Please hover over the text to see annotations.
Someone was coming. The dogs lying down outside were now raising their voices in apprehension. But there was nothing to be agitated about. The barking of the dogs, both large and small, was not overly wrung in alarm or threat.
It was not an enemy. No stranger had wandered in; no thief had snuck in either. It was someone unwelcome, but of low risk.
Inukashi raised his face and quivered his nose. He caught the smell of alcohol. At the same time, a puppy with a torn right ear burst into the room. It yapped insistently, reporting who the visitor was. Inukashi gave a light wave of his hand to shut it up. See, dogs were great. You told them to shut up, and they did.
"I know, I know. I could smell it from here. The alcoholic old man, yeah?"
His eyes fell on the coins sitting on his table.
"Oh, crap." He shoved the baby onto the dog, and hurriedly shovelled the coins into a bag. The moment he stuffed the bag into his pant pocket, he heard footsteps clambering up the stairs.
The door burst open violently.
"Will you knock, at least?" Inukashi seated himself in a chair, and scowled exaggeratedly. "What if I was changing?"
"How many―times―in your life―do you ever― change your clothes?" Rikiga panted heavily, his shoulders rising and falling with every breath. He leaned against the wall.
"Hey old man, you better not run around so much. Your lungs are probably half-melted from the booze. Watch you don't suffocate and die."
Rikiga thrust his right hand out, still gasping.
"What? You want a handshake?" Inukashi said.
"Get me a... glass of water."
"One copper coin."
"You want something to drink, you trade me one copper coin for it."
"Inukashi... you little..."
"Hey, this is a ruins. I don't have any running water like your place, old man. I draw the water from the stream. Precious stuff. One copper, no change."
Rikiga clicked his tongue. His forehead was damp with sweat, despite the biting cold. He must have been in a great hurry, for his breathing took a while to return to normal. Wheezing raggedly, Rikiga sank into a chair, and quipped in a sarcastic voice:
"You're not... charging for seating, are you?"
"This time it's on the house. So, on what visiting business, sir?"
"So the Hunt has actually come, huh."
"Shion's been taken away."
"Looks like it."
"I'm... worried, so worried... I can't sit or stand still."
"So that's why you decided to run a marathon here? Kudos to you."
Rikiga's fist pounded the table. A copper coin that Inukashi had forgotten to put away fell to the floor and rolled. He stopped it with his foot, and picked it up.
"No matter how much you worry, it isn't gonna do any good, old man. Besides, things just went according to plan, didn't they? They managed to slip into the Correctional Facility, just as they wanted. We should congratulate them."
He blew on the copper coin, and shined it with his sleeve. "If they make it out alive, it'd be a cause for celebration."
A deep sigh escaped from Rikiga's stubbly mouth. It stank of alcohol.
"Shion... poor boy... when I imagine what horrible things he must be going through right now... a good boy, such a good boy... please be safe."
"Not that I really care or anything, but―aren't you forgetting something?
"Shion didn't sneak into the Correctional Facility alone. Well, they didn't 'sneak in' really... more like 'captured'," he added as an afterthought. "But anyway, he's not alone. He's got a partner. Aren't you worried about him?"
Rikiga's face contorted. If someone were to thrust a rotting corpse under his nose, his face would probably not be as twisted as it was now. It was an expression of blatant dislike.
"Are you talking about Eve? I don't care about him. It'd be a load off my chest if he could get himself caught in a mouse trap while he's at it."
"I do agree," Inukashi said amiably. "Just imagining Nezumi flailing around in a mouse-trap box makes me giddy. But you were his fan, old man. I heard you used to go see him at the playhouse all the time."
Rikiga sniffed dismissively, and turned aside.
"I was being tricked. Who could imagine that personality from a face like that, a voice like that? Goodness, he's as deceitful as a female fox."
"He's a guy."
"Either way, it doesn't change the fact that he's a trickster fox demon."
Fox demon, huh. That's a good description. More suitable for him than Rat, though he's probably closer to a wolf than a fox.
Inukashi shrugged, and closed one eye. "Shion's got a demon fox with him, then. He'll be fine."
Rikiga leaned forward and grabbed Inukashi's arm. Inukashi almost let out a cry: Rikiga's grip was that strong. He instinctively clapped a hand over his pocket. He felt like silver was going to be stolen from him.
"Really?" Rikiga had his bloodshot eyes open wide. "You really think so?"
"Th-Think what? Holy crap, old man, that hurts. Leggo of me."
"You really think Shion is okay?"
"How the hell should I know?" He withdrew his arm. Rikiga began mumbling to himself.
"Eve is a knave, a trickster, a fraud, but he's there when you need him."
"Are you insulting him or complimenting him?"
Rikiga ignored him, and continued mumbling.
"Yeah. I can count on him. Eve would probably protect Shion just fine. Am I right, Inukashi?"
"I told you, I dunno." He closed his mouth, and directed his gaze at the ceiling.
Nezumi was a knave, a trickster, a fraud, no mistake, and that was putting it mildly. But you could count on him in any situation too, to put it mildly. This was also no mistake. Nezumi was more cunning and cautious than anyone Inukashi knew. He was also level-headed, nimble, and tough. He was like a wolf that didn't conform to a pack.
He had never seen a real wolf before. But he had heard about them from his mother.
They're terrifying creatures. They don't open their hearts to humans like we dogs. Never. They would rather die than be taken care of by a human. They're prideful. But they're also treacherous and always on the prowl for a profit. They're greedy and ruthless. They don't carry a tiny bit of sympathy in their hearts. That's the difference between dogs and wolves. Now you listen, you're a dog. You're not a human, or a wolf. You're a dog. Don't you forget that.
A prideful and heartless creature. In Inukashi's mind, the image of the wolf he'd been told about so many times overlapped perfectly with that of Nezumi. He was dangerous if he turned against you. But as a guard, he was cut out for the job.
If Nezumi seriously tried to defend Shion, maybe they would be able to return from the Correctional Facility alive. It was a slim chance, but it wasn't zero.
Nezumi would probably defend Shion seriously, and with all he had. He would. As long as Shion didn't trip him up, they would probably return alive like they'd promised.
Inukashi's heart grew calm. Yeah. Yeah, that's right, he told himself.
Evidently reading something from Inukashi's expression, Rikiga adjusted himself in his chair, and nodded resolutely.
"If that's the case, then we should get moving as well."
"Huh? If what's the case?"
"We have to help them from the outside, so Shion can come home. What else?"
"When did we decide that? I'm staying outta this," Inukashi said hastily. "I already agreed to be bait once. I've contributed way more than my share."
"You're acting like you did volunteer work," scoffed Rikiga. "You did receive your pay for that, if I'm not mistaken."
"That doesn't even amount to pocket money. Whatever. I have no plans of having anything to do with them or the Correctional Facility again. None. Zip, I tell ya."
"You're not going to help Shion?"
"Lemme tell you something, old man. I don't got any debts or favours to repay to that airhead. We're not friends, or brothers, or relatives, or a parent and kid."
"But he's part of our group."
"Our group?" Inukashi drew his chin back. He had not expected to hear the words "our group" from the kind of alcohol-pickled example of a corrupted man who published lewd magazines and made his money off of selling women's bodies. What a surprise.
"We're all in it together. Am I wrong?"
Wrong he most certainly was. In it together? The tip of his nose tensed. Inukashi remained silent, not knowing whether he should laugh or be exasperated. Rikiga, on the other hand, seemed to turn more eloquent by the minute.
"Shion is part of our group. Nobody could ever replace him. Come on, Inukashi, you like him too, don't you?"
"Not―well―I don't hate him."
"He's like an angel. Untainted. You can't find people as pure as those just anywhere."
"Uh-huh, is that so?" Inukashi said flatly. "So sorry, for being the tainted one in your company."
"Nobody said you were tainted. See, Shion would never twist people's words around like that. He accepts things openly, honestly, and as they are. His heart is rooted in the same place as his mother. Oh, Karan, I wonder what she's doing now," Rikiga said forlornly. "What if she's fallen ill from worrying about her son?"
"Who's Karan? Aren't we talking about Shion here? Besides, old man, all you've been talking about so far is Shion-this and Shion-that. What about Nezumi? If Shion's part of our group, then Nezumi has to be too, doesn't he?"
"Eve, part of us? Give me a break. I'd rather welcome a slug into my extended family than be in the same group as a deceitful fox like him."
"You sure treat him differently from Shion, huh." Inukashi glanced up into Rikiga's liquor-flushed face. Pure and angelic? Is this old man really serious about that?
Just like how he didn't know what Nezumi really was, he didn't know what lay inside Shion either. If he peeled off a layer, what would this angelic and pure figure reveal? Maybe he would be more horrendous and fierce than he ever expected. Maybe within Shion, there existed some dark pit of truth that even Nezumi feared.
Rikiga favoured Shion too much. Angel? That was absurd. People could become devils, but never angels. Besides, sometimes angels could be much more brutal than devils. A man like Rikiga, who was thoroughly versed in wiles through his life experience, should know best.
There was a stench, other than alcohol. But it wasn't a smell Inukashi disliked. He preferred the smell of rotting meat over the perfume of flowers.
Catching Inukashi's gaze, Rikiga smiled vaguely.
"So selfless, don't you think Inukashi?"
"Please tell me where the hell I can find a trait like 'selfless' inside you. I was talking about Shion. He infiltrated the Correctional Facility, risking his own life, to save his friend. He's putting his life on the line for someone else."
"Around these parts, we call those kinds of people Huge Idiots."
"Inukashi, knock it off. If we don't help them out, who will? Shion believes in us, and he's waiting for our help."
"I can help you, depending on the event and circumstance."
"Now that's more like it, Dogkeeper of the Ruins. Admirable decision."
"Stop buttering me up, and let's hear your real story."
"Your aim, old man. What're you after in the Correctional Facility?"
"What am I after... what're you talking about? I just wanted to help Shion, that was the only―"
"How much profit is it gonna make you?" Still holding his pocket with his hand, Inukashi leaned forward. In response, Rikiga slid back, chair and all.
"Geez, look at you. Every other word out of your mouth is 'profit'. Money, money, money. Don't you have anything else to think about?"
"Lots. My brain is always going full-throttle. And you too, old man. Your gears are still turning in there, your greed is still going strong. The only thing that's gotten sluggish is probably the blood in your veins, from the alcohol. There's no way you'd stick your hands into a job that didn't carry profits, am I right, old man? And we're talking against the Correctional Facility, a direct affiliate of No. 6's Security Bureau. Enemies don't get any more dangerous than that. Both you and I helped Nezumi sneak in, either because we were tricked or because we got talked into it. But this is where it ends, usually. We get however much money we deserve for that job, and go back to our own nests. Whatever happens afterwards isn't any of our business... right? That's usually how it is."
"But this time, old man, you're crawling out of your nest on your own, even saying you wanna stick your nose into dangerous territory. For Shion? Of course not. I'd never believe it. If my dogs started baa-ing like sheep, I'd believe that over you."
"Like I said, it's―"
Inukashi waved his hand impatiently. He was sick of excuses and justifications. He found himself a little irritated. More and more he felt like he had had enough of wasting words, trying to make excuses to each other. He was beyond weary of coating his honest words with lies, and trying to read the other's intentions.
At the very least...
Inukashi inhaled through his nose. The frigid air of the room, which had no heater, coursed through his body.
At least those two never made excuses to each other.
He didn't think Nezumi and Shion had bared all to each other. Nezumi, especially, probably hadn't. But they never made excuses to each other. They didn't try to manipulate each other, or shroud their honest opinions. They lived for each other, not out of give-and-take, nor greed, nor calculation.
Inukashi had never encountered that sort of relationship. There were mothers who threw away their lives for their children. He knew a girl who had sold her body to support her family. But those two weren't in such a sacrificial relationship. One of them didn't have to destroy himself for the other to be saved.
Friendship, love, group mentality, pity, sympathy, empathy―it didn't matter what name it was given, but none of them seemed to fit their relationship.
Both could live for the other, without the give-and-take, without greed, without calculation, without sacrifice. Perhaps he was tired. Inukashi found himself envying that relationship―just a little.
He inhaled again.
But I don't have to be jealous of them. I've got my dogs. Humans will always betray you one day. They'll never give back to you with their whole body and soul, like dogs do. Dogs are enough for me.
"Fine." Rikiga's shoulders shook. A smug smile spread across his lips. What a hideous grin it was. He committed almost any crime for money. He had nothing against tricking, threatening, or swindling people.
Yeah, that face is more like it. The day you put on some mask of a kind-hearted good Samaritan is the day I stop talking to you.
"You know, Inukashi, I don't think there's much time left."
"For you? Oh, really? What a shame. I thought so too. The alcohol's poisoned you, old man. If you've got anything to leave behind, give it to me before it's too late."
"Who said I was talking about myself? I was talking about No. 6."
"Yeah. The oh-so-beautiful Almighty Holy City."
"Not much time left? Give me the details."
Rikiga's grin widened. Got you biting the bait, his smile said. There were times when you had to swallow the bait, even if you could see the hook. It was bait that was too attractive to ignore.
"Is there something strange happening in No. 6?"
"Yeah. I've been seeing strange movements around the city that are really standing out."
It looked like Rikiga was serious about his talk: the smile vanished from his face, and the sarcasm disappeared from his voice. "First: there have been several cases of a strange disease reported inside the city. Now, what it is, or whether it's contagious, we don't know yet. But you remember Fura saying this, don't you? The Correctional Facility, that other facility that's just been built, and the Health and Hygiene Bureau are connected. Health and Hygiene Bureau, you hear? Now what does it do?"
"It monitors the health and manages treatment of all citizens..."
"Exactly. Which means now, that strange disease is also connected to the Correctional Facility too. You understand what I mean so far, right?"
"More or less. I got a good earful during that farce we did."
"Apparently, Shion's friend was pretty much kidnapped and taken to the Correctional Facility. And this is still unconfirmed information, but... someone who was involved in the construction of the facility inside the Correctional Facility supposedly died a sudden death. He was a resident of the city, of course."
"Was he killed?"
"Not quite sure about that. But it reeks of death, and it's coming from the city. And then we have the acoustic shockwaves. Went all-out, didn't they? One blast, and the whole market's gone. They used a brand-new weapon to blow up barracks. That's like eating leftovers on a silver platter."
"Good simile. It just screams education."
"Why, thank you," Rikiga said unconcernedly. "So that means the city was developing weapons in secret, which is prohibited by the Babylon Treaty. And now they've started using it openly in public. The Hunt that happened this time was probably to test-drive their new weapon."
Inukashi swung his neck around in a wide circle.
Rikiga had run all the way here, out of breath, worried about Shion―or feigning it―but had managed to collect information about the Hunt, and investigated the remains of the destruction on the way. Maybe he had rifled through the debris and picked out things that might make him money while he was at it.
You can't trust this guy around anything, the tough cookie, Inukashi snickered silently in his mind.
"Don't you think it's been hectic in there lately?" Rikiga continued. "And too many people are dying. Not in the West Block, either―in No. 6, the ideal city, the Holy City, as it's been paraded as. I've had a long relationship with that city. It always used to perch prim and composed, never ruffling its demeanour as a utopia. But it reeks these days. I've never smelled death come from it so freely, without restraint. Of course, there have been people killed, people committing suicide, but..."
"Not this blatantly."
"Yeah. Every death they put under wraps, and disposed of it as a calm and peaceful death. Do you know about the Twilight Cottage?"
"Outwardly it's a facility for palliative care. A hospice, you might call it. Ill patients who don't have long to live―mostly the elderly―have all suffering removed, and can die a peaceful death, not much different from a deep sleep. That's what they say the Twilight Cottage is for."
Inukashi purred in his throat. He felt like he would salivate. A death not much different from sleep: it was something he'd wished for, harder than anything. He would be embraced in softness, warmth, and he would softly close his eyes. He would never wake up. His heart would slowly stop beating, and his breathing would grow few and far between. But his brain would keep dreaming. Sleep would gently coast over to death. He would live his last without being shut into darkness. He would be smiling.
Rikiga peered into Inukashi's eyes.
"Geez, don't make those begging eyes. You're sure easy to understand. What I was talking about was the Twilight Cottage as it's publicized by the authorities."
"Things are different, apparently."
"The Twilight Cottage isn't a hospice; it's an execution grounds."
"Execution grounds? Does that even exist inside the Holy City?"
"Of course, it's nothing like the Correctional Facility. It's not as obvious... all the patients brought to the Twilight Cottage don't live out their lives and die a natural death... as soon as they've been transported, they're drugged, put to sleep, and―"
Perhaps even Rikiga felt resistance towards saying it out loud; he only twitched his mouth, and then gave a long sigh.
"But why do they do that to the citizens? What for?"
"Because they're useless," Rikiga said promptly, as if he had been expecting Inukashi's question. "No. 6 is that kind of city. It's ruthless against people who are useless to it. If that person's only got his death to wait for, then why not let him go quickly and easily with drugs? Less waste that way. That's how they think."
Inukashi shuddered. He was getting goosebumps.
He had seen his share of grisly deaths. He had seen so many, the fingers on both his hands weren't enough, even if he counted over them twice. He had committed to his heart, and resigned himself to the fact that in the West Block, you had to accept many different kinds of deaths. That life and death were different within the walls and outside. But did grisly deaths pervade inside the walls just like they did outside?
"Old man, who'd you hear that from?"
"My customers. Fura isn't the only one who sneaks out here from No. 6 in search of our ladies. The tight restrictions they're making these days is enough to put me out of business now, but I've still got a couple returning customers. Among them, some work at a direct affiliate of the city, though not in a position as high as Fura's. Those guys babble to the girls. Spill the beans. Why do you think?"
"Why―well―because they feel talkative after finishing, or something..." Inukashi said awkwardly.
"No, no. It's because they don't think of the West Block's prostitutes as humans. They don't even think that the girls might have brains and hearts like they do. They don't think the girls can think, or can feel sadness in their hearts. So they spill the beans. To them, it's probably like talking to a rock lying on the road. That's why they can go on divulging workplace secrets. Humans are talkative animals; they can't shut up. 'I can't talk inside the city, so why not talk to the prostitutes in the West Block? They probably can't even understand language anyway.' That's what they think. But those girls listen. Sometimes they even flatter the guys, in order to draw out more."
"And you take that information and sell it, or use it to threaten people to make money, huh, old man."
"Well, you have a mix of good and bad information. Most of it is useless. But my customers from No. 6 these days are more talkative than ever. Before, it was mostly bragging or exaggerated lies... but now we have complaints, discontent... uncertainty. All we're getting are stories about uncertainty. See, Inukashi, No. 6 is no utopia. It's only trying to keep a skilful hold over its citizens to dominate them. And that's starting to get obvious. It's starting to fray at the seams. Those citizens are starting to get suffocated in that interior. They're living in the ideal city, and yet, they can't even breathe. And they've started to wonder why. I've heard of a customer who lay in bed all night, mumbling 'why? Why do you think this is?'."
"I see." Inukashi could finally see where this was going. So that's how it is. "Strange illnesses, the new equipment at the Correctional Facility, all that information leakage, and the mounting complaints, dissatisfaction, uncertainty. You're saying gas is building up within the walls of No. 6?"
"Yeah, gas. It might still be thin now, but what happens when the density increases?" Rikiga spread the fingers of both his hands, making a bursting gesture.
"Explode? You're saying No. 6 is gonna collapse from the inside?"
"If everything goes as planned. Before the city-state of No. 6 wields overwhelming military force―before it can dominate over the world and its citizens with its power, we have to set the gas alight. And the Correctional Facility is where we'll start. Most of the mysteries are focused on that place. We try prodding it for information. Aren't you excited to find out what we'll find?"
"―and that's what Nezumi said."
"Idiot. How could a kid like him come up with an advanced theory like this?"
"Advanced, indeed. No alcoholic brain would be able to come up with that. What happened to the talk about making money, huh? Is the treasure gonna get blown up along with it, and come raining down on our heads?"
"It won't come raining down. We have to dig it up."
"There's supposedly a secret safe in the basement of the Correctional Facility."
"Secret safe? In that blank space?"
"I don't have bearings on the exact location. But rumour says the head honchos of No. 6 have hidden a total of several tens of thousands of tonnes of solid gold bullion."
"Gold... gold bullion, didja say?"
"Tens of thousands of tonnes of gold bullion. They might be bars, I don't know. So? Don't you feel blinded just imagining that brilliance?"
"But... I mean, where did you get that information?"
"From a girl, of course. A red-headed one named Sulu, who has a returning customer who works at the Finance Bureau. Quite pretty."
Inukashi didn't care about the red-headed woman. His interest was piqued many times more by the gold bullion than human flesh.
"So you got it from her."
"Yeah. It was a bed-time story, though, so I'm not one-hundred percent sure about its credibility. But it's plausible, isn't it? A mountain of gold in a place where infiltration and escape is impossible. Safer for hiding than anywhere else. Pretty believable, I would say."
"Are we gonna be able to get it?"
"We will get it. Once No. 6 begins to crumble, the whole place will be chaos. If we take advantage of it... what do you think?"
Inukashi growled softly. It sounded like a dream. Should he simply laugh and call it a stupid story, or play along with this fairy tale, just for the sake of it?
"Does Nezumi plan to destroy the Correctional Facility?"
"Eve? He might do it. He can't create much, but he can sure destroy. No, why don't we have him do it? Let's have him make a spectacle out of it."
The Correctional Facility―the very embodiment of fear itself―would crumble. Inukashi's heart danced just imagining its destruction unfold.
The collapsing Correctional Facility and the glittering mounds of gold. He would receive two of the best compensation he could ever get, in these two hands. Perhaps it was worth the challenge. However―
Inukashi licked his lips. He inhaled, filling his nostrils with the odour of dogs that permeated the room.
However, if he had to invest his own life in this capital, he would decline. He would rather remain in the ruins starving, but living, with his dogs, rather than die buried in gold.
"What do I needa do? If it's anything risky, I'm not in."
"I know, I know. I wouldn't put you in danger. I just need your connections."
"There's a man who passes on leftover food to you from the Correctional Facility, am I right?"
Inukashi narrowed his eyes, and clenched his jaw lightly. Behind the drink-drowned middle-aged man, Nezumi was wearing his signature ironic smile. He could see it.
Good job, Nezumi. You softened this tough cookie up. Nice cooking skills.
Many different feelings and desires were mingling, melting, and writhing within Rikiga: genuine compassion for Shion, destructive impulses, a strong desire to see No. 6 crumble before his eyes; and more than anything, an attachment for gold bullion. Nezumi had used this to his advantage. He had very artfully used this in his favour, had given orders to him, and was controlling him this way. It was quite something. But it was also possible that Rikiga was fully aware that he was being controlled, and had agreed to play the marionette for Shion and for gold bullion; for greed and love.
Inukashi found himself sighing. They were like a raccoon dog and fox trying to out-trick each other. Suddenly he began to miss Shion. He was a mystery, sure, but he was a hundred times better than an old raccoon dog and demon fox. Inukashi missed those awkward, naive actions of his; his earnest and foolishly straightforward way of saying things; his carefree smile. He wanted to see Shion.
"You're receiving a substantial amount of leftovers, aren't you? That route hasn't been cut off, has it?"
"No." It wasn't cut off yet. The man who was in charge of waste disposal not only resold leftovers, but also the clothes and belongings of prisoners through secret routes. He had even once complained that he was assigned to dispose of dead bodies. It was the department where all of the facility's garbage and corpses were gathered. It was located inside the Correctional Facility, and it was regarded with the least importance, and for that reason the management was also lax. But it would probably be impossible to use him as a foothold to sneak into the Facility, much less get back out of it. The man had said he was not allowed even a single step inside the Facility from the waste disposal site. The door that led inside simply didn't open.
"Would he be useful at all...?" Inukashi said dubiously.
"He will be. Every knife, no matter how dull, has its uses."
"Did Nezumi say that too?"
"Who cares? You clearly have something against Nezumi, and it's over the top. Look, Inukashi, keep the line open with that man. It'll come in handy. If you can, get him wrapped around your finger."
"Got it." What was his name again? The man had a thin, long face with drooping eyebrows, and sighed a lot. He cared about his family―and he had complained that he wasn't even allowed to tell them that he was working at the Correctional Facility, and that he would be instantly fired if he did. 'It gets you down, really, not even being able to tell your own daughter what you do for a job,' he had said. Daughter? Oh yes, he had one daughter. He had also said that a baby was coming soon... and he was in need of money. He wanted a good amount to sustain his family―yeah, it might not be that hard to soften him up.
"I need money. You gonna set me up with some, right, old man?"
"I know, I know. I won't force you to dig into the savings that are loading your pocket down right now." Rikiga scratched his chin, and grinned. "Going after the meat shop man's savings, huh? You've got a sharp eye. I have renewed admiration for you, Inukashi."
"Same for you. Who woulda known you'd find about it so fast? Pretty amazing. I'm in awe."
Geez, the raccoon dog. Nothing goes unnoticed when it comes to him.
Inukashi had just shrugged when the baby began to cry. Rikiga stood up from his chair.
"That voice. It's a baby crying."
"Huh? I don't hear anything," Inukashi said nonchalantly. "You having auditory hallucinations now, old man? My heart goes out to you."
After throwing a glance at Inukashi, Rikiga took big strides toward the dogs laying in a corner of the room. They instantly rose and began to growl menacingly at him.
"Inukashi, what's this?"
"This crying one too, the one that's lodged in between the dogs? New breed? Because it has no tail."
The wailing renewed itself with even greater volume. Inukashi reluctantly picked the baby up in his arms. Rikiga shook his head.
"What did you pick it up for? Planning to sell it?"
"I didn't pick it up, it was thrust onto me," Inukashi said obstinately. "By your little angel."
Inukashi gave a brief explanation. Rikiga nodded in assent with a solemn expression on his face.
"Sounds like something Shion would do. It probably came to him instantly to hide the baby. When his own life was in danger, too... he's a living angel."
"Angels don't thrust babies on other people. Geez, nice burden he's given me."
"Don't complain. Think of how Shion must have felt. The little guy's got a cute face. It's a boy, huh. What's his name?"
"He dumped the thing in my care, so he can have the same name too. Hey, old man, don't you think this kid's eyes look just like Shion's?"
"Hmm, now that you mention it, they're the same colour," Rikiga said thoughtfully. "And they're clear, like his. Beautiful eyes."
"Right? He's an angelic child. So take him home, will ya?" He proffered the baby in his arms. Rikiga backed away, shaking his head.
"No, sorry, I'm a bachelor."
"Well, so am I. But you've got tons of women with big boobs, old man."
"Yeah, but none of them can give breast milk. Here, on the other hand, you don't even need diapers because the dogs will lick the baby clean. They'll even warm him. You grew up like this too, didn't you? Brilliant childrearing environment... oh, I know, I'll get my hands on some powdered milk and deliver it to you."
"Shion left the baby, you know," Inukashi said pointedly.
"I'll get some soft and clean blankets for you, too. And not just one―two or three. Well, see you then, Inukashi. I'll come by again soon."
With a scramble of hurried footsteps, Rikiga all but sprinted out of the room. Apparently his knack for making speedy getaways hadn't deteriorated yet.
The baby smiled in Inukashi's arms. It grabbed at his long hair, and grinned happily.
"Hey Shionn, that hurts. Don't get carried away." Inukashi prodded the baby's nose. A wide grin spread over the tiny face. "You happy that you have a name now? You gotta stay alive until Papa comes back, then, alright?"
A wind blew into the room. The sky was completely covered in grey clouds.
Stay alive, Shion. Live to come pick this little guy up.
As Inukashi turned his face up to the snow clouds drifting by, he found himself murmuring those words as if in prayer.
Read Chapter 4.
- In folklore, raccoon dogs and foxes are known to be tricksters. (back)