Sep. 20th, 2014 10:20 am
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[personal profile] answer_key
A Letter Home

In the quiet of the sleeping palace Sai was writing a letter to her mother. She had shadowed her lamp so she wouldn’t disturb the lady-in-waiting who shared her room and was already fast asleep, and it shed its dim light only on her letter, and the pastel-colored sleeves of her under robes – the over-robe she had already taken off. At times she paused from her writing, listening to the silence where the only sound was her companion’s soft breathing. How pleasant, she thought to herself, this quiet was, compared to the constant noise and chattering that filled the days. Sometimes it seemed to her that the ladies were like little children, unable to spend a moment in silence. Perhaps the winter days would be calmer, or so the others had claimed.

She looked down at her letter, reading what she had written so far and wondering how to go on.

Honored Mother, thank you for your letter and all the advice you sent with it. I wish you would finally put your mind to rest; my first weeks here have passed without any problems. I quite enjoy the life at the palace, and I think I have found my place here. Of course I understand your worries, but I can assure you that I am very careful.

I told you already in my previous letter how beautiful and charming our Empress is, but the longer I am here, the more impressed I become of Her Majesty. It is not just her appearance that is beyond any criticism, but her character is also so gentle and gracious, and her bearing so noble and dignified that I find myself truly blessed to be in the service of one such as her.

If she were honest, Sai would have said that the inner beauty of the Empress greatly surpassed her physical beauty, but during her short time at the court Sai had already come to like her young mistress so much, that she was willing to exaggerate to praise her beauty to outsiders who wouldn’t anyway ever see her. As it was, there wasn’t anything special in the Empress’s face – her eyes were small, mouth a little too wide… but at least her hair was quite magnificent, silky and black as night, reaching the ground when she stood.

The other night, Sai went on after a short hesitation, Her Majesty’s father, the Regent, and her brother, the Major Counselor, came suddenly to visit her chambers. It caused quite a commotion, and I must say I was quite flustered as I had not expected something like this to happen. I managed to stay in the background, though, and in the end I guess I should count myself lucky, having been able to observe these two grand men from so close.

Sai paused again, feeling a little guilty. This was already the second not-quite-the-truth in her letter, and while the first certainly was forgivable (she was even supposed to praise her mistress), this… this was a bit different. She just didn’t want to tell her mother how the Regent had almost immediately spotted a new presence among the ladies, no matter how hard she had tried to hide, and she had been drawn into the conversation. Though she had attempted to be bland and uninteresting, she had a feeling she had somehow caught the interest of both the father and the son. Which, of course, normally would have been something to boast about, but she knew it would only make her mother more anxious.

She whispered a quick apology for lying to her mother, and left it at that.

The court is certainly full of interesting people! Many of the ladies are true personalities, always so witty and, some of them, ready for mischief that life here truly isn’t boring. And many of them are excellent go players, too! I have played so many great games here. I’ll send you the records of some of them with this letter, I know you can appreciate them, Mother. Leave the one I have marked last! That is a game I played with the Emperor’s go tutor himself, and I am still thoroughly shaken of how wonderful go he plays. I have always thought of myself as a good player, but now I realize I have still a long way to go. And, truly, that couldn’t make me happier!

There was so much more she could have said about Sugawara no Akitada, but again she decided to keep it all to herself. The man had made a great impression on her – and she on him, she was afraid. The game she had played had been a good one but not good enough, and she knew that he wasn’t interested in her as a go player, but as a beautiful woman who happened to play quite good go. He had sent her poems and she had answered some of them, straining her wit to make her replies polite but declining. Then, one night when the lady who shared her room had been keeping company to the Empress, soft rapping had come from the door. She had lain on her bedding, tense and quiet, barely daring to breath and fervently praying he would not enter. After what seemed like an eternity, quiet steps had finally retreated.

Next day a poem had arrived from Akitada, confirming that she had guessed the nocturnal visitor’s identity right. How sad for him who stands the whole night long, knocking on your cedar door, tap-tap-tap like the cry of the kuina bird.

She almost didn’t reply but decided then she would have to do something so that the episode wouldn’t repeat itself. Sadder for her who had answered the kuina’s tap, for it was no innocent bird who stood there knocking on the door, she finally sent, and got no reply to that.

It was rather troublesome. She wanted to play more with Akitada – but only go, and nothing else. Anything else was, in the end, impossible. But if she expressed any interest toward the man at all, she was afraid he would see it in the wrong way. If he appeared by her door again, would he leave a second time just as meekly? She’d better be careful not to do anything he might take as encouragement.

And that, she concluded sadly, meant no go with him for the time being. She knew herself, there was no way she would be able to hide her excitement if they were to play again. It was best to avoid the man completely.

Looking down at her letter she realized she’d forgotten what she had been going to say next. What else was there to write about? Somehow she couldn’t find the words to describe the frivolous and silly pastimes that filled the idle hours, or the long and tedious court proceedings she honestly found quite boring.

She lowered her brush next to the inkstone, and let her thoughts wander.

If… that huge if of her life. If a different decision had been made on the day she was born. If the confused midwife and the onmyouji who as well had been consulted had arrived to a different conclusion. If she had been raised as a boy and not a girl, if she had been able to enter the court as a man and not a woman… how different everything would have been. The life of a man was so much freer. Then she wouldn’t have to worry about such things as unwanted admirers.

Besides, these days she couldn’t help wondering if the midwife and the onmyouji hadn’t been wrong in their decision. She couldn’t blame them, though – if she herself couldn’t say for sure, how could they? All she knew was that most of her life she had been at home in the women’s circles, that she still enjoyed their company and chatting with them, spending her days with women’s chores, and she had little interest in the more manly pastimes, hunting and archery and studying Chinese. But she had also always known that something was off. She wasn’t like her sister. Ever since they were small she had noticed a slight difference in how people treated them, and for some reason they were never allowed to bath together. One day, though, the servants’ attention had divided, and they had, stealthily, feeling they were doing something forbidden but still filled with childish curiosity, examined each other. Her sister, two years older and so more knowledgeable, had quietly whispered, “Are you a boy?” and later that day she had innocently repeated that question to her mother.

Who had, for the first and last time ever, raised her hand to hit her.

Afterwards her mother had gathered her in her arms, trying to comfort her. “Don’t say such things, dearest,” she’d whispered. “Don’t ever say such things. Of course you’re not a boy.”

“Why do I look like a boy then?” she’d sniffed against her shoulder.

“You don’t,” she’d mumbled. “A boy doesn’t look like that, trust me. You look nothing like a boy.”

“But why am I different? From big sister,” she had asked, raising her head to look up, and felt her mother stiffening, avoiding her questioning eyes.

“I don’t know, darling,” she’d finally muttered. “Don’t worry about it. Everything will be alright when you grow up.”

Everything wasn’t alright, though. As her body matured, she realized it was becoming even weirder, as if it was just as confused as she was about which sex it was supposed to be. Her mother was greatly bothered about it all, not understanding what had gone wrong and blaming it on herself, on something she had done during the pregnancy. Sai herself was calmer about it, despite her confusion. She didn’t have any clear idea of exactly what she should have been like, and half the time she couldn’t really understand why it was such a big deal to begin with. Once she had attempted to suggest to her mother that maybe it would be simplest just to say that she wasn’t quite a woman or quite a man and leave it at that, but her mother had been horrified about the idea. “What if there are others like me? How do we ever know, if everyone always keeps quiet about it?” Sai had still attempted, but to no avail.

So, there she was, a lady-in-waiting in the Empress’s court, in all appearances a woman but unable to accept the advances of a potential suitor. Her mother had, of course, been opposed to her going to court. She would have wanted Sai to become a nun – the only life she could imagine where her strange daughter might be safe from all scandals, but although Sai until then had been quite obedient, here she wouldn’t budge. She didn’t want to be buried in some distant recluse and dedicate her life to the gods. The only god she could have served, had there been one, was the god of go, and in the absence of one the best thing she could think of was to head to the court where the strongest players could be found.

And now that she had found the strongest player of them all, she wouldn’t be able to play with him. How utterly maddening!

Her lips drawn in a tight, annoyed line she grasped the letter, suddenly wanting to burn it. To start again from the beginning, this time more honestly. Write what she really thought and really wanted…

With a sigh she threw the letter on the floor and lay down beside her lamp. What was it, in the end, that she wanted? Live as a man? While that would certainly take care of some of her problems, she was sure it would also bring about new complications, complications she couldn’t even imagine yet. And how would she do that, switch to a man? She thought of a story she had read, of the siblings who had pretended to be of the opposite gender and then switched back, and hoped – not for the first time – that she too had a brother to switch with. Sometimes she dreamed of just making up a brother for herself… she had the whole tragic story ready in her mind, how he had been stolen away as a child and only now been reunited with his family. Then she could be either a man or a woman, whichever pleased her more.

In the darkness of the night, that plan felt almost feasible, but as the sun rose she always realized how impossible it was. For one thing, she would need at least the help of her mother for it, and she would never agree. And if she cut her hair to be a man, how would she switch back to a woman if need be?

It was just a silly daydream, better to be forgotten. She gathered herself up from the floor again, picked up the letter and took her brush to finish it.

I am really looking forward to the Iris Festival. The ladies have grand plans of how to decorate the Empress’s quarters, and I believe even Her Majesty is excited about it. I can’t tell you more about that yet, though, for it’s still a secret. The courtiers have been trying to spy on us, but in vain, so far. Their attempts have been so clumsy that it is a great source of amusement for us all!

She wrote on, telling her mother the latest gossip without really thinking too much of what she said, her mind busy on other things. The greatest problem, she thought, where Akitada was concerned, wasn’t so much her gender but her skill as a go player. She was still lacking. She should dedicate every moment she could for the study of go and become even better, so that the next time they played (there had to be a next time, even if only in the far-off future) he would see beyond her appearance, into what really mattered.

Perhaps then… perhaps then she would be able to do something about her… situation. Now was much too soon. She was still new at the court, a nobody. She had to make a name for herself, become someone who could challenge even the Emperor’s go tutor. If she tried to be as unfeminine as she could, maybe in the end they would be able to see her above all as a go player, not just as a woman. And then, maybe…

Soft knocking came from the door, and she froze. Akitada, again? But surely he wouldn’t come to visit her like this when she wasn’t alone! She glanced at her companion who was still asleep, immensely happy of her presence. The quiet tapping repeated. “Are you awake?” a voice whispered, and she gave a great sigh of relief, recognizing one of the ladies who had been keeping company to the Empress.

Quickly she shuffled to the door on her knees and parted it a little. “Yes?”

“Oh, good, you hadn’t completely undressed yet,” the lady exclaimed. “The Empress cannot sleep and she has requested your presence. I believe she wishes to play a game with you.”

Sai smiled widely, paying no attention to the slightly cold tone in the lady’s voice. “I’m ready in an instant!” she said, louder than she had meant, and her roommate rolled over, glancing at the door.

“What is it?” she mumbled sleepily.

“Oh, I’m sorry I woke you, I must go to the Empress,” Sai replied while quickly throwing the over-robe on her shoulders.

“What?” The lady sat up, trying to blink sleep out of her eyes. “Should I too…” she started, beginning to reach for her clothes, but the one who had come to fetch Sai shook her head.

“No. It’s only her that’s wanted,” she said.

Sai stood up, not noticing the look the ladies shared. She straightened her robes, patted her hair to make sure it wasn’t tangled, and nodded, ready and eager to go. Her roommate lay back down as they started their way to the Empress’s quarters without another word.

This was the start, she thought to herself. The Empress was a good player, and she too would learn much from the games the played. Day by day she’d climb higher, all the way to the top.

The letter was left on the floor, forgotten and unfinished, as she headed to the Empress, her mind full of dreams of a wonderful future.

~* ~

A/N: The poems in this fic were originally exchanged by Murasaki Shikibu and Michinaga.

Date: 2014-09-26 04:39 pm (UTC)
flonnebonne: (Default)
From: [personal profile] flonnebonne
An intriguing setup, and some lovely prose!

I am quite sure I know who you are :)

Date: 2014-10-10 07:15 pm (UTC)
tuulentupa: Fairy on a butterfly (Default)
From: [personal profile] tuulentupa
....I considered telling them to take 10 points from you if you don't guess me this round. >_>

Date: 2014-10-11 03:12 am (UTC)
flonnebonne: (Default)
From: [personal profile] flonnebonne
10 points wouldn't have been enough :D

Date: 2014-09-28 12:15 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
So very sweet!
I love the period details!

-- Sanja

Date: 2014-10-10 07:15 pm (UTC)
tuulentupa: Fairy on a butterfly (Default)
From: [personal profile] tuulentupa
Thank you!


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