* * *
Chapter 2: Love in a Certain Country
The country was vast—too large to see the walls on the opposite side from the palace at the center of the land, let alone from one end of the country.
Other than the town around the royal palace, and the villages near the east and west gates, the country was composed mostly of farmlands and plains.
Several rivers coursed through the land, connected to a large lake in the southeast. Bright white clouds drifted slowly across the sky.
“He’s not here, either.”
“Damn it. Where could he have gone?”
Panicked attendants were rushing around the palace, slamming open doors and searching the chambers. One of them grabbed a maid and demanded to know where the king was. Terrified, she answered, “His Majesty is meeting a pair of travelers.”
“I know that! Where is he? They may have kidnapped His Grace!”
“Of course not,” the maid protested. But the attendant was skeptical. “It’s within the realm of possibility. I don’t trust those travelers—they look like they could kidnap anyone for profit without blinking an eye. Damn it, you start looking too!”
That was when the maid spotted three people approaching from the other end of the hallway.
One was a young man—the king of the country. Another was a slightly short but handsome man with blue eyes and blond hair. The third person was a woman with long dark hair, wearing an elegant jacket. The latter two were the travelers who were meeting the king.
“What is the meaning of all this commotion?” the king asked. The maid gave a deep bow. The attendant turned in confusion and bowed as well.
The king explained that he had been entertaining his guests over tea in the gardens. “These travelers have been telling me the most riveting stories about the world. Was all this commotion necessary?”
“Apologies, Your Grace.”
“Our guests will stay awhile before their departure. I shall be strolling through the palace, so do not bother searching for me.”
“Of course, Your Grace.”
The king and the travelers left as the attendant bowed apologetically.
A lone car left the palace grounds.
It was small, yellow, and just about on the verge of a breakdown.
In the driver’s seat was the female traveler. The male traveler sat in the passenger seat next to her.
The car rattled and sputtered as it made its way down the cobbled village road, engine ominously coughing up puffs of black and white smoke.
The man said, “Master, could we please do something about this broken window? A new pane of glass wouldn’t hurt our wallets that much.”
The broken driver’s-side window was narrowly hanging on, patched together with tape. It rattled loudly in its frame each time the car shook.
“Later,” said the woman.
The car left the town and made its way onto a narrow road cutting through farmlands. The only people around were the farmers working in the distance.
“Are you sure about this, Your Grace?” the man asked without warning. The king was huddling in the back seat, having comically stuffed himself under the luggage.
The king gave a laugh. “Yes. The king has no power in our country, anyway. My great-grandfather was the last to truly rule—the people don’t even know what I look like. My disappearance won’t hurt anyone but the minority whose job it is to use the people’s tax money on the work of dressing up their king and glorifying the monarchy.”
“I see,” the man said. The woman continued to drive in silence.
“And that is why I have no regrets about leaving my gilded cage. I choose to live for love,” the king declared.
“She must be very beautiful if you’re willing to leave the palace for her,” the man mused with a smile.
“Indeed,” said the king, “I tremble at the mere thought of her graceful countenance. And now I am on my way to be with her forever. My soul is writhing in ecstasy.”
“How did you meet her?”
“There was a festival at the village by the castle,” the king explained. “My attendants may not like it, but even I am allowed to participate, in the guise of a commoner. That was when I met her. She was from a farm on the border. The moment I set eyes on her, I heard the angels of love painting the very world again in their colors. I still remember that divine moment clearly.”
The man whistled, impressed. “But couldn’t you summon her to the palace to be your bride, Your Grace?”
“My ignorant, bigoted attendants wouldn’t have it. They said I was mad; called in doctors and tried to give me all sorts of medication. Saying that there were women more worthy of me. Hah! I see right through them. More like than not, they want me to marry a conceited girl from one of their manipulative families.”
“I see… You’re a real romantic, Your Grace. I approve.”
The king sounded downcast. “I am truly sorry to involve you like this, Travelers. And I am truly grateful. It is so kind of you to help me escape the palace, and for no recompense at that.”
The woman, who had been listening in silence for some time, finally spoke. “Your Grace, your devotion moved us to act. Being branded kidnappers is a small price to pay for your happiness.”
The man smiled. “It’s not as if our reputation could get much worse. You’ve chosen the right people for the job, Your Grace.”
“I shall never forget your generosity, friends. I swear to you, when my beloved and I have wed and children are born to us, we shall name our treasured progeny after you.”
“It’s an honor, Your Grace. I hope you have many beautiful children, and please raise your royal head. And I’m very sorry if my etiquette isn’t up to snuff,” said the man.
The car finally arrived at the boundary of the country, close enough for the ramparts to be visible. There was nothing but farmland all around. The king gave directions to the woman.
“There it is. That house standing alone on the prairie.”
“It’s a lovely house,” said the man.
The car stopped in front of the little hut. The silo in the back made it clear that it was a farmhouse.
With the man’s help, the king crawled out of the back seat and yelled at the top of his lungs, “Marie!” He scrambled to the building.
“So her name’s Marie,” the man said, grinning.
“Who is it?” asked a female voice from behind the house.
The king rushed around to the back. The travelers followed.
Behind the farmhouse was an animal pen and an artificial stream watered by a nearby well. A small wooden pail sat on the ground, and standing next to it was a young woman.
“Marie!” the king gasped, arms spread wide in elation.
The young woman looked up. Her long brown hair was tied into pigtails, and freckles dotted her youthful but beautiful face. She had rolled up her checkered sleeves and was watering a sheep out of her hands.
“Oh my,” said the young woman. She wiped her hands on her apron. “You’re the man I met at the festival.”
The king nodded gently. “I’m so glad you remember me,” he murmured, pausing, “Ever since that day, I couldn’t stop thinking back to the moment we met. I knew it was fate. So I decided to throw away my life in the capital and come here. I swear, my love shall never grow cold. So please let me stay here with you. Please.”
The young woman seemed a little surprised, but she smiled. “I understand. Then will you live here and help with the work?”
“You have my word, my lady,” the king replied immediately.
The young woman gave an embarrassed look and averted her gaze, but asked slowly and resolutely, “And…you’ll be gentle?”
The king looked her in the eye. “I swear by the very heavens.”
Embarrassed but glad, the young woman gave a firm nod. The king slowly walked up to her. And as the travelers watched, he got down on one knee.
“Marie!” he cried, wrapping his arms around the sheep drinking water out of the pail. “Marie! Oh, my dearest Marie!”
The sheep bleated.
An indescribable look came over the male traveler’s face.
The female traveler stood, expression unchanging. She finally said, “If you’ll excuse us, then.”
The small, rickety yellow car sputtered across the plains, engine wheezing. The ramparts in the side-view mirror grew lower and lower on the horizon, eventually disappearing altogether.
The man was fiddling with his favorite persuader in the passenger seat. It was a slender model with a rectangular barrel and a weight.
But he soon grew bored and holstered the persuader. “Master,” he said.
“Was that really right, getting the king to Marie?”
“Who knows?” the woman replied. “As long as they’re happy.”
“I suppose so…” the man sighed. “By the way, Master. I’m very impressed.”
“The fact that you did work for no profit, outcome notwithstanding. You’re more of a romantic than you let on.”
The woman cast him a glance. “Maybe I am. Check under my seat.”
Curious, the man reached over and pulled up a sack. It was surprisingly heavy, filled with sparkling jewelry, gemstones, and coins.
A stunned silence fell over the man. “Er…Master? Where did you…?”
“The king’s chambers and the hallways. I decided to help myself while we were packing,” the woman said without so much as blinking.
“Does the phrase ‘robbing a burning house’ ring a bell?”
“Of course,” the woman replied, and added, “He won’t need it anyway. Besides…”
“Our reputation couldn’t get any worse if we tried.”
The little yellow car continued, coughing up white smoke.
“Once the palace finds out, they’ll start distributing wanted posters to passing travelers.”
“I don’t mind. Or shall we go back and return the spoils?” the woman said, stopping the sputtering car. Black smoke rose from under the hood.
The man in the passenger seat thought for a moment and finally said, “Master, could we please do something about this broken window?”
“Later,” the woman said, stepping on the gas pedal again.
* * *
Chapter 3: At the Riverside
My name is Riku. I am a dog.
I have long, soft, white fur. I may always look like I'm smiling, but I was just born with this look; it doesn't necessarily mean I am happy all the time.
My owner is Master Shizu. He is a young man who always wears a green sweater. Having lost his home under complex circumstances, he now travels the world on a buggy.
We were in a forest lush with the colors of spring. The morning sun beamed down warmly from above.
Next to us was the sound of rushing water, and a wide waterfall jutting off a shelf-shaped boulder. The waterfall urned into a river that snaked between the towering trees and short grass.
Parked in the middle of the river was a buggy, its tires submerged halfway. Master Shizu was cleaning it, his sleeves rolled up and his jeans soaked to the knees. I sat at the riverside, watching his boots, bag, and sword, and looking out for potential attackers. We were in no rush. Birds were chirping in the distance.
We arrived here the previous evening and camped out for the night. And this morning, after bathing and doing the laundry in the river, Master Shizu forced me into the water and gave me a bath as well. I was almost dry.
Afterwards, he did something very unusual.
“We should clean him up once in a while,” he said, driving the buggy into the shallows. Master Shizu began scrubbing the dirt and grease off the frame, as he had with me earlier. The water under the buggy turned dark for a time, but eventually cleared.
The country we visited most recently never said so openly, but it was clear from the people’s attitudes that they had no patience for outlanders.
Master Shizu never said so openly, but he could sense how they felt. Without even looking for work, he bought and sold what he could and departed in the evening.
The birds were chirping.
Master Shizu dipped a rag into the water, wrung it out, and wiped the buggy and the seats with it. But partway through, he fell into thought and came back to the riverside. I watched curiously as he picked up a fallen branch and took it back to the buggy.
With the branch, he dusted off the mud clinging to the pipe frame.
I decided to ask him something I had never asked before. Where had Master Shizu gotten the buggy?
“I could’ve sworn I told you,” he said, surprised, and explained as he wiped the buggy clean.
Master Shizu said that before he met me, he had once been forced to travel on foot because there were no merchants in need of bodyguards to the next country, which was mercifully not very far. It was during this trip that he found himself in what was once a battlefield. A fierce war had raged there, leaving behind broken-down vehicles and frozen corpses under a thin layer of snow.
He had searched the bodies and vehicles for valuables, examining each and every wrist and finger. But he turned up nothing. Instead, Master Shizu had discovered the buggy. Miraculously, it was still intact and the engine was still in working order. Master Shizu hefted the bodies off the buggy and gathered fuel and fuel tanks from nearby vehicles, taking the buggy for himself.
I see, I replied. Master Shizu chuckled and added that after driving for some time, the buggy began to stink. When he inspected it, he said, he found a rotting arm stuck under the frame.
Master Shizu said that he had not done proper maintenance on the buggy since, and that he had barely ever washed it.
He bent down, disappearing behind the buggy. A moment later, he gave a surprised gasp, standing back up with something in his hands.
It was a thin metal plate. The plate was the same color as the buggy, folded with a hinge to the size of a notebook. “It was stuck in the frame,” Master Shizu said, dropping the branch and unfolding the plate.
The fallen branch drifted downstream and disappeared from sight. Master Shizu smiled, holding up the plate in both hands.
I asked him what was on it. He waded through the currents and held it open in front of me.
The plate was engraved with a message.
Our beloved buggy,
We go out to war. We shall fight for our country and the families waiting for us.
We are soldiers. We are prepared to die.
Only by fighting to the death can our country emerge victorious and our families remain safe.
Our beloved buggy, you will fight and die with us.
We were born to do battle. We were born to pierce the enemy’s ranks and charge through their barrage.
You are our place of battle. Our final resting place.
And once we have all expired, you, too, will die with us inside you.
It was a letter from the soldiers to the buggy.
When I looked up, I spotted Master Shizu with his gaze locked on the buggy. “He’s just like us,” he said.
I stared, confused. Master Shizu smiled. “He should have died, but ended up surviving.”
Master Shizu picked up the plate, folded it up, and tossed it away.
The plate spun rapidly and landed in the river. Then it sank.
Master Shizu took the driver’s seat and started the engine. It seemed to sing.
When he brought the buggy to shore, water dripped off the frame and onto the grass.
He wiped his legs and feet, put on his boots, and loaded the buggy. I leapt up to the passenger seat; it was still slightly wet, and so was I, but we would dry soon.
“That mechanic was pretty good,” Master Shizu said, enjoying the sound of the engine.
I remembered the snow, the overcast sky, and the white, desolate plains that seemed to stretch on forever underneath.
Yes, I agreed.
Master Shizu turned. “Let’s get going.”
I asked him where we were headed.
“I’m not sure. Someplace I don’t know.”
With that, the buggy carried us off.