The meeting was long and the meeting was arduous… and the meeting was, quite simply, boring. His father and those with whom he had been speaking had hardly taken in his attendance, although he had puffed a little with carefully controlled pride when his father had introduced him as ‘my eldest son and the man you will be dealing with in years to come’.
It had pleased Hanzo for two reasons. Firstly, the thought of running the Shimada Empire and having its far-reaching resources at his fingertips was pleasing. After all, had he not been groomed for such a future from the day he had been born?
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it was the first time Hanzo could recall his father referring to him as a man. There was a simple pleasure to be had in that. Finally, he was recognised as a peer instead of being overlooked as a child.
“What do you think, Hanzo?”
So caught up was he in the moment of revelling in this, uncharacteristically having allowed his mind to wander, that it took a second or two to realise that the entire room was staring at him, patiently waiting for a response to a question he had entirely failed to hear being asked.
His father’s sloe-dark eyes narrowed at his son as Hanzo glanced from face to face. Panic threatened to surge, but he quashed it and without seemingly missing a beat. Getting this correct was important and he had long endured his father’s disappointment when he’d stepped wrong.
“A most excellent question,” he said and confidence dripped from every syllable. “And one which is certainly worthy of further consideration.” A subtle, sideways glance at his father whose head inclined in the tiniest of movements, and he continued, fiddling with his gold cuff-links in what he hoped seemed a confident and nonchalant manner. “In principle, certainly, I agree, but you respect that I must converse with my father before I am able to give a final opinion.”
I wonder, he mused silently, what exactly it was that I just agreed with?
The tension leached from the moment and the visitors nodded their approval at his tone. Hanzo shifted his glance again to his father and thought that for just a fraction of a second, the old man’s lips quirked upwards in a smile.
Such a thing, though, was a rare occurrence and had more likely been a trick of the light. Hanzo’s gaze turned briefly to the window and the darkening skies. There would be rain later and the rich, loamy smell of petrichor would be a welcome relief from the gruelling heat of summer. Aware that he was allowing his thoughts to wander again, he reluctantly dragged his mind back from the weather forecast and to the matter at hand.
Another hour of small talk ensued and this time, Hanzo paid closer attention. He learned much about the etiquette: how a simple conversation around planned vacations could be code for many underhanded dealings. He learned to respond without committing himself or the Shimada resources. He tuned himself fully into the negotiations and after a while, his father lapsed into comfortable silence and allowed his eldest boy to lead.
Afterwards, he grunted his approval in three words that brightened Hanzo’s day.
“You did well.”
Any elation Hanzo felt at that statement was crushed by the follow-up question.
“But where was your brother?”
Hanzo had looked in on his eighteen-year old brother first thing that morning to remind him that the meeting was taking place and the misshapen hump beneath the bed covers had grunted acknowledgement. But he had not shown. Torn between loyalty to his father and brother, Hanzo settled for the lie.
“He was feeling unwell this morning. I said he should rest. My apologies, Father. I should have explained before the meeting began. The fault is mine and…” Sojiro’s eyes narrowed as he studied his eldest son.
“What ails him?”
“It is nothing more than a headache, but you know how irritable Genji can be when he does not feel his best. I felt it more appropriate that he was not here than for him to be here and be disagreeable.”
He gave a well-practiced rueful laugh and hoped that his father bought the lie.
“Very well, Hanzo. I will leave management of your brother to you for now.” Sojiro Shimada rose from his seat and made his way to the door. He paused, with his fingers on the handle, before looking back at his son, no emotion readable in his expression.
“This lie does not become you, Hanzo. You must take him in hand before he becomes your ruin. Do you understand me?”
He had not fallen for it, not one bit. Hanzo should have known better than to believe he had gotten away with the deception. For the briefest moment, smouldering resentment built in his heart. But he let none of this show on his face. ‘Show the cold face, Hanzo’, his father had taught him. ‘Give away nothing. Show nothing. Feel nothing. It is the way we learn to cope with what we must sometimes do.’
Hanzo bowed his head in respect to his father and did not speak any word of apology. He would do as he had been tasked without question. He was the dutiful son and he played his role to perfection.
“Yes, Father. I understand you.”
Left alone with nothing more than his dark thoughts, Hanzo stewed in silence for a while. Over and over again his brother caused him problems and repeatedly he felt obliged to defend the younger Shimada. Every day brought some new humiliation or embarrassment and every day Hanzo’s patience and affections grew more stretched and threadbare.
“Why can you not just take it seriously, Genji?” He had asked his brother that question the previous night and the answer had bothered him.
“Because it’s your problem and not mine, Hanzo. You are the scion, I am the spare.”
It grieved Hanzo to hear his brother speak in such a way. From the moment the younger boy had come into the world, a squalling, pink-faced babe whose demands had wearied everyone around him, Hanzo had styled himself as the boy’s protector. He was the older brother. It was his duty to protect Genji. They were both Shimada clan. But it became apparent, as both boys grew, that they could not have been more different.
Deeply thoughtful, with a propensity for brooding, Hanzo was serious and while not without a sense of humour, less inclined to find the joy in life. Genji could not have been more different. Sunshine oozed from every pore, bringing light into the many shadows of Shimada Castle. Wherever Genji went, people followed in his wake, pulled along by his youthful exuberance and energy.
Everyone except Hanzo.
“You should try coming with me just once, brother,” Genji had suggested a few months previously. “You might actually enjoy yourself.”
Hanzo had tried, he truly had, but the sort of things that Genji found ‘fun’ did not stimulate him in the slightest. He couldn’t understand his brother’s simple joy at successfully retrieving pointless stuffed creatures that were somewhere between turnips and octopi from a machine’s claw, or relate to elated whoops of joy when he was able to enter his initials as a high score on a game machine. He couldn’t understand how drinking oneself into oblivion could constitute entertainment and, despite the acute knowledge that his own family dealt in any number of what could kindly be termed as ‘illegal substances’, he had no interest in partaking of them.
Genji partook. Genji partook with gusto and Hanzo, despite his best efforts, could see quite clearly where this downward spiral would lead. The thought of it kept him awake at night. He’d tried reason. He’d tried anger. He’d tried gentle persuasion, but it seemed that no matter what he did, Genji would do whatever he wished, whenever he wished and of more immediate concern to Sojiro Shimada, with whomever he wished.
The matter of appropriate marriages had been raised recently, now that Hanzo was certainly of an age and that Genji would not be far behind. Neither Shimada brother was comfortable with the thought of their romantic futures being chosen for them, but neither were they prepared to overturn many generations of tradition. After all, their own parents had not married for love, not initially. But they had grown to respect one another over the years.
His mother had been dead for a long time now, taken from the family when Hanzo had been seven years old. Genji, at four, had few memories of her, but Hanzo still recalled her with the same sense of love he’d known then. Sojiro had genuinely mourned her passing and it was the only time Hanzo could recall his father showing any sort of emotion in public. No, the funeral of his mother had not been a time to show the Cold Face.
Desperate for approval and desperate for the occasional kind word, Hanzo had taken to mimicking his father’s mannerisms and approach to the world. He had grown so good at keeping his emotions under control that at times, he feared he could not have loosed them if he had wanted to.
It was a challenging path, but it was a proven route and Hanzo followed in his father’s footsteps with the greatest of care. Genji, the study in contrasts, crashed blindly down a path of his own making.
For all this, Hanzo reluctantly acknowledged that if pressed, he couldn’t honestly say whether it annoyed him, or if he was simply jealous of the casual ease with which his brother careened through his existence.
Either way, Genji had let him down today. Again. And he would have to find his brother and deal out the appropriate remonstration.
Finding him was not difficult. He located his brother in the arcade where he preferred to loiter with his friends and hangers-on. Genji relished his status as a Shimada and welcomed adulation from the younger populations of Hanamura and Kanezaka. For their part, they fed Genji’s already over-inflated ego and sense of self-importance. It was poor nourishment and Hanzo feared it would end badly.
He stood in the door of the arcade, feeling awkward and out of place, dressed as he was in a three-piece suit. His clothing and demeanour marked him out as different. Once, he had been comfortable with that. He was, after all, different, something his father had impressed upon him. He was a Shimada.
Even at such a young age, there was something about Hanzo that suggested he was old before his time, a visible symptom of the weight that had been placed upon his (admittedly broad) shoulders. There was a gravity to his bearing that was sorely lacking in the younger brother who, even now, was lounging in a corner table, his sneaker-clad feet resting on the table. A gaggle of admirers surrounded him and for a heartbeat, Hanzo considered turning on his heel and leaving. But it was too late: his brother had spotted him.
“Hanzo!” The younger Shimada got to his feet and Hanzo felt a moment’s guilt. It seemed that his brother was absolutely genuine in his delight. “Have you come to join us?”
It would be easy to say yes. It would be easy to give himself over to the need to be liked, accepted and welcomed among his peers. It would, alas, be impossible to then have to explain to his father why he had shrugged off his responsibilities for such wanton frivolity.
Hanzo, thus tempted, allowed his mind to run through an assortment of possible outcomes and not one of them ended well for him. Usually occupied with shielding Genji from his father’s wrath, the older brother had long been used to bearing the brunt of the legendary temper that the leader of the Shimada clan possessed. He was reaching the end of his tether. He could make a simple choice if he really wanted to and he could adopt Genji’s blossoming playboy lifestyle, or he could follow in the footsteps that had been set for him before he had even been born.
It would be so easy…
For what felt like an age, he fidgeted with his cufflinks, his eyes fixed with great yearning on the scene before him. Eventually, his breeding took over and the thought of abandoning his responsibilities fluttered into the night. No. He would not fall for this trap of his own making. He must not falter. His shoulders set determinedly, his back straightening and he shook his head.
“No, Genji, I am not here to join you. We must speak.” He met the defiant eyes of his brother, eyes so like his own and he didn’t waver. “Alone. Now.” He turned on his heel and walked out of the arcade, not looking over his shoulder to see if Genji followed him. He half expected that he would not. But he did.
“How was the meeting?” Genji’s tone was affable, but there was a definite hint of mockery in there. Hanzo ignored the question and went straight to the point.
“You were missed.”
“You lied for me, though.” Such confidence and certainty. Such conviction that Genji knew his brother would always be his champion. For the first time in the life they had shared thus far, it annoyed the older Shimada.
“I cannot do so any more, Genji. Too much is expected of me now. You must speak to Father and you must explain yourself to him.” His brother’s expression became one of disgust, the nose wrinkling in distaste. “Our father thinks you are his shining jewel, brother. Of late, the shine is tarnished. You must repair that image before it is too late.”
Genji made a noise that was somewhere between a snort and a laugh and shrugged his slender shoulders. In build, as in personality, the young men were different. Genji was his mother’s son: slender and lithe, the perfect build for the agility required of an excellent swordsman. He was always moving: he could barely stand still, giving the impression of a tightly coiled spring ready to unleash on a hair trigger. By contrast, Hanzo was solid: broad shouldered and powerful. He was no less accomplished a fighter, but his stillness granted him great skills of marksmanship.
“I don’t care what the old man thinks of me, brother. And neither should you.” Already bored by the conversation, the younger man turned on his heel, preparing to return to his night of excess. Hanzo closed the distance between them with startling alacrity and caught Genji’s shoulder in his hand. He turned his brother so they were staring at one another. Genji’s defiance was something palpable and it set a fear fluttering deep in Hanzo’s breast.
“You should start to care,” he said. “Before it is too late.”
Genji looked as though Hanzo’s words might have reached him and the fear was quelled by a surge of hope.
It soon died.
Genji’s lip curled upward in a sneer.
“Too late? You are too dramatic brother.” He pulled himself free of Hanzo’s grip and sauntered with the swagger of a man who believes himself to be invincible. “Who is going to stop me living the life I want? You?”
The laughter that followed this was derisive. Hanzo stared after him and then, with a clinical precision of thought that he had learned from his father, began to take every good memory of Genji he had, metaphorically setting each one alight and consigning it to the past.
“Be careful, brother,” he said in a voice that Genji could not hope to hear. “It just might be me.” The words dissolved into the Kanezaka night and Hanzo stood for a while, as motionless as a statue before swivelling on a booted foot to begin the lonely walk back up the hill.