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Chapter 6: The Country of Liars
-Waiting For You-
Travelers were only permitted through one of the gates.
The guards at the western gate informed Kino and Hermes that travelers were not permitted though, and pointed them to the road leading to the southern gate. Kino requested a three-day stay and was granted permission.
Kino pushed Hermes through the gates. Just inside was a forest sprawling with thick trees.
Red leaves carpeted the ground and the lone road leading further in. A cold wind shook both the branches and Kino’s coat.
Just as Kino made to start Hermes, a man came running from the woods.
He was about thirty years of age, wearing a light button-down shirt and a thick indoor vest.
The man looked Kino in the eye. His face fell.
“What’s with him?” Hermes wondered. “Who knows?” Kino replied.
Crossing his arms to warm himself, the man came up to Kino. “Hello, Traveler. Have you by any chance seen my beloved? Has she told you about me, or given you any messages for me?”
Kino shook her head.
“I see… My beloved had to leave on a journey five years ago. But she promised that she’d come back to me. So I’m waiting for her even now,” the man explained without being prompted.
Soon, a woman in an apron came running up to them. She had short hair, and was about the same age as the man. In her hand was a warm jacket.
“Please don’t rush out like that. It’s getting cold; you’ll get sick.”
“Yes, you’re right. I’m sorry. It’s just that I thought she’d come back for me. But it wasn’t her this time, either,” the man replied, putting on the jacket.
Hermes quietly drew Kino’s attention to something in the forest. A house surrounded by trees.
“Does everyone here live in the forest?” Kino asked.
“No, there’s a city a little further north,” the man replied. “This here is my housekeeper. She does a fine job keeping things in order, so I can spend my days waiting for my beloved to return. I owe her so much,” the man said, and sneezed loudly.
“Let’s get back inside now, or you really will catch cold.” the housekeeper coaxed.
“Will it be much longer, do you think?” asked the man, “Until she comes back?”
“She’ll come back someday. I promise. Now let’s get you inside,” said the housekeeper, giving the man a gentle push on the back.
The man turned to Kino one last time. “Are you sure you haven’t seen her? You’re not hiding anything, are you?”
Kino shook her head again.
Shoulders sagging, the man hung his head and went on his way. The housekeeper raised her voice, telling him to not trip on the way. She turned to Kino and whispered matter-of-factly, “I’m sorry, Traveler. He’s not in his right mind. Whatever he asks you, just tell him you don’t know anything.”
The woman’s tone softened. “Please excuse us. It’s a short walk to the city. Take care of yourself; the road is bumpy.”
Kino thanked the housekeeper and watched the pair depart. Then she started Hermes.
The next day started off with a light but cold rain.
Kino unfolded the collar of her coat and went around town to buy supplies. Afterwards, she went to a large restaurant for lunch. She asked permission to bring Hermes inside, and propped him up by her table next to the door.
Soon they were swarmed by curious townspeople, most of whom had never seen a traveler. Kino spoke with them over tea.
When one of them asked if Kino had any questions, Hermes asked, “There was a man living in the woods by the gate. What’s wrong with him?”
The restaurant went quiet in an instant. People’s faces fell, eyes brimming with sadness.
There was a moment of silence.
“Er…he’s…he’s a pitiful man,” someone said. Everyone else nodded.
“I think I’m the best person to talk about this,” said a man about thirty years of age. The person sitting across from Kino agreed and gave him the seat.
“Hello, Traveler. I’m a friend of the man you met—we’ve known each other for over a decade. Now I work for the government,” he said solemnly.
The man explained that until five years ago, the country had been ruled by a tyrannical king, who was over thrown in a revolution.
“The two of us were in the police. He was a real good one, too; smart, skilled, and a good man, perfect for leading the revolution. They appointed him captain of the squad assigned to infiltrate the palace and kill the royal family. I was his subordinate,” the man said. “He had a girlfriend. A girl from a farm near the border. They met in town about a year before the revolution, when she was out selling vegetables. I was there too. They were getting along so well, I was sure they’d get married. But…”
The man paused there and breathed a heavy sigh.
“But the revolution was near. I asked him what would happen to her if he died. He didn’t answer. Not long after that, we got our orders. The date was set. And he told us that he’d broken up with the girl. She didn’t want to, he said, but he had no idea if he’d make it out alive, and he couldn’t tell her what he was about to do. So he broke it off. Told us that he’d lied to her.”
“I see. And the revolution must have succeeded,” Kino guessed.
The man nodded. “We killed the royal guards and charged into the palace. That’s when we happened across the royal family, just as they were getting ready to escape. All of us covered my friend, and he threw a bomb at the car. He was a hero.”
“Then what happened?” Hermes asked.
The man continued sadly. “He saw something he shouldn’t have.”
“The car was a mess. Their bodies were inside. The king, the queen, the two princes, and the princess. Everyone was cheering, but he looked at me. The princess—or her head, at least—it was his girlfriend.”
“She was the princess. She’d gone incognito to see the village, and fallen in love with him. No one knew. He was screaming like a madman.”
“So his beloved is already gone,” Kino concluded. Everyone nodded.
“He couldn’t take it. The reality that he’d fallen in love with the princess he should have hated, and that he’d killed her with his own two hands. He should have been a hero, a central figure in our new government. But when he came to in the hospital, he was speaking nonsense. Wouldn’t stop asking about his girlfriend, asking the doctor where she was. The doctor couldn’t bear to tell him the truth, so he lied. He said that she’d gone on a journey, and that she promised to come back for him. It’s common sense here that most people aren’t allowed to leave these walls, but my friend was in so much pain that he doesn’t even remember that. He moved to the forest, saying he’d wait for her. And he’s been there for the last five years.” The man continued, “The new government gave him a pension. Built him a house and hired housekeepers to take care of him. None of them lasted long, though. Saying living in the forest was uncomfortable, or that they couldn’t bear to keep lying to him. And no one blames them.”
“What about the one working for him now?” Kino asked.
“She’s an outlander like you. My men and I were on patrol outside the walls three years ago when we found a group of travelers dying by the roadside. Some of them decided to settle here for good. I thought someone who didn’t know about our history would have an easier time working for my friend, so I hired her. And she’s doing a fine job.”
“He’ll be that way forever. Never going to get his sanity back. Although that might be for the best,” the man said with a dry smile.
A middle-aged woman in the back continued for him. “That’s why we’re lying to our hero to this day. And we’ll keep lying to him. He’ll be waiting for a girl who’s never going to return…until his dying day.”
The next day. It was the third day of Kino’s stay in the country.
The sky was clear. Kino had breakfast, packed her things, and set off for the southern gate.
The path through the woods was still wet with rainwater. Kino rode very carefully.
Along the way, she spotted a horse-drawn carriage stuck in the mud. The housekeeper was driving it.
“You’re up, Kino,” said Hermes.
“Oh well. It’s not like my boots’ll stay clean forever.”
Kino climbed off Hermes and marched through the mud to help the housekeeper push the carriage free. Then they headed for the gate together.
The housekeeper thanked Kino. Hermes told her that they had heard the story from the townspeople the previous day.
“I see…” she trailed off. Kino and Hermes got ready to leave, when she stopped them. “Please wait a moment,” she said. “Let me serve you some tea to thank you for your help. And let’s get those boots of yours polished.”
The housekeeper led Kino and Hermes to the cabin in the forest. The man was on the roof making repairs. The housekeeper explained that Kino and Hermes had helped her, and asked him for permission to have them over for tea. The man agreed wholeheartedly.
Kino cleaned Hermes and her boots by the well and was led into a large room. The man quickly joined them, and the housekeeper served them tea. She placed the steaming cups on the table.
“That’s an interesting aroma. What is this tea?” Kino asked.
The man replied, “I’m not sure, but it’s delicious.” He grabbed the tea placed before Kino and took it for himself. And he gave her a smile. “It’s very good.”
Kino took another cup and drank. “It really is.”
“Say,” the man began, “You’ll be traveling to all kinds of places, won’t you? If you happen to see my beloved on the way—”
“We’ll make sure to tell her about you. That you’re waiting for her.”
“Thank you,” the man said, smiling.
“Oh my,” the housekeeper exclaimed, bringing in a tray of biscuits. “Is someone at the gate again? I think I hear engines.”
The man stopped mid-sip and leapt to his feet. “It might be her! I’ll go have a look!”
“Please, your jacket!” the housekeeper said. The man nodded and left without putting it on.
When the door closed shut, the housekeeper took a seat. She put a blanket over her lap and sat comfortably, sipping her own cup of tea.
“Is this okay?” Hermes asked. “I don’t hear any engines.”
“Yes. I couldn’t very well talk to you if he were around. He’ll be gone for a while.”
Kino looked at the housekeeper.
“I’m happy with this. My parents and my brothers made it safely to the next country over. They’re happy, they’re safe. And I can be with the man I love,” the housekeeper said with a smile.
Tentatively, Kino asked, “You’re the former princess?”
The housekeeper nodded.
“That’s interesting. Tell us more,” said Hermes.
Kino looked into the woman’s eyes. The woman picked up her teacup, took a sip, and put it on the table again. Then she broke her silence.
“I was the daughter of this country’s king. The princess, until five years ago. I received a report from our spies among the commoners saying that there were signs of a revolution. So I personally approached that man to get information for my father. I would learn the date of their planned revolution, so we could flee to the neighboring country with our assets.”
Kino and Hermes listened on.
“But I became fond of how he loved me. And I fell in love with him. After a while, I didn’t need to put on an act for him, except for the act of being an ordinary village girl. We could be together whenever time allowed. Not long, but each and every second we spent together was like bliss. I wished those days would go on forever.”
The woman smiled, but only for a moment.
“But they came to an end. He gave me the information I needed.”
“By breaking up with you for seemingly no reason. That was enough to tell you that the revolution was near,” Kino hypothesized.
“Yes. I told my father everything. And I chose to go with my family, without opposing them or petitioning to stay. Our doubles served us faithfully. Everything went according to plan. And I tried to forget him. After all, I thought I’d never see him again.”
“But you came back.”
The woman nodded.
“Our spies here continued to feed us information. I’d prayed that my beloved would survive the battle, and he did. But I also learned from the spies that he had lost his mind after thinking he’d killed me. That he needed someone to take care of him. So I made my decision.”
“I get it,” Hermes said.
The woman gave a nostalgic smile. “It was hard work—convincing my parents, disguising myself as a traveler, getting myself hired as a housekeeper… Even now, my parents tell me I’m welcome to rejoin them anytime.”
Kino said, “How did he respond when he saw you again?”
“‘I’m in your care until the day she returns to me’. I was so happy to hear those words.”
“Really?” asked Hermes.
“Yes.” The woman nodded. “I still love him, and he’s still waiting for me. And he’s always with me. I’ve been lying to him since the moment we met—and I’ll keep lying to him as we live on together. I’m…I’m happy with that.”
“Thank you for telling us your story.” “Yeah. Thanks,” said Kino and Hermes.
Soon the door opened and the man returned, shivering. The housekeeper rose from her seat.
“It wasn’t her. The gatekeeper was just starting the generator… She wasn’t here after all…”
“I’m so sorry to hear that.”
The housekeeper gave the man her seat, and put her blanket around his shoulders. She reached for the teapot.
“When do you think she’ll return to me?” he murmured.
“I don’t know, but I’m sure she’ll come back to you one day.”
The man looked her in the eye. “I’m scared. What if she’s forgotten me?”
The housekeeper’s hand stopped mid-pour. She slowly shook her head. And she smiled, giving him the same answer as the rest of the country.
“No. She hasn’t forgotten you. She never will.”
The man and the housekeeper said goodbye to Kino and Hermes at the gate and walked back to the house together.
“They’re gone,” the man said, “Do you think they’ll tell her about me?”
The housekeeper gave him a bright smile and assured him that they would.
That was when, without warning, the man turned. “I hear an engine! Someone must be here!”
He rushed off to the gate.
“No, that’s probably Hermes—” the housekeeper began, but she stopped and went back to the house alone.
She cleaned up the teacups on the table and wondered to herself, “I wonder what I should make for lunch?”
“Behind us, Kino.”
Kino had just warmed up Hermes’ engine and was about to leave, when she turned and saw the man running over to them. The guards tried to stop him, but the man desperately pleaded with them. They gave in and allowed the man to pass.
Wearing his jacket, the man ran to Kino and Hermes as quickly as he could.
“Wait! I want to tell you something!” he said, bending forward and gasping for breath. “I need to tell you something.”
“You want us to tell your beloved about you, right?” Kino said.
The man looked up. “No. This is a message from me to you. There’s something you need to know.” He stood up straight.
Kino looked up at the man. He stood tall and confident.
“This is fine,” he said. “I’m happy with this. I don’t want to break anything anymore. Not my friend, who turned out to be a royalist spy, and not the hearts of the people who’re kind enough to play along with the lie. Not the successes of the revolution and the new administration. And not this new life I have with my beloved, who wasn’t lying about her love, either. I don’t need to break anything anymore. I’m happy now.”
“…You’re…” Kino trailed off. Hermes continued for her. “A liar. Everyone here is a liar.”
The man grinned, his back to the gate. And he nodded again and again.
“Goodbye. I should get back now.”
“Goodbye. Take care of yourselves.” “Goodbye, Mister Hero. Tell your housekeeper goodbye for us, too.”
The man turned around and walked back to his country. The guards welcomed him back with relief and ushered him inside.
Kino watched him disappear through the gate, and finally said, “Let’s go.”
“Yeah,” Hermes replied.