The call came from the corner table. It was the most private table in the bar, thoughtfully set back from the rest of the tables and offering a reasonable air of privacy. It was the kind of table where Deals, capital ‘D’ were clinched. It was the kind of table where dark plans were hatched, where arguments were born – and sometimes died. By design, it was set in deep shadow and only the glittering eyes of its occupant could be seen. The air of deep brooding emanating from the table was palpable.
It was as though, the barkeep mused, a permanent cloud hung just above the head of its occupier. If that cloud of bitterness and rage had been capable of raining on the man below, or of creating its own thunderstorm, the barkeep posited that it might well have done so.
The barkeep hesitated for a moment or two before reaching for a freshly warmed bottle of sake. He set it on a tray with a new cup and the waitress took it without a word, delivering it to the man in the corner.
There was a grunt of thanks, the clink of coins hitting the table and the guest crawled into the new bottle. The waitress leaned closer and murmured something inaudible. The man glanced up sharply, then shook his head and reached out to touch the back of her hand with his own. It was a gentle gesture; a show of gratitude. The silent tableau spoke volumes.
The customer, the barkeep observed, had been drinking steadily since his arrival barely an hour previously and by now must be quite inebriated, or must have the constitution of an ox.
Or a dragon.
Discomfited, the barkeep shook the words out of his head. He had recognised the man on arrival: even despite the poorly thought-out hood that had been drawn up to cover his face – poorly at that – had failed to hide the familiar features of a Shimada. The glance had been too brief to be totally sure, but the eyes, the brow… he knew them.
Word from those in the know, those from the family’s inner circle, had been conflicting. One brother was dead, both brothers were dead, one had chosen exile, one had been expelled by a raging father, nobody knew the truth.
The man in the corner knew the truth. Perhaps with more saké in him, he might be prepared to reveal what that was. The truth was important currency in Hanamura, and Sojiro Shimada might well be prepared to pay handsomely for the word. The inn might be small fry in the vast ocean of the Shimada holdings, on the edges geographically, but its owner was nonetheless loyal to his masters.
Another hour passed and the saké bottle was upended many more times. The barkeep went about his business, which admittedly was not very much. The little bar did not see much in the way of footfall, but was a useful and out of the way place where meetings happened, occasionally violently and sometimes fatally. It was good enough – and that, in and of itself, was good enough. The barkeep tended his bar, cleared away the debris left in the wake of the Shimada clan and looked forward to a day when he could live a quiet life.
The door opened, briefly letting in a gust of the sweet spring air. It was heady with the scent of the cherry blossoms and the barkeep glanced over at the corner, hearing the deep inhalation of a man taking simple pleasure in the aroma. It was worth it: the clean scented air was welcome and pleasant. The barkeep noted that shadows were lengthening and the day was drawing to a close.
He also noted other new details. The newcomer was dressed in a sharply tailored dark suit that did little to hide his bulk and musculature. Everything about him screamed ‘henchman’. His parents may have even christened him Henchman. He was that sort. The barkeep further noted that the line of the suit was definitely ruined by the bulky outline of the sidearm strapped to its shoulder holster beneath the jacket.
The new arrival was carrying a long bag, free of design or logo and from behind dark glasses, he looked around the bar. His eyes fixed on the figure in the corner and then turned to the barkeep.
“Close up,” he said and there was threat in the two syllables. “No more customers. Then find work in the cellar or out the back. Understand?”
The barkeep understood and although disappointment crept through him that he would not be able to listen in on the exchange, he was also rather fond of being alive. He produced another bottle of saké along with a spare cup and reluctantly set about the business of closing the bar. He ushered the waitress out the door early, he collected empty glasses and he bustled for as long as he could manage. The entire time, he felt the henchman’s hidden eyes on him.
“Done?” The henchman took up the offered bottle and cup. “Good. Now go.”
The man in the corner had not so much as looked up during this exchange but now he did, Seeing the barkeep leave, he pushed back his hood and stared up at the henchman from eyes that known no sleep for days. They were red-rimmed from grief and alcohol and several days of stubble graced the previously clean-shaven face. The young man’s hair, once his great vanity, hung limply in greasy strands that had been nowhere near a shower.
The henchman looked him over and shook his head. He set down the new bottle and squeezed into the seat opposite. “You look like death looks when it’s feeling particularly bad,” he observed artlessly. “Everyone’s looking for you, but frankly, I reckon they’d be disappointed if they found you.”
“You found me.” Despite how much he’d drunk, the man sounded remarkably sober.
“Yes, but then I knew where you’d be.” The man gestured at the empty sake bottles on the table. “At the bottom of a bottle.”
“Well done. Pour another.”
There was a long pause, then the henchman sighed again. “Fine,” he grumbled and upended the bottle into the other’s cup. He pushed it across the table and poured one for himself.
There was another long pause and then the henchman leaned forward on the table. Despite his resolve, the young man shrank back. It was a tiny movement, barely perceptible, but it was there. The henchman shook his head and started a quick-fire conversation, the kind he had shared with the other man all his life.
“We’ve been friends since we were children, Hanzo.”
“That was before.”
“You have nothing to fear from me.”
“That was before.”
Eyes locked, a silent war ensued. Hanzo, exhausted, grief-stricken and bereft of reason, was the first to look away. He’d never been the first to look away.
That was before.
The henchman, whose name as it so happened was Hayato and who had, indeed, been Hanzo’s friend since childhood clenched his jaw.
“I am not here to kill you, Hanzo.”
“Has my father put a contract out on my head yet?”
“It’s not formal, no. Not yet. It’s still too soon. However, I cannot lie. The reward is quite healthy. A man could have a comfortable retirement on a reward like that.” Their eyes met again. “Very healthy indeed. A man with a price like that on his head would do well to get extremely far away from Hanamura.” He pushed a sealed packet across the table and lifted the bag. “A man with a price like that on his head would need money to get out of the country and the means to defend himself against those who might seek to claim that reward.”
Hanzo stared at Hayato in silence for a few moments and then unzipped the bag. His hands closed around the familiar grip of the bow, neatly packed inside, its limbs not attached, its string carefully set in its own pouch waiting to be strung. He took out the riser for moment or two and hefted its weight, then he looked at his childhood friend.
“Why would you do this for me?”
“I told you, Hanzo. You are my friend. I have two sisters. You are the closest thing I ever had to a brother.”
It was the wrong choice of words. Hanzo’s face, momentarily showing vulnerability hardened again.
“And you have seen what becomes of my brothers, Hayato. You would be wise not to allow yourself to remain close to me.”
“I have no intention to remain close to you, Hanzo. Indeed, I plan to report that I checked this far afield and found nothing. In a moment, I am going to leave this bar and you are going to finish that drink and you are going to head west.”
“Is this money yours?”
Hanzo shook his head and pushed the envelope back across the table. “I cannot accept this. I will take the bow and you have my thanks. But I will not be a thief as well as a murderer.”
“Consider it payback for the times you helped me out.” The two men hesitated, both hands on the package and they met one another’s gaze. “If it helps, consider it a bribe for you to leave. Vanish. Let the Shimada clan continue their work and allow you to fade into obscure memory. It is easier this way, my friend.”
Hanzo, born and bred to carry himself with the grace and dignity appropriate to a scion of the Shimada clan, seemed to deflate. He buried his head briefly in his hands and Hayato coughed loudly and perhaps a little over-theatrically to cover the stifled sob that came from his friend and former employer. The uncomfortable moment passed and Hanzo finally nodded.
“Very well,” he said, “but I will find a way to pay you back.”
“That is a simple thing. Live, Hanzo. I have no wish to see both of my friends dead. I do this for our friendship and I do this because it is what Genji would want.”
“I have not spoken his name since…”
“You will speak his name again. When you feel ready to.”
Hayato drained his cup and stood. “I must go,” he said. “And so must you.”
Hanzo stood and in a moment of rarely demonstrated emotion, clasped his friend’s forearm in a warrior’s grip of friendship
“Yes,” Hanzo said. “I must go.” He gathered up the envelope and dropped it into the bag with the bow. He shouldered the bag and without further hesitation moved across the bar. His hand paused on the door and he glanced over at Hayato one last time.
“Thank you,” he said. “The strength of the dragons go with you.” Then he pulled up his hood and slid out into the gloaming.
“And you, Hanzo Shimada,” murmured Hayato and rose to his feet. He put his dark glasses back on and turned, very slowly, to face the barkeep whose sudden movement from behind the bar had caught his attention.
“That was Hanzo Shimada!” A statement, not a question.
“Yes,” replied Hayato. “Yes, it was.” He reached into his jacket, a motion missed by the excited, nosey barkeep whose thirst for gossip had brought him to this, his very last afternoon on Earth. If Hanzo was to stand a chance of getting clear of his father’s extensive reach, then nobody must know where he had gone.
When the issue of the barkeep had been dealt with, Hayato paused.
Nobody must know where he had gone.
The gun fired for a second time and outside the inn, the cherry blossoms eddied on the winds, pulled ever onward in the wake of the dragon of the south winds.