October 3, 1967
As Iwao Hazuki entered the gates of the Walled City, he no longer feared wearing his family sword.
It was a lawless place, an island of traditional China in the receding sea of british imperialism. Its streets were narrow and cracked, still pools of tepid water gathered in potholes, and everything was permeated with the smell of mildew and refuse. The people were as stunted and bent as trees with inadequate sunlight, or weeds pushing out of the cracks in the concrete.
In complete contrast there was Iwao; tall, straight, with a countenance both stony and determined. He was in the prime of his manhood, his body lean and lithe from years of discipline. He wore traditional clothing, the wide-leg hakama of the swordsman's art, the gi that bore the markings of the Hazuki Dojo. And there was the sword, almost five hundred years old and still as sharp as the day it was forged. Keeping it in sight seemed imperative in a place like this.
He had left Japan with nothing to guide him but a name, released from the lips of his dying Grandfather. As soon as he had heard the name there was no doubt in his mind: it was his destiny. His Grandfather had seen it in Iwao's face before he had even responded. "I knew that you would make me proud," Izanagi Hazuki had said. "Our fathers will go with you." The crooked old hand had risen up and pointed to the Hazuki sword, displayed with honor beside the old shrine (Izanagi had insisted on being moved to the shrine room as soon as he had taken ill.)
"No," Iwao had said. "This blade is my father's blade."
"Your father would not take it if I offered it," Izanagi had said. "He has chosen a different path. This path is yours to take, this burden is yours to bear."
When Iwao had taken the blade it felt as heavy as an anchor. The rayskin of the hilt was cold to the touch. When he turned back to face his Grandfather he was gone. Iwao did not weep, for Izanagi's face appeared as if it had been released from all care. The last light of the dying sun lit his lifeless eyes, and to Iwao they appeared to glow with a soft light. "Rest easy, father of my father. I will find Him," Iwao had said, as he closed Izanagi's eyes.
Seas and storms and hostile borders had led him here, but his heart told him he was in the right place. But where to go? The name he bore was a dangerous one. Why else would Izanagi not mention it during all the years that Iwao had been instructed by him? It held power and age, it whispered of the past and promised things about the future. He had to guard it like a precious jewel, revealing it only to those that could be trusted. And yet, who could he trust? He was a stranger here, an outsider. His only companion was his ancient sword, his only friend himself.
His wanderings were quite aimless, but they eventually led him to a central square that opened to the pale autumn sunlight. There were many street side vendors plying all sorts of things, and a great mongolian grill sending stomach-rumbling scents into the air. He purchased some meat hot off the grill and sat at a table to eat it, hoping it was beef. It wasn't until he was halfway finished with his food that he realized that almost every eye in the square was on him. Some of the eyes were unkind and designing but most were simply curious. Iwao tried his best to ignore them. As he finished, he leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. He had not slept in over 24 hours. He would need to rest soon, he realized.
He heard the chair across from him scrape across the ground and felt the table shift as someone sat down. He opened his eyes. She was as beautiful as the morning. Her face was delicate and kind, her eyes as brown as a brook beneath a forest glade. His heart seemed to stop in his chest.
"Please, sit with me a moment. Pretend that you know me," she said. She looked frightened, he saw.
"What's the matter?" he asked. He couldn't pull his eyes from her. Her lips were summer red, the curve of her cheek an elegant line finer than any calligraphy. How old could she be? No more than eighteen surely, but she had a wisdom in her eyes that spoke of maturity and age.
"Look over my shoulder, those two men near the fountain. They have been following me. They mean me harm, I know." She tucked a strand of her night dark hair behind her ear. Iwao spotted them immediately. One of them was wearing a tan leisure suit. His eyes were shaded by designer sunglasses, he had a scar over the bridge of his nose. The other was wearing trousers and a tank top. He was smoking a cigarette. Iwao disliked the expressions on their faces. "They are Triads," she said. "Ruthless criminals."
"I won't let them harm you," Iwao promised her. "I don't care who they are."
"Don't say that!" she whispered, frantically. "If you stand against two of them you will find six of them waiting for you when you walk home tonight. They are without honor, but I don't think they will try anything with you here."
"They are walking this way," Iwao told her as he watched them weave their way through the tables, sometimes bumping or shoving to blaze their way.
"Oh no! We have to go, we have to run," she made to stand up. Iwao caught her hand and sat her down. She looked down at his big hand with a curious expression and a red blush worked its way across her face.
"Don't worry," he told her, suddenly abashed himself. They halted at the table. The one with the suit stood back a bit, his arms crossed. The one with the cigarette rested his hands on the table and leaned over to talk to the young woman.
"I thought you were gonna party with us. Who is this jerk?"
"My boyfriend!" the woman shouted. "Leave us alone!"
Now it was Iwao's turn to blush. He quickly stood, lest the woman see. She rose as well, standing behind him. His hand was on the hilt of the sword, and with a flick of his thumb the blade was freed an inch from the scabbard. This alone should have been warning enough for a intelligent man. The thug straightened up and puffed out his chest.
"I think you should leave right now," Iwao warned, sidestepping a few paces. The one in the suit reached into his pants and pulled out a switch blade. The other just laughed and puffed away on his cigarette.
"Which pawn shop did you find that in? Do you think I'm scared of some piece of scrap?"
Iwao exploded into motion. The sword leapt free of the scabbard and flashed in the sunlight. It twisted in his grip and then it was sliding softly into the scabbard again. There was a communal gasp that spread through the square and everything became as hushed as the dawn. The man looked white as milk. The little stub of cigarette that Iwao had left him hung from his lip, sliced as cleanly as a stalk of grass. "Next time it will be your neck," Iwao threatened. "Now walk away."
Every eye was watching the confrontation. No one so much as whispered. The man stepped back. His friend, the one with the sunglasses, looked ready to pounce. Iwao turned his cold eyes on him in deadly warning. The switchblade went back into the pocket.
"Lets go, Wong. We'll find him later," the man in the sunglasses said. Wong only nodded, unable to speak. He followed his friend out of the square, stooped with humiliation, disgraced in front of the people he swindled for a living.
Iwao looked back at the young woman. She was speechless with shock, at once frightened and flattered. "You must tread very carefully now," she told him. "Nevertheless, I am in your debt." With grace like a princess she bowed low before him.
"I did only what was right. Any man who causes others to live in fear has disgraced his ancestors and left himself in a place of dishonor," Iwao declared.
"Come with me, we should leave before they return," the woman said. She led him away from the square, out onto a cracked staircase that escaped the walls and descended into the sunlight. The land stretched out to the ocean before them, and for the first time since entering the city he felt the wind on his face. It carried a pleasing scent with it, salt brine and perhaps even a hint of lilies.
"We should wait here a while, until things cool down. I am aware of many hidden ways, places the Triads don't know about. This is one of them," she said. He could see her looking at him from the corner of his sight, searching him with those deep eyes. He turned away from the ocean and she quickly averted her gaze. "You're not Chinese, are you?" she asked, breaking the awkward silence.
"I am from Japan. My name is Iwao Hazuki."
"Well met, Iwao Hazuki. My name is Xuan," she said, smiling at him. "Xuan Zhao"