And no, I haven't forgotten The Story of One Continent. The next chapter is on its way soon, hopefully by next week.
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Bonus Chapter: The Story Behind the Paintings
My name is Riku. I am a dog.
I have long, soft white fur. I look like I am always smiling, but that does not mean I am always happy. I was simply born with this face.
I am on a journey.
Not myself, specifically. The one on a journey without a destination is my master Shizu, and I am simply following him. Although I suppose that means I am also on a journey as well.
Master Shizu is a young man who always wears a green sweater. He was born into a royal family.
The royal family and its subjects were modest people in a humble country. But when Master Shizu was 15 years old, his father led a coup d’état and killed the then-king and his relatives, taking the throne for himself. Master Shizu narrowly escaped and swore revenge, and devoted all he had to killing his sworn foe. That was when I met Master Shizu.
After some time, Master Shizu returned to his homeland, which had been plunged into depravity. He returned in order to participate in a butcher’s excuse of a tournament for citizenship, where he would kill his sworn enemy as he was being awarded the champion’s medal. Knowing full well that he himself would be killed on the spot for the act.
I tried to stop him, saying that his plan would make no difference. But I failed to convince Master Shizu.
He fought his way up the bracket, finally reaching the finals.
“You’re free to wherever you will, Riku. It was fun being with you all this time. But now I have to do my duty.”
He walked into the final match—which would result in his death whether he won or lost—with a suitably majestic command. And I watched him go without a word.
Master Shizu was defeated by a young traveler named Kino. Kino was admittedly a powerful opponent, but I was nonetheless conflicted as I watched Master Shizu outmatched at every turn.
But the traveler changed Master Shizu’s fate. Because Master Shizu’s sworn enemy was killed by a supposed stray bullet from the traveler’s persuader.
Though he lost the battle, Master Shizu was alive. And his wish had been granted.
Master Shizu caught up to the traveler outside the country to express his gratitude. I will never forget the traveler who saved Master Shizu’s life. Although the traveler’s motorrad, on the other hand, was an unpleasant piece of scrap.
Afterwards, Master Shizu decided to continue traveling until he found something he wanted to do, and went from one country to another. And I remained at his side.
“A painting of a tank? Interesting,” Master Shizu said.
We were in the lobby of a hotel in a certain country. A large oil painting was displayed on the wall. It depicted a tank in the heat of battle.
Master Shizu put down his things next to me. The large canvas bag that never left him, inside which was his beloved sword.
He made to jump over the sofa to look at the paining. But—
“Pardon me, sir.”
A bellhop arrived with a stepladder. He set it up before the painting and took it off the wall.
“Are you taking it down? I wanted a closer look,” Master Shizu asked, looking confused.
The bellhop turned without a word. The hotel owner came up to Master Shizu.
“My deepest apologies, sir,” he said. “We simply cannot stand to leave that painting on the wall any longer. It is shameful.”
“Shameful?” Master Shizu repeated.
“That’s correct. It’s…well, it would be a poor fit for the standards of our establishment.”
“Why do you say that? It’s in a fine frame, and there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with the painting to my eyes,” replied Master Shizu.
A complicated look crossed the hotel owner’s face. It seemed like he wanted to explain everything, but would be terribly embarrassed to do so.
“Er…that is to say…” he hesitated. “Ah! Traveler, have you gone to the plaza yet?”
The plaza was almost precisely at the center of the country. It was part of a generic park with lawns, playground equipment, and a fountain.
By the time we arrived, the plaza was already crowded with people standing around a massive bonfire. The size of the flames made me wonder if they were burning a car.
When we drew near, we realized that they were burning countless paintings. Paintings big and small were thrown into the fire one after another. Master Shizu asked to see one of the paintings for a moment before it was burned. It depicted yet another tank, painted by the same artist.
When Master Shizu handed back the painting, the townsperson immediately cast it into the bonfire. The canvas burned away in the blink of an eye.
Then the crowd before the fire parted, making way for a truck. The box of the truck was opened and yet more things were poured into the flames. Thick books. The people were practically clamoring to throw in the copies.
Each time the books burned and the fire grew, the crowd cheered.
Master Shizu picked up a copy. It was an artbook featuring the works of the tank-painter. It was beautifully bound and clearly expensive.
“Are you a traveler? Do you want to keep that book?” asked an old woman. A middle-aged man, who seemed to be her son, was pulling her by the hand.
Master Shizu shook his head in response.
“Then give it here; I’m going to toss it myself.”
Master Shizu glanced at me before handing the book to the old woman. She threw it into the bonfire with both hands.
“It seems like a bit of a waste,” Master Shizu said, his eyes on the fire. The old woman snorted and replied as if outraged.
“These pictures are waste. Nobody here’ll be satisfied with anything less than a fire this size.”
“You’re burning so many paintings and books. I’d like to know why you’re going this far.”
“Because we were all swindled,” said the old woman.
“What do you mean?”
The middle-aged man replied in the old woman’s place. “We were duped into buying these worthless paintings at ridiculous prices. We won’t be satisfied until we burn every last piece of scrap this swindler sold.”
“I have no intention of stopping you, but could you tell me exactly what happened? I’d like to know, if it’s not too sensitive of a question,” Master Shizu asked with a serious look.
For a moment, the man averted his eyes. But the old woman urged her son to respond.
“Go on. Tell the traveler what happened.”
The man finally replied. “There was a civil war in our country five years ago. Brother killing brother, and sister killing sister. We’d been carrying the wounds ever since.”
“Around two and a half years ago, the wounds were just beginning to heal—that was when these grotesque tank paintings began to gain popularity.”
“The ones you’re burning right now.”
“Yes. …The first few people to see these paintings began babbling about how they were lofty anti-war messages. Said they were masterpieces. The people of our country—myself included—bought into that nonsense,” the man said, looking embarrassed.
“I see,” Master Shizu replied. “So the artist’s works must have sold well, and the prices must have skyrocketed.”
“That’s right. People were lining up to purchase tank paintings. Rich people were even more fervent to fuel their ego, buying up one painting after another. Poor people like me resorted to artbooks or cheap imitations. It was like we’d become a nation of art critics. Every no-name Joe out there would declare works masterpieces or pontificate about the horrors of war. Including myself.”
“Then what happened?”
“Everyone came to their senses as the fad began dying out. We realized that there was no meaning to a war that’s already five years past. We understood that those wounds were long healed. And that we’d squandered untold amounts of money on these trivial paintings.”
“I see. Everyone is so angry at themselves that they’re burning these paintings to erase all evidence of having been fooled,” Master Shizu exclaimed cynically. The middle-aged man, on the other hand, was completely deflated. Explaining their story must have made him remember things he did not want to recall.
“It really was foolishness,” he said, sadness tinting his face. “Even when the paintings first became popular, we already had it in us to truly enjoy peace. We should have buried our wounds and enjoyed the present—lived more optimistically. That was where we should have spent our money, not on these worthless paintings. The only ones who’re better off now are the artist and the gallery that had a monopoly on his works. Be careful you don’t end up like us, Traveler.”
Then the man disappeared limply with his mother in tow. Master Shizu watched them depart and glanced down at me.
“They say they were swindled. What do you think, Riku?”
“They reaped what they sowed,” I replied plainly. “Which is why I truly pity them.”
Master Shizu took several steps forward and basked in the light.
Barring unusual circumstances, Master Shizu does not stay too long in one country. We decided to leave the next day because there was little to see in this one. Master Shizu refueled the buggy early in the morning and loaded it with all the rations and water we would need.
He drove toward the gates. I gazed ahead from the passenger seat.
There was still a thick cloud cover in the cold winter sky. It could have easily started snowing any minute. Master Shizu seemed to be cold, because he pulled on a waterproof parka over his sweater and put on goggles and gloves.
Suddenly, he slowed down. We were driving through the outskirts of the country, so close to the looming ramparts that looking up at the top of the walls was painful. We were surrounded by fields that were completely empty for the winter.
Ahead was a small three-wheeled truck. Sitting in a chair next to it was a young man. An easel with a white canvas was set up in front of him. He sat with his back to the scenery, simply staring at the grey walls.
Master Shizu slowly approached him. The young man looked up, also slowly. He looked about as energetic as a corpse.
“What do you think, Riku?” asked Master Shizu.
“Likely the same thing you are thinking, Master Shizu.”
“Hm. But we might both be wrong.” He turned off the engine. “Hello there.”
When Master Shizu disembarked, the young man gave us a slight nod, still seated.
“It’s unusual to see a buggy like this,” said the young man. “Are you a traveler?”
“Yes. I was just leaving the country. And you are? Why are you painting outside on such a cold day?”
“Actually, I don’t paint anymore.”
Master Shizu cast me a glance.
“But you did in the past, then?”
Master Shizu went straight to the point. “You painted tanks, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I did,” the artist replied.
“I saw some of your works. They weren’t bad at all. It was harsh of the people to go so far as burning them,” said Master Shizu. I did not know if he meant what he said.
“They used to buy my paintings like crazy. But suddenly, no one wants them anymore. It really was sudden. But I don’t mind that. I was happy enough to paint tanks. But to burn them just because they don’t need them anymore… It breaks my heart. I worked so hard on those paintings.”
“I see,” Master Shizu said, eyes grave. The artist continued blankly.
“So I said to them, ‘if you’re going to burn them, just give them back to me. I’ll hang them up in my house, and maybe I could add to them.’ But they all said to me, ‘don’t be ridiculous,’ or ‘we won’t be satisfied until we burn them to cinders.’ It’s awful. Even the gallery owner stopped being kind to me. ‘I don’t need them anymore. Your paintings will never sell again. They were a fad, but that’s because everyone had gone mad about them. Look, you and me both made a killing. Thanks to you, I can quit this job and enjoy my life. So can you. But don’t go back to painting, you never had any talent to begin with.’ Do I have a good memory or what?” the artist asked with a self-deprecating smile. “I made a fortune. And earned myself a lot of enemies, too. They say I hoodwinked them. But all I did was paint the tanks I love so much.”
“How are you doing now?”
“I’d been setting up my easel wherever I felt like, but if I do that near people, they throw rocks at me. So I just sit here, where no one else is around. I don’t paint tanks anymore. I want to, but I just can’t work up the motivation. So I’m just painting meaningless doodles to make myself feel better. To take all my pain and transplant it onto this canvas. It’s not fun, but it’s better than nothing.”
“Oh? May I see what you’ve done so far?”
The artist glanced at the box of his truck.
Master Shizu asked for permission before opening the box and picking up the oil painting inside.
I had no knowledge about or interest in art. But I was shocked to see Master Shizu gasp at the sight of the painting.
For a moment, he was lost for words.
The painting depicted many people. All were wearing different expressions, but it seemed as though they were all laughing. Laughing at something.
Soon, Master Shizu broke his silence. “Have you…shown this work to a gallery, or anyone else?” he asked, eyes still on the canvas.
“Hm? No. But people have seen me work on it.”
“What did they say?”
“That it was a waste of paint.”
Master Shizu was silent.
“I don’t mind. It’s not like enjoyed working on it.”
Master Shizu gingerly put down the painting and turned back to the artist. “Pardon me, but I…I have a bit of expertise in art. I grew up surrounded by paintings back in the pal—I mean, my hometown. And…someone I knew back home was a bit of a connoisseur, and I picked up things he used to say here and there…”
Master Shizu was very excited. It was an unusual sight indeed.
Master Shizu’s home was the royal palace, and the art connoisseur he spoke of was his father. Before the coup, Master Shizu’s father had spent a fortune on his collection of paintings.
“So…er…these paintings are…they’re splendid. So what I mean to say is…er…”
He paused, perhaps frustrated that he could not express himself properly. Then he raised his voice.
“Why?! Why in the world is this not selling?! Are the people here all blind?!”
The artist did not even blink. “I don’t mind if it never sells. I have plenty of money. The money I supposedly swindled from the people. I’ll always be able to feed myself.”
Master Shizu could not speak for some time. But he soon opened his mouth again. “Have you considered taking your painting to another country?”
“Some of the countries I’ve visited might buy works like this. At a handsome price, at that. Critics will rave about it. What do you say?” Master Shizu said quickly, seeming excited. But the artist’s expression remained dark.
“I’m not interested.”
“You can keep it if you want, if you promise you won’t burn it. I can give you all the ones I did so far, in fact. You said you could sell them for a good price.”
A shadow came over Master Shizu’s face. “I’m afraid I can’t do that. It’ll be difficult to transport them on my buggy without damaging them. It really is a shame. But I have another idea.”
“I’ll advertise for you when I go to other countries. Someone might come to buy your paintings. They’ll sell very well.”
The artist shook his head.
“I don’t care how much I sell them for. I have lots of money. And to be honest, I don’t want to work on these strange paintings. I wouldn’t want to work on them for commissions. I just want to paint tanks, honestly. I…”
Slowly, the artist broke down sobbing. Tears ran down his cheeks.
“I love tanks. I want to paint them. But I can’t do that anymore.”
The artist opened the box at his feet and took out his tools. He squeezed paint onto his palette and began to work spontaneously. Like the others, this was a painting of people who seemed somehow to be laughing.
Sniffling, the artist completed the painting with frightening speed. Master Shizu watched all the while in silence. He was probably half-moved and half-astonished.
“Whew…I guess I’ll go home for the day,” the artist mumbled, and packed up his tools. He seemed to have no interest whatsoever in his painting. He put the canvas on his chair and folded up the easel and loaded it on the truck. The moment the artist picked up the painting, Master Shizu seemed to come to his senses.
“Wh-what will you do with the painting?”
“Nothing. I don’t want to throw it out, so I’ll put it away somewhere. You can have it, if you’d like.”
Master Shizu stood frozen for a time, eyes wide. He eventually gave several slight shakes of the head, but he never once took his eyes off the painting.
“Well?” asked the artist.
Master Shizu slowly reached for the painting.
“And where would you hang it, Master Shizu?” I asked.
“Urgh!” Master Shizu grimaced. And he slowly withdrew his hands. “I’m afraid I can’t take it. It really is a shame.”
The artist loaded the painting onto the truck. With a short word of goodbye, he drove off into the distance and disappeared.
Master Shizu returned to the buggy and sat in the driver’s seat. He looked ahead and patted my head.
“It’s cold here.”
“It certainly is,” I replied.
Master Shizu sighed loudly and started the buggy.