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Chapter 1: A Country Without Walls
A lone motorrad was crossing the plains.
The moist dirt, the sprouting grass, the sky, the clouds, and the sun were all that filled the world. There wasn’t a mountain in sight. Instead a green horizon stretched on endlessly into the distance. Ninety percent of the world seemed to be taken up by the expansive sky.
The motorrad was fully laden with luggage and travel gear. Bags were secured to the luggage rack, with cans of fuel and water atop them. Small compartments hung from either side of the rear wheel, and a rolled-up sleeping bag was fixed on top of the headlamp.
“I’m bored,” said the motorrad.
“That’s the 184th time you’ve said that,” the rider replied.
Motorrad and rider went silent in unison.
The rider was wearing a brown coat, the ends of which were securely wrapped around her thighs. On her head was a hat with ear flaps, and a pair of goggles covered her face. The rider was only in her mid-teens, with large eyes and fair features.
The motorrad continued stoically across the plains, running over patches of grass and avoiding the bumps on the way.
Eventually, the sun rose higher and higher into the air and the motorrad’s shadow grew longer.
“Can we take a break, Kino?” asked the motorrad.
Kino replied, “I think we can cover more ground today. We’ll keep going for now and stop earlier than usual so we can take it easy in the evening.”
“All right. It’s still really boring here, you know.”
“That’s the 185th time,” Kino replied. “I’ve wanted to ask you something since yesterday, Hermes. Do you ever get tired of driving?”
“Yeah,” Hermes replied, “Going at the same speed through the same landscape for hours feels like spinning my wheels on an assembly line. Or like being a hamster in a wheel.”
“What about you, Kino? Don’t you get bored of seeing the same stuff all the time?” Hermes asked.
“I’m long past getting bored of the scenery now. These days I just think about things.”
“Really? Like what?”
Kino responded that they were not very fun thoughts. Hermes urged her to tell anyway.
“Just now, I was wondering what I should do if someone comes at me with a knife from the right. Should I knock the knife out of his hand and use a shoulder throw to put him on the ground? Or should I twist his wrist instead? Maybe I could take a step back and kick his hand. I could avoid the knife and knee him, too.”
Hermes did not respond.
“And that was what I’ve been thinking about.”
“That’s no fun.”
“I told you so.”
The motorrad continued on its way.
“I’m bored,” Hermes mumbled.
“That’s the 186th time…” Kino trailed off, and sat up straight without warning.
“What’s wrong?” asked Hermes.
Many small dots emerged in the distance, clustered together in a green space below the horizon. At first glance it looked like mounds of garbage, but as they got closer it became apparent that the dots were of differing sizes.
Soon it became clear what the dots were. The larger ones were dome-shaped tents, and the smaller ones were livestock and the people standing next to them.
“No way,” said Hermes. “Humans. And oxen and horses and sheeps and houses.”
“This isn’t a country. They must be nomads…”
“I can’t believe people actually live in a place like this.”
Kino slowed Hermes. A man in unusual clothing approached on horseback.
“What do you think, Kino?” asked Hermes.
“If they don’t welcome us, we’ll have to go around them. But first we should hear him out.”
Kino stopped Hermes. The man came even closer. He was not carrying anything. He smiled.
“Good day, Traveler. I’m from the clan you see over there. We live on these plains.”
Kino greeted the man. He asked where she was headed.
“We’re on our way to a country in the west. I promise we won’t bother your clan—we’ll be passing very quickly.”
But the man shook his head. “Please, that’s not necessary. Our clan makes a tradition of welcoming any travelers we happen to meet. I come with a message from our chief: let us offer you food to eat and roofs to sleep under. You will be treated as a guest.”
“I see,” Kino muttered, and asked Hermes for his opinion.
“If you’re okay with it, so am I.”
A moment’s thought later, Kino gave the man her answer.
“Then we’ll be imposing on your hospitality for a few days.”
The man beamed. “Excellent! I’ll go on ahead and let the others know!” he said, riding back to the clan. Kino started Hermes and slowly followed after him.
The village consisted of about 20 dome-shaped canvas tents. One of them was clearly larger than the rest.
Countless cows and sheep were grazing lazily around the village. Men on horseback herded them around.
Kino and Hermes were greeted by about two dozen people. They were a varied group in age, including young people in their twenties and middle-aged women, among others. About half had lit pipes in their mouths.
Kino stopped before the villagers and stepped off Hermes, taking off her hat and goggles.
“Good day, everyone. My name is Kino. This here is my partner Hermes.”
“Ah!” The most elderly of the villagers stepped forward. He was also holding a smoking pipe in his mouth. “Welcome to our village, Kino and Hermes. I am the chief of our clan. It’s very unusual for nomads like us to run into a traveler. Please, do stay with us and relax awhile.”
A kindly middle-aged woman led Kino and Hermes into one of the tents. Along the way, several children peered out of their own tents to steal glances at the newcomers.
The tent was large enough to comfortably house multiple people. A wooden pillar supported it from the middle, and a radial frame held the roof in place. Soft pelts covered the floor.
The woman widened the tent opening for Hermes. She explained that the tent belonged to her family, but that they had cleared it out for the time being for their guest. Kino thanked her once again.
Once the woman was gone, Kino took off her coat. Underneath she was wearing a black jacket and a belt with several pouches. Strapped to her right thigh was a revolver-type persuader, and behind her back was a .22 caliber automatic model. The former was called Cannon, and the latter Woodsman.
Kino took off Woodsman by the holster and lay down in the tent.
“It’s comfortable here,” she muttered without a second thought.
Hermes replied, “Yeah. This tent is amazing. It’d be warm in the winter and cool in the summer, and it’s easily collapsable to boot.”
“Perfect for the nomadic lifestyle. It really might be a miracle that we happened to run into them. These people probably spend their entire lives with mother nature and the great outdoors, without any walls to fence them in,” Kino said, deeply impressed.
“Are you jealous?” Hermes joked. “They might let you join them if you ask nicely.”
Kino sat up. “I’m good, thanks. It’s not my kind of life.”
“Then what is?” Hermes asked.
Kino thought for a moment before responding. “I don’t know. I guess that’s what I’m looking for now.”
That evening, Kino was invited to dine with the clan. She left Hermes behind because he had fallen asleep. Kino was introduced to the rest of the clan in front of the largest tent, which belonged to the chief. The clan consisted of about 50 people, with about 10 or so children under the age of 12.
Afterwards, dinner was served in the chief’s abode. The meal was simple and humble, the dishes mostly based on dairy products. When the clan asked Kino how she liked the meal, Kino expressed her satisfaction.
However, the air in the tent was another matter. Everyone was smoking their pipes all throughout the meal, making it difficult to breathe. When her eyes began to hurt, Kino excused herself and stepped outside.
It was just when Kino was looking out into the sunset plains that someone suddenly approached her.
“So it’s you.”
Kino turned, surprised. There stood a man in his thirties, his back to the glowing red sky. He had handsome features, but that made him seem emotionless.
Kino’s expression changed.
The man was dressed like the rest of the clan, but unlike the others, his eyes were a light grey and his skin color was different as well. He was also much taller.
His grey eyes scrutinized the curious Kino as he said flatly, “So you’re the traveler who arrived today.”
“That’s right,” Kino replied with a nod.
“They all think you’re a man. But you’re not, are you?”
“…Is that a problem?” asked Kino.
The man stared blankly at Kino for some time before leaving, not entering a tent but disappearing somewhere else.
The next day, Kino rose at dawn. It was a clear day.
When she stepped outside, everyone was already on their feet. Women were milking the sheep, young men were grooming the horses, and children were helping to light campfires. At times adults came over to the campfires to light their pipes.
A passing woman told Kino that she was free to sleep in, but Kino replied that she made a habit of waking up early.
“That’s wonderful,” said the woman, smiling.
Kino went back inside to train with Cannon and Woodsman and maintain them before holstering them again.
After the morning chores, the clan members gathered in small groups for breakfast, which consisted of something similar to bread with melted cheese dip. Kino again expressed her great satisfaction with the food, and tried sharing some of her rations. The villagers sampled the little pieces with unimpressed looks.
After breakfast, the men went out on horseback to herd the livestock. The women stayed behind to clean up, patch up clothes or tents, or watch the children. At times they would stop what they were doing to smoke their pipes.
Kino was maintaining Hermes when she spotted several children looking in their direction from a distance.
“You can come closer if you’d like. He doesn’t bite,” she said.
“Hey, I resent that!” Hermes snapped. “Not that you’re wrong.”
The children slowly approached. The youngest of the group was still waddling on unsteady feet, while the oldest was about 11 or 12 years old. Their curious gazes would not leave Hermes. Some of the children even touched him.
“Wow! It’s hard!”
“It’s a metal horse!”
“His name is Hermes,” Kino said. The children burst into excited chatter.
“That’s a funny name!” “It’s weird!” “Hah hah hah!”
“Er-meeze?” asked one of the children.
“No, it’s ‘Hermes’,” Hermes replied. “‘Er-meeze’ sounds stupid.”
Kino watched the laughing children and the upset Hermes, and noticed that some of the children had small pipes in their mouths. But the pipes were empty.
“What are your pipes for? Do you smoke, too?” Kino asked the boy who seemed to be the oldest of the children.
“No, I’m just carrying it around,” the boy said, showing Kino the empty pipe. “We’re not supposed to smoke until we’re adults. Adults get to smoke the grass because they work to keep us all fed. You’re only allowed to do it when everyone says you’re all grown up.”
“If you want to be an adult, you have to be able to ride a horse if you’re a boy. And just being able to ride isn’t good enough. You have to be able to herd livestock really well.”
“What about you?”
“I’m still practicing…” the boy trailed off. But then he took out a sickle. “B-but see? I’m the best at harvesting! No one helps my mom as well as I can,” he said proudly.
“Harvesting’s for girls,” said a girl around 12 years of age. “Boys who can’t ride horses are stupid.”
The boy said nothing. The girl turned to Kino.
“I have to bear his children someday. He’s supposed to be my husband when we grow up.”
“Oh? They’ve decided for you?” asked Kino.
“Yeah. Before we were born. So I really hope he gets cooler. I don’t wanna marry a guy like him,” the girl said, nodding her head.
“Right back at you, you tomboy!” the boy pouted. But the girl did not even flinch.
“He’s being a brat because he’s jealous that I can ride better than him.”
Kino gave a wry smile. “Then how about this? When you get married, you can herd the livestock and he can harvest grass.”
The girl’s eyes widened. “You’re right. That sounds perfect!”
“No it doesn’t. It’s stupid.”
“Well too bad, it’s decided! I’m gonna go ask Daddy right now.”
“La-la-la! I’m not listening!”
Kino watched the children run off. When she turned, she saw Hermes still arguing with the others.
“I said, it’s ‘Hermes’!”
The men came back in the afternoon, and after lunch everyone took a nap.
Then, the villagers asked Kino if she wanted to try riding a horse. When she replied that she had never tried before, the men taught her how.
At first she started off with slow trots, but once she was used to the feeling, Kino was able to go quickly on horseback.
The adults were impressed by her prowess with the reins. The chief watched, blowing smoke out of his pipe. “It’s decided, then.”
The other adults nodded quietly. A slight distance away, the grey-eyed man watched them all from horseback.
That evening, they had dinner in the smoky tent again.
Afterwards, Kino sat atop Hermes outside her tent and looked up at the sky. There was a cloud cover over the western horizon, making the sunset sky particularly dark.
“Did they end up getting your name right, Hermes?”
“No. They’re probably just gonna remember you as the traveler who came on Er-meeze.”
A smile came over Kino’s face. “Once we leave tomorrow, you’ll never be able to correct them.”
“Yeah,” Hermes said. “Kino, I think we’re in for bad weather tomorrow.”
“Really? …That’s not going to stop us from going, though. It’ll be the third day.”
Kino got off Hermes.
“—So it’s you.”
“Whoa!” Hermes cried. The man with grey eyes had suddenly arrived out of nowhere. Kino turned, glaring.
The man took several steps towards them and stopped, looking down on Kino and Hermes. “Do you have a homeland?”
Kino met the man’s gaze and shook her head.
The man spoke again. “Have you ever chosen one?”
“Not yet,” Kino said slowly. “I plan to travel the world for the time being.”
The man gave a few light nods. Then he spoke again in his usual monotone. “I see. So you can endure the captivity of freedom. That’s incredible.”
Kino silently stared.
“What’s wrong?” the man asked.
“Pardon me,” Kino said, “but were you a traveler once?”
“No,” the man replied immediately.
“I am,” the man replied, his answer again immediate. Kino slowly confirmed her suspicions.
“You weren’t born here, were you?”
“…Is that a problem?” the man asked, turning.
Kino’s eyes followed the departing man. Once he was completely out of sight, Hermes spoke.
“Is that the guy you said was really quick on the uptake? I wonder who he is.”
“I have no idea,” Kino admitted.
The next day. It was the morning of Kino’s third day with the nomadic clan.
Thick clouds hung low on the sky. It was dark even after sunset.
After breakfast, Kino informed the chief that she would be departing that day. He seemed surprised and asked if something about the clan displeased her.
“Not at all. I simply make it a rule to stay no longer than three days in one country. Thank you for all your hospitality.”
The chief was flabbergasted. “Actually, Kino,” he said, “we were planning to hold a feast for you tonight to welcome you. We were even going to butcher one of the cows—everyone’s been looking forward to it. Could I ask you to stay just one more day with us? The weather isn’t going to cooperate today, anyway.”
“…I’m grateful for the offer, but…”
As Kino hesitated, the woman who had given her her tent spoke up. “Chief, we can finish preparations quickly—why don’t we just have a slightly late lunch instead? Then Kino could join us.”
“Ah, that sounds wonderful!” said the chief. “What do you say, Kino?”
Delighted, the chief told those at the tent to send word out to the rest of the tribe.
“So we’re going to leave after lunch,” Kino said, loading Hermes.
“Okay. Have a good meal.”
Her preparations finished, Kino left Hermes in the tent and headed to the chief’s tent in her black jacket.
It was still dark and cloudy.
Hermes was left all alone in the tent.
That was when the side opposite from the entrance opened without a sound and someone entered.
“Who is it? Kino’s not here.”
“I know,” said the person who entered, approaching Hermes.
“Ah, you’re the guy with grey eyes,” Hermes said, slightly tense. The man grabbed him by the handlebars and pushed forward, folding the stand.
“Where?” Hermes asked.
Long tables had been set up in the chief’s tent, with about 30 people surrounding them. As always, the tent was filled with smoke from the pipes everyone held in their mouths. In the middle of it all was the centerpiece of the meal—a massive chunk of beef cooked to perfection.
Kino was ushered into a seat near the middle. When the feast began, one of the man carved out chunks of beef to pass out to the others. The beef was salted and eaten with dried garlic.
Kino asked where the children and the rest of the adults were. The man next to her replied, “they’re eating in another tent—not enough room in this one, I’m afraid. And we have a few people out there looking after the livestock or the children. But we’ll be taking shifts, mind you. It’s been a long time since we’ve had meat. As for the children, they’re forbidden by clan rules from participating in feasts. They’re probably sulking in their tents, hoping they’ll be considered adults soon.”
The man puffed on his pipe, then poured himself something out of a leather container. He offered it to Kino, who refused when he explained that it was liquor made from sheep milk.
“This might suit your tastes better, Traveler,” said a middle-aged woman, handing Kino a wooden cup and pouring her some tea.
Kino thanked her and received the cup. Then she took a sniff. “Interesting aroma. What is this tea called?”
“What? Er…we don’t really have a name for it,” the woman said, taken aback, but a smile soon returned to her face. “Please, have a taste.”
Kino stared into the cup for some time. And she finally placed it on the table. “I’m sorry, but it smells a little too strong for my liking. I’m afraid I’ll have to decline.”
The man next to her gave her a curious look.
Kino slowly rose from her seat. “Thank you for the wonderful meal, everyone. And thank you for inviting me here. I’ll be taking my leave now.”
All eyes fell on Kino. They were all surprised.
“Is that so? Let me walk you outside, then,” said the woman who had served her the tea.
The woman led Kino to the exit. Kino slowly turned her back on the woman. Then she quickly turned to face the woman again.
The club came swinging down, missing the back of Kino’s head and grazing her shoulder. Kino took a deft step backwards and kicked the nearest table. Plates of food scattered to the floor.
Everyone stood. They were staring at Kino with rigid faces, holding clubs in their hands. The young men blocked off the only exit. The rest of them surrounded Kino.
“What are you doing?” Kino asked. The chief approached her from behind.
“Kino. Please don’t resist and drink that tea. We have no intention of killing you. It won’t last long, I promise.”
Kino slowly turned to face the chief. “And if I refuse?”
The chief gave a wave of the hand. The people around them brandished their clubs.
Kino slowly drew Cannon from its holster. The people stepped back for a moment, but the chief took a step forward.
“Ah, so you’re willing to shoot, is that it? But you won’t be able to fire away forever—you could kill no more than a dozen, and then you will be defenseless.”
“That’s true,” Kino replied, slowly holstering Cannon.
Several men drew near. Kino kicked the table beside her with all her strength.
The men moved to avoid the table, and in that split second Kino moved in the opposite direction from the exit. Then she grabbed the carving knife in the large chunk of beef and held it up to the nearest person—the chief. She dug her left hand into his hair and held the knife to his throat with her right.
“Nobody move!” Kino threatened. Everyone froze.
“D-damn you…” the chief growled.
“I have no intention of killing you,” said Kino. “It won’t last long, I promise.”
“Hah! Don’t bother. You’ll never leave our village! Your precious motorrad is probably in pieces by now!”
“…I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it,” Kino said mechanically. Her grip on the chief’s hair tightened. The tip of the knife touched his neck.
The chief endured, however, and raised his voice. “Don’t worry about me! Make sure she doesn’t leave this tent! Don’t let her get away!”
Kino dropped the knife and shoved the chief aside. And before the knife hit the floor, she drew Cannon again and fired three rounds.
Three gunshots punctuated the air. All three rounds hit the base of the central pillar supporting the tent. As the men lunged, Kino kicked the pillar. It broke.
The tent came down on them in the blink of an eye. Kino freed herself from the canvas and crawled outside. She did not see a soul under the dark skies, only identical tents standing on the plains in silence.
Behind her, people were squirming in the collapsed tent. Someone shouted, “Damn it! Find her! Get her and bring her back alive! Fresh blood! We need her blood!”
Kino broke into a run, heading for her own quarters. But a man rushed out of a tent on the way and spotted her.
“You’re not getting away!”
She shot him in the leg. The man fell with a scream.
“There she is!” someone called from behind. Kino clicked her tongue and leapt behind the next tent over. That was when someone’s hands covered her mouth.
Kino quickly pointed Cannon at her captor’s jaw behind her, pulling the trigger.
The persuader did not fire. Kino froze.
“Quiet. I’m not going to hurt you,” said the man, his grip loosening.
Kino slowly looked around and found herself face-to-face with a pair of grey eyes. His right hand was holding down Cannon’s hammer, preventing it from firing. The man slowly took his hand off the persuader, however, and let Kino go.
“Don’t shoot. You’ll give away our location.”
Kino looked up at the man. “You’re not going to attack me?”
That was when another man yelled. “There! Rauher’s got her!”
Three men came charging, brandishing clubs.
“Here. I’ll take two of them,” said the grey-eyed man called Rauher, handing Kino a club.
In the time it took for Kino to knock out one man, Rauher took down two. He pulled a knife from his belt and slit their throats in an instant. The men twitched, spraying blood everywhere, and died. The man Kino knocked out soon met the same end.
“Why are you going so far? You don’t need to kill them to let me escape.”
Rauher gave a light shake of the head. “It’s for their sake. I’m putting them out of their misery.”
“What do you mean?”
“Come with me.”
Rauher pulled Kino into a nearby tent. “This place is mine,” he said. That was when another voice spoke up.
“You’re here, Kino.”
“Hermes?” Kino cried, raising her voice without thinking. Hermes was there, loaded just as Kino had left him.
“I persuaded him to come with me earlier. As long as we stay in here, they won’t find us anytime soon,” Rauher said, taking out his pipe to smoke.
“Thanks for before,” said Hermes. “It all turned out like you said it would.”
“Yeah. But much sooner than I expected. I’m impressed, Kino. You not only refused the tea, you even managed to escape the tent,” Rauher said, lighting his pipe with a match. The match was from Kino’s luggage. “Thanks for this, by the way,” he nodded, and savored the flavor.
“Could I ask you something?” Kino asked, replacing Cannon’s cylinder.
“Why did they attack me? And why are you helping us?”
Rauher glanced at Kino. “They want to make you part of the clan. They need fresh blood to join this tiny tribe. These people’ve been doing this for centuries. Invite travelers they happen to meet on the road and observe them, and if they traveler turns out to be useful, they bring them into the fold. If not, they kill the traveler. I think everyone liked you. Make sense so far?”
“Yes. But how would they make me join? It didn’t seem like they were going to beg me or anything of the sort.”
“This,” Rauher said, holding out his pipe. “You saw how everyone was smoking, right? The grass we smoke is highly addictive. Once you’re hooked, you literally can’t live without it. Half a day without the fumes, and you get headaches. Three days later, your hands start trembling. By the fifth day you start hallucinating. And by day ten, you lose your mind and die. The tea you refused to drink was filled with pure extract of that stuff.”
“I see. What would have happened if I drank it?”
“The tea would have knocked you out on the spot for days. The clan would have dismantled Hermes and buried the parts somewhere, and moved on to a different location.”
Kino could not respond.
“That sounds terrible,” Hermes remarked.
“They keep the grass burning around you even when you’re out, so by the time you open your eyes you’re addicted to the stuff. This grass only grows on these plains, and you can only harvest it in a tiny window of time during autumn. So you’re left with only two choices: join the clan and live like this for the rest of your life, or die of withdrawal symptoms.”
“I understand. Thank you for explaining,” Kino said, nodding again and again. “How long have you been here?”
“Five years. Got taken in like a fool.”
“What…what was it like?” Kino asked. Rauher put on a bitter smile and stuffed more grass into his pipe.
“When I opened my eyes, I had no idea what was going on. At first I cursed the villagers. My body really didn’t like the grass, so I was in bad shape for a while, too. I could have died then. I almost thought of trying,” Rauher said, lighting his pipe. His smile was broader now. “But the woman who looked after me—more like girl, back then—said something to me. ‘Don’t die. You can’t let yourself die.’ She was crying. Said ‘good things will happen as long as you stay alive.’ Heh.”
Kino was silent.
“So I decided to live with the clan. I learned how to work like the rest of them and everyone accepted me. Afterwards, I married the woman who nursed me to health. Although that part had been decided the moment the villagers first decided I should join them.”
“Were you happy?” asked Hermes.
“Yes,” Rauher replied, and added, “those were the happiest days of my life.”
“What about your wife?” asked Kino. Rauher’s response was flat.
“The villagers murdered her. Around this time last year.”
“She’s not here!” someone cried, passing by the tent.
“She became infertile,” Rauher finally said.
“She miscarried our child, and became infertile. A woman who can’t have children is considered worthless. Not worth the precious food and grass she would be consuming. That’s the way things work in this clan. Please don’t glare at me like that, Kino.”
“The chief commanded her death soon after. She accepted the decision and was killed and buried. I don’t even know where she is anymore.”
“What about you?” Hermes asked. Rauher took another puff.
“She told me the same thing she said the first time we met.”
Kino and Hermes could not say anything.
“That’s how it was,” Rauher said with one final puff, tossing the ashes and putting the pipe away. Then he muttered, “It’s about time.”
“What do you mean?” asked Kino.
Rauher did not respond. Instead, he slinked over to the tent entrance.
A man stuck his head inside. “Aha! I knew it!”
At that moment, blood spurted from his neck.
Rauher kicked the fresh corpse out the entrance. “Let’s go. Don’t worry, it’s going to be all right,” he said, holding the entrance open. Kino slowly pushed Hermes outside.
The village adults were surrounding the tent. When they saw Kino and Rauher come outside, there was a small commotion. The sky was even darker than before.
“Wonder if it’s gonna rain,” Hermes wondered to himself.
The chief shot Rauher a piercing glare. “What is the meaning of this?”
“I just did what I wanted, Chief,” Rauher answered.
“Hand over the traveler. We’ll think about what to do with you later.”
Rauher took out his pipe and slowly stuffed it with grass.
Then he spoke.
“There’s no need for thinking anymore. Your time is up.”
“Silence!” the chief cried, anxious. He turned to several men holding long rods. “Attack all at once! Make sure to get both, I don’t care if you hurt them!”
Without a word, Rauher struck a match. And he slowly lit his pipe.
A deep explosion shook the air. The villagers turned in unison, and the first to notice the disaster screamed.
“F-fire! The tent with the grass is on fire!”
Smoke was pouring like water from the roof of one of the tents. Rauher sucked on his pipe.
“What did I tell you? Go on and put that fire out, or it’s going to burn up.”
The people paled. Having forgotten all about Kino and Rauher, they rushed to the burning tent.
The smoke was growing worse and worse. Flames began to flash from inside as well.
“The grass! The grass!”
“The grass of life!”
“Douse that fire! Do whatever it takes!”
Rauher, Kino, and Hermes watched the panicked crowd from a distance.
Though the clan tried their best, patting down the flames with clubs and clothes had little effect. The fire spread at a frightening speed.
“That’s our supply of grass, the whole thing from last year’s harvest. I got Hermes’ permission earlier to borrow some fuel and gunpowder to mess with it. Without the grass, the villagers will only have ten days to live,” said Rauher. Kino looked at him. “Me included,” he admitted, slowly puffing smoke.
The fire grew stronger and stronger, casting on the ground the shadows of the people gathered around the tent.
One man bravely approached the fire to salvage the grass. His clothes and hair caught fire, and the flames began to lick away at his entire body.
The man let out an inhuman scream as he danced, becoming a ball of flames. No one tried to help him. Soon he crumpled in a pile of ash. Several others were quickly consumed by the fire.
People desperately patting down the flames fell one by one, pale with oxygen deprivation.
The tent collapsed. The fire consumed the entire supply of grass and the smoke grew even thicker. It looked like a white signal flame.
Kino watched the smoke and the people falling in heaps of despair. Those who stuck their heads into the smoke for what could be their last taste of the fumes soon began frothing at the mouth and staggering away before screaming and falling.
Before long, the tent and the supply of grass was exhausted. The burnt-out tent was surrounded by people who had stopped moving.
Even those who could still move were completely dead inside.
Out of nowhere, one man broke the neck of the woman next to him. Then he began to beat those curled up around him to death. The sound of skulls breaking echoed across the plains. Even more people stopped moving. Some set themselves on fire and burned to death.
One man shambled towards Kino and Rauher. His hands were burnt to charcoal.
“Heh heh heh heh…” he chuckled blankly and closed his eyes. Rauher’s knife slit his throat in an instant.
Rauher went to the burnt-out tent and put those in agony to rest. Those crumpled on their knees, those drowning in tears, those clinging in tight embraces, those foaming at the mouth, those beating others to death, and those turned halfway to ash.
Rauher mechanically cut their throats, one after another. The living quickly turned into the dead.
“What…what is the meaning of…”
The last of the villagers—the man who had until recently been the clan’s chief—stammered.
“If you hadn’t done what you did last year, maybe I would have acted differently.”
With a red knife in hand, the grey-eyed man stared.
The chief tore at his hair and muttered to himself, “It’s over…it’s all over…”
Rauher shook his head.
“No, not entirely. Goodbye, Father.”
Rauher left the knife in the chief’s neck and slowly turned. Kino and Hermes were watching. He returned to their side.
“Hell has come and gone. You can go now,” he said.
“Let’s go together. You can gather up whatever grass the people here have in their pockets and belongings and go to a nearby country. They might be able to cure your addiction somehow. Wouldn’t you be better off seeking out a faint hope instead of waiting here to die?”
Rauher looked at Kino. “You have a point,” he conceded. “But I’m staying.”
“Why? There’s no one left.”
Rauher smiled. “You’re forgetting something.”
“It’s not over yet.”
Kino was silent.
“The kids need to know what the adults did, what it was they were smoking, and why I did what I did. And I need to teach them how to survive on their own, and stay with them until I die of insanity. No—they need to see me lose my mind and die. After that, they’ll be able to survive looking after their livestock. Create a new future, and a new clan that doesn’t need the grass to survive. That’s why I’m staying.”
“I understand,” Kino said with a nod. “Then tell me about your homeland. If I ever happen to visit—”
Rauher shook his head. “No need. In fact, I don’t recommend it. I’m a wanted man back there.”
Kino could not reply. But Hermes spoke. “What did you do there? Might as well tell us, since this is goodbye.”
Rauher gave a wry grin. “Sure, since this is goodbye. …I used to be a soldier. Trained from childhood to carry out special missions. I assassinated many enemies during the war, all for the country and its people. But when the war ended, I became unnecessary. A country that emerged victorious and just in the war couldn’t possibly admit to having resorted to assassination. I was branded a mad killer who murdered people on a whim and kicked out of my homeland. I never wanted to be a traveler. I wanted to live and die in the country I was born into. I wanted to raise a family there and live a normal life. I thought maybe I could do that here, with this clan.”
“I see. Thank you,” said Hermes.
Kino quietly put on her coat, hat, and goggles. The moment she made to start Hermes, Rauher suddenly spoke.
“You remind me of her.”
“You asked me earlier why I saved you, right? That’s my answer. Because you remind me of her. Not the way you look, I mean. It’s your gaze. You have the very same gaze she did.”
A smile slowly spread to Rauher’s grey eyes.
“You mean…your wife?”
Rauher nodded. “Yeah. I still dream about her sometimes.”
“…If I had become part of this clan, would I have been made your wife?”
Kino said nothing.
“Goodbye. It was nice meeting you,” Rauher said, turning away.
Kino watched him depart.
“Thank you for helping me. I’ll never forget your kindness. Goodbye…”
Without turning, Rauher waved.
The motorrad’s engine roared throughout the village. The roar soon grew distant, however, and disappeared altogether.
The children were trembling together in one tent. Soon the entrance opened and a man with grey eyes entered. The man slowly explained that he had something to tell everyone. That what he had to say was very important, and that the children needed to pay close attention.
The children slowly gathered around him. The man looked around at them and opened his mouth, when the sickle in his neck stole away his voice.
“I saw it all! It was you! You did this!” someone said. The man tried desperately to speak, his mouth agape, but soon expired.
The children stepped out of the tent. They cried. They cried and cried and cried themselves to exhaustion until someone spoke. They had to live on without the adults, said the child. Everyone nodded. They had to do all the work the adults used to do. Everyone nodded.
The children rummaged through the chief’s tent to find anything that might be useful. Someone found something strange packed into a large bag. Everyone looked inside.
It was grass. A secret supply no one but the chief knew about. It was not an insignificant amount.
Someone soon realized what it was, and someone else said that someone should try smoking it. One child said that the grass was only for adults, but someone else thought otherwise.
“We’re the adults now. So we get to smoke it.”
Everyone agreed. The children brought pipes to their mouths and began to suck on the smoke. At first, some of them were nauseated by the strong flavor, but they had to endure that much if they wanted to become adults.
Two weeks later…