I'm sorry to say that my schedule is still pretty packed for the next couple of months, which means updates will probably be very low in content (about one short chapter per week, except for the Ship Country which will be a revision and not a re-translation) until September at the earliest. But I do plan to keep up a weekly update schedule, so please come back this time next week for more Kino's Journey goodness.
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Epilogue: To Do Something・A
-Life goes on・A-
The forest was vast, covering the endless land to the edges of the horizon. It was deep, dark, and labyrinthine, with many different trees twisting inside.
The road ran through the forest, running in a straight line that bisected the woods. It drew a brown line in the thick green world, and was just wide enough for two cars or horse-drawn carriages.
Inside the forest, next to the road, was a vegetable patch and a cabin.
The long, narrow vegetable patch ran parallel to the road, surrounding several tall trees. Half the patch was empty, but spinach was growing on a raised platform on the other half. At the end of the patch was the small cabin.
The cabin had a set of doors, and large windows to its either side. Sturdy plywood terraces stood in front of the doors and the window on the opposite side of the house. A small stable stood next to the house, but there wasn’t a horse in sight.
Without warning, one of the windows opened.
It was followed by the next window over, then the next, and all the rest, each followed by a pair of hands propping the windows open. Finally, the front doors swung wide and a girl stepped outside.
She was in her early teens, a little tall for her age. Her black shoulder-length hair was tied up in a ponytail. She wore lace-up boots and light brown pants with legs that had been rolled up many times over because they were too big for her. She wore a green cotton vest over her white button-down shirt.
The girl was holding a bedsheet under her arm. She hung it up on the rope strung up on the terrace by the door and secured it with a pair of wooden clips. The bedsheet fluttered in the breeze.
Raising her arms, the girl stretched. The cabin and the vegetable patch had cleared away part of the forest, opening up just as much of the sky. The girl looked up. It was morning, and the sky was a clear blue. The sun had just begun to rise over the horizon, its rays splitting endlessly between the branches sticking out of the woods. Birds were twittering and singing.
“The weather’s great today,” chirped the girl.
She went back inside, then came out pushing a motorrad. The motorrad had a luggage rack atop its rear wheel, with a pair of black compartments hanging from either side.
The girl pushed the motorrad onto the terrace, which was a little narrow for both of them at the same time. Although she wobbled once, she quickly caught her balance.
“There…” she gasped, propping up the motorrad on its center stand. “Wake up! It’s morning!” she cried, pounding her fists against the seat. Some time passed before the motorrad finally spoke.
“Huh? Okay, all right already. It’s really morning now?” the motorrad groaned. The girl stopped hitting him. “Couldn’t you be a little gentler? All this hitting’s going to—”
“The weather’s great today, don’t you think?”
“Are you listening to me?”
“I am. It’s your fault for not waking up before I started hitting you,” the girl giggled. “Good morning, Hermes.”
“Good morning, Kino,” Hermes replied.
Kino nodded and turned to the door. There was a flash of long hair—an elderly woman, stepping outside.
The girl smiled. “Good morning, Master.”
“Good morning. The weather’s looking quite lovely today,” the old woman said, holding a bedsheet in her arms.
In spite of her age, the slender old woman stood perfectly straight. Her long silver hair was tied in a ponytail, and she wore tight pants and a white button-down shirt with a light green cardigan. What seemed to be a small leather pouch hung from the back of the belt, with the cardigan falling on top of it.
But what the cardigan really hung over was a covered holster. It contained a small large-caliber hand persuader with a short barrel, a revolver ready to be drawn by a right-handed shooter.
“Do you remember what we said we would do if the weather agreed today?” asked the old woman, hanging up the sheets.
“Yes, Master,” said the girl, “We’re chopping down a tree today, and buying supplies from the merchant when he comes by later in the afternoon.”
The old woman gave a satisfied nod. “Very good. We’ll chop down the tree in the afternoon, after lunch. Shall we do some marksmanship practice until then?”
“Yes!” the girl replied, adding, “Should I make breakfast today too?”
The old woman smiled, face imperceptibly stiff. “Leave the cooking to me. It’s one of my joys in life.”
“You sure do love cooking, Master,” the girl chuckled.
The cabin door led straight into the living room. A small log table and three chairs sat in the middle, and a steel stove with a brick base took up a corner. A chimney led from the stove out through the wall.
The girl rushed inside, putting firewood and wood chips into the stove. She lit a match and set the kindling alight. Once the flames had grown strong and steady, she shut the tiny stove door.
She turned and spotted a coat.
It was long and brown, hung up next to the door so she could easily grab it and go.
The girl stared quietly at the coat.
Then she opened the door and left to call the old woman inside.
There was a small table on the terrace by the door. It was rather wide, wooden with foldable legs.
On the table was a hand persuader, giving off a dull glint in the risen sun. A large-caliber revolver with a slender but long barrel.
Next to it was a paper box stuffed with bullets, a small bottle of green liquid propellant, and a wooden case filled with knickknacks and cleaning tools.
Across the road was a thick piece of plywood hanging between the trees, parallel to the ground. A small, rusted frying pan was suspended under it, secured perpendicular to the ground by a strong rope.
The girl stood in front of the table and picked up the revolver. It was a little heavy in her hands, but she lifted it and checked to see it was not loaded. Then she cocked the persuader and pulled the trigger, then repeated her actions to make sure it was in working order.
“Loading,” said the girl. From behind, the old woman gave her approval. Above them was Hermes, propped up on his center stand, and two bedsheets fluttering in the breeze.
With her right thumb, the girl half-cocked the revolver. She held the body with her left hand and fixed her grip on the persuader. Then she injected the liquid propellant into the cylinder with a syringe. Turning the cylinder with her left thumb, she loaded all six chambers.
The old woman advised, “More propellant does mean more power, but it also means more recoil. That much should be just enough for you at this stage. I’ll let you use more once you’re used to the force. However, make sure to add enough that the bullet doesn’t get stuck in the barrel. If it does, you must not pull the trigger again.”
“Right,” the girl replied, and loaded a thick piece of cloth and a .44 caliber round. The lever in front of the barrel folded forwards and the breech block pushed the round inside. Five repetitions later, the revolver was fully loaded. Finally, the girl dipped her finger into the lubricant jar and slathered it over the chambers as though putting lids on them. She wiped her fingers clean with a rag, and pushed percussion caps into the back of the cylinder at the points that made contact with the hammer. The sparks lit in those spots would light the propellant, leading to the bullet being expelled.
It took some time for her to complete the process, but the persuader was finally ready to be fired six times.
The girl gingerly placed the revolver on the table, making sure the barrel was pointed away from herself.
“I’m ready, Master. The lane is clear. May I open fire?” she asked, eyes still forward.
“You’ve forgotten again.”
The old woman took out two small cotton balls from her pocket and went to the girl. She plugged them into her ears.
“Ah, sorry, Master. Thank you,” the girl said with an embarrassed laugh, still looking straight ahead.
The old woman plugged her own ears as well and said, “You may begin.”
Slowly, the girl picked up the revolver, making sure her right trigger finger was held absolutely straight. Then she put her right hand over her left and held her arms in front of her, her right arm outstretched and her left slightly bent inwards. She stepped out with her right foot, her body angled diagonally to her target, and her face looking at the frying pan directly.
The muzzle was pointed directly at the frying pan. Her left thumb cocked the persuader all the way. The cylinder turned, bringing the barrel and one of the chambers into alignment. She hooked her right index finger on the trigger.
There was a dull, heavy noise, and a puff of white smoke. The revolver and the girl’s arms bounced upwards. For an instant, sparks were flying—and the frying pan began spinning into a blur, the rope rapidly twisting clockwise.
There was another noise, and suddenly, the frying pan was still. The second shot had hit the exact opposite side of the first and ended the spinning.
The third shot struck the pan dead in the center, pushing it back. The frying pan swung back and forth, until the fourth shot forced it still. The fifth pushed it back again. As it swung forward again and back, the sixth bullet found its mark.
This time, the frying pan swung all the way up, hit the plywood, and fell forward.
The girl stood on her toes to reach up to the frying pan, and tossed it up to undo the loop. It rose into the air and fell limply down. The girl tossed it again.
She glared at the disobedient pan.
Then she tried again. And failed again.
The old woman watched from the terrace, arms folded.
“How is she?” Hermes asked from behind her.
“Yes. I was right about her marksmanship skills.” the old woman paused, exhaling softly. “She’s a genius. You find people like her once in a while—people with a knack for shooting. Age or gender has nothing to do with it; she was born with exceptional talent. It’s ironic that geniuses like her usually don’t turn out to have had a passion for persuaders.”
The girl hopped up and volleyed the frying pan into the air. It hit the plywood, spun once, and fell down again. The girl scrambled away to avoid getting hit.
“You’d prefer to have a talented student anyway, being called ‘Master’ and all that, right?” Hermes said.
“Of course,” replied the old woman. “It makes the teaching worthwhile. With a little instruction, she’ll be an expert in no time.”
“I wish I could say the same about her driving.”
“That’s your responsibility, Hermes. Have her practice more. But…”
The old woman continued, back still turned, “Remember, a good rider does not a race winner make. I suppose that’s one thing I worry about for her future.”
Hermes fell silent for a time.
“You mean being a good markswoman doesn’t mean she’s going to make it out of shootouts alive?”
The old woman turned. “Very good, Hermes. Would you like some marksmanship instructions yourself? What do you say to automatic cannons on your headlight and exhaust pipe?”
“No thank you,” Hermes said.
The old woman looked forward again. “Living in a safe country means requires the willingness to cooperate and make compromises. And surviving in a lawless world requires the willingness to kill for survival.”
“Have you told her?”
“She wouldn’t understand even if I did; in fact, she might agonize too much over the idea, whether she’s safe or in danger. She has to learn for herself.”
By the time the old woman had finished, the girl was bounding back to the terrace. “Master, may I try again?”
The old woman smiled and nodded.
“This is one thing I simply can’t teach you,” said the old woman.
The sun was high up in the sky and the weather was warm. Hermes stood on the road before the cabin, engine roaring across the woods. The girl stood next to him, wearing a thick brown leather jacket with a leather riding helmet and a small pair of goggles. She wore thick gloves, and had sturdy rags wrapped like bandages around her knees.
“I was quite the rider at one point, but I’m not sure I can manage anymore,” the old woman added.
“I wish I knew what you were like back when you were traveling, Master,” said the girl, and added with a giggle, “I bet you were just as nice as now!”
A brief silence fell over them, with only Hermes’ engine running in the background. The sky was blue, and the forest was a vibrant green.
“Perhaps I was,” the old woman said without an ounce of humor.
The girl gave the gas lever a gentle pull. “Ready, Hermes?”
“Yep,” Hermes replied, “Start off slow, okay? Today we’re going to practice braking at high speed. Don’t rush it, though.”
The girl climbed onto Hermes and kicked up the side stand.
The girl did as instructed, starting off slowly down the road. Then—
“Ack! Wait! Don’t speed up that quickly!”
Hermes zoomed away as the old woman watched, leaving in a trail of dust, tire tracks, and motorrad screams.
Only after the woman had set up a folding chair on the terrace and sat back to look up at the sky did Hermes and the girl return. The girl’s coat was not covered in dirt.
The motorrad’s brake screeched before the house as he drifted slightly to the side in another cloud of dust.
“Want to try again?” asked the girl.
The motorrad refused her immediately.
“Really? Okay. Thanks, Hermes,” the girl replied, and turned off his engine. The world went quiet again.
The girl pushed Hermes towards the cabin and propped him up on his center stand in front of the terrace. “I’ll give you a nice wash later.”
“Glad to hear that,” Hermes replied, exhausted.
The old woman told the girl to change into clean clothes. The girl gave a spirited response and strode inside.
“Well? Do you find the teaching worthwhile?” asked the old woman.
Hermes replied, “You should teach her instead of me.”
The two bedsheets shook in the breeze.
“Okay, you’ve gotten the hang of moving and stopping, so let’s practice picking me up off the ground,” said Hermes.
The girl had changed into her green cotton jacket, dressed the same as the morning with the addition of a pair of gloves. Sunlight glinted off Hermes’ fuel tank.
“Right,” the girl replied. “What do I do?”
“Let’s go over there. See that patch of dirt on the right?” Hermes said.
The girl stood on his left side, took hold of the handles, and pushed it up next to the vegetable patch. The dirt was softer than the ground but not enough for the motorrad to sink in. They were far enough from the terrace that Hermes would not hit it when he fell.
“Yep. This spot should work. Remember, you shouldn’t be allowed to ride a motorrad if you can’t stand it up on your own wherever and whenever. You’re actually supposed to learn that before you start riding, but it’s a little late for that. We’ll start practicing now so you can stand me up whether I fall to my right or my left.”
“All right. Let’s do it.”
“Okay. Tip me over.”
“Yeah!” the girl replied, taking her hands off the handlebars. She gave the motorrad a push.
“Huh? Wait! Hold on!”
Gravity dragged Hermes to the ground. The end of his handlebar was driven into the dirt.
“Done,” said the girl.
“You were supposed to do that slowly,” Hermes complained.
The girl practiced standing Hermes up several times from either side.
She would slowly tip him over, pull him back up, and prop him up on his center stand. If she was standing him up from his right side, she would pull out his side stand with her hand to make sure he didn’t tip over to the left as soon as he was standing upright again.
“You’ve improved. I think you’ve got the hang of it, so next time we’ll try on a slope,” Hermes said. The girl had worked up a sweat from the practice.
“Lunch is ready,” the old woman said from the terrace.
“Right! I’ll be right there, Master!” the girl replied, turning.
“I know you won’t forget, but could you please stand me back up before you go?” Hermes asked, still lying on his side, “Please?!”
“After lunch, we’ll go chop down the tree standing between the forest and the vegetable patch. We’ll be using the wood at home later,” said the old woman.
She and the girl were sitting across from one another at the table on the terrace. They each had large food trays divided into halves, with one side divided yet again into halves. In the biggest section was a thick ham steak topped with blueberry sauce, in the middle section was a roasted potato, and in the far section were boiled carrots. The old woman picked up her knife—black and matte and clearly for assassination or battle—and cut up a carrot, which she stuck on a fork and popped into her mouth.
The girl poured herself a mug of tea and asked, “Will we be using a saw? Or axes?”
The old woman shook her head. “A tree that thick won’t go down so easily. And we could easily get hurt when it falls. Most people use chainsaws for that kind of work.”
“Do we have one?” the girl asked, a tiny piece of ham stuck on her fork.
“No,” replied the old woman.
Confused, the girl brought the ham into her mouth.
A series of heavy noises rattled the forest.
The sound of persuaders firing in such quick succession that they sounded like one long noise.
Wood chips began flying from the trunk near the base, as though the trunk were being chiseled away at by a giant, invisible beaver. By the time the noise had stopped, a deep gash ran across its width.
A tripod stood on the ground ahead of the terrace, where the girl had earlier practiced pulling up her motorrad. It was made of thick green pipes, all three legs secured firmly in the ground. Mounted atop it was an automatic rapid-fire persuader aimed directly at the tree.
A thick piece of cloth was spread under the tripod, with many empty cartridges scattered atop it. Next to the tripod were boxes of wood and metal, and a shovel that had been stuck into the earth.
The old woman was bent over the tripod, wearing ear plugs. She peered into the sight next to the persuader, and made minute adjustments to the aim with the dials and levers at the back of the tripod.
Then came another elongated gunshot. A storm of bullets tore through the air over the vegetable patch and this time ate away at the other side of the tree trunk in a shower of wood chips.
When the final gunshot faded, the tree began tilting towards the first large gash. What little remained of the carved section slowly began to break. The tall tree fell slowly, scattering leaves everywhere.
It hit the ground with a heavy thud, bouncing up once before falling again, landing parallel to the vegetable patch in the border between the patch and the forest. The ground shook.
The girl stood on the terrace with her hands over her ears, eyes wide open. Hermes stood above, propped up on his center stand.
The bedsheets on the terrace were gone, replaced by a small towel. Hanging next to it were the two trays from lunchtime, hanging up by small metal rings attached to holes in their corners. It was past noon, and several white clouds were drifting past at a leisurely pace.
“Perfect,” the old woman muttered. A plume of white smoke rose from the hot persuader on the tripod, and over 200 empty cartridges from just over ten seconds of fire clattered in a pile below like a mound of sand. “Finished,” she said, taking out her earplugs.
The girl cheered. “That was amazing!”
Hermes mumbled to himself, “This is ridiculous. But I guess it’s better than turning a motorrad engine into a chainsaw.”
“What do we do with the tree, Master?” the girl asked, looking at the tree and its intact branches and leaves.
“We’ll leave it there for now.”
The girl was shocked. “Really?”
“Yes. We leave it as is, so the moisture in the trunk escapes the tree through the branches and the leaves. Give it some time to dry completely, and it’ll be beautiful and perfect for woodworking.”
“Wow,” the girl said, impressed.
The old woman added with a laugh, “So we shouldn’t shoot at it anymore.”
The old woman waited for the mountain of cartridges to cool before shoveling them into the wooden box. The girl went to pick up the ones that had flown off.
Finally, the old woman covered the persuader and the tripod with a large piece of waterproof canvas. She picked up the metal case to put away the remaining cartridges. The girl walked up to the terrace.
“Good job,” said Hermes.
“I barely did anything, though,” the girl replied, leaning against him and slowly looking up at the sky.
A gentle breeze shook her hair.
The fluffy clouds seemed to have multiplied, but the sky was still clear and vividly blue. The clouds drifted in total silence, and the girl wondered if she were the one moving and not them.
“Kino? Kino,” the old woman called from the door.
The girl was still looking up at the sky.
“She’s calling you,” Hermes said loudly. Jolted, the girl looked back down. “Who? Me?”
“Yes, Kino,” the old woman said gently, standing in front of her.
“Oh, right. I’m sorry, it still feels like you’re calling for someone else and not me,” the girl chuckled, embarrassed and a little sad. “I keep remembering Kino, you see…”
The smile faded from her face. The girl looked down, gaze locked on the terrace floor and the old woman’s feet.
The old woman placed a hand on her shoulder. The girl looked up in surprise.
“You’ll grow used to it soon. ‘Kino’ is a lovely name—it’s short, easy to say, and nice to pronounce.”
“I think so too!” the girl said brightly.
“And to me, you’re the only Kino in the world. You are Kino.”
“I am Kino…” the girl echoed. “But! But you know, Master?” she asked, looking up at the old woman with her fists shaking. “I think ‘Kino’ goes better with a masculine pronoun!(1) Maybe it’s because that’s the way I first heard it, but it just feels wrought, you know?”
“It feels ‘right’, you mean?” Hermes asked.
“Yeah, that!” Kino replied immediately.
“I’m sure you’ll grow used to that soon too,” the old woman said, “You can’t change everything overnight, so take your time—just like we’ll be taking our time waiting for the tree to dry out. Winter will come, and spring will pass… You’ll have plenty of time to think things over.”
“By the way, ‘Master’ is such a strange name, Master. Does it mean something special?”
The old woman stopped taking the dried towel off the line and turned. “Pardon me?”
“What does ‘Master’ mean, Master? I always thought it was a funny name. Or maybe it’s perfectly normal in other countries?”
The old woman and Hermes were silent. A cool breeze blew between them all.
Finally, the old woman neatly folded up the towel. “Let’s go inside and sit down, Kino. It seems there’s more I still need to teach you.”
They disappeared into the house.
Hermes could make out bits and pieces of their conversation. Then came the revelation.
“WHAT?!” the girl cried, “You mean ‘Master’ isn’t your name?!”
“Oh, Kino.” Hermes sighed.
Hermes remained on the terrace. He could hear the gentle breeze and the voices coming from the house.
“I think it’s time for afternoon tea.”
“Leave it to me, Master. I’ll steep it just the way you taught me.”
“All right. I’m counting on you.”
Then came the sound of the stove and boiling water.
“Maybe I should take a nap,” Hermes mumbled.
“Done! Here you go.”
“Thank you. Mmm, I love the scent. What tea is this?”
“Er, I don’t know what it says, but I used the one in the red tin. I remember you made tea with it last time and I really liked it.”
“Ah, the apple. Thank you very much.”
The clouds grew thicker, expanding into one big mass. Hermes mumbled to himself again, wondering if it would be overcast the next day.
“What would you like to do if we have pleasant weather tomorrow?” asked the old woman.
“We can air the mattresses!” the girl responded immediately.
The sun had begun tilting westward.
“Wake up!” the girl cried, slamming a fist down on Hermes’ seat.
“Okay, all right already… It’s morning now?”
“Nope,” the girl replied, “it’s almost time for the merchant to come by. You have to move.” She pushed Hermes forward, raising the stand and giving him a push again. He began sliding off the terrace. The girl climbed atop him and rode on the dirt, then turned to slot Hermes in between the terrace and the road.
“That’s nice. But you didn’t have to wake me up for this,” Hermes complained.
Soon, a carriage came into view in the distance. It was far down the road, where everything in the general direction was clearly visible. The old woman came outside and looked out from the lane.
“I’ll get ready,” the girl said, running off to the stable.
Two horses stopped in front of the terrace. The carriage driver was a well-built middle-aged man with a beard. He wore overalls and a leather jacket, and had holsters containing automatic hand persuaders under each arm. Several wooden crates were secured in a pile in the back of the carriage.
“Good afternoon,” said the old woman, “Thank you for coming all this way.”
The man stepped off the carriage and gave the old woman a slight bow. He took out a piece of plywood and put it up like a ramp between the carriage and the terrace.
Slowly, the man pushed the crates down the makeshift ramp.
The girl put down a manger for the horses, and busily went between them and the well behind the house to water the other manger.
On the terrace, the man began opening up the crates one by one. He started with the one without a lid.
“The same vegetables as the usual. I brought you bacon for meat this time, and you’ll find eggs in here too. But make sure to finish them quick. I’ve also got lots of jam from the ladies,” he said, and moved on to the ones that had been nailed shut. “Here’s the liquid propellant and the fuel. I made sure to pick up extra in case the weather gets nasty. Take a look.”
“It’s all right, thank you.”
The man glanced at the tripod set up on the ground. The old woman had already put the persuader away.
“How was the new automatic rapid-fire persuader?” he asked excitedly.
“It was quite lovely,” the old woman replied, “I have nothing to complain about, at least with the functionality. It’ll be hard to use without a tripod for smaller shooters, but that’s all I can think of. It’s a beautiful model.”
“I’m glad to hear that. The engineers back home will be pleased, too,” the man said, smiling.
“I chopped down a tree with it,” the old woman said.
The man turned. “Oh. …Well, ahem. I won’t be reporting that part,” he said uncomfortably.
The old woman said, “It’s just too much trouble to make all the calculations for using explosives at my age, you know.”
“If you need any help with heavy lifting, please don’t hesitate to ask. We can have men here to help out at a moment’s notice.”
“I will, if I ever need to.”
The man stole a quick look at the girl, who was feeding and watering the horses from the terrace. He turned to the old woman. “Er… Pardon me for asking again, but do you really have no intention of settling in our country? Everyone would welcome you with open arms.”
“Like I said,” the old woman replied, “I’m very grateful for the offer, but I have no intention of doing so. I even have a companion here now.”
But the man refused to budge. “I realize this may be premature, but what will happen to the girl in the future? Will she live all alone here in the woods with her motorrad?”
“That’s for her to decide,” the old woman said firmly, “It’s up to her to figure out what she wants to do with her life. If she chooses to spend the rest of her days here, we should respect her decision.”
The man, who stood very tall next to her, quietly let his shoulders fall. “Please let me know if you ever need anything.”
“I will, if I ever need to.”
The man picked up the crates and began moving them into the house. Then he came back out with the crates, this time empty, and loaded them on the carriage before finally folding up and putting away the tripod with the old woman.
“Here you are,” the girl said, serving the man a cup of tea.
The man was sitting in the living room, having taken off his jacket. The old woman sat across from him. The girl put her own cup next to her and took a seat.
“Thank you,” the man said, “Ah, it smells wonderful. What tea is this?”
Smiling, the girl replied that it was the apple tea he had brought them before. She picked up her mug with both hands and took a sip. The man gave the old woman a quick toast and drank the tea as well.
Time passed in relaxing conversation. The man explained his country’s situation to the old woman and noted down his next delivery date and the things he was to bring.
“I’d better get going before it gets dark,” he said, “Thank you for the tea.” The man stood and picked up his jacket. The old woman and the girl also got up to see him off.
The man stopped. His eyes were locked on the brown coat hanging by the door. The girl froze.
“I saw someone wearing a coat just like this not too long ago. I knew it looked familiar.”
The girl’s breath caught in her throat. The old woman asked, “Oh? Tell us more about this person.”
“He already left. Apparently every traveler from his country wears it, because it’s the only thing sturdy enough. He was laughing about how it lets them recognize fellow countrymen no matter where they are.” The man continued, oblivious to the girl’s stare, “I’ve been there before to trade. It’s a pretty normal place, not too far.”
“Where?!” the girl demanded.
“Where is the country? Please tell me!”
Flabbergasted, the man looked from the girl to the old woman. The old woman said nothing.
“Please! Where is this country?!” the girl demanded again.
“So you’re gonna go?” Hermes asked, adding, “I guess you wouldn’t be doing this if you weren’t.”
The girl was fueling Hermes on the terrace. She held up the container with both hands and tipped its contents into Hermes’ tank. The sun had almost disappeared over the horizon, and the sky had darkened with clouds.
“Hey! That’s enough!” Hermes yelled.
The girl rushed to pull the container down. She tightly capped the brimming tank.
“Are you really gonna go?” asked Hermes.
“Like I said,” said the man, “It’s nearby.”
The girl pounced with another question. “Can I get there by motorrad? Can a motorrad make the trip?”
“Hm? Yeah. We went by carriage, but the road is decent outside of the rainy season. But…”
“How long does it take?”
The man looked at the old woman. “Well… It’s a two-day trip by carriage. We left in the afternoon and arrived in the afternoon. I think a motorrad might be able to make it in a day. There’s a flat road through the woods; you just have to follow it all the way. It never forks, so you won’t get lost. Does that answer your question?”
The girl nodded again and again. “Yes! Thank you… Thank you…!”
They saw off the merchant together.
“I understand how you feel,” said the old woman.
“I want to go, Master,” the girl pleaded, “I have to do it, no matter what. May I? Please?”
The old woman nodded. “It’s your life to live; I won’t try to stop you. But I can’t promise that it will all turn out for the best. Or the worst, either.” Then she said to the girl, “Are you sure?”
“I’m going,” the girl replied to Hermes.
“Let me help,” the old woman said, stepping outside. The girl followed her, pushing Hermes inside. Just as she was propping him up by the door, far from the lamp and the stove, the old woman came out of one of the rooms with a large leather suitcase.
She put down the suitcase and took out a set of neatly folded clothes. Black pants and a black jacket. Both were made of hardy fabrics, and each came with belts of their own. She also handed the girl a cap with ear flaps and a pair of goggles with stronger frames than ones for horseback riding.
“Put these on. Your usual clothes weren’t made for traveling. I got the merchant to pick up perfect riding clothes for you.”
The girl looked up. “Master…”
“I was actually holding on to these for your birthday, but we can’t wait for that, can’t we? So here’s your early birthday present.”
“Oh…” The girl gasped, ready to thank the old woman, but was interrupted.
“Take this, too,” the old woman said, taking out a holster from the cabinet. It was long and made to be tied on a belt. Inside was the large-caliber revolver the girl had used during training.
“But Master, this is—“
“Yes. Make sure to load it and prepare plenty of spare rounds before you set off with this on your belt tomorrow. You’ll need it to protect yourself.”
“But…” The girl hesitated. “But is that okay? This persuader’s so important to you. You traveled with it for ages.”
The old woman grinned. “It certainly is. Which is why—“ She took out a black, intricately carved wooden box from the suitcase. She put it on the table, entered the combination, and opened the lid.
“There’s nothing to worry about,” said the old woman, “I’m only lending you one of my precious persuaders.”
A piece of cloth lined the bottom of the box, which was divided into multiple compartments. Inside were three identical revolvers and six spare cylinders.
“You’ll need a suitcase for your things, too. Why don’t you take this one? It’ll fit on Hermes’ luggage rack. I’ll lend it to you too.”
The girl looked up at the old woman.
“Thank you. I don’t know what to say…”
The old woman placed her hands on the girl’s shoulders.
“It’s too early to be thanking me. We have no idea what will happen, do we? You might regret getting my help; you might think that things wouldn’t have turned out so badly if I hadn’t lent you all these things.”
The girl went silent.
“But maybe nothing of the sort will happen. It’s all up to you, Kino. I won’t regret helping you today. And I will wish you good fortune.”
The next morning.
Fast-moving clouds covered the sky. It was past daybreak, but the sun was hidden. There was no rain.
On the terrace, Hermes’ engine was running. The leather suitcase was fastened to his luggage rack, and a spare fuel can was secured atop it.
Next to it stood the girl.
She wore a black jacket, black pants, and a thick belt around her waist. Multiple pouches hung from her belt, and a large-caliber revolver was holstered over her right thigh.
The girl tied up her hair into a long ponytail and tucked it into her jacket. She put on her cap with ear flaps and hung the silver-framed goggles around her neck.
The old woman came outside and said something to her.
The girl gave a determined nod.
“I’ll be going now.”
She put on her goggles. The girl climbed atop Hermes and raised the stand. Slowly, she rode him down onto the road.
Then she turned and set off.
The motorrad made its way down the lone road through the woods.
The road was flattened solid and seemed to go on forever into the distance. The forest continued to the horizon with the road, and the sliver of sky over them was the color of lead.
“Hey, slow down!” Hermes cried.
“Why?” the girl asked tersely.
“It’s not that far. You don’t have to go this fast to reach the place by afternoon.”
“But we’re doing just fine.”
“For now, but we’ll be in trouble if the road suddenly gets bumpy.”
“And you’ll tire yourself out if you go too fast. Slow down so you won’t collapse before you get there.”
The motorrad slowed. Hermes breathed a sigh of relief. “Say, Kino?”
There was no answer.
Still no answer.
“Huh? Oh, yeah. What is it?” the girl asked, finally responding.
“I was curious, what are you going to do once you get there? That’s the most important part, but you haven’t said anything about it.”
For a time, the girl said nothing. They simply continued down the road, the trees passing quickly by. The unchanging landscape made it seem like the motorrad was still and the world was moving around them.
Finally, the girl said, “I’m really not Kino…”
“I’m not Kino. I can’t bring myself to think that way. It’s like Kino isn’t me. So I’m going to go…go to Kino’s hometown, and…”
“And I’m going to meet his family, or at least the people who knew him, and…”
“And what are you going to do?”
Slowly, the girl raised her head. And she looked up at the darkening skies above.
“I’m going to apologize,” she said, her eyes back on the road.
“Wouldn’t it be enough just to tell them what happened?” Hermes suggested. “You have to explain how it turned out that way.”
“I will. And then I’ll apologize. So I have to go…”
“Really? By the way, could we take a break for a bit? You haven’t stopped once since we left—all this shaking’s going to make your arms and legs really tired.”
The motorrad continued down the lone road in the woods.
The girl continued without stopping until lunchtime.
The girl parked Hermes on the roadside.
The menu that day was bread. She poured a small bottle of honey over it and mechanically munched on her food. She brought her water bottle to her mouth when Hermes nagged, “I thought I told you to only drink boiled water.”
The girl had no choice but to build a fire with solid fuel and brew tea over it.
She finished her meal with scarcely a word, put on her hat and goggles, and continued down the deserted road.
The forest reflected in her goggles glided from the center to the sides. The motorrad continued on its way.
The overcast sky concealed the sun and robbed her of her sense of time.
“There’s no rush. It’s still only afternoon teatime,” Hermes said reassuringly, and urged the girl to look at the western sky. A piece of the blue sky was peering out through the clouds. “It’ll clear up soon. You’re not going to get rained on.”
The girl said nothing. She simply kept her right hand clenched around the gas lever.
The motorrad eventually reached a rampart in the forest.
“This must be it,” said Hermes. The girl stepped off and raised her goggles without a word.
The walls of the country were the same color as the forest around it. The narrow curve suggested it was not a very large country. Ivy curled its way up to the top of the walls, lending it the look of a decrepit ruin.
Slowly, the girl took off her hat and goggles. She pulled out her ponytail and let it hang over her jacket. And she looked up at the walls before her in silence.
Two gatekeepers came out of the guardhouse by the gates. One was a man in late middle-age, and the other was a young man aged about twenty years. Both had old rifles slung behind their backs.
“Er, are you a traveler? Are you looking to enter our country?”
The girl said nothing, so Hermes answered for her. “That’s right.”
“Er…I…you see…” the girl stammered, as the gatekeepers stared in confusion, “I…I mean…is this…”
Without warning, she leapt to the suitcase on Hermes. The gatekeepers watched, shocked, as she heaved the suitcase off the luggage rack and took out a neatly folded brown coat.
“I…I think this belongs to someone from this country…” she said, holding it out to the gatekeepers.
The older gatekeeper took the coat curiously. “May I have a look at it?”
The girl nodded.
The gatekeeper opened up the coat. “Yes, this is from our country. Let’s see here…” he checked the inner pocket. “Ah, here’s the registration number. 48402-15855. Who could it be? Go check the records.”
The younger gatekeeper recited the numbers under his breath as he returned to the guardhouse. A moment later, he came out with a thick bundle of documents. “48402-15855. Yes, it’s here. Left through these very gates four years ago. His name is—“
“Kino!” the girl cried. One of the gatekeepers flinched at the sound of her voice, and the other at the name. “Yes… His name really is Kino.”
The gatekeepers stared. The older man, trying not to upset the girl, asked, “May I ask where you found this coat?”
The girl did not answer the question. “Does he have family here? May I meet them? Please!”
This time, the gatekeepers flinched not at her words, but the tears streaming down her face.
Dozens of people packed the humble plaza just inside the gates. The rumors had somehow spread to people on their way home from their farms and workplaces, bringing them there to whisper about the incoming visitor.
“Do they have nothing better to do?” the older gatekeeper sighed from the guardhouse.
The girl was sitting stiffly, with her motorrad next to her.
“I’ve let his family know,” said the gatekeeper. “But could you at least tell me what happened, Missy? I promise that no one else will know.”
The girl gave a slight shake of the head.
Afternoon was half-over, and the clouds gave way to the sky. The carpet of grey made room for the blue beyond.
A truck approached the plaza. It was a small model for use on farms. A middle-aged woman and an old man stepped off, pushed their way through the crowds, and entered the guardhouse. The girl scrambled to her feet.
“It’s all right, dear,” said the woman, “I’m not Kino’s family. I was asked to pick you up.”
“His mother—his only family. Will you come see her?”
The girl nodded. The gatekeeper asked the old man if this was all right.
“Don’t worry, now. She’s not going to bite,” the old man replied, “So give the girl permission to enter, you hear? She’s now officially a guest to our country.”
They secured Hermes to the back of the truck.
“I wonder what’s going on?” he wondered, as though the situation was none of his business.
The truck made its way down a dirt path that ran through a farmland.
The girl sat in the passenger seat in utter silence, coat over her lap.
They stopped at a small town, where the houses were made of wood and placed sparsely with trees in between them.
Once everyone was off the truck, the old man asked Hermes, “Will you wait here? It’s honestly a bit of a hassle taking you down and getting you up again.”
“Ask her,” Hermes replied. The old man nodded and asked the girl. “Well? The truck’s not going anywhere. He’ll be fine.”
“As long as Hermes is okay with it.”
They left Hermes in the back of the truck and went to one of the houses. The door opened into a dim room.
The living room was deserted. Inside was a small table with two chairs, and a cold fireplace.
The girl took off her cap and put her goggles inside, carrying it under the coat.
“We’re here,” said the middle-aged woman.
A female voice answered from further inside, “One minute, please.”
The girl’s grip on her cap tightened.
A woman came out of one of the rooms.
She was in her late forties or early fifties, plump and wearing a green dress with an apron, and a pair of round glasses.
The woman smiled at the girl. “You must be the darling little traveler who knows my son.”
“And what might be your name?”
“It’s nice to meet you, ———.”
The woman offered her a chair. She waited for the girl to sit down with the coat over her lap before taking a seat herself.
“What would you like us to do?” asked the old man.
The woman replied, “Could you give us some time alone? I’ll call you back if I need you.”
The pair who drove the girl to the house went to the door.
The door closed shut, and the room fell into silence. Some time passed before the girl finally spoke.
“Er… Here! This is for you!” she cried, placing the neatly-folded coat on the table.
The woman picked it up, and slowly read the numbers printed on the inner pocket. “This really is his number. This is Kino’s coat… Tell me, sweetie. Where did you find it?”
“I’ll tell you everything! Please listen!” the girl cried, practically leaping from her chair.
“…Of course,” the woman said with a gentle nod. “But do wipe those tears, now.”
As the girl desperately recounted her story, the wind drove away the clouds and the setting sun emerged. Dusk came over the green-and-brown plains and the cottages dotted around them. A reddish light and orange glow filled the living room.
“I see. So that’s what happened,” the woman whispered.
The girl apologized slowly, then again and again and again.
“Thank you for coming all this way to tell me, sweetie,” the woman said, betraying no hint of emotion, “I’d almost given up when I stopped hearing from him. I’d suspected he wasn’t with us any more when I saw the coat.”
“I’m so sorry,” the girl said again, her little head bowed low.
“Don’t blame yourself, dear. It’s not your fault.”
“But still… I’m sorry. If only I didn’t tell my parents I didn’t want the operation…”
“Then you would have been a different person completely.”
“But… Kino would still be alive. He didn’t do anything wrong. If only I’d had my birthday like everyone else…”
“You know,” said the woman, her tone growing casual, “He always said he loved traveling. He said seeing different countries would help him and our country grow. He would take off and came back, and then take off in the blink of an eye again. Once he’d become an adult, he was barely ever here.”
The girl said nothing.
“So every time he left, I would wonder to myself, ‘Will I ever see him again?’ as I waited.”
The girl said nothing.
“Could you tell me just one thing, sweetie?”
The girl looked up, her face half-wrinkled in sobs and half-soulless. And she whispered, “Yes.”
The woman asked, “Do you have a place to call home now?”
“Huh? Yes, but…”
“Then that’s more than enough, sweetie. It’s a blessing to have a place to go back to. But it’s getting late today, so I think you should stay the night in our country. Let me get you some tea.”
The woman went to the kitchen next to the living room.
It took the girl a moment to rise and offer to help.
“It’s all right, dear. I can take care of things here. Sit down and get some rest,” the woman replied from the kitchen.
For a time, the crackling of fire, the boiling of water, and sound of water being poured into a teapot were the only noises in the house.
The room was dyed red in the sunset. The girl sat fiddling with the coat.
She put her hands on her lap, and recoiled.
There was something cold under the right hand. She slowly looked down at the object.
The loaded persuader was holstered over her thigh. It was glinting black, all too real in the light of the setting sun.
The girl put her right hand on her knee, avoiding the persuader.
“Here you are.”
Two steaming cups of tea were placed on the table. The woman took Kino’s coat and stepped into one of the rooms, before coming back and serving one of the cups to the girl. Then she took a seat herself.
The girl took the cup with both hands and drank.
“It’s not too hot for you, I hope?”
Two gulps later, the girl replied that the tea was fine. She took another sip.
“You must have been thirsty,” said the woman. The girl had downed half her tea in one go.
Slowly and quietly, the girl exhaled. “It’s really good.”
The woman thanked the girl.
The girl put down her cup.
She saw the world turn on its side.
She heard her body hit the floor. And the chair as well.
The girl lost her balance and fell shoulder-first to her left, still in her chair. The cup hit her right hand and spilled onto the table, before rolling off and landing next to her face with a clatter. The girl’s ponytail came undone, spilling across the floor.
“Huh…? Huh…?” she groaned, looking up at the dancing ceiling.
The woman’s face came into view in the red light. She held out her arms, looking down at the girl.
The arms seemed to undulate as they came closer and closer to her neck.
“It’s all your fault…”
The girl could hear the woman’s voice clearly. And feel the cold hands wrapping around her neck.
“It’s all your fault my son is dead.”
The hands tightened around her neck.
The girl could do little but scream softly.
“He’d be home safe if it weren’t for you. Kino would have come home. Kino would still be alive right now.”
The girl could not see what face the woman atop her was making. All she saw was a black mass.
The floor was dyed a stark red. The woman was choking her as she lay helplessly, hair spilling around her.
“What would you know about my pain? You have no idea what it’s like to be a mother losing a son. To have to wait forever for someone who will never return.”
The girl could not say a word.
“It’s all your fault!”
The woman’s grip tightened more.
Nothing escaped the girl’s lips; no sound, no breath. Only her hands reached up and fell limp. Trembling, they reached up again and fell back down. That was when her right hand fell on something cold.
It took hold of the object. The girl pulled with her right hand, and the holster came open and a glinting black cylinder and barrel emerged.
The woman’s mouth opened wide. And slowly, decisively, she said:
“It’s all your fault Kino hasn’t come home.”
“It’s all your fault Kino hasn’t— Gah!”
The long barrel of the revolver was pushed into her throat. It trembled in time with the girl’s hands. Each time she shook, the barrel clattered against the woman’s teeth.
The woman’s grip weakened. The girl took a shallow breath and said—
“I’m Kino now… I am Kino…”
The clattering stopped.
“I…I can’t…die again…”
The world was dyed a deep red.
A person recoiled as though having been shocked. And landed on top of the silent person lying on the wooden floor.
The world was dyed a deep red.
One person lay unconscious on the floor. Another lay dead on top of her.
Blood spilled from the dead into the hair of the other.
The world was dyed a deep red. The blood pooling on the ground was even darker.
The sun set past the forest and the walls, and the room was dark.
A pair of eyes were peering through the window into the dead-still room.
The next morning, Kino rose at dawn.
She opened her eyes and slowly sat up. A cozy blanket slid off her chest. Kino realized that she was in clean, white clothes.
Kino turned to the voice. Hermes was propped up there on his center stand.
“Oh. Hello, Hermes,” Kino replied, and looked to her left. She saw the wall of a log cabin. Morning sunlight spilled in through the window in the wall.
Kino looked to her right. She was in a small room furnished with a plain desk, chair, and closet. On the desk was a freshly-laundered button-up shirt, a pair of boots, a holstered persuader, and a cap and goggles.
A black jacket and a pair of pants hung neatly in the closet.
“Where am I?” Kino asked in a daze.
The answer came from outside. “Still in the same country. This is my house.” The middle-aged woman who had picked up Kino the day before entered the room. “It’s the day after you came to our country. How do you feel? You’re not dizzy? Your arms and legs aren’t numb?” she asked, as casual as she had been the previous day.
Kino shook her head. The middle-aged woman nodded.
For some time, Kino sat blankly in bed, eyes wide. Each time she breathed, her slender shoulders slowly rose and fell.
“What happened to her?” she asked.
“We gave her a funeral and burial last night,” the middle-aged woman replied. She told Kino to get changed and wait in the room.
Kino stepped out of bed and looked down at her clothes. There wasn’t a single stain to be found.
She dressed herself exactly as she had the previous day. She put on her black jacket, the belt, and the holster. A small droplet of something dark had dried on the black revolver. There were five shots left.
Kino reached over to pull her hair out of her jacket.
She realized that there was nothing to pull out.
“There’s a mirror in the closet,” said Hermes.
Kino took three tender steps and stood before the mirror. She saw a person with short black hair.
She stared at the person for some time. Soon, the person spoke.
“Kino. My name is Kino—“
At that moment, the door opened and the middle-aged woman stepped inside with the old man from the previous day.
“I’m sorry about your hair,” said the old man. “There was so much blood in it that I asked her to cut it. Does it bother you?”
Kino turned to the old man and replied, “No.”
“That’s good to hear. Please, take a seat.”
Kino sat on the edge of the bed, and the pair brought over stools from a corner of the room.
“Now, where should I begin?” asked the old man.
Kino replied, “Er…what’s going to happen to me now?”
“Self-defense is not a crime in our country,” said the old man, “but turning a blind eye to suicide is a heavy one. The punishment is exile. Do you understand?”
Kino nodded, understanding the implication. “Yes. But…why?”
The old man responded, his voice overlapping with the chirping of birds in the background. “There are too many naively kind people in this country. One young man got sick of it all and took off constantly. Although it seems like he never fully escaped that himself, in the end.”
Kino was silent.
“Let me go back to the point,” said the old man, “She’d been waiting all alone for a very long time. Do you know how it feels? For a mother to wait forever for her son’s return?”
“No,” Kino replied immediately.
“That’s all right,” the old man said with a nod. “But she must have been so relieved, knowing she didn’t have to wait anymore. It must have given her so much comfort to finally know. She must have known what it meant to attack someone who was armed with a persuader, even if that person was drugged.”
Kino was silent.
“Do you understand?”
Kino shook her head. “No, I don’t.”
“I suppose that’s reasonable. And that’s all right. But there’s just one thing I want you to know.”
“What is it?”
The old man replied, “That you don’t need to shed tears over this anymore. It’s all over.”
“We’ll take care of the rest. You go on back to where you’re supposed to be. We’ve spoken to the gatekeepers who met you on the way in—you just have to take the same way back home.”
Kino pushed Hermes out of the room. She walked out of the living room and into the street, where a pale blue sky greeted them. The morning mist quietly floated and faded out of view.
Kino took a deep, quiet breath.
The middle-aged woman handed her something. “Here you are, Kino.”
A neatly-folded brown coat. The one Kino had brought into the country.
“She left me this,” said the woman, “with a note. Saying not to bury it with her, but to give it to you. It was a birthday gift for her son a long time ago. And now…it’s yours.”
Without a word, Kino propped up Hermes on his center stand and received the coat.
She put on the coat and buttoned it up. The edges almost dragged on the ground.
“It’s a little long,” the old man remarked.
“It is,” Kino said.
That day, the gatekeepers sent off a traveler in the early hours of the morning.
The traveler was traveling by motorrad, wearing a long brown coat with the edges wrapped around her thighs.
One of the gatekeepers watched the traveler race into the woods, and looked up at the sky with a stretch. Then he returned to the guardhouse.
Above the vast green forest and the ramparts, the morning mist cleared to reveal an endless blue sky.
-Continued in Volume VIII-
(1) As a child, Kino refers to herself with the gender-neutral first-person pronoun watashi (私). However, the previous Kino (and Kino herself, in the main series) refers to himself with the masculine first-person pronoun boku (僕).