Please hover over the text to see annotations.
"You want me to co-operate with you?" Rikiga made a clearly distasteful expression.
"Yeah," Nezumi answered. "I want you to glean information from your customers." Nezumi seated himself snugly into the chair, and put his feet up on the table.
"Information? You mean about the Holy City?"
"What's in it for me?"
Rikiga stood up, and strode over to Nezumi. They were in a room of the building Rikiga used as his workplace. It was a room littered with magazines and empty bottles, and it reeked of alcohol. Looking down at Nezumi, Rikiga twisted his mouth in a scowl.
"Some long legs you've got, huh. Showing off?"
"What an honour to be complimented by you. These are the money-makers, I gotta keep them in shape."
Rikiga's hand rapped sharply on the pair of legs flung out onto the table.
"Get your feet off my table. It's obvious what kind of upbringing you've had," he said scornfully. "Don't even know your basic manners, do you?"
"I use my manners with people who deserve them."
"Not to mention your filthy language," Rikiga continued. "And this favour you're asking for, is this some kind of act? Are you practicing for some new part you've got?"
"It's a real issue."
"A real issue, huh. Enormous riches, you say? Ridiculous."
Nezumi glanced at Rikiga's face, and flashed a faint smile.
"What's wrong?" he said. "This is about making a fortune ― you love this kind of stuff. Not feeling up for it?"
"What makes you think I'm gonna believe what some third-rate, fraud of an actor tells me?"
"Then who would you listen to? Shion?"
Rikiga's gaze wavered.
"Shion? Does Shion have something to do with this?"
"He has a lot to do with it."
"Did you get him involved, Eve?"
"No. Shion sowed the seeds, they're just growing in my yard."
"What do you mean?"
"If you agree to help me, I'll tell you."
"Spit it out."
"First, I want you to show me your customers' stats. When's the next time a high official from No. 6 is gonna come to have a good time? I want to know his name, and position."
Rikiga exhaled shortly, and folded his arms.
"Eve, how old are you?"
"Younger than you, old man."
"You must be young enough to be my son. I've been meaning to say this for a while, but a brat like you has no right to look down on adults like this. You're bound to serve the consequences."
With his eye still trained on Nezumi, Rikiga called out, "Conk," in a loud voice. The door to the next room opened, and a large man walked in.
"He's my new bodyguard," Rikiga said. "Just got him hired. He used to be a wrestler, and people used to bet on the matches. He's nearly killed several people with his bare hands. On the ring, and off the ring too."
The man silently gazed down at Nezumi. He was so large, he made the dirty room seem a size smaller just by walking in.
"Conk, I want you to give this little prince here a proper welcome. You don't have to kill him. Just enough so that he'd never be able to make another smart comeback again."
"Huh?" Conk stuttered. "Uh―"
"Don't 'uh' me, I'm telling you to teach this kid what a punch from a real adult is like," Rikiga said irritably.
Conk licked his lips, and took a step forward. And another step. Nezumi stood up. Rikiga smiled contemptuously.
"This is the punishment you deserve, Eve. The full extent of it."
Conk's feet stopped.
"Eve ― is it really you, Eve?"
Nezumi smiled, and proffered his hand in a delicate gesture. His sensual smile made even Rikiga blink.
"So your name is Conk? Pleased to meet you, Conk. Thank you for always coming to see me on stage. I would never have dreamt that I'd be able to meet you here. I'm so happy."
"Oh ― Eve, me too."
Conk blushed crimson, and gently clasped the hand that was offered to him.
"I've always been a fan of yours ― I've seen almost all of your performances―"
"I know. You stood out, so I always knew whenever you came to my shows. You'd even send me gifts sometimes. I've always wanted to thank you directly."
"Really? You ― you could really tell when ― when I―"
"Of course. And last time, you even cried. I was watching you from on-stage, too, you know."
"Watching? You were watching me?"
"Eve ― I don't know how to say ― I ―"
"Yeah, overwhelmed. With happiness. I've never been so happy. I feel like I'm floating on air."
"Thank you, Conk," Nezumi said pleasantly. "And I hate to disturb you, but I'd like to have a nice, long talk with Rikiga-san. Would you be so kind and pour me a cup of coffee?"
"Of course. Anything to eat?"
"That would be nice. Do you have meat pie, by any chance?"
"Yeah. I'll bring it rightaway."
Conk disappeared into the next room with amazing swiftness for his stature. Rikiga shook his head.
"Coffee and pie, huh? That stuff is all mine, you know," Rikiga grumbled.
"Don't complain, or he'd probably punch you. You said so yourself. Ex-wrestler. Nearly killed several people. Right?"
"I can see why his wife kicked him out of the house," Rikiga said bitterly. "He's completely useless when you need him the most."
"He's a good guy. Probably makes excellent coffee."
Rikiga clucked his tongue three times.
"That's quite something, Eve. Not only can you handle a knife, can you also use sex appeal to your advantage too?"
"Both make good weapons."
"Then use that weapon you've got."
Nezumi lowered himself into a chair and crossed his legs.
"Eve, you're no rat," Rikiga continued. "You're a cunning white demon fox, great at manipulating people. Now, I don't know how many tails you've got, but I've got a man who likes that kind of thing. He's an elite, works at the Central Administration Bureau. He's my best customer."
"Does that mean you're co-operating with me?" Nezumi's face was sombre. Rikiga's face was also grave.
"I've also heard that there's been commotion recently inside No. 6."
"News reaches you quick, huh. I'm impressed."
"Don't try to flatter me with things you don't mean. Staying on top of the news is what keeps my business running. But really," he said bemusedly. "This is the first time I've heard about anything out-of-line coming from that place. And that's how many decades since the Holy City came to be? It's probably about time things started fraying at the seams. And if that's the case, then I want to know more. I'm still concerned about these things, Eve. And if Shion's involved ― then I don't want to turn a blind eye."
"Is he precious to you?"
"He reminds me of Karan. And unlike you, he's truthful and kind. He's a good kid. Karan raised him well. She probably showered him with love."
"What's wrong, old man?"
"Why so solemn? You sick or something?"
"Leave me alone," Rikiga snapped. "When I'm with Shion, I just feel at peace. I'm not sure why ― but anyway, I'll show you my customers' data files. Once that's done, let's hear your story. I'm not sure if it'll amount to 'enormous riches', but it might be of some interest to me."
"That's what you're really after, isn't it?"
"Say what you will."
The aroma of coffee wafted over to him.
Nezumi thought about Shion.
Showered with love ― he probably very well had been. His recklessness, his liberality, his straightforwardness, his wide acceptance, were probably all tokens of the ample amount of love he had been given. Shion had probably never experienced what it was like to grovel for love. That was fortunate of him. But love could sometimes be reversed into its opposite. Love could attract hatred, and bear the banner for destruction.
Hopefully, the love that had raised Shion, the love that resided within Shion, would not become the chains that bound him, nor the hand that led him to death―
Nezumi deeply inhaled the fragrant smell, barely managing to prevent a sigh from escaping his lips.
Inukashi trudged along the path, cocking his head ever so often in perplexity.
He didn't know how to sort through the information he had gathered. It was like sorting through ore, separating the gems from the rocks. From the reams of information, he had to select those that mattered, build the parts into a structure, and draw a conclusion. He wasn't very good at these processes.
Oh well. They'll figure the rest out. My job is just to dump all the ore out in front of them. But I can't help thinking―
He stopped his feet on a whim, and craned his neck. In the distance, he could see the fortress walls of No. 6. The special alloy reflected the light of winter. Inukashi had never thought about that land deeply. It was just an entirely different world, glittering in the distance. That was it. His only concern had been to survive the day's deprivation, and managing not to starve. He had never linked his ordeal with the shining Holy City. But Nezumi was different. He was constantly occupied with No. 6 itself.
Why did he insist on concerning himself? What bound him to it?
Love and hatred were no different in that they were both entrapments.
There was a gust of wind. It was chilly. Sometime tomorrow, the weather would probably change.
Inukashi curled up, and gave a small sneeze.
He'd been taken ahold of, he knew it. He'd been taken ahold of firmly by Nezumi's persistent intentions, and Shion's resolution.
No, that's not it. Half of it is me sticking my own foot in.
It wasn't because he had been threatened by Nezumi, or because he felt pity for Shion. He had stepped in on his own will.
He questioned himself, but did not receive an answer.
Why? Why have I―
He craned his neck again to survey the Holy City.
Over there, the Holy City of No. 6 glitters, and over here is where we spend our daily lives. The amount of leftovers that No. 6 spits out in a single day is enough to easily satisfy the hunger of all the people here. Just leftovers. Half-eaten food, for god's sakes.
Gluttony and starvation, extravagance and poverty, rejoicing of life and fear of death, arrogance and debasement―
Would he be able to change it?
Inukashi walked briskly in the wind. His hair rippled and streamed out behind him.
Would he be able to change the reality he had resigned himself to, the days he had struggled to survive, his life which had long been stripped of any dignity as a human being?
Ridiculous. It's just a fairy tale. Besides, what can we do now that― But Nezumi had, and so had Shion. Nezumi and Shion believed. They believed that they would be able to change things with their own power.
Inukashi couldn't bring himself to laugh at them for it. The thought, the possibility, had crossed his mind.
This is bad.
One misstep, and he probably wouldn't live to see spring.
This is bad. This is very bad.
But he was lighthearted. He felt so buoyant he felt like breaking out into song.
As he whistled a light tune, the wind hitting his body, Inukashi found himself breaking into a run.
Shion finished neatly combing the last dog, and sank down on the spot. He had to admit that he was exhausted. The whole day today he had devoted to taking care of the dogs. He felt like he'd become a dog himself. It was already dusk.
The puppies nudged at him playfully.
"Alright, alright. Come along, then, all your fleas should be gone now." He had just scooped one of them up when Cravat gave a squeak from his pocket. Shion lifted his face.
Nezumi was standing right in front of him. He had not realized it. He had felt no presence at all. But of course, by this time, it was no surprise to him either.
Shion put the puppy down, and stood up without a word. Nezumi, also silent, jerked his chin. He began walking straight toward the ruins.
"Nezumi ― you got word from Inukashi?"
"The two of them are waiting for us."
They climbed the crumbling stairs, and opened the door at the end of the hall. On top of the small, round table, a candle was burning. Inukashi and Rikiga were seated.
"They've graciously offered their help. Let's be thankful, Shion."
"Graciously?" Inukashi scoffed, and gave an exaggerated sigh. "I don't think you call getting threatened, bribed, or tricked into doing something 'gracious', Nezumi."
Shion took a step forward, and bowed his head deeply. He had no words to say. He felt like no words would be able to express how grateful he felt.
"Thank you ― all of you." This typical statement was all he could say.
"Shion, no need to be serious about it," Nezumi quipped. "They've all got ulterior motives. They're only here because they were attracted to the sweet scent of personal profit."
"Eve, one of these days, that cheeky tongue of yours is gonna rot and fall off. That much I'm sure of." Rikiga had a bottle of whisky in his right hand, one that he had evidently brought along with him. He took a swig, and swallowed it slowly.
Nezumi indicated with his gaze for Shion to sit, and then lowered himself into a chair as well. Inukashi was the one who stood up.
"Can I start, Nezumi?"
"Yeah. Go ahead."
Shion made a tight fist in his lap. I've gotten all these people involved. I'm the one that did it. I can't let myself forget that.
A hand suddenly reached over to him. It was Nezumi's. It gently pried Shion's fist open, finger by finger, gently, as if toying with it.
"We're just getting started. Tense up like that, and you won't last."
With his gaze fixed on the fluttering flame of the candle, Nezumi spoke as if to himself. There was probably a draft coming in from somewhere, for the flame kept flickering. It was already completely dark outside. A long day was coming to a close. No, things were just starting. They were starting right here.
"This week, the number of prisoners escorted into the Correctional Facility was three. Among them..." Inukashi trailed off while staring at the candle, then resumed. The darkness edged in on them. The flame flickered. "Among them, there were no women. There were no escorts from within the city. All three of them were men from the West Block."
Nezumi questioned him in a low voice.
"Are you sure about that?"
"Yeah. I heard it directly from the guy who's in charge of preparing the prisoner's clothes. There were three of them recorded in the Prisoner Registration data. They tried to break into the Access Control Office to steal money. They were either hungry enough to do it, or they were funny in the head. Either way, there were no women."
"That can't be!" Shion sprang up from his seat.
There was no way that could be. But at the same time, his heart softened just for an instant. What if Safu was actually safe? Maybe that coat was just my mistake, and it didn't belong to Safu. Maybe―
"If that's true, then things are gonna be complicated." Nezumi furrowed his brow. His voice was cold, like the draft that made the flame flicker.
"It means that she's probably not a legitimate prisoner. I know it's weird to call a prisoner legitimate, but if she's not registered as one in the Correctional Facility, then― Shion, it means she doesn't even exist as a prisoner. She's been erased."
"The moment your friend got captured by the Security Bureau, all of her data as a citizen would have been erased. In normal circumstances, it would've just been forwarded to the Correctional Facility's main computer, and been filed as prisoner data. Then, once inside the Facility, all her personal information would be re-collected and added to, along with photos from all sides, height, weight, fingerprint, vocal signature, iris, and her finger vein. Only after these procedures do prisoners really become prisoners. It wouldn't matter so much for thieves from the West Block, but if their subject is a former citizen of No. 6, then they would definitely be thorough about these things. But this time, it wasn't done at all. Why? So as not to leave any trace that your friend ever existed."
"Hey, Nezumi." Rikiga noisily placed his bottle on the table. "Can't you go about things a bit more delicately? All this talk about erasing and leaving traces... it's almost like you're saying the girl... uh, Safu, was it? You make it sound like this Safu girl has already been murdered."
"I think you're more lacking in delicacy than me, old man."
Shion swallowed hard while he listened to the two speak. He didn't feel well. He felt like he was in a nasty bout of drunkenness. But now wasn't the time to slump over the table and go to sleep.
"Safu was an outstanding human resource," Shion said evenly. "The city has spent a lot of money and time on her raising her from childhood. They've been raising her to have a future career in the upper echelons of the city. Why would they erase her? It would be a huge loss to the city, too, if they did."
His own voice sounded like a stranger's to his ears. It was a hoarse and irritating voice.
"Yeah, that's the problem," Nezumi agreed. "Why were they so willing to wipe out an elite they've kept domesticated with all this time and money? It's not likely she's gone and done something idiotic, like you did when you were twelve."
Inukashi's nose twitched.
"What idiotic thing? Does it have something to do with why Shion got kicked out of No. 6?"
"It does. But that's not relevant right now. Shion."
"What's your friend's family structure?"
"Safu didn't have any parents. I think the only relative she had was her grandmother. She said she'd been raised by her."
"Just her grandmother, huh. Which means if Grandma dies, then Bestie is left without relatives."
Shion lifted his face, and his gaze met with a pair of grey eyes. He could finally understand what Nezumi was trying to get at.
"Even if Safu disappears, there would be no relatives to make a big deal about it. And not only that―"
"Safu was supposed to be living in another city for two years on exchange. Even if she went missing from No. 6, no one would find it strange."
"That probably about sums it up, then. She's an elite, has no relatives, and wouldn't raise suspicions if she went missing for a long time. Your best friend filled those requirements. That's why she was apprehended and imprisoned in the Correctional Facility. Not as a prisoner, but―"
"Not as a prisoner― then what for?"
"I don't know." Nezumi shook his head. Inukashi leaned forward.
"Hey, does that have something to do with the rumours? The one about the weird disease going around inside No. 6."
"Do you have the details on that?"
"No," Inukashi said promptly. "It's not that easy to get information about what's going on inside that city, you know. This might be more of a job for Mr. Alcoholic."
Rikiga drained the rest of the contents of his bottle, and glared at Inukashi with bloodshot eyes.
"I don't think Doggy-boy has any right to call me an alcoholic. As for inside information about the city, I can't get it rightaway. Earliest would be the day after tomorrow. But I'm warning you, Eve, just because you have all the information you need, it doesn't mean things are going to go well. How do you plan on infiltrating the Correctional Facility?"
There was no answer. Rikiga hunched his shoulders.
"What're you gonna do? Attack the Access Control Office like those three lunatics, and get arrested on purpose?"
"Can't do that," Nezumi said brusquely. "All my personal information is recorded on their main computer."
"Oh? So it was true that you'd once been in the Correctional Facility. Ah, so there is a way to get out of that place alive, huh. What a surprise. Give me an autograph, will you, I'll hang it on my wall. Of course, with your real name."
Nezumi ignored Rikiga's joke. The flame flickered violently. The wind had probably gotten stronger.
"Inukashi ― how about the security system?"
"I couldn't get anything too specific. I've got the main points down. And there seems to be a new facility that's been built underground."
"New facility? For what?"
"I dunno. Even the custodians aren't allowed to go in there. Supposedly there's an elevator that leads directly to the top floor, but it also has an elaborate physical recognition system that only a fraction of people can log into."
"Top-secret and confidential, huh... and this facility is located in the Correctional Facility, and not the Moondrop. I see."
Nezumi lapsed into his thoughts. Shion fixed his gaze on Nezumi's profile.
"Getting arrested would be the easiest and most surefire way, right?"
"In a sense. But once you get inside like that, there'd be no room for free movement at all."
"Is it impossible to rescue Safu? Isn't there even a single percent of possibility that we can save her?"
Nezumi gazed at Shion with a mixture of cold indifference and pity.
"You're in the same boat as me," he said. "They've got all your personal information on file. Say we get arrested and they scan through your data. It wouldn't even take them a second to match you up with the first-class criminal on the run. If fortunes work in your favour, you'd be sent to a solitary cell. If they don't, you'd be executed on the spot."
Rikiga erupted into a fit of coughs. Inukashi drew his chair back with a large screech.
"First-class criminal on the run? This dense boy here? Wait a minute, Nezumi. I haven't heard a word of this."
"Because I haven't told you."
Ignoring Inukashi and Rikiga's rapt gaze, Shion persisted with Nezumi. There had to be something. Somewhere, there had to be a possibility. Even if it was slimmer than one percent, thinner than a spider's thread, he had to grasp it and draw it toward him. Despair was not permissible.
"If we get arrested as prisoners, does everyone get searched immediately? Isn't there any way to avoid the data-matching in the time between getting imprisoned until we get Safu out?"
"No," Nezumi answered. "As soon as we get arrested, they'd pull up all our personal information, and scan it through their files. They won't let a single mole go unnoticed. And then we'd get implanted with a V-Chip. Prisoners are bound and placed under surveillance for the whole time. We won't even get a second of free movement."
"No exceptions. Not a single―"
Nezumi abruptly swallowed his words. His face froze.
At his sudden silence, Shion, Inukashi, and Rikiga held their breaths and unconsciously trained their ears. A voice spilled out into the silence.
"There's just one exception."
Shion widened his eyes, and stared intently at Nezumi's candlelit profile. Nezumi's lips moved.
"The Hunt." His voice was raspy, and very low.
Inukashi's body tensed in his chair. Rikiga dropped his gaze from Nezumi, and gripped his liquor bottle.
"Hunt? What's that?" Shion looked around at the other three faces. There was no answer from any of them. The darkness in the room thickened. Inukashi sighed.
Nighttime was approaching.
No. 6, glittering golden, would reign over the night. In a corner of the West Block, in a room carved out amongst the ruins, at the very bottom of the deep of the night, the four of them silently sat surrounding a flickering flame.
There was the sound of the wind. It moaned as if it called to someone, as if in yearning. And the night enveloped it all.
The wind whistled. The flame flickered, and went out as if it had spent the last of its energy. Nezumi's whisper echoed in the darkness. It was no longer hoarse.
"The Hunt ― that's the only exception."
Read Volume 4 Chapter 1.