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Chapter 8: The Kind Country
-Tomorrow Never Comes-
Bright colors were beginning to paint the landscape.
Trees dyed in reds and yellows filled the rolling mountain range, creating a mosaic in what was once a dark green forest.
The sky was a blinding blue. There wasn’t a cloud to be seen.
A rain of red leaves was falling in the woods.
Through the woods ran a single path.
The dirt path was hardened and carpeted with leaves, winding up and down all over the mountain range.
A lone motorrad was traveling down the road. Like a ship cutting across the ocean surface, it left a wake of dancing leaves in the air behind it. The motorrad was moving slowly because of the sharp turns in the path.
The motorrad’s rider was a young human in her mid-teens, who had big eyes and fair features. The edges of her long brown coat had been wrapped around her thighs, and her goggles secured her hat onto her head.
A large bag was tied to the luggage rack behind the rider. Underneath it, on either side of the rear wheel, were small compartments.
“You know, Hermes,” said the rider to the motorrad. “The country we’re heading to now has a really bad reputation among travelers.”
“Really?” Hermes replied in surprise.
“It’s not just disinterest—they’re flat-out cold to outlanders. Someone even said that these people don’t know the meaning of the word ‘welcome.’ Or that they couldn’t think of one good thing about this country. That these people think they’re the center of the world.”
Hermes was stunned into silence.
“‘Unkind and unpleasant.’ ‘Kids throw rocks at you.’ ‘Shops close when travelers get near. Or everything goes out of stock.’ ‘They serve the worst food.’ ‘Careful you don’t get ripped off.’ Among other things.”
Hermes remained silent.
“‘Entry procedures take an entire day.’ ‘A textbook example of traveler hate.’ ‘They don’t even tell you how to get to a hotel. You’re better off camping in the streets.’ ‘Wouldn’t want to go near the place.’ ‘It’s better off being destroyed, the sooner the better.’”
“Everyone tried to stop me when I said I wanted to visit,” the rider said with a smile. Hermes was astonished.
“And you’re still going to go, Kino? But there are lots of other places you could visit. You have all the freedom in the world.”
Kino chuckled. “Exactly. I want to see with my own eyes just how unpleasant this country really is. And who knows? Maybe their attitude’s gotten better.”
“What if it hasn’t?”
“That doesn’t matter. I’ll complain to my heart’s content once I’m out the gates,” Kino declared.
“I guess that works,” Hermes mumbled.
Soon the path grew rugged and sloped. Kino looked down and saw the road behind her between the trees.
Then the road ahead disappeared. Kino stopped Hermes.
The road was dipping back down over the mountain. Beyond the crest to her right she spotted a grand U-shaped valley that sprawled all the way to the next mountain ridge. Nestled within was their destination, a country enclosed in grey ramparts.
“At least the view is nice,” remarked Hermes.
“Yeah. But the view doesn’t tell us anything about the people.”
“We’ll know when we get there. Who knows? It might end up being a country to remember,” Hermes joked. Kino smiled.
“I hope so.”
The motorrad began going down the gentle slope.
Several guard armed with rifle-type persuaders stood before the closed gates, as though having waited for Kino and Hermes. Kino slowed Hermes.
“I wonder if they’ll let us in.”
“What if they let me in but not you, Kino?” Hermes wondered.
Kino parked Hermes before the gate and went up to the guards, taking off her goggles. They stared at Kino and Hermes both.
Kino inhaled, ready to greet the men—
“How long will you be staying?” one of the guards demanded out of nowhere.
“Wow. Just like the rumors said,” Hermes mumbled to himself.
“Three days. I’d like to stay until the day after tomorrow,” Kino replied.
All tension drained from the guards. Putting on gentle smiles, they exchanged glances and stood up straight again. Without a single hand out of place, they saluted in unison.
“Welcome to our country, Traveler,” said the captain. “We are truly pleased to have you as our guest.”
Kino took off her hat, shocked. “Thank you. My name is Kino, and this here is Hermes.”
The guards finally lowered their hands.
“This way, please,” the captain said, leading Kino and Hermes not to the guardhouse but the main gates. Kino was once again floored.
“Don’t I have to go through entry procedures? You’re not going to check my belongings?”
“Not at all,” said the captain, smiling. “So long as long as you follow our country’s rules and customs, we will do no such thing.” Another guard entered the guardhouse, and the gates slowly opened. “Please, do go on. Our duties mandate us to remain outside the walls. Other people will be inside the gates; they will help you with anything you need.”
The guards again saluted as Kino and Hermes stepped into the country.
“That was surprisingly dull,” said Hermes. “Maybe we have the wrong country?”
“No, this should be the one,” Kino replied.
The inner gates began to open.
Kino and Hermes passed through the inner gates and entered the town proper.
Just inside the gates was a plaza. The people gathered there spotted Kino and greeted her. Soon, more and more people drew near with friendly smiles and surrounded Kino and Hermes. Without a single exception, the townspeople welcomed them. Not one glare or stone was cast in their direction.
“This has got to be a different country, Kino,” Hermes hissed.
“No, this is the right one. …I think.” Kino replied, then raised her voice. “Thank you so much, everyone. I’m feeling a little overwhelmed by your welcome. Er…I have a question.”
The crowd went quiet to listen to Kino. She tensed and asked the people if there was an affordable hotel in the area equipped with showers and space for parking Hermes inside or on the premises.
People began suggesting different hotels and arguing over their choices. That was when a girl spoke up from behind the crowd.
“You’re welcome to stay at our place!”
The girl pushed through the crowd and stepped forward. She was about 11 or 12 years old, with short hair and big eyes.
Everyone stopped arguing and looked at the girl. She greeted Kino with a bow.
“Hello, Traveler. My name is Lily.”
“Hi there. My name is Kino. And this here is Hermes,” Kino replied with a smile. Hermes also greeted Lily.
Lily looked directly at Kino, her hands clasped politely. “My parents run a hotel. We’d love to have you stay with us. I’m sure you’ll love it too!”
Surprise rose to Kino’s face, before being replaced by a smile.
“That sounds wonderful. Could you take us there?” “Let’s go.” Kino and Hermes replied.
Lily beamed and nodded. “Thank you!”
Kino pushed Hermes along and followed Lily to the hotel. Along the way, she took off her coat and hung it over Hermes’ luggage rack. Under the coat she was wearing a black jacket and a belt around her waist, and a holster around her right thigh which housed Cannon, a revolver-type hand persuader.
“Kino,” Lily said, turning.
“You have such a nice name. It sounds nice and it’s easy to say.”
“Thank you. I thought the same thing before,” Kino said. Lily seemed a little confused.
“Really? Then what about now?”
Kino smiled and met Lily’s gaze. “I still think so. But ‘Lily’ is a nice name, too. What does it mean?”
“It’s the name of a flower,” Lily replied, embarrassed. “It’s beautiful and white and blooms in spring and summer.”
“Huh…” Kino mumbled.
Lily’s face darkened. “But other kids tease me, calling me 'Silly’ or ‘Wily-nilly’. They’re really mean.”
Kino went silent, losing herself in thought.
“What’s wrong?” asked Hermes.
“Nothing,” Kino replied quickly. “I don’t think I can explain.”
Soon, they arrived at the hotel.
The hotel was not particularly large, but it was kept spic-and-span from top to bottom.
The couple sitting at the front desk greeted Kino and Hermes.
“Welcome. It’s been a long time since we had outlander guests.”
“Kino, These are my parents. They own and manage our hotel. They’re also tour guides, too. I’m their star apprentice.”
Kino greeted Lily’s parents with a smile and introduced Hermes.
“Which room would you prefer?” asked Lily’s mother.
Lily quickly glanced at the ledger. “Is the first-floor room with the big door still open?” Her mother nodded.
Lily led Kino and Hermes to their room. It was perfect for Hermes, with enough room for him to stand and a second door to push him out of without turning back to the main door. Kino expressed her pleasure.
“That’s good to hear! It’s almost lunchtime, so please come to the restaurant. It’s the door with the big tree on it, on the right side of the front desk.”
“Thank you. I’ll be right there.”
Once Lily was out of the room, Kino began unloading her things.
“That was pretty unexpected,” said Hermes.
“Yeah. I was surprised too.”
Hermes lowered his voice. “Or maybe this is all a ploy to make us feel welcome before turning on us. It might be a strategy to make us feel even worse.”
“That’s a lot of trouble to go through for something so petty. …Oh well. I’m going to have lunch, Hermes. Then we’ll have a look around town and see if you’re right,” Kino said with a wry grin, and left the room.
After the delicious meal, Kino told the family that she would be going to have a look around town. Lily volunteered to guide her around free of charge. Kino accepted the offer with gratitude.
Detaching the compartments on either side of Hermes’ rear wheel, Kino asked Lily to bring a cushion. She placed the cushion on the luggage rack to create a makeshift seat, where Lily sat with her feet dangling on one side. Kino instructed Lily to cling tightly to her waist and warned her to not touch Cannon, which was still trapped to Kino’s thigh.
Their first destination was a repair shop for Hermes.
The middle-aged mechanic looked up from the car he was working on and gladly accepted Kino’s request. He gave Hermes a thorough look-over and pointed out the parts that needed repairs and maintenance.
“Hm? What happened here?” he asked, pointing at a part next to the engine with a missing screw. Kino hesitated, embarrassed.
“She shot it because the screw wouldn’t come undone,” Hermes tattled.
“You shot him?”
“It just wouldn’t come out, so Kino shot the tip with as little gunfluid as possible. I tried to stop her.”
The mechanic gave Kino an incredulous look. “That was very bold of you, Traveler, but I can’t recommend doing it again.”
“Right. I’m sorry,” Kino said.
“Scold her some more, Mister,” Hermes added, half-jokingly.
Soon a smile rose to the mechanic’s grease-covered face. “Well, this is going to be a repair job worth doing. Go on and have some tea with Lily while you wait, Traveler. And right this way, Hermes.”
“Thank you!” Hermes chirped.
Kino sat side-by-side with Lily on a bench in front of the repair shop, drinking tea. The sky was clear and the sunlight was warm on their skin.
“It looks like this mechanic is really meticulous and skilled. It’s unusual to see Hermes let someone work on him so easily.”
Lily looked up. “Thank goodness.”
“And it’s not every day I meet a mechanic who’s willing to scold his customer like that,” Kino added. Lily giggled.
That was when a townsperson drove by with his window open and gave Kino a cheerful wave.
“Welcome to our country, Traveler!”
The next morning, Kino rose at dawn.
Hermes had been made as good as new, and was still fast asleep. Kino left him there and went to a small park near the hotel. The sky was just as clear as the previous day. The high peak to the north of town was clearly visible.
Kino did her usual exercises in the park, starting with warm-ups before moving on to combat practice. Then she practiced her marksmanship with Cannon, which she had emptied beforehand.
She was wiping her sweat when a jogger came over and greeted her, smiling. Kino responded with a greeting of her own, and the man asked her what she thought of the country.
Kino confessed that she had heard nasty rumors about the land, but that she was pleasantly surprised by what she saw. The man gave a wry smile. “Yeah. We were pretty terrible back in the day.”
The man pointed at Cannon and asked if Kino had gotten it looked at recently. When Kino shook her head, he referred her to a skilled persuader technician in the south part of town and drew her a simple map on the ground.
Kino thanked him. The jogger shook his head, still grinning. “It’s nothing—at least, compared to your coming to our country.”
With that, the man waved and departed.
“A persuader technician in the south? Sure. There’s a lovely park in the area, too,” Lily said with a nod when Kino asked her for more guidance after breakfast.
Kino thanked her. A mature look rose to Lily’s face.
“It is a guide’s duty to bring a smile to her customers.”
Like the previous day, Kino had Lily sit on Hermes’ makeshift rear seat. They went to a small persuader repair shop near the south wall. When Lily called loudly, a small, balding old man emerged from within.
“What is it? Store’s closed today. And tomorrow too, actually. Come back the day after,” he grumbled, having been woken by Lily’s voice.
“Kino here is a traveler,” said Lily. “And she’s going to be out of the country by the day after tomorrow. Could you please make an exception?”
The persuader technician gave her a curious look. “A traveler?”
Lily nodded. The old man cast Kino a cursory glance. “What model?”
When Kino pulled Cannon from its holster, a grave look rose to the man’s eyes. He gestured with his fingers for the persuader. After a long, serious stare, he finally broke his silence.
“All right. I’ll have a look at her, if you’re all right with someone like me.”
The technician instructed Kino to get him some spare parts. She thanked him and handed him what he wanted, along with several empty cylinders.
“She’s in rough shape, this one. I’ll start with the frame and switch out some of the parts if you’d like. There’s supposed to be a festival today, so go have a look around the park or something while I work. I’ll be done late in the afternoon.”
The technician reached for a persuader on the wall—a .45 caliber double-action revolver—along with several rounds affixed with crescent-shaped clips. “You probably won’t need it in this country, but think of it as a temporary replacement.”
The traveler, the motorrad, and their young guide left the store with a word of thanks. The old man looked at the traveler’s hand persuader.
“Incredible… Simply incredible. After all these years…”
The park was not too far from the repair shop. It was home to trees untouched by development and a pristine pond. Several small wooden homes dotted the area, and children ran around playing games.
There was an amphitheater in a corner of the park. It was crowded with people.
Kino, Hermes, and Lily arrived just in time to catch a performance.
Lily explained that this particular play was put on by the townspeople to teach children about the country’s founding. When Kino expressed her interest in history, Lily led her and Hermes inside.
When they stood in a line at the very back of the audience, the person in front of them noticed Kino and made way for them to move forward. So did the person in the next row, and the person in the row after that, all without hesitation. Eventually, Kino, Lily, and Hermes thanked their way through the audience and were given the best seats in the house, right at the center.
Kino apologetically took a seat. She left Hermes standing next to the row. The play was already underway, but the narrator suddenly stopped.
“Wait!” he cried. “Sorry—wait a second! Isn’t that the traveler who came to visit our country yesterday?”
All eyes on and off the stage fell on Kino. Lily rose from her seat. “Yes! This is the traveler, and I’m her guide. We’re here to watch the play.”
The people cheered. They even began applauding. Even the actors clapped and whistled.
“Well, we weren’t that far into the play anyway,” said the narrator. “And our traveler won’t get another chance to catch our story, so what do you say to starting the performance again from the beginning?”
Kino and Hermes looked around, stunned.
“Yeah!” “Good call!” people cheered all around them. One woman rose from her seat and cried, “make sure you catch my son’s star performance this time! He’s the third tree from the left!”
Everyone burst into laughter.
Kino stood and looked around, then nodded.
“All right, it’s settled!” the narrator cried. The performers and crew got to work preparing to restart the play.
“That was surprising,” Kino said to Lily, plunking down on the bench.
“Yeah,” Hermes agreed.
“Welcome to our country!” Lily said, beaming.
The play began again.
It told the story of how the country was first founded.
Once upon a time, a group of people in a distant land had been persecuted and driven away. They drifted from place to place, but no one would accept them.
After years of wandering, they finally found themselves in a deep forest.
The bounty of the woods saved the tired, starving people. They decided to create a country of their own in the forest, where they would not be persecuted.
Countless generations passed since.
“That’s how I’m here. I’m part of the newest generation of our people,” Lily said quietly amidst the applause.
“Please join us for lunch, Traveler!”
Kino was flooded with countless lunch offers, and after some contemplation she finally decided to join the actors and crew for their barbecue party.
The party was held in the park. Kino offered to lend a hand, and someone asked her to start the fire. She did her job in the blink of an eye, and was quickly assigned to grill duty. Embarrassed, Kino put on an apron someone handed her and expertly cooked dozens of skewers on the grill.
“You look like you’re enjoying yourself,” Hermes said quietly.
After the party, Kino, Lily, and Hermes toured the park. Then they returned to the persuader repair shop.
The technician looked up and rose from his seat. He picked up Cannon, wrapped up in cloth on his workstation, and handed it to Kino.
“She’s a fine persuader. Take good care of her.”
Kino received Cannon and tested out its functions, cocking it and pulling the trigger. Her expression changed.
“Wow. It works even better than when I first got it.”
“Really?” the old man said brusquely.
“Thank you. How much do I pay?”
The old man sat down again and looked up at Kino.
“You’re a pretty good shot, aren’t you?”
“Well, I suppose.”
“I have a question for you.”
“A long time ago, I knew someone who made her apprentice call her ‘Master’. She certainly was one, when it came to persuaders. This woman would travel from place to place; wouldn’t stop making trouble. She was so skilled that entire countries hated her or loved her. Mind you, this was a long time ago. She’d be an old woman by now if she were still alive.”
Kino said nothing.
“Do you by any chance know her?”
Kino holstered Cannon and looked the old man straight in the eye.
“I’m afraid not.”
Slowly, the old man smiled.
“I see. Don’t worry about the repair costs. And one more thing—”
The old man spun his chair around and grabbed a wooden case, which he handed to Kino.
“Open her up.”
Inside was a hand persuader.
A .22 caliber automatic model with a slender barrel. It must have been made for a left-handed shooter, as the safety, slide stop, and magazine were on the right side. The case also contained spare magazines and parts, a harmonica-shaped suppressor, a slide lock for attaching the suppressor, a cleaning kit, and a holster.
“Wow. I’ve never seen a persuader like this before.”
The old man nodded. “His name was ‘Woodsman’, back when he was first born. The quintessential .22 caliber hand persuader.”
“Wow. It’s beautiful,” Kino exclaimed, putting the persuader back in its case, when the old man surprised her.
“Take him. He’s yours.”
Kino looked up in shock. The old man continued.
“He used to be a traveling buddy, back in the day. Saved my skin more times than I can count. But he hasn’t fired a shot in decades. I’m old, Traveler. I can’t go out on a journey anymore. But Woodsman…he’s still in fine shape. He’s too good to rot here with me. I want him to get out there and see the world.”
“I see. But—”
“You’ll take him, won’t you?”
“…I understand. Thank you.”
The old man broke into a triumphant smile, like a man who had just won a bet. He leapt to his feet and raised his voice.
“Ha! That’s the spirit! Come inside, I’ll teach you how to use him. I’ll fix up the holster and the grip for you, too. Come on, we haven’t got all day!”
With surprising strength for an old man, the technician dragged Kino into the shop in the back of the store. Lily and Hermes were left confusion at the front.
“I’ll just call the front desk and tell them we’ll be a little late,” Lily said, going off to another store to use their telephone. Kino and Hermes waited for her on the street corner. Very few people were out and about, likely because it was evening.
“I didn’t think he’d make me shoot so many times,” Kino mumbled, holding the bag containing the wooden case.
The old man would not let Kino leave until she had fired about 300 rounds. While she practiced, he customized Woodsman’s holster so she could attach it to the back of her belt. And finally, he saw Kino, Hermes, and Lily off with a satisfied look on his face.
“Good for you, Kino. I almost died of boredom,” Hermes snapped.
“Sorry I kept you waiting. But this time it wasn’t my fault.”
Kino held up the bag. “I wonder what I should do with this.”
“You got it for free. You might as well use it.”
“You make it sound so easy. Imagine what Master would say if she found out that I had a .22 caliber automatic.”
“You’ll never know, because she’d shoot you before that.”
Kino was silent.
“Just don’t let her find out,” Hermes said nonchalantly.
“You know, I always get the feeling that she’s watching me from somewhere.”
“Too bad. …By the way, why didn’t you tell the old man about her?”
“Because Master told me not to tell if anyone asked,” Kino confessed.
“I see. She must have been worried about you,” Hermes replied.
“What in the world did Master do back then to deserve so much attention?” Kino wondered to herself.
That was when Lily returned.
“Kino! Mom says she’ll push back dinner until we get back.”
“Thank you, Lily. Let’s get going,” Kino replied, about to start Hermes’ engine. But Lily stopped her.
“Kino? Hermes? There’s a place I’d really like to show you. Now’s the only time we can see it. Can we please take a look before we go?”
“Sure. What do you say, Hermes?”
“Sure thing. Where are we going?”
“Wow.” “It’s beautiful.” Kino and Hermes exclaimed in unison.
They stood with Lily at the top of the country’s ramparts. Lily had led them to a construction workers’ cabin at the base of the wall and taken them up on a cargo elevator.
The world was painted in hues of red and orange.
The sun slipped into the horizon as it lit the world aflame, glowing a dark and vivid red.
The overlapping ridges were clear in the distance. The sky began where the mountains ended.
“This is my favorite place in the entire country. There’s nothing more beautiful here. I’ve always wanted to guide customers to the ramparts someday. You granted my wish.”
“It’s an honor,” Kino replied, propping up Hermes by his stand.
For some time, the two humans and the motorrad looked up at the glowing sky.
Lily broke the silence.
“I want to follow in my parents’ footsteps someday and be a great hotel manager and guide. Do you think I can do it?”
“Without a doubt. In fact, you’re already a wonderful guide, Lily. Hermes and I had a great time yesterday and today,” Kino replied, smiling.
“Yeah. A great country like yours needs a great guide like you,” Hermes said, trying to sound sophisticated. Lily was surprised, but she quickly became embarrassed.
“Hee hee. Thank you, Kino. Hermes.”
Kino sat down on the ramparts and looked up at Lily. Lily watched the sun disappear and slowly spoke.
“I want to learn more. I want to become a better guide. And I hope more travelers would come to visit our country. I want to see them leave with unforgettable memories of my hometown.”
Beaming, Lily looked at Kino.
“Isn’t it so amazing that I get to do something like that?”
Kino looked up at Lily with a smile of her own, nodding again and again.
“Yeah. It really is,” she said, once more casting her gaze skyward.
After returning to the hotel, Kino had dinner with Lily, and Hermes slept in Kino’s room. After the meal, Lily’s mother served them tea and cake. When she asked Kino if Lily hadn’t caused any trouble, Kino replied that Lily had been a wonderful guide. Lily preened.
“Kino,” asked Lily. “Isn’t traveling hard sometimes?”
“Yeah, it is,” Kino replied with a nod.
“But it doesn’t make you want to stop?” Lily continued as Kino sipped her tea.
“No. I’m going to keep traveling, even when things get hard.”
“Is that because traveling is something you have to do?”
Kino shook her head.
“No. It’s because traveling is something I want to do.”
With a satisfied grin, Lily brought her own cup to her lips. Several sips later, she changed the subject. “Kino, have you ever met someone you thought was really cool? Like you were destined for each other?”
Kino was taken aback for a moment. Her expression soured slightly. “Unfortunately, no. Although more than a few people have run away from me after I fired my persuader.”
They were laughing together when Lily’s parents finished up their work and came to sit with her.
“Lily,” said her mother. “If you’d like, you’re free to go traveling as well.”
“What?” Lily exclaimed, looking at her parents.
“You can travel like Kino, going from one place to another to learn about the world. And you can come back and become a guide when you’re a little older. It’s just a thought I had, Sweetie, when you brought Kino to stay with us.”
“What do you say, Honey?”
Lily thought for a moment, but quickly shook her head.
“It’s okay. I don’t want to leave. My dream is to stay here and study to become the best guide in the country. And I have the best teachers, too! Right, Mom? Dad?”
Her parents exchanged glances.
“…You’re right, Honey. You’re right. One of these days, you’ll become such a good guide that you’ll even put your parents out of work.”
Lily spoke before her mother could even finish.
The family burst into laughter.
Kino watched as though it was all a scene out of another world.
The next day. It was the third day of Kino’s stay in the country. She did not rise at dawn.
The sun was shining quite high in the sky when Hermes woke up and—to his shock—found Kino still asleep. He loudly woke her up.
Kino leapt out of bed and looked out the window, despondent.
“What happened, Kino?” Hermes asked. Kino seemed just as surprised as he was.
“That’s funny. Am I sick or something?”
“There’s going to be a wedding in the area, Kino. Do you want to go have a look?” Lily—wearing an apron—asked as she took away Kino’s plates after her late breakfast.
Kino accepted the offer with ease and brought Hermes from her room.
Kino, Hermes, and Lily went to a nearby church. It was close enough that Kino could push Hermes there.
Standing in the center—showered with blessings from the wedding guests—were the bride and groom, both wearing subdued colors. They were very young, still only in their late teens.
“They’re marrying really early,” Hermes remarked. Lily also seemed a little surprised.
“Most people don’t get married until after 20. This is young even by our standards.”
The bride and the groom went up to the platform, carrying a large bag. The female guests crowded around before them.
“They’re going to throw a bunch of small pouches now,” Lily explained quickly. “Some of them have a seed inside. The number of seeds they toss is the number of children they want to have in the future. They say that if you go wake up in the morning, with a seed pouch in hand, you’ll become a happy bride yourself.”
Lily seemed to want to join the crowd herself. Kino stepped up.
“Would you like some help? I’m sure two sets of eyes and hands will be better than one.”
“Is that okay?” Lily asked, surprised.
“Sure. Let’s go.”
They joined the other women in the crowd.
“Hmph,” Hermes grumbled alone, when the bride and the groom raised their voices.
“We want to have five children!”
They began to toss the pouches. The women rushed to pick them up off the ground, checking inside and throwing aside the empty ones to find another.
Lily was pushing through the crowd in search of a seed pouch when Kino took her by the hand and pulled her out of the commotion. Kino held out a pouch.
Inside was a large seed.
“Wow! How did you find one so quickly, Kino?” Lily exclaimed in awe.
“I’ve always been pretty lucky,” Kino replied nonchalantly.
“Can I really have it?” Lily asked.
“Of course. Although I don’t think it’ll be enough to repay you for being such a wonderful guide.”
Lily shook her head vigorously. “It’s more than enough, Kino! I’ve never found a pouch with a seed before. Thank you so much!” Lily cried, clutching the pouch.
“You’re welcome,” Kino replied.
When they returned to the hotel, they were greeted by several unarmed guards. They waited for Kino to approach before saluting in unison.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to depart the country now, Traveler,” one of them said.
Kino thought for a moment. “Er…would it be all right for me to extend my stay for a couple of days?”
Lily looked at Kino in shock. Hermes was equally stunned. “What’s gotten into you, Kino?”
“Er…I just felt like it. Was that really so surprising?”
“Our humblest apologies, Traveler,” said the guard, dignified. “But you specified at the start of your visit that you would only stay for three days. Rules are rules. We ask you to respect them.”
Reluctantly, Kino began preparations.
She refueled Hermes and bought portable rations. The store was run by a stoic middle-aged woman, who sold everything to Kino for practically nothing.
“Is this really all right?”
“Of course. We can’t rip off a traveler. But in return, promise me that you’ll promote my store to other travelers. Tell them to get everything here. Tell them it’ll bring them good luck,” the woman said with a wink. It was not a particularly charming one.
Kino and Hermes returned to the hotel to pack. Lily, her parents, and the guards from before were waiting at the front desk.
“You’re heading west? Then you’ll be best off camping on that ridge. The ridge ahead of that one is brittle and could collapse—the one ahead of that drops off into a very steep slope,” said Lily’s father.
“Now that you mention it, you’re right,” said a guard, drawing Kino a simple map. “This ridge here is perfect for camping—there’s even a little pond a little ways down, and the view is marvelous.”
Then it was Lily’s turn. “Here, Kino.” She handed Kino two packages.
“It’s our traditional picnic food,” said Lily’s mother. “Lily and I packed it together. Have the smaller package for dinner tonight, and the bigger one for breakfast. It’ll keep for a while.”
Kino received the packages and turned to everyone gathered there.
“Thank you for everything. Thank you so much.”
Then she took Lily’s hand in a handshake.
“Thank you, Lily. I’ll never forget the time I spent here.”
Lily’s grip tightened in Kino’s hand.
Hermes was fully loaded, and Kino was in her coat. They stood in the plaza by the western gates. Like when they arrived, they were greeted by a large crowd.
“Than you, everyone,” Kino said to them. “I’ve been to many countries in my travels, but I’ve never seen such kindness and generosity anywhere else.”
The people in the plaza broke into smiles. They began applauding.
Lily squeezed through the crowd in spite of her small stature and gave Kino a courteous bow.
“Thank you so much for visiting our country, Kino. Hermes. I hope you’ll come visit us again, on a honeymoon with the person you love. I’ll make sure to prepare the best room in the house for you,” she said proudly, in that moment a full-fledged hotel manager in her own right.
“Yeah. I’ll come back someday. I promise.”
The cheering of the crowd swept over them like a wave.
“Please come again!” Lily said, her tiny hand waving in the air.
Kino turned back, still with a smile. She pushed Hermes along as they left the walls. She did not look back once.
Once they were past the gates, Kino started Hermes’ engine. The guards came to see her off.
Kino took off her hat and thanked the guards. Then she started Hermes as the guards saluted her once more.
The guards watched the traveler depart, their hands refusing to fall until the motorrad was completely out of sight.
“I’m surprised, Kino. You never stay longer than three days anywhere,” Hermes said as they traveled through the forest.
“I surprised myself,” Kino replied, shifting to a lower gear. “But this is for the best. If I’d stayed longer, I might have never wanted to leave. I might have ended up settling down.”
“Wow. I thought hell would freeze over before you even thought of settling somewhere.”
“Well excuse me,” Kino chuckled.
Hermes’ tone fell. “It was a great place.”
“It sure was.” Kino nodded.
“…The rumors weren’t true at all,” Hermes said out of the blue.
“I wonder why.”
“At first I wondered too, but by the end I just didn’t care,” Kino said, satisfied. “If other travelers ask me about this country, I’m going to tell them that it was a kind and wonderful place.”
It was evening by the time they reached the ridge Lily’s father and the soldier told them about. Kino decided to set up camp there.
She strung a rope between Hermes and a tree and set up a canvas overhead in case of rain. Then she laid out a blanket and her sleeping bag underneath.
Inside the smaller of the packages from Lily was roasted fowl, cooked to perfection. Kino did not leave a crumb behind.
Then she brewed tea with water from the nearby pond. Kino looked eastward with her cup in hand.
The full moon rose from beyond the ridges and cast a dim blue light on the world. In the distance Kino spied manmade lights. Lily’s home.
She raised her cup as though in a toast.
After finishing her tea, Kino left the rest to Hermes. She put on her jacket and crawled into her sleeping bag, still in her boots.
The full moon was at the highest point in the sky.
Kino opened her eyes and quickly sat up.
“Something wrong, Kino?” asked Hermes. “Everything’s okay. No animals, and the weather seems all right too.”
“I can’t sleep,” Kino said, crawling out of the sleeping bag and standing next to Hermes.
“Maybe it’s because you slept in?”
“No,” Kino asserted stiffly. “Something’s wrong. It feels like I’m chewing on sand.” She pulled Cannon from its holster.
“W-what’s wrong?” Hermes stammered, but Kino did not reply. She simply looked around, wary.
The sky was a deep purple. The ridges of the mountain range were clear in the distance. The lights in the east must have belonged to someone staying up late in Lily’s country.
“I don’t feel anything off. You’re just too much on edge, Kino.” Hermes said with the naïveté of a new recruit on the front lines, when the ground suddenly shook. Then there was a dull roar.
A black mass rose up from partway up the great peak in the north. It ballooned like a summer stormcloud, the difference being that it was rising not from the sky but the mountain itself.
The mass expanded for a time before collapsing, licking its way down the ridge.
Soon the flowing mass swallowed the little lights in the east.
“What in the world…? What is that?!” Kino cried, taking aim with Cannon.
“Pyroclastic flow,” Hermes said quietly.
“Pyro- what?” Kino demanded, turning. Hermes continued mechanically.
“Pyroclastic flow. It’s when volcanic ash and molten lava erupt out of a volcano and rush down the slope like a tidal grave.”
“You mean, like a tidal wave?”
Hermes said no more.
The lava continued to flow down the valley. Kino’s gaze was on the lost lights.
“If I go there now, do you think I can do anything to help?”
“No,” Hermes declared.
Kino could not say a word.
“That lava is nearly 1,000 degrees celsius. Hot enough to kill a person in an instant. All your blood boils away in the blink of an eye and you die of shock. They probably didn’t even have the time to run. There’s nothing you can do, Kino. You’ll just get yourself killed too.”
Kino stood in a daze.
As the rumbling continued, echoing into the distance, she collapsed powerlessly to her knees.
Some time later, silence returned to the world.
Yet more time passed, and by the time the smoke cleared from the valley, the moon was disappearing westward and the sky in the east was growing bright. Kino was still sitting there with Cannon in hand. She said nothing, and Hermes did not ask a single question.
Once the world was bright again, the mosaic patterns of the sky and the forest regained their colors, with one exception. The valley that once housed a country was now a splash of grey.
Kino rose, holstering Cannon.
Without a word, she took down the canvas and folded up her blanket and sleeping bag. Then she took out the larger of the two packages from Lily’s family.
“We’ll leave after breakfast,” Kino said, and opened up the package from atop Hermes. Inside was hard bread and salted meat.
Kino ate her food in silence. And just as she folded up the package to put it away, she spotted an envelope and a smaller package inside.
Inside the envelope was a letter. It was labeled with the names of the sender and the recipients.
“This is from Lily’s mother. It’s for me and you, Hermes.”
“What does it say?”
The sky had largely cleared. Kino read the letter aloud.
Dear Kino and Hermes,
The final visitors to our country.
By the time you read this letter, we will no longer be of this world. We and our country will have been swallowed by lava and buried in ash.
Perhaps you saw it all happen before your eyes.
It was precisely one month ago that we learned of the mountain’s impending eruption.
Our scholars found that an unprecedented eruption would occur, swallowing our country whole.
We had two options. To abandon our country or remain.
And we made our choice. We would stay with our homeland.
It may seem foolish to a traveler like you, but this is our home. We were born and raised in this land. We know of no other way of life. Perhaps we never had a choice to begin with, in that sense. But even still, we do not think ourselves miserable for it.
After the discovery, the people of our country felt a sense of release. We began to think of how we could spend our remaining days to the fullest. Without cursing our fate, or getting angry or sad, we remained true to our lives to the end.
But we soon came to a heartbreaking realization. That after our departure, the only people who would remember us would be outlanders—travelers like you.
You may or may not already know this, but until that point we had been very rude to travelers. We had offended them without a shred of guilt.
And we realized that we would be remembered only as a loathsome, unwelcoming land.
So the people of our country decided that we would do everything we could to welcome whoever came to visit before the eruption. We would do our best to leave happy memories of our home.
Unfortunately, not a single traveler came to us since our realization. Perhaps it was because rumors of our rudeness had spread far and wide.
Time continued to pass mercilessly. Everyone had given up hope. But three days before the eruption, you came to us.
We welcome you on behalf of everyone in our country.
Kino, Hermes, thank you. Thank you so much for coming to us.
I wasn’t sure whether or not to tell you, but there is something I want you to know.
Only citizens who have reached the age of 12—the age of majority—know the truth. The day after the eruption—today, for you—happens to be Lily’s 12th birthday.
When my husband and I saw you having so much fun with her, we considered getting you to take her with you when you left. But last night, she told us that she wished to become a guide like us in our homeland. And if that is her wish—selfish though it may be—we would like to take her with us.
Thank you for reading to the end.
“I see. I understand now,” said Hermes.
Kino remained silent in thought for a time, the letter still in her hands.
It was a little later that her low voice broke the silence.
“This is…this is so selfish. It’s too selfish of them.”
“Maybe,” said Hermes. “But there’s nothing you can do about it now. I couldn’t take two riders, anyway.”
Kino folded up the letter and put it back in the envelope, then picked up the small package. Inside was a neatly-folded letter and a tiny pouch. The pouch kino had picked up at the wedding and given to Lily. The seed was still inside.
Kino’s eyes darted to the letter.
I don’t think
Kino froze mid-sentence. She stood still, her eyes wide, but Hermes urged her to continue. She went through the rest of the letter in one breath.
I don’t think I’ll ever need this. Please keep it.
Please don’t forget us.
Kino exhaled and looked up at the sky.
She did not move for a very long time.
Eventually, she put the letter and the pouch in her bag.
At the same time, Kino took out the box she had received from the persuader technician. She strapped the holster to the back of her belt.
Then she loaded the tiny rounds into the magazine, put some in one of her pouches, and loaded one into Woodsman as well. She armed the safety and stuck it in its holster.
Woodsman stuck out behind Kino, a new addition to her attire.
“Looks good,” Hermes said. Kino smiled.
She loaded her things onto Hermes and started the engine. It rumbled cheerfully and filled the woods with noise.
Then Kino put on her coat and her hat, and hung her goggles around her neck. That was when the sun began to emerge. The greens and yellows and reds of the forest regained their vibrant colors. Kino narrowed her eyes and pulled up her goggles. The light reflected against the lenses hid her expression.
“It was a wonderful place,” said Hermes.
“Yeah. It really was. It was perfect.”
Kino straddled Hermes.
Looking back just once at the grey valley, Kino saw the land buried in ashes.
Then she went forward.
When the motorrad disappeared, the world was once again enveloped in stillness.