The murmur of voices had that peculiar polyglot cadence of a mixture of languages.  English dominated, as it always did, a combination of sheer numbers and the decibel level of its native speakers.  But Japanese was a close second, and the lilting tones of French wove in and out like snatches of melodic static.  The excitement level was high, matched by the energy of people in motion, going from one to another, hands and arms outstretched.

“Parker-san.”  It was a strong voice, cutting through the din as neatly as though it had been pitched perfectly for one listener without seeming like a shout.

Chris Parker glanced up as the automatic shading in his glasses finally began to fade.  He smiled and waited until the man who had called to him came closer, and then bowed low in greeting.  His bow was met by one noticeably less deep, and they both smiled when they rose to look at each other.

Sakai Tetsuo hadn’t changed much in the three years since they had last met in person.  His hair was a dense mixture of gray and white, trimmed just a little longer than current Tokyo fashion, his blue suit impeccably tailored and pressed, his shoes hand-made and Italian.  His tie was knotted tight to his throat, perfectly neat, matched by the shining peaks of his pocket square. He was only slightly taller than Chris Parker, and as they shook hands, they looked like a strange pair of brothers, small and compact and precise in every movement.

“You are looking excellent, my friend,” Tetsuo said warmly.  “It has been too long!  You must stay after the conference and come back to Tokyo and visit with me.”

“Oh, no, Sakai-san, I must look like something the cat dragged in. Spending a day on airplanes doesn’t do much to improve one’s disposition or appearance. Thank you very much, but you are too kind.” Chris ruefully ran a hand through his hair and shook his head. “I would love nothing more than to visit with you, and it might be possible.”  He avoided the direct and rude negative that they both understood would have been improper, and Tetsuo nodded slightly in pride.

“You are always a welcome guest,” he said simply.  “Perhaps we could speak later, upon some insignificant items concerning mutual business?”

Chris hid his shock at Tetsuo’s directness.  To bring up business first was unknown of in this rigid instructor in all things Japanese.  “I am at your service,” Chris answered, this time in Japanese.

Tetsuo smiled again. “Excellent!  In this too, you have improved,” he said.  “But perhaps we shall speak English, so that I may practice my own poor efforts?”  They could continue this dance back and forth all night — as in fact, they had, on several occasions.  The rhythm of Japanese conversation, especially concerning business, was soft, rolling, and required patience which few untutored Westerners could finesse.  However, Tetsuo’s English was excellent, a language he had begun to learn as a child and had honed with years in America.  His business acumen was also honed in America, with a Harvard MBA.  Chris’ Japanese was of much more recent vintage and rudimentary at best.  The areas of knowledge which he had studied both at college and during his first extended contact with Tetsuo would simply not be adequate to the subtle nuances of negotiation.

“I will be honored to see you at your convenience,” Chris said, inclining

his shoulders slightly.  Tetsuo immediately reciprocated, and they two of them straightened at the sound of a delighted lowpitched laugh.

“I could watch you all day, bobbing up and down like those strange toys in the backs of American cars,” Ken Mandarin said, sliding up to them.  Today, she was not in her usual Western cross-dressing drag, but in a stunning Japanese outfit.  She whirled for their approval, indigo hakama trousers flaring out, the heavy jacket wrapped more tightly around her body than perhaps necessary or customary.

The two men bowed to her and she laughed again, dipping elegantly into an enormously exaggerated one.  “All this up and down, up and down!” she exclaimed, tossing her head back.  “One might get dizzy!”

“I see you’ve already been shopping,” Chris said.

“What, this old thing?” Ken looked pleased, though, and she leaned forward to give him a peck on the cheek.  “And look at you!!” she exclaimed, backing up to arms length.  “I like your new haircut!  Very modern, oui?” She glanced lightly to her right. “Good to see you, Sakai.”

“A delight to see you again,” Tetsuo said, his voice equally light.  But they both had acquired a slight edge.  ““ did not realize that your name also revealed an interest in a martial art.”

“It’s Ken-da, not ken-do,” Ken answered.  “And I wouldn’t know which end of that bamboo sword to hold, let alone how to beat my opponent to bits.  But this – this is a fine outfit, no?” Her eyes became sharply drawn; no matter why she choose an outfit more suited for a dojo, she was clearly ready for some kind of battle. There was a reason why Ken did not often work in Asia, but preferred the West.  Her battles with the various Marketplace establishments in the Far East were legendary, as were her father’s before he died; they had both shared a marked dislike of the Japanese block for their own reasons.  Memories were long in the East, she would sometimes say with a shrug.  No matter how carefully the Marketplace cultivated an air of neutrality, there were always political and historical differences between some people. Chris was grateful for the sight of a convenient excuse to move on.

“Michael!” Chris snapped.  “Find out what room I’m in and don’t dawdle.”

“Yes, sir,” Michael said, struggling with the luggage and too obviously dismayed that he couldn’t join in the mingling.  As slaves approached, he had to shake his head over and over again, until the message spread not to help him. He turned toward the registration room to the left of the main stairs and both Ken and Tetsuo relaxed somewhat at the distraction.  Tetsuo was the first to excuse himself, omitting the usual reminder to schedule a meeting, and Ken kissed Chris again and gave him a hug.

“Is that the boy you told me about?” she said appraising Michael’s body from behind, cocking her head as if she could see his hips and flanks through the hanging garment bag.  Apparently the edge she had acquired was gone again as she switched her attention to something new.  “Pretty!  Lend him to me.  I’ve brought the Two – they haven’t had a toy in months!”

Chris chuckled at the thought of Ken’s rapacious matched set of personal servants and what twisted and exhausting use they could make of Michael.  He nodded.  “Done,” he said.  “But there is a price.”

“Anything!” she replied extravagantly.  Then, her eyes narrowed again and she adopted an arms akimbo stance that looked rather appropriate in her new outfit.  “Oh, you mean a real price!” she said accusingly.  She wagged her finger at him, making tsking sounds between her teeth.  “You should know better, white boy.  The proposal you’ve placed before the Academy is more complicated than it seems to be — I am still not quite comfortable with all the potential…ramifications.”

Chris shrugged.  “I am sure we can find some grounds to agree upon,” he said.  “But I was really thinking of asking you for a proper introduction to your friend from Seattle and the junior she’s brought with her.”

Ken had the decency to look abashed, and Ken Mandarin looking ashamed was quite a sight.  “I am so sorry,” she said, with just the slightest evidence of a blush underneath her wheat colored skin.  “Of course, I shall introduce you to Marcy, she wishes to make your acquaintance as well.  Naturally!  But now, you must excuse me, so that I can go and commit suicide over my stupidity.”  She reeled away in a false swoon, and threw herself through the open panels of the exterior wall into the garden beyond.  Her gutter Cantonese trailed behind her as she cursed herself.  Chris smiled as he saw two Chinese gentlemen gaze after her in shock and horror.

But her gaffe had communicated more than she had perhaps thought.  Chris’ smile faded as he turned to look for Michael, thinking of the comfort of a long, hot bath.  It wasn’t even the first day of The Academy, and the battle flags were out.  And for the first time ever, he wasn’t the squire on this crusade — he was a goddamn knight.