It was yet early in the morning but the air held the promise of a hot day, and sweat dripped down on the faces of the men who were carrying an elegant sedan chair on the dusty streets toward the imperial palace of Heian-Kyo. The woman who rode in the chair was slightly fanning her face as she watched, thoughtfully, the young boy who accompanied her.
The boy as well seemed to be deep in thought, and she frowned faintly as he failed to answer when she called his name.
"Sai? Sai, are you listening to me?"
The boy, startled awake from his thoughts, gave an apologetic bow to the woman. "I'm sorry, Mother."
"This is an important day. You need to concentrate, and not to drift off into dreams." She shut her fan and tapped his bent head with it, but gently. "Do you remember what you are supposed to say when you meet the emperor?"
Sai forced back a sigh. "Yes, Mother." They had gone this through many times. "I know how to behave."
His mother smiled. "Yes… yes, you do. You're a good boy. But still…" She lifted the curtain and peeked out to see how far they had proceeded, something she normally never did.
"It'll go fine, Mother," Sai said to calm her down. "I'll do my best."
"I know, I know." She opened her fan again, waved it in front of her face once, twice. "But I can't help hoping this day were over already. In truth, this is a small matter, but still… these days, even small things can have unseen consequences."
The fan snapped shut again. "Hundred and seventy years," she muttered. "The first emperor in hundred and seventy years, whose mother is not of the Fujiwara clan. And to think that he would be so determined to rule personally and not to use his regent… your uncle was a fool to lose his power that easily."
"Yes, Mother…" This time he did give a small sigh, but luckily his mother didn't notice it, absorbed in her thoughts.
Politics was all his mother cared about these days. And not just mother – pretty much everyone around him talked only about the current political situation and how to keep the Fujiwara clan in power.
What mattered more to Sai – though he knew better than to confess this to anyone – was a chance to get to play more go, against those many, many strong opponents who awaited him at the imperial palace. The thought brought a small smile on his lips.
"It'll go fine, Mother," he said again. "I know that."
"Oh?" She gave him a smile of her own. "And how do you know that?"
"I…" He paused to consider his words. How much would it be wise to tell her? "…had a sign," he finished a little weakly, wondering if that was a lie. Borderline, maybe.
This time mother laughed aloud. "A sign? What kind of a sign?" she asked, looking at him with that certain amusement adults have when they think a child has said something funny, and he decided he definitely wouldn't tell her anything.
"A sign. A sure sign. Everything will go fine today."
Mother smiled again and shook her head, but she dropped the subject and they continued their way in silence.
Everything would go fine this day.
But what of tomorrow?
Sai looked down at his hands, bit his lip, and his eyes closed as his thoughts returned to their old path that his mother had momentarily disrupted.
"You will rise high, high in this world, and reach everything you yearn for…"
Where had she come from? Yes… it was best not to tell mother anything – she would be deeply alarmed if she heard that a strange woman like that had suddenly appeared in their garden without anyone noticing.
The evening before, he had been sitting in the shadow of a cherry tree, playing go against himself, when the woman had suddenly been standing next to him. Of course, he had been so immersed in his game that it was no wonder he hadn't noticed her coming.
She was a weird one, that was all he could say; old but still nimble and lively, dressed in ragged clothes but still as dignified as a noble lady.
She had looked at his go board and then at him, and asked for a game.
In Sai's mind, anyone who played go couldn't be anything but a good person, and he had happily agreed. It was boring to play alone, after all, and he could never really fathom whether he should say he had lost or won when the game was over.
Her go was strange, and in the end he had won the game easily, but somehow he was left wondering if it was victory the woman had played for. She had spent a long while staring at the finished game, not answering when Sai had hesitantly asked if she wanted to discuss it.
Finally she had raised her eyes to him, giving him a level look that had made him remember she was a stranger and wonder if he should, in the end, call for help.
But then, her words had drifted to him through the air, as quiet as a breath of wind.
"You will rise high, high in this world, and reach everything you yearn for. But you will fall… and it will be a hard fall, harder than you can take. Still… a thousand years from now, you will sit in front of a go board."
She had stood up in one movement, shaking her head. "You are just a child," she had muttered, "and never before have I told a fortune that I couldn't understand. I will not ask for pay."
And she had been gone as suddenly as she had arrived. He had watched the game in confusion, trying to figure out what she had seen in it, and then picked slowly the stones into their bowls.
He had sat there long, by the empty go board, late into the evening until the servants had come to look for him. Leaning against the tree he had been watching the sky, the few stars he could see. Stars in the heavens, stars on the go board – what destiny was written in them?
Rise high… and fall? Opening his eyes again he glanced at his mother who was tapping with the fan at the palm of her hand – calculating all the possible advantages the clan could reach if all went well today.
And all would go well, the woman's fortune-telling had left him with that certainty. For today, and maybe tomorrow too. He would be playing go in the capital, rise as high as a go-player could rise, and… well, what did anything else matter? A thousand years from now, you will sit in front of a go board. That was enough for him.