Read The Tengu's Game of Go Online
Authors: Lian Hearn
His clawed hands and feet gripped Take's shoulders again and lifted him off the branch. Together they swooped low over the clearing, making several of the tengu look up. Some raised their arms in greeting, some muttered a welcome, but mostly they remained absorbed in their different games. Tadashii's opponent looked up with a scowl as Tadashii circled above him, showing Take off and cackling with laughter.
He shook his fist and bared his teeth at them before returning to his scrutiny of the board. Take glimpsed just enough to see that the grid was carved into the surface of the stump. The light showed bowls of white and black stones. Kinpoge played with seeds, pebbles, berries, on a board Ima had made for her.
“Back soon!” Tadashii called, as they soared over the trees to the place they had landed before. “He will take even longer to make up his mind now,” he said, in a smug tone of voice.
“I don't quite understand what you are talking about,” Take said, politely.
“Don't worry about it. One day you will, if you live that long. And I think you will, for I intend to make use of you. When it comes to the endgame. You may rest for a little while, until dawn. Would you rather sleep on the ground or in the tree? I myself will take that branch. I find it quite comfortable. Don't walk around in the nightâthere are pools of scalding water. It's dangerous.”
Take looked at the ground beneath his feet. It was too dark to see clearly, but it seemed to be covered in stones, both large and small. Yoshi and Saru often slept in the crook of a branch, but he did not like it much, his legs being too long to fold up comfortably.
“I'll lean against the trunk,” he said, and began to clear away some of the stones so he could sit down.
“You came rather unprepared,” the tengu remarked, as he settled on his favorite branch.
“I didn't know I was coming,” Take muttered. It was much colder high in the mountains and he had no covering. Mu's hut was far from luxurious, but at least there was no shortage of firewood, furs, and food. He was already hungry and thirsty and wondered when, if ever, they would eat or drink.
He did not really sleep, just dozed a little, waking with a start at every noise: the hiss and roar of the volcano, the wind in the trees, owls and other night birds, the distant howling of wolves. He had never felt so alone.
I could die here and no one would ever know. The tengu would probably crack my bones.
He had lived all his life among people, the noisy, milling world of the acrobats and the monkeys, yet he had always felt different from them. He had been removed from one world, but he was not yet in the next. He was determined that this time with the tengu would be the bridge between his old life and his new.
He shed a few tears of loneliness, since no one could see him, and then, with gritted teeth, he set himself to practice the meditation Mu had already taught him.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
“Don't grit your teeth,” the tengu told him next morning. “You are not lacking in strengthâwhat you need is fluidity. At the moment you block your strength. You must learn to let it flow.”
He had been boiling two large pale blue eggs in one of the steam vents. He took one egg and shelled it, hot as it was, sprinkled it with the salt that was encrusted on the rocks, and handed it to Take.
Take crammed it into his mouth, burning his tongue.
“And don't eat so quickly, you'll burn your mouth,” Tadashii warned, too late.
The egg had been preserved in some way and tasted old, not exactly stale, but not fresh either, a little sulfurous. “Is there anything to drink?” Take said, when he could speak.
“I always forget how needy humans are,” Tadashii said. “Suck a pebble. I'll find some water later.” He shelled and ate the other egg, smacking his lips.
Take waited until the tengu had finished eating and then asked, “Why have you brought me here?”
“Your teacher, the Warrior of Nothingness, has had to go somewhere. I said I'd take care of you for a while. He sends you his regards, and says goodbye on his daughter's behalf.”
“Kinpoge went with him?”
“You know, you will see Mu again, but not her.”
The thought made Take sad. He missed her already.
The tengu looked at his face as if trying to read his expression and failing. “Well, never mind all that. Let's get to work! You're going to need a sword and a bow. You've probably seen the sword I made for Mu. I'll make one for you, once I've seen your reach and your stance. I already have a good idea of your strength.”
He flew up and plucked a pole from where it was concealed in the lower branches of the tree.
“It's not a bad idea to keep a few weapons hidden in your castle,” he observed, giving the pole to Take, “where you can reach them easily. Just a little advice for the future.”
“I'm going to have a castle?” Take said, as he tested the heft of the pole, gripping it in both hands as Mu had shown him.
“Well, why not?” Tadashii replied, eyeing Take's hands but not making any comment, as he raised his sword. “I'd want a castle if I were you. Castles invoke respect from those above you and fear from those below. They keep your men occupied while building and give them somewhere to live when completed. I'll show you how to build a proper one out of rocks and stones.”
A castle! Men!
Then Take emptied his mind as they sparred for a while, the tengu setting a fierce pace but pulling his strokes before hitting either Take or the pole.
“That'll do for now,” he said finally. “You can go and get your bow. Once that's done, we'll make the sword and some arrows.”
When it was obvious he was not going to say any more, Take asked tentatively, “Are you going to tell me where the bow is?”
Tadashii jerked his head up. “There.”
Take raised his eyes to the crags that marched in a jagged line up Kuroyama. The rock was black basalt, the ground old, pitted lava, covered with small, sharp stones. Here and there pools of sulfuric water and mud bubbled viscously, and steam hung around the slopes of the mountain. Beyond the tree he had climbed, broken trunks, like the spars of the wrecked ships that were exposed when Lake Kasumi dried up, showed where the fire and the sulfur had done their lethal work.
In the closest crag there was a narrow cleft, as if it had been split from top to bottom. Take squinted up to where the steam refracted the sunlight into rainbows, and for a moment thought he could see the shape of a giant bow.
“That's it,” Tadashii said. “Ameyumi is its name. The Rain Bow.”
“I am to climb up there for it?” Take moved a little closer, assessing the rocks and the cleft. The smooth basalt offered few footholds, but the cleft reminded him of the space, a yard or so wide, between the monkeys' shelter and the outer fence of their enclosure. The young males often played in it, inventing different ways to scale it: both feet on one side, rear on the other; one foot on each side, pushing up with the hands. It had to be done quickly, so the momentum itself carried you upward. It would be slippery from the steam and probably hot, too.
“You don't think you can do it?” Tadashii said, sounding disappointed.
“I didn't say I couldn't,” Take replied, all the more determined. “I'm just working out the best way. But couldn't you just fly up and get it?”
“Not without attracting its owner's attention.”
“It has an owner I have to steal it from?”
“In a manner of speaking. It's not really his, though. He won it in a wager from someone else, years ago, and
is a rather relative term, since he almost certainly cheated, so you could say he also stole it.”
“Some warrior who was fighting in the north and fancied himself an expert at Go.” The tengu gave a smirk as if there was much more he might say but chose not to.
“Why is it up there?”
“Too many questions!” Tadashii cried. “Are you going to get it or not?”
“All right.” Take went closer to the crevice, laid a hand on each side, and peered up. It was harder to see the bow now, the steam and the dazzle of light at the top obscured it, but he thought he could make out the arc of its shape. The surface under his palms was warm and slick. He tested it against the soles of his feet. They were rough, hardened from years of running around and climbing barefoot, and would not need covering, but he wanted to give his hands more protection.
He was still wearing the headband and short red jacket and leggings that all the acrobats dressed in. He retied the headband and took off the jacket, borrowed the tengu's knife to make the first cut, and tore off strips to bind around his palms.
He had noticed the night before that sticky resin oozed in places from the pine tree. He collected enough to rub into the balls of his feet and onto the bindings. The resin gathered a little sand and grit, which would give him extra grip.
He did not say any more to Tadashii. The preparations were helpful in themselves, but mostly they were to build up the inner impulse, the coiling of the spring that the acrobats used to launch themselves into impossible feats. He could feel it mounting within him, the desire to challenge the limits placed on the human body and the pull of the earth itself.
His first ascent was quickâfeet, then hands, push upward, jumpâbut he had misjudged the distance. The bow was higher above the mouth of the crevice than he had expected. He could not reach it and, anyway, needed both hands to hold on to the slippery sides. He descended quickly in the same manner and rethought his strategy. He would have to continue his climb into one all-risking leap, and grasp the bow with both hands.
And then? He would slide downâor more likely fall. He would have to hold the bow upright, so he would not be able to use his hands to save himself. The best he could do was try to cushion the fall. He ran back to the pine, climbed to the first branches, and broke off as many needle-leafed twigs as he could carry. He spread these over the floor of the cleft.
“Hurry up!” Tadashii cried. There was an urgent tone in his voice, but Take did not want to be distracted now. Without replying, he took a deep breath and launched himself upward. The interior of the crevice seemed hotter and steamier. But he had reached the top once already, which gave him confidence. This time he went all the way to the lip, stood, reached up through the shimmering rainbows, felt the firm wood of the real bow, and grasped it. It resisted his hold and he needed both hands to pull it toward him.
Above him the volcano rumbled and hissed, and through the noise he heard another soundâa beating of wings, a cry of rage. The huge tengu that Tadashii had shown him the night before was flying toward him, clearly holding a drawn sword.
A premonition came to Take that one day he would fight this tenguâbut now was not the time. Holding the bow close to his chest, he dropped down into the crevice.
He slid, fell, slid again, but somehow he and the bow stayed upright until he landed on the springy bed of pine. He had had many falls as an acrobat and knew how to roll out of them, but the crevice was narrow and he had to protect the bow. The shock jarred his spine and for a moment he feared he had broken an ankle. He was gasping for breath, the hot air burning his throat and lungs, but at the same time he was filled with excitement and elation.
He passed the bow through the narrow opening and slid out after it, tearing off the soaked bindings before they scalded his palms. Then he picked up the bow, marveling at its huge size and perfect balance, the intricacies of its bindings, its many layers of compressed wood. It seemed covered in a shiny substance that must have protected it from the steam, for, though old, it was unwarped and true.
“Well done!” Tadashii was at his side. “I think we might go somewhere a little quieter so you can practice with it and I'll get on with the sword.”
The other tengu was screaming in rage from the top of the crag. A sudden hail of small rocks began to shower down on them. Take could not see if the tengu was throwing them or if the volcano was erupting. He gripped the bow more tightly as Tadashii picked him up and they flew back to the shelter of the Darkwood.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
“They left for Kitakami,” Ima said when the tengu brought Take back to the hut. The fire was a pile of glowing embers and a hare was roasting on it. Ban turned its head toward them in a strange questioning way.
“I know,” Tadashii replied. “Takeyoshi and I have some work to do and then I am going to show you one or two things, too.”
Ima raised one eyebrow but only said to Take, “You must be hungry.”
Take realized he was, and very thirsty, too. He went to the stream and drank deeply, then splashed water on his face. He had placed the bow by the fire, and when he returned Ima had picked it up and was studying it.
“Is it Shikanoko's bow, Kodama?”
“It was his father's,” replied the tengu. “Ameyumi is its name. What is Kodama?”
“Shisoku made it for Shikanoko. We were only children, but I remember it. And he reforged a broken sword, Jato.”
“I don't know about Jato,” Tadashii said, frowning. “Ameyumi was my concern. It was gained unfairly. Shikanoko's father staked his weapons, his own life, his son's, even the Emperor's. His opponent cheated and he lost everything. But in this new game, I'm going to win. Getting Ameyumi back was a major move.”
“So it was my grandfather who played the game of Go and lost?” Take said, his voice breaking with excitement.
“That's correct,” Tadashii said. “I thought it quite elegant to have you regain it.”
“Are we going to give it to my father?” Take asked.
“Maybe. First I'll show you how to use it. It's good that you are already so strong. Then Ima and I will make you a sword.”
Take opened his mouth, but before he could ask even one of the questions teeming in his mind, Tadashii said, “It's best if you just do as you're told for the time being.”