[Shan]

May. 5th, 2015 12:01 am
answer_key: (igobu)
[personal profile] answer_key
The Tale of Hikaru: The Arrival at Court




Hikaru was surveying the rice fields on the eastern slope (or really, old-man Jirou was, with Hikaru accompanying him for show), when Takamaro came running towards them, bouncing down the hill like a frightened rabbit.

He stopped by their side, barely, tufts of grass dislodged off the wet ground under his sliding feet. Immediately, Jirou scolded him for such recklessness, while Takamaro was still gasping for breath.

“S-sorry grandfather, b-but… a messenger came!” Takamaro managed to get out finally, his eyes round as plates in his small round face. “From Kyoto!” he said the last in a hushed, awed voice. Then Takamaro looked at Hikaru, still with that wide-eyed expression.

“And, mistress sent me to get you. She, ah, wanted me to hurry.”

“Ok,” Hikaru replied dubiously. Why would they get a message from the capital? Maybe father’s lord had returned there, though last he heard they’d been visiting some province or another, implied to be a long visit by the way his grandfather had been shaking his head at the news. Hikaru didn’t really understand much about politics, but apparently all the nobles wanted to stay at the capital as much as possible.

His father didn’t send messages all that often, if he had it was probably something important.

When he got to the house, there was a horse stamping in the yard, surrounded by a gaggle of awed onlookers, both servants and people Hikaru vaguely recognized as living in the nearest village.

When he arrived most turned to look at him, freezing him briefly in his steps. He hurried past them, feeling the expectant gazes following him and wondering what that was all about. As he stepped to the porch, he could hear his mother’s voice, sounding distressed.

“But… Hikaru? He’s way too young, what could Masao have been thinking--” she was interrupted by grandfather:

“Mitsu, really! Of course he had no say in it, and for his lord to be asked by Fujiwara of the Konoe family, that’s an unexpected honour, to be sure!”

“Eh, what’s going on?” Hikaru asked, stepping in to the room. Immediately, all three occupants turned towards him. He got a quick impression of the messenger as a boy about his age, before his mother let out a cry.

“Hikaru!” she gestured at him in wordless agitation, which caused Hikaru to look down at himself. Ah, maybe he should have at least washed the mud off his feet. But it was just a messenger, right?

Mother was leaning her face in her hands and muttering something.

“Should say he is ill… dead, perhaps… terrible shame for the family…” Hikaru caught, before she broke down into tears.

“There there, Mitsu. It’ll be fine,” grandfather assured her, patting her shoulder. He was tearing up as well. “Imagine, our Hikaru serving at court, personal body-guard like his father and grandfather before him!”

Hikaru’s mother only sobbed harder.

*

They arrived to the capital in the evening. It had taken a while to prepare Hikaru with supplies and clothing his mother deemed appropriate to wear at court, and then several days of travel from their country estate to the capital.

The way over to Kyoto had been fun, actually, even if Hikaru wasn’t really used to riding horses. He and the messenger, Tsutsui no Kintou, had become friends along the way.

Tsutsui was working as a guard at the palace, so he’d been able to coach Hikaru on the way on how to behave at court. At least, he’d tried, and Hikaru figured out he’d caught the gist of it, even if Tsutsui seemed a bit dubious.

Once he arrived, he’d first been met by the captain of the palace guard, Kaga no Morozumi, who’d given another introduction to the life of a guard at the palace. It had involved a lot more shouting than Tsutsui’s, but Hikaru hadn’t let himself be intimidated by that.

In fact, he had felt pretty confident about it all until he was actually pushed into a room, late in the evening. There were bright lanterns shining in his eyes and behind them a crowd of shadowed, elaborately dressed strangers perusing him like his mother might have looked at wares of dubious quality presented by a travelling craftsman.

Hikaru shuffled his feet uncertainly, before Tsutsui coughed pointedly behind him at the doorway, prompting Hikaru to jump a bit and bend down into a bow.

“Greetings… my lords and, uh, ladies? Shindou no Hikaru, at your service!” he muttered, flushing, and his voice rising too loud at the end, causing him to wince inwardly.

Somewhere behind the shades at the side, there was a cloud of soft feminine titters, and then hushed whispering, followed by more laughter, as Hikaru flushed a deeper red.

Glancing up from his bow, Hikaru could see movement from one of the shadowed figures ahead of him, leaning towards another and muttering “He’s even more of a country bumpkin than I expected, this ought to be amusing indeed…” before they were strictly waved away by the figure in the middle.

“Shindou,” he spoke, and Hikaru’s spine straightened at the low, cold tones. It sounded like he imagined a snake might, if one could speak. “You’ll be serving Fujiwara no Sai. His safety and life will be your responsibility from this moment on. Understood?”

Hikaru nodded. He wouldn’t have dared to do otherwise.

“Very well. You will go to him at once.”

And with that, he was apparently dismissed, though he could hear a storm of whispers and even laughter rising behind him as he escaped back to the hallway.

Tsutsui patted him on the back commiseratingly.

“Buck up Hikaru, it could have gone worse!” he said, though Hikaru got the feeling he was being coddled.

“Do you know this Sai person?” Hikaru asked, trying his best to sound casually curious. If he was anything like those people…

Tsutsui frowned. “Well, I’ve heard of him.” he replied, hesitating at the end. “Of course we don’t exactly mix with the nobles, and I wouldn’t want to repeat rumours…”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Hikaru asked, now even more alarmed.

Before Yoshitaka had time to answer, they were interrupted by the appearance of a tall, pale nobleman. Tsutsui immediately bowed down, and pulled Hikaru down into one as well.

“Lord Michimasa!” Tsutsui greeted. “I’ve been tasked to present the new bodyguard, Hikaru no Shindou, to lord Sai, would you know if he is present?”

“To lord Sai?” Hikaru straightened up, and found that he was being scrutinized with a sharp, curious gaze. Then the lord frowned slightly, giving him a cold sort of look that had Hikaru bristling. What was he to these nobles, a troublesome insect? It wasn’t as if he’d decided to come here on his own!

“I see,” lord Michimasa muttered, gazing into the distance as if he’d already mentally dismissed Hikaru, before giving him another cold look. “He can wait at his apartments if he’s not present,” he said shortly before brushing past them.

“What’s his problem?” Hikaru muttered to Tsutsui, who shushed him, glancing behind them at the departing nobleman.

“You don’t want to get on Ogata no Michimasa’s bad side Hikaru!” he hissed. “For one, he’s close to your new employer. Or so I’ve heard.”

“Oh,” Hikaru said, deflating a bit. He was looking forward to meeting this Fujiwara no Sai less and less, if that was an example of his friends.

Tsutsui sighed, rubbing at his temple. “Best to get this over with… follow me, and try to make note of the way, the palace can be a bit difficult to navigate at the start.” he told Hikaru with a tired smile. It reminded Hikaru that it had been several days of travel, and it was late in the evening. He nodded, smothering a yawn as he trudged behind Tsutsui.

The apartment they arrived at was empty, so Tsutsui left Hikaru to wait there at the doorway.

He looked around briefly, but there wasn’t much of interest. The room contained a bedroll, a writing table and supplies, a decorated robe hanging on the far wall along with some fans, scrolls lying in a neat pile and a go board. Hikaru’s grandfather had one as well, old and slightly scuffed. Apparently he’d inherited it from the lord he’d used to guard.

Hikaru yawned, glancing longingly at the empty bedroll. Maybe if he just lied down for a moment here in the doorway and rest for a moment…

*

Something struck him in the side, and then there was a cry of surprise followed by a crushing weight. Hikaru flailed awake, or tried to, except he was still pinned to the floor by the weight, and there was some kind of cloth over his face.

“Ow.” he muttered, voice coming out muffled.

His sluggish, awakening brain became aware of two things around the same time. Firstly, someone had tripped over him and secondly, he could smell something burning. Not good.

“Fire!” Hikaru shouted, trying to push off the person still lying across his chest.

They made an alarmed sound, clambered over him (Hikaru getting a stray knee in the stomach in the process, ow). He got up anyway, squinting to see more than darkness and a small leaping flame (not good not good). Water? No, not available, what else… right! Hikaru quickly pulled off his heavy travelling coat and shook it out quickly, before laying it over the flame.

Immediately they were cast back into darkness, one smelling faintly of scorched wool.

“Oh dear,” said a voice, sounding distinctively shaken. “What in the heavens…”

They were interrupted by a sound of running footsteps and then, for the second time that night, someone tripped over Hikaru, this time holding a pail of water. Which was in turn dumped all over him.

The person who’d been running cursed, and then demanded:
“I heard the shout, where’s the fire?”

“You have bad aim!” Hikaru snapped, hurting, woozy and now wet to boot.

“It’s quite all right! I believe the fire has been doused already… hopefully.” the first voice spoke out, sounding placating.

“Waya?” a fourth voice called out, and Hikaru turned towards where a man carrying a lamp was moving towards them along the hallway.

“Looks to be dealt with!” the man with the pail called back.

Some others peeked out from their rooms as well, asking about the fire, and were placated. One of them took the time to glare at Hikaru, who glared back at him.

The man with the lamp stopped at the doorway, blinking at the group gathered there. He looked especially long at Hikaru who was still glowering at all and sundry.

“What happened, if I may ask?” the man asked tentatively.

“Ah, well, I… I’m not entirely sure, Isumi…”

It was the guy who’d woken him. He was sitting slightly further in the room, looking somewhat bewildered.

“This guy tripped on me!” Hikaru exclaimed.

“Well, you… why were you lying in the doorway in the dark anyway?” The man demanded indignantly.

“I was sleeping! Waiting for some stupid lord to arrive…”

He trailed off, adding two and two together. “You… wouldn’t happen to be Fujiwara no Sai?” he asked. The man nodded. Hikaru wondered if he could claim to have meant some other stupid lord.

“I… see,” lord Sai replied. Then he sighed, and smothered a yawn behind a hand. “Perhaps we can sort this out in the morning, I’m sure… I’m sure it will keep,” he blinked at Hikaru, looking a bit like a perplexed owl.

“I’ll be heading off to sleep as well, unless there’s anything you require help with, lord Sai?” Waya asked, giving Hikaru an ambiqous sort of glance. “Perhaps lead this one to the…”

He trailed off expectantly, and it took Hikaru a moment to first understand he was expected to say something and then think of what to say.

“Uh, guards? I mean, I’m supposed to be that guy’s… lord Sai’s bodyguard?”

All three of them looked surprised.

“But I didn’t hear anything about this?!” lord Sai cried out, and someone in the next room irritably told him to lower his voice. “I mean to say…”

Hikaru saw the two other men glancing at one another, some kind of message seeming to move between them. It was the one with the lamp, Isumi, who spoke, addressing Hikaru.

“Who was it who sent for you?”

“Uh… Fujiwara no Masanori of the Konoe family?” he muttered, only recalling the name because both his mother and Tsutsui had kept talking about him and how important he supposedly was, being the go instructor for the emperor and a member of the most important branch of the Fujiwara or some such.

There was another meaningful glance between the two men. Hikaru wished they would stop doing that.

Sai frowned, seeming to ponder the matter, and then shrugged, still looking confused.

“I can’t see how it’s necessary; really…” he gave Hikaru a concerned look. “But I suppose sending you back… ah, it really is best if we consider it all tomorrow. After some sleep,” he yawned again. Hikaru had to stifle his own yawn.

“We’ll take care of that,” Isumi said, and then Hikaru found himself grabbed by the elbow by the shorter man, Waya, and decisively removed from the scene. Behind him, he could hear Isumi cheerfully wishing a good night to lord Sai, and a sleepy reply, and then footsteps following him and Waya.

“Oy, I can walk on my own!” Hikaru complained, but only got a distracted hum in reply.

“Say, Waya, why don’t we take a shortcut over the yard towards the guard’s quarters?” Isumi suggested, his voice low enough to be quiet without being a whisper.

“Eh? Ah, I see. Yes, of course,” Waya replied, and at the next doorway the three of them veered out, exiting the house to a large inner courtyard containing a garden.

The moon was out, throwing long shadows over the landscape. In the silvery light, Hikaru couldn’t help thinking it all looked a bit eerie. This didn’t seem to concern the two men, as they decisively stepped off the veranda and took the path over the garden, winding between the sparse trees.

Around the middle there was a small pond, the stream leading to it crossed by a curving bridge. Hikaru could still see the dark form of the house in the distance, but the night-time hush made the spot seem deserted.

There, Waya and Isumi stopped, turning to look at him. Where the yellow glow of the lantern didn’t reach, the shadows on their faces seemed even darker, despite the moonlight.

It suddenly occurred to Hikaru that he had been dragged out of immediate sight and hearing by two strangers in the middle of the night. And they were looking at him in a… not exactly threatening way, but not friendly either.

“Um, what’s going on?” he asked.

“That’s what I’d like to know!” Waya replied sharply. “Masanori is no friend of Sai’s, so whatever play he’s making here…”

“How should I know, I just arrived!” Hikaru argued back, getting a feeling he was accused for something, though not sure what.

“Waya,” Isumi interrupted him, gently admonishing. “We just wanted to talk with you,” he added conciliatorily. “It’s a lot, isn’t it, being thrown into the court so suddenly. I was certainly confused!” he said with a small laugh.

“…yes,” Hikaru agreed sulkily.

“Where did you come from? I spent my early childhood in Ise, and recall it very fondly…” Isumi continued, sounding idly curious.

“Well, I…”

Finally, someone who spoke to him like an actual person, Hikaru thought with relief as he talked about his grandfather’s home. Isumi made soft, interested noises, and by the time they eventually reached his new quarters, Hikaru found he had told the entire story from the arrival of the message to arriving at court.

It was only much later that Hikaru realized Isumi had been motivated by anything but honest curiosity, and that their friendly discussion had really been a skilful interrogation, to see if he was in on some nefarious plan set against Sai.

By then he couldn’t even blame him, knowing what sort of poisonous enemies Sai had.

Well, he did a little anyway. Isumi could be a bit of snake himself, when he wanted to be. Hikaru supposed it came from having been at court for too long, or something.

*

Sai was staring at him with something like horror, the game he’d been playing momentarily forgotten.

“Not… not interested?!” his voice rose indignantly, and Hikaru winced a little, before shrugging.

“Like I said, my grandfather tried to teach me… anyway, I’m supposed to just guard, right?” he said, doing his best to sound conciliatory.

However, Sai would have none of that.

“Have you ever even seen a proper game of go?” he asked accusingly. “You can’t just dismiss it based on such little experience! Really, I… oh, I’m so sorry,” he interrupted himself at the polite but firm clearing of a throat from his opponent.

Oh great, Hikaru thought, as he was glared at by one Kamo no Akira. Presumably for interrupting the game, since the boy had been completely ignoring his presence so far. Onmyoji or not, he could not be older than Hikaru, so that seemed a bit much.

And all he’d done was to yawn in the middle of their game… and, admittedly, make the mistake of admitting he didn’t find it all that interesting. Should have just said he’d slept badly, which was also true.

“I apologise for not providing a better example,” Akira said quietly, hair swinging into his face as he bowed down over the board.

“Now, I didn’t mean to…”

“I appreciate your teaching, lord Sai,” Akira continued smoothly, “but I understand such a game can hardly be of interest to the unitiated.”

Hikaru bristled, being able to sense a subtle insult when he heard one, especially with the sideways glare Akira had thrown his way.

“Furthermore, I’m afraid my duties call me elsewhere. Thank you for the game.”

With that, and another terse bow, Kamo no Akira swept away.

Sai tapped his fan against his chin, frowning down at the game on the board. “Most vexing…” he muttered.

“What is?” Hikaru asked, before he realized lord Sai probably hadn’t spoken to him. Luckily he still seemed distracted by whatever he was seeing in the game.

“Kamo. He has such potential, and yet something is holding him back,” Sai sighed, shaking his head ruefully. “The right opponent, perhaps...” he mused, seeming to talk more to himself than Hikaru.

Then, his gaze turned towards Hikaru, seeming to really focus on him for the first time. Perhaps the first time since their meeting. It was… unexpectedly intimidating.

“Now, what was this about not being interested in go again?”

*

As it turned out, Hikaru and Fujiwara no Sai were almost equally stubborn people. The more Sai insisted that Hikaru would find go interesting if he just tried his hand at it, the more Hikaru resisted the idea. Their arguments on the subject became an immediate source of jests at court, to the delight of Fujiwara no Masanori and his inner circle and to the dismay of many of Sai’s admirers.

Hikaru only wondered why Ogata no Michimasa seemed to want to murder him with looks.

The only person who seemed entirely unconcerned (besides Hikaru, who was yet mostly unaware of being the butt of a joke) was lord Sai himself. Not that he hadn’t noticed, but as long as he got to play go, things like that didn’t concern him overmuch.

Though he did wish Ogata would stop taking it all so personally. It was distracting him from his game, Sai thought irritably as he found his opponent glaring at his bodyguard. Again.

And as for Hikaru, Sai thought with a smile that he hid behind his fan, if he thought Sai hadn’t noticed how he’d started to follow the games more intently of recent… only a matter of time, after all. Now if only he’d admit to it already!

*

Slowly, the summer turned towards autumn. Hikaru gradually got used to the life at court, for all that most of the nobles continued to snicker behind his back or glare at him. Lord Sai, he’d decided soon after arriving, was a good sort for the most part, for being a noble. Waya and Isumi were not too bad either.

He’d even, by happenstance; found out that one of the ladies in attendance was an old childhood friend of his. They hadn’t been able to speak much, as it was apparently considered improper, but she seemed to be doing well.

Even she played go, though apparently her friend Nase was better at it, according to Akari. Absolutely everyone seemed to, here. And, apparently, there was some kind of great rivalry between lord Masanori and lord Sai, at least as seen by lord Masanori.

“Lord Sai, I think, simply wants to play go, but lord Masanori has been the emperor’s instructor much longer, and sees him as a threat… but don’t tell anyone I said that,” Akari had told him during one of their brief discussions over the upper half of a screen door.

Eventually, Hikaru asked Tsutsui to learn him go, as long as he promised not to make noise about it, as he couldn’t stand the thought of Sai crowing about it after everything. Kaga made some noise about wasting time and distractions from work the first time he caught them at it, and then joined in the game.

One morning, as Hikaru was heading toward’s Sai’s room, there were a lot of servants running around. Hikaru spotted Tsutsui, who was frowning at two servants struggling with an ornate carriage, and greeted him.

“What’s going on?” he asked, and Tsutsui sighed.

“Temple visit the day before next, they’ll be gone for some time… all too sudden, really. But can’t complain, I suppose,” he muttered.

There was a loud crash and some yelling, as the servants dropped the heavy carriage, and Tsutsui winced.

“Excuse me I better check nothing’s broken… oh, you should ask lord Sai if he’s going!” he told Hikaru before bustling away.

However, when Hikaru arrived at the room, he found Sai looking wan and unrested. Hikaru just assumed he’d been up too late playing a game or just woolgathering, since it happened quite often. And to think some people at court talked about how romantic he was. Really. One time he’d dropped his hat in the lake after a party.

When Kamo no Akira arrived for their game that day Hikaru kept catching him giving worried glances at Sai.

Sai, of course, noticed too.

“I slept badly, is all,” he told the boy with a mildly amused smile.

Akira nodded, but his lips were pressed into a thin, unhappy line. Sometimes Hikaru felt perhaps he should have been lord Sai’s bodyguard, with all the worrying he did. Him and lord Michimasa… except no, lord Michimasa didn’t really seem bodyguard material, on second though.

The next morning, Hikaru found Sai still in deep sleep, and fuzzy and irritable when he woke.

When he was no better the next morning, Sai announced he was ill and would not be travelling to the temple. Several people offered to stay behind with him, but were summarily waved away.

All except Kamo no Akira, who had politely hovered back until the rest of the crowd was gone, only to appear after with a stubborn glint in his grey eyes.

Hikaru saw Sai noticing that, and the exhausted sigh that followed, and wondered if he would get in trouble if he just picked up the onmyoji and dropped him in the garden pond. Bothering Sai when he was already ill, the nerve of him!

“I’ve bad feeling about this,” Akira said with little preamble.

Sai seemed to visible gather himself from the tired slump he’d started to fall into.

“I suppose that would be your expertise,” he replied politely, though clearly strained around the edges.

The onmyoji gave him an inscrutable look.

“I would rather stay behind, but I was specially requested to follow by lord Masanori in the company of his highness,” he said.

By now, Hikaru knew enough to realize that meant not going would be considered an insult which lord Masanori, being a particularly proud (and unpleasant, Hikaru thought privately) nobleman, would never let him forget.

“I see,” Sai said wanly. “Thank you, but I do think it would be unnecessary in any case.”

“I would, at least, recommend a change of rooms, though I am not sure…” Akira hesitated, which was uncommon enough to surprise Hikaru. “It could be beneficial.”

Sai sighed again.

“If you say so,” he agreed mournfully.

Hikaru dismissed it then, but when evening fell and he was lying in bed trying to sleep Akira’s words came back to haunt him. He didn’t know much about… spirits and the supernatural, but Kamo no Akira was supposed to. And besides, he was fond of lord Sai, in his own way. Which might mean he was worrying for nothing, onmyoji or not, but what if he wasn’t…

After tossing and turning for what seemed like several hours, Hikaru got up with a silent huff, pulled on his outer jacket and walked over to Sai’s room. If he could only see that all was well, maybe he could finally sleep himself.

It was the middle of the night, with no moon, so the walk across the garden was especially unpleasant. Several times, Hikaru almost turned back, but a strange feeling of foreboding pressed him on.
The corridor and Sai’s room were likewise dark and quiet. Hikaru didn’t even hear anyone snoring or shifting in their sleep, which was actually rather unusual… still, it seemed like everything was—

And then, he heard the familiar click of a go stone on the board, almost echoing in the silence.

But, Sai’s room was dark, even he wouldn’t play with the lights off, would he?

With every hair standing on end, Hikaru crept closer.

“S-Sai?” he called out, voice shaking. There was another click of a stone on wood, but no other reply, so after another hesitation, he peered into the room.

The first thing he registered was a strange smell, earthy and rotten, and an almost stinging cold, the sort that was painful to breathe in.

There was Sai, sitting next to the board, but Hikaru’s eyes were immediately drawn to his opponent, shaped like a human, but with an unnatural glow to her pale clothing and skin.

She had bedraggled hair that fell in limp, dark strands over her clothes, some sticking to an emaciated face. Suddenly, she looked straight at Hikaru, and he could see her eyes had a milky sheen, and like the rest of her they glowed like a covered paper lantern.

He tried to scream, but the sound seemed to lodge in his throat. The apparition smiled, almost coyly, and reached out to place a stone on the board. Her nails were black and sharp looking, where they grasped the stone. The board was almost fully covered, Hikaru realized amidst his mounting horror. He tried to scream again, or move, or do something, but it was like the air itself had turned to lead. Just breathing seemed an effort.

The ghostly figure smiled again, but this time at Sai, reaching a skeletal hand towards him, a grasping sort of gesture. Sai’s eyes were closed, and in the ghostly bluish glow from the spirit he looked almost dead as well. In the unnatural silence, Hikaru could hear his breath coming in short, rasping inhalations. Yet, his face remained slack and unaware.

As he placed another stone, the ghost followed the gesture hungrily, leaning towards him…

Hikaru had been struggling against whatever was holding him in place. At that moment, he suddenly felt as though he had torn free of something.

On instinct, he crawled towards the go board, reaching out to it. There was a horrible screech, and Hikaru felt as if he’d been encased in ice, cold enough to burn. He faltered and fell forward as everything went dark, even the ghostly glow blinking out.

*

Hikaru woke up slowly, everything seemingly wreathed in a haze of exhaustion. At first, he could only see a sort of blob of dark and lighter colours leaning over him, before it solidified into a face. Kamo no Akira’s face, to be precise. Hikaru blinked. Hadn’t he gone with the nobles?

For that matter, wasn’t there something more important…

“…ghost!” Hikary managed to say, and tried to sit up, only to find his body sluggish and resisting. He flopped back down, peering in confusion at his chest and the narrow, elegant hand that had been placed there to hold him down.

Kamo no Akira cleared his throat daintily and took his hand back, before frowning down at Hikaru.

“Don’t try to move yet, you just fought a vengeful spirit,” he said in a dry, matter of fact tone as if things like that happened every day. Perhaps for him they did, Hikaru thought sourly.

“Is… is Sai ok?” he asked, and Akira turned towards something at the side, prompting Hikaru to do the same, albeit more laboriously.

Sai was lying in his bed, pale and with shadows under his eyes.

“He’s still sleeping,” Akira said, his voice habitually controlled, but with a certain tightness to it.

Hikaru looked at him, at the tense brows that belied his calm.

“Is he going to wake up?” he asked tentatively, hating how young he sounded.

Akira turned to him again, expression smoothing out. He looked tired too, Hikaru thought suddenly, if not as much as Sai… or how he himself felt, he noted with a yawn.

“He should, though it must have been very close. I decided to return after all, but would certainly have been too late.” Akira said softly, the last said in a mutter that seemed more to himself than Hikaru.

“You did well, knocking down the board,” he added, though he was frowning down at Hikaru again.

“Did I?” Hikaru asked.

“Didn’t you?” Akira repeated, blinking.

“I… think I might have tried to, but then I passed out and…”

There was a strange, stifled noise, and as Hikaru looked up, he saw the usually serious onmyoji was very nearly laughing, his grey eyes creased and the corners of his mouth bending upwards. He’d raised a hand as if to hide it, the long fingers almost brushing his lower lip.

He looked much younger, like this, and Hikaru blinked, not sure why the sigh… well, it was a strange feeling it gave him.

“You… you must have knocked it down as you fell!” Akira said, and clamped the hand over his mouth, the giggles escaping out nevertheless.

“Oy! I could have done it on purpose!” Hikaru protested, the strange feeling gone away again,, mostly.

They both turned towards the back of the room as there was an indistinct but protesting mumble from Sai’s direction, causing Akira to dash over to him and try to wake him further.

Sai didn’t sound at all happy about it, but Hikaru could tell by the lessening tension in the line of Akira’s back that this was a good thing.

He allowed himself to slump back on the floor. There was, at least, a pillow under his head, so it was quite comfortable, he thought idly as he drifted back to sleep. Halfway between awake and asleep, he heard Akira’s voice, sounding scolding and relieved at once, and Sai’s irate reply, but the words themselves were blurred, and soon enough he fell completely into sleep.

*

“Nase, are you… oh, I’m so sorry.”

The two women turned towards her, Akari blushing in embarrassment as she saw just who Nase’s visitor was.

“Lady Aki! I really didn’t mean to interrupt…”

Lady Aki smiled, a shy, gentle expression.

“Oh, it’s quite alright, we were only discussing the game,” she said, and at the other side of the board Nase grinned at Akari. She had a certain glow about her she always got after a particularly enjoyable game of go.

“Yes, it was a most lovely game!” she chirped. “I can certainly see who it was who taught Lord Sai the game.”

Lady Aki raised a pale, small hand to hide a smile.

“Oh no, that child has certainly outgrown his mother a long time ago…” she said, sounding proud despite the wistful words.

Nase waved Akari in, and after glancing timidly at Lady Aki and receiving another smile she sat between them, listening as they finished their discussion on the game. They made a curious contrast, Nase with her lively, at times too bold gestures and Lady Aki’s gentle restraint. Like looking at summer and autumn conversing, Akari thought.

Lady Aki had only arrived at court very recently, and was famed to have been something of a hermit for several years previous. Akari had even heard a rumour it was because her younger son had been kidnapped and disappeared as an infant, which she thought sounded a bit too fabulous to be true. Though it would explain why she seemed so sad sometimes…

Be that as it may, she was a pleasant, elegant lady. Perhaps only more elegant for the tragic aura that seemed to surround her. Nase had laughed at her when Akari had told her that, she remembered with some embarrassment.

At some point, Nase raised her head and exclaimed at the darkening light.

“Oh, I didn’t realize it was so late, we’ve missed the evening feast entirely…”

“Yes,” Akari said, only slightly pointedly. It had only been a small thing, to welcome the nobles returning from the temple visit, but without Nase there she’d been stuck next to Lady Matsu all evening, and had to nod along to her not particularly amusing witticisms. Sei Shonagon she was not, though she might imagine herself so…

“Anything interesting happen?” Nase asked, with an apologetic glance her way.

“Not particularly. Oh, except lord Michimasa challenging lord Sai to a game…”

“Doesn’t that happen every day?” Nase said dryly. “Sometimes several times.”

“Yes, except they were both terribly drunk! I do believe it added a certain element of excitement even for the onlookers. At one point, lord Sai actually placed a stone wrong, and I’m not sure which of them was more dismayed!”

Nase was laughing, and even Lady Aki was smiling, even while she was shaking her head.

“I do worry for him sometimes, such an impetuous person at court…” she said.

Nase and Akari glanced at one another. It was true that lord Sai was not popular with all of the nobles at court; especially within the group surrounding the emperor’s other go teacher. Still…

“He is… kind, though,” Nase said, thoughtfully. “Except in go, perhaps,” she amended.

Lady Aki sighed, smiling at her wistfully.

“Oh, I know…”

Perhaps that worried her as well, Akari reflected.

“He tells me he has a bodyguard now, a boy called Hikaru, I believe. Only saw him briefly, but they do seem… similar, in some ways,” Lady Aki remarked, causing Nase to have to smother a giggle.

“Don’t let lord Michimasa hear you say that…!” she exclaimed, before getting herself under control again. “Oh, but he is something of a troublemaker indeed. Makes things interesting,” she said cheerfully.

“That reminds me, I heard he has started to learn go from Kamo no Akira,” Akari dared to say, causing Nase to look at her in surprise.

“Akira? Truly? How did that happen?”

“Well, Kaneko wrote me that one of her admirers told her lord Akira simply dragged him away for lessons the other day. That is, you know how Hikaru is pretending not to care for the game…” Akari added with an eye roll.

They’d grown up in neighbouring provinces and met a few times growing up. It only emphasised what a child he could still be, really. As if everyone didn’t know about his “secret” lessons.

“Perhaps lord Sai bribed him,” Nase suggested with a laugh. “We’ll see how long Akira can bear it, though…”

“Oh, indeed…” Akari agreed. She liked Hikaru, but his company was not for the faint of heart.

What they didn’t know, though, was that it had been a bet, rather than a bribe. And perhaps even Sai hadn’t quite realized what he started, bringing the two and go together.

At that moment, as Nase and Akari continued to discuss the various happenings at court, lady Aki glanced over at the screen towards the garden. There, a figure carrying a lantern was passing by, obscured by the trees. His lilac robes stood out pale against the settling gloom of the evening, and something about the profile glimpsed behind a fall of dark hair struck her as eerily familiar.

Before she could quite grasp what it was, the figure had already disappeared, and a concerned voice called her attention back to the room.

“Are you well?” Akari asked, “You look as though you’ve seen a ghost… oh,” she turned pale suddenly. “I heard lord Sai was attacked by one recently, what if…”

Lady Aki laughed, trying to shake the strange feeling that had grasped her for a moment.

“Oh no…” she began, but Akari already seemed set on a course.

“I’ll send a letter to Kamo no Akira tomorrow, he’ll be sure to look into it. Sai is his teacher, after all!” she said decisively.

She didn’t say it aloud, but she’d long felt those two acted rather like brothers, and that Sai was the closest thing Akira had to family he actually liked. He’d certainly want to see that Sai’s mother was not plagued by any malicious spirits.

“It can’t do any harm,” Nase added calmly, before lady Aki had time to assure them it wasn’t necessary.

“Yes, I suppose so,” she agreed tentatively. “And… I’ve heard so much about this onmyoji already, but have yet to even see him once. That will at least be interesting.”

“Oh, certainly,” Nase agreed idly.

*

Date: 2015-05-08 06:29 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I really like this a lot so far, I hope there'll be more later. The scene with the ghost was quite chilly (and worrisome... I doubt that ghost just happened to appear in Sai's room.) Waiting with interest how the story will proceed...

-Go-

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