Bruce Wayne had a couple of errands to run that would take him to nearby villages.
The village that he was now staying in was rather remote. A road looped around a heavily forested hill, making a big oval and connecting the villages in this part of the district. From each village on the road, roads led away out to other places, but only rarely did an unused cart track or path lead off into the forest. For generations, the forested hill had a reputation for being haunted by some kind of spirit or creature; it was different, depending on who was telling the story. Perhaps for this reason, smugglers had in recent years used places in the forest for various purposes. Those villagers who were not concerned about spirits were concerned about the smugglers, so the result was that people generally didn't venture far into the forest, and some of those who did never came back.
For his part, the lieutenant of the police substation in a nearby village tried to patrol the road along the periphery of the forest, but he simply didn't have enough men to search the eight or so square miles of forest, especially considering how difficult the going was in there. Consequently, several times a day one would see a small pickup with three or four policemen in light blue shirts and dark blue, military-style pants, armed with submachine guns and assault rifles, patrolling along the road; occasionally, one would even see two such trucks on the road or in a village. However, the police didn't go in the forest without specific orders from the lieutenant, who would be acting on specific intelligence; and when they did go in, they went in in force.
"Stay to the road, Mr. Wayne; do not wander off into the forest!" cautioned the master when Bruce Wayne had first arrived in the village.
Today, Wayne planned to walk the entire loop, about twelve miles more or less, going from village to village conducting his errands. He needed to stop at the post office near the police substation, and there were some items that he wanted to buy that could only be purchased in other villages; there was no way he could not go at least two thirds of the way around the loop. Studying the map, he noticed, however, that due to the irregular shape of the hill, there was one place where the two sides of the loop were within a mile of each other. Some of the villagers indicated that there was a small network of trails connecting the two sides of the loop in this area, but the trails were heavily overgrown with brush and were not very safe physically -- that on top of the danger of spirits and smugglers. No matter, Wayne thought; it was a nice day for a walk, and he enjoyed the exercise.
"The culture here is different from in the West," the master had explained to him once. "When conducting any kind of business, it is prudent to try to not appear bigger than the people around you. You need to look small."
At six feet, three inches tall, athletic and muscular, Wayne towered over the Asian people among whom he lived. Upon hearing the master's advice, he just looked at the master. "And just how in the world am I supposed to do that?"
"Dress in dark clothes. That will help," the master explained. "And bow a lot," he added.
Heeding the master's advice, Wayne decided to dress in black military-style utility pants, similar to the ones the police wore, but black and not dark blue. He put on a brown short-sleeved shirt, and a large, flowing, but lightweight, black coat, mainly to keep the mosquitoes off him. He also put on a wide-brimmed black hat, reminiscient of a cowboy hat from the American West, to help keep the sun off him during the hot part of the day.
"Remember to take the hat off as you approach people," the master cautioned. "This is both as a sign of respect, and to not appear even taller than you are."
Looking at himself in the mirror, he felt he looked like a giant raccoon; no, he thought, with the hat and the large, loose coat, he looked more like a bird of some sort. He felt quite awkward, until the master's old friend stepped into the room and smiled, shaking Wayne's hand; with his limited English, the friend didn't know how to phrase his thoughts directly to Wayne, so he told the master instead, who translated: "He says you look very good. Impressive, he says," and, smiling, the master added, "like the villain in an American Wild West movie."
Feeling more secure with himself, and perhaps even a little adventurous, Wayne set out on his trip, making his way down the road to the first village.
Selena Kyle thought about how things had changed in her life. Some of the changes were for the good, although she now wondered what had prompted them.
Starting just under three years ago, her husband Nick had begun to be concerned for Selena's safety. Knowing she liked to stay in shape, he suggested she enroll in a martial arts class. She didn't really want to, but Nick pointed out similarities that martials arts shared with dancing and gymnastics, two arts that Selena had always loved and that she had practiced when she could, but Selena was still unsure.
Then Nick tempted her by finding an obscure form of kung fu that mimicked the movements of tigers. Since Selena had always been particularly fond of cats, that selling point clinched the deal, and she had attended regularly ever since. No longer needing to work due to a noticeable increase in income from Nick's investments, about the existence of which she had not previously been told, Selena was able to take full advantage of the training that the martial arts school had to offer, and she worked out at the school for two and sometimes three hours a day, usually three or four, but sometimes five, days a week.
Seeing her so content with her new hobby, Nick had converted a spare bedroom into a martial arts studio for days when Selena didn't feel like leaving the house, and even installed punching bags in the garage, which he himself enjoyed using after particularly bad days. Now approaching three years of intense studies in kung fu, Selena was looking forward to testing for her second-rank black belt. The instructors so appreciated her enthusiasm and dedication that they had already started teaching her second-rank black belt techniques several weeks back. Selena had long referred to herself as Nick's little kitten, but Nick had recently begun to jokingly correct her, calling her a tiger-lady. Regardless, since the advent of martial arts in her life, her love of felines had definitely taken on a new dimension, as she studied the movements and demeanor of cats of all sizes, and tried to mimic them.
Just under two years ago, Nick took Selena to a shooting range in a nearby state. Strict laws attempted to control access to firearms in Gotham City, though criminals somehow always managed to find a way to circumvent them; the real inconvenience was for law-abiding citizens, but fortunately, Gotham City was located in a corner of the state, and was just a short drive away from three other states. Furthermore, since those states were small, a little more driving would take someone through those states and into yet others. In one of those other states, about two hours drive from home, Nick and Selena found a shooting range that offered lessons.
On a Monday off from work, Nick took Selena to get her started on a week-long firearms training course. At first apprehensive, Selena came to enjoy shooting; she learned to clear everything out of her mind and focus on the target, controlling her breath and aiming carefully. By the end of the week, made long by the two-hour commute, Selena found shooting to be relaxing, even meditative, and returned to the shooting range periodically to stay in practice and to think.
On one such trip, one of the instructors, a former military man, introduced Selena to knife-throwing. At first, Selena had a terrible time with her new sport, this despite a reasonable degree of familiarity with knives from her kung fu class. The instructor, however, had an idea: bringing a tomahawk out from his office, he offered her a try throwing that, and, after a few throws, Selena had the hang of it. The proprietors of the range were quite pleased with their sale of tomahawks and throwing knives to their student, who, by this time, was by far their favorite customer, not just for her regular business and wonderful attitude, but also for her athletic good looks, which broke up an otherwise monotonous day at the range.
Selena's husband Nick was no less pleased, but more than a little surprised, when he got home that day and his wife asked him to help her set up a target for her new hobby. Once an improvised target was set up, Selena showed Nick how to throw a tomahawk, and Nick was excited at this new opportunity to share something with his beloved wife, especially since he felt he had drifted away from her in recent years; besides, he thought, being a Special Agent in the Gotham Bureau of Investigation could be a dangerous job, and who knows when such knowledge might come in handy?
The road was unusually quiet. About twenty minutes outside the village where he was staying, and perhaps ten minutes from his first stop, someone approached him from behind on a bicycle.
As the bicyclist pulled up next to Wayne, he heard a feminine voice. "Good morning," the voice said in English, almost without accent.
Removing his hat, Wayne turned and replied. "Good morning."
The woman was in her mid-twenties, and looked a little taller than most of the local people. She looked part European, part Asian; and, Wayne thought, she looked like the Asian side of her family might not be from around here.
"It is an honor to finally meet Bruce Wayne. I had heard you were staying in the village," she said cheerfully.
"I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage, Miss...."
"Oh, you can call me Talia."
"That's a pretty name," Wayne smiled.
"Thank you," Talia answered. "I like your hat, by the way. It makes you look like a villain in some American movie."
"I'm curious what brings you to this part of the world, Mr. Wayne," Talia inquired.
"Just learning a few things," he answered casually. Talia was quite attractive, and did not seem part of the local culture.
"Learning is easier when you have the right teacher," Talia commented. Wayne couldn't quite tell if she was flirting with him.
"Do you have anyone in mind?"
"Well, that depends on what you want to learn about."
Wayne thought about that comment. What indeed did he want to learn about?
"I guess I want to learn about myself."
"Ah! A look in the mirror; a glimpse at the man behind the mask that is Bruce Wayne." Talia looked at Wayne as if she had been expecting that answer. "For what purpose?"
Wayne thought a little harder. The conversation was interesting for the deep turn it immediately took. Talia was certainly an enchantress.
"I suppose I want to master myself."
"A wise choice." Talia looked at Bruce Wayne again. "Mastering others is strength, but mastering oneself is true power."
Wayne smiled. "With that in mind, can you suggest a teacher?" Wayne was kind of hoping she might suggest herself.
"You might try Ra's al Ghul."
Wayne looked at her. He wondered if it was just by accident that Talia rode up beside him.
"And who is Ra's al Ghul?"
"A man who has mastered himself."
"And just what can Ra's al Ghul do for me?"
"He can offer you that glimpse at the man behind the mask, Mr. Wayne," she answered cheerfully. "After all, what creature isn't fascinated by a mirror?"
"Supposing I were interested," Wayne looked at her, now knowing that it was not by accident that Talia rode up beside him, "what would I have to do?"
"That's the best part," Talia smiled. "You don't have to do anything at all." She looked at Wayne again, then added, "Enjoy your day, Mr. Wayne."
She began to ride a little faster, as Wayne called out, "Wait a minute. Will I see you again?"
"If you wish," she called back to him, already pulling far ahead.