed. Honestly, though, there was no winning. If he didn't come home tonight, as was likely since he hadn't after the other two recitals, either, Jirou would lecture him then, too!


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!"