Where did you come from? Where were you born?
* * *
'Twere best not know myself
To know my deed, 'twere best not know myself.
Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst!
-Macbeth Act II Scene II 
He heard the sound of the wind. It was a dry, sorrowful sound.
It can't be...
Shion stopped his feet, and blinked slowly. It was dark. Even when his eyes were accustomed to darkness, the gloom only reflected into his eyes as gloom, and was entirely painted black. And of course, there was no wind blowing.
A place in the bosom of No. 6―precisely, a place of darkness. The basement of the Correctional Facility. Of course there would be no wind blowing. There was no way he could have even heard its sound. Yet he had definitely heard a high-pitched whistling. It was for a mere instant, but he had heard it.
It wasn't a sound he had heard before in No. 6, where he had been living only a short while ago. It wasn't a breeze that gently shook the abundant canopies, nor was it something that wafted the sweet fragrance of flowers to him. It was―
The wind of the ruins.
It was the cry of the wind that whistled through the remains of the dilapidated hotel in a corner of the West Block. It was a cold wind. Every time he felt it against his body, he remembered feeling like he'd been chilled to the marrow of his bones. And indeed, people like the elderly who collapsed on the road, unable to move, or children who had been depleted of energy from starvation, were whipped by this frigid wind and eventually froze to death. It was a cruel and ruthless winter wind.
But he missed it.
He yearned many times more for the chilling wind that swept through the ruins over the gentle, harmless breezes in No. 6.
What was Inukashi doing now? Was he simmering leftovers in the big pot, briskly making food for his dogs? Was he busy tallying up his earnings for the day? Inukashi, with his tan skin, ink-black hair and wiry body.
He had left a baby in Inukashi's care. He had thrust a small infant boy upon him against his will.
Cut the crap, Shion. I'm operating a business here, my hotel. I'm not running a non-profit orphanage.
Shion could imagine his face, scowling in disgust.
Sorry, Inukashi. I didn't have anyone else to depend on. I had no other choice but to cling and beg for your help.
Inukashi clicked his tongue.
Pain in the ass wherever you go, aren't ya? Fine, I'll take it. Even I have the heart to feel a bit of compassion. But it's a tiny one, and even a dog would turn its nose up at it. No choice, though. This baby's someone my own dog has risked its life to protect. I can't just throw him away.... Look at me, I'm a pushover. Makes me sick of myself, even.
Inukashi, my gratitude.
Doesn't make me happy one bit to have any of your gratitude. Doesn't give me any gain. Shion, I'll take the baby for now. Got it? Only for now. You better come pick him up. You decided to take this guy in. You gotta raise him. Understand? You better come pick...
Nezumi turned around, and called his name. He could clearly see the pair of lustrous grey eyes. Even in this darkness, Nezumi's eyes both sucked light in, and released it. Or― Shion let his thoughts wander.
Or could I still render those eyes, even if there was no light, even if I was in complete darkness without a single ray to illuminate my way?
"Don't stop walking. Keep right behind me."
"Oh―right. Sorry, I was spaced out a bit."
"I thought I heard the wind blowing. Like the wind that used to blow against Inukashi's ruins... I know I'm just hearing things, but―Nezumi."
"I wonder what Inukashi's doing right now."
Nezumi blinked. Shion could make him out catching a breath.
"You've got guts."
"Not just anyone can space out in a situation like this. There are probably tons of people who go into shock from nerves, but to be able to hear the wind blowing, or casually think about other people―that's colossal. The amount of guts you have probably puts you in ranks with the gods. You will let me worship you every day, won't you, once in the morning and in the evening?"
"Are you being sarcastic?" Shion said flatly.
"Why, never," Nezumi said. "I haven't got the courage to smart-mouth a god. I'm genuinely impressed. But―"
Shion was grabbed by the arm. It hurt. He felt Nezumi's fingers digging into him. He knew how much strength those fingers held, despite how slender and almost delicate-looking they were. So many times Nezumi had clenched his arm, making him wince in pain. So many times he had grabbed his arm and pulled him up. Again and again, countless times―from death to life, from despair to hope, from fiction to reality, Shion had been able to crawl up and out thanks to these fingers.
"From now on, be a bit more of an earthly coward. Don't give a damn about Inukashi. Only think about protecting yourself."
"―Do you really get it?"
"Probably, huh. Nothing reassures me less." Nezumi gave a sudden laugh. It was small, but it was lighthearted and filled with mirth. "Look at the conversation we're having, in this place, in this situation. The epitome of flippancy, I think, both you and me. Maybe I'd be able to join the gods if I hang around you more."
Then his tone suddenly changed, into one that was heavy and severe. His fingertips dug in with even more force.
"No matter what happens, don't stray from me. Keep up with your own strength. I told you before. I won't say it again."
Shion nodded. Nezumi turned his back and resumed walking, either having seen or felt the slight inclination of Shion's head in reply. The figure before him wouldn't turn back around as easily. Shion knew that well, too.
If he wasn't desperate enough to live, if he didn't greedily latch onto life, then Nezumi would not turn to him.
Nezumi would never revere a flippant and unobservant god. Shion inhaled a breath of darkness, and placed his foot forward.
A small path continued up a slight slope in the crack between the boulders. It was just wide enough for an adult to get through. It might even be narrower than the former passageway, cased in concrete with small light bulbs at equal intervals. It wasn't a long journey, but twists and turns made it that much harder to walk through.
But at least―
Shion wiped his sweat with the back of his hand.
But at least it doesn't smell like blood here.
The air was absent of the bloody stench that had filled the other passageway. There were no screams or groans of the dozens of people dying―being murdered.
There was only darkness.
Even if this were only to last for a short moment; even if there was a reality beyond Shion's imagination waiting for him beyond the darkness, as it had always done, he would not have to breathe the stench of people being unfairly and pitilessly obliterated.
He was grateful. As if he had encountered an oasis in a desert―he was grateful.
He chewed his bottom lip.
Nezumi didn't even have to tell him. He was so very much naive.
I just can't smell it. I just can't hear it. I just can't see because of the wall that divides us.
But it's still happening right beside me.
The reality that dozens of people―including newborns―were being unfairly and pitilessly obliterated, still existed on the same stretch of land that Shion stood on, right here, right now.
Just because he couldn't smell it, just because he couldn't hear, just because he didn't see, didn't mean that it didn't exist. Just because he had arrived at an oasis, it didn't mean the desert had disappeared.
I'm naive; I'm idealistic. He couldn't help but make excuses. He couldn't help but try to forget the wrath he had felt when he had witnessed the brutality. He wanted to avert his eyes from grisly things. He was trying to curl up and lend himself fully to the comfort of falling into an ignorant slumber.
I am naive. And I am weak.
He traced the rocky wall with his hand, and did his best to keep up with Nezumi.
What was important right now was to follow him. And I've always followed him. He had walked down a nighttime path for the first time in the West Block. He had torn through it, even. If it weren't for that experience, he would probably not be able to walk through the oppressive darkness now that seemed to crush his very eyeballs.
In that sense, I've toughened up a bit, he told himself. Believe. You've got your own kind of strength stored up inside you. Believe yourself wholeheartedly. It was easy to fall back to self-loathing, and wallow in defeat―but it was meaningless. Believing yourself was strength. With this strength as fuel, as a weapon, one could overcome innumerable difficulties.
Shion funnelled his concentration into the soles of his feet, and moved forward one step at a time. He met a light. It was dim. It was gradually beginning to lighten before his eyes.
Nezumi's figure glided into that dim light as he watched from behind. Shion quickened his pace.
"Oh―" his breath caught in his throat.
They had emerged into a spacious chamber. It was much more spacious than where Nezumi and the sand-coloured man had fought. The ceiling was lofty. It looked almost three storeys high. The same rugged boulders jutted out from all around.
This place is a naturally-occurring series of caves, huge and complex. Nezumi had told him. Then this must be a chamber that nature had created. Candles were lit here and there in the crevices, and they were not the only thing: lamplight also winked in some places. They were all dim, but warm, sources of light. They were beautiful, too―like small flame-coloured flowers blooming in the alcoves of rock.
Shion squinted. He baited his breath, and squinted as hard as he could. He baited his breath more.
A shadow moved.
One, two, three, four.... They were not mice; those were not small animals. Numerous shadows were moving around. They stood on two legs, and were whispering to each other. On two legs, whispering....
The lump he had swallowed stuck in his throat. His heart raced.
Humans. There are humans here. They're peering out at us from the alcoves. Humans. If he squinted even more, he could see a large cavern yawning its large mouth from behind the lit candles in the crevices. So there were tunnels even further on inside these caves. The people had probably crawled out from there.
Shion couldn't make out each individual figure with his eyesight, but he could tell that they varied in height and build.
Were there men and women, both adults and children? All of them identically leaned forward, and were gazing down upon them. Shion felt like he could see each person's eyes glinting dully if he stared long enough.
"Nezumi, these people..."
"Who do you think they are?"
"Oh―survivors. They must be people like us, who've managed to escape the execution grounds."
"Wrong." Nezumi shook his head. It was a languid gesture, unusual for him. "They've lived here way before that."
"Way before... what do you mean?"
"You'll see in a bit."
'You'll see in a bit'―I guess you're right.
You will see. As long as you have the will and the strength.
Shion clenched his fist. It was easy to question. He had always been asking questions up until now. He had always instantly, so easily, begged Nezumi for the right answer without trying to decode the reality that appeared before his eyes.
It won't work anymore.
He would find the answer himself. He would grasp it. He would decode it. Other people were other people, even someone as close as Nezumi. He would not be able to render the truth if he kept leaning on other people's words. He would not be able to face off with a reality that surpassed his imagination. He would not be able to stay equals with Nezumi.
He had to render it himself.
Nezumi dropped his gaze from Shion. His grey eyes clouded over. Clearing it away with a blink, Nezumi swept his hand aside in a smooth gesture. It was a graceful move unique to him.
"Look, isn't it spectacular? Everyone has turned out for the welcoming parade."
"Famous even in a place like this, aren't you?"
"―Idiot. Shion, this is your welcoming."
"You're the spectacle here. It's unheard-of for an outsider to come bursting in. And a No. 6 resident at that."
"Former resident," Shion corrected. "I'm not one anymore. I threw my ID card away a long time ago. I'm not a citizen of that city."
"Don't get hung up about it. It was just a form of expression."
"I will be hung up," Shion said stubbornly. "It isn't 'just' an expression. I'm not as weak as you think. I'm not attached to No. 6."
Maybe it was bravado. But Shion squared his shoulders the best he could.
I am weak. My mind and body are all too fragile. But nothing can shake my resolve. Nothing can confuse my feelings. My resolve to live not within, but outside the city; my feelings of wanting to live together with you; nothing can shake them, nothing can muddle them.
"Who said you were weak?"
"You always say so."
"Never. You're a superpower. You just overwhelmed me with your brilliance back there. It's quite something... I'm even more impressed now. I certainly am." Nezumi shrugged. "And I would never have thought you would trip me up at every petty word and start complaining about it. In this situation much less."
Skrit, skrit, skrit.
A sewer rat crawled up Shion's body, and sat on his shoulder. It was quite heavy compared to Hamlet or Cravat. And it smelled rotten. But it twitched its nose and tilted its head to the side in the same way. Another one crawled onto his other shoulder. It stuck its head into Shion's snowy hair, and nuzzled its face into it. Yet another one―this time, a baby rat―rubbed itself against his feet. One more came, and still another.
The rats scurried up and down Shion's body, chirruping affectionately.
Skrit, skrit, skrit, cheep cheep cheep.
Chit chit chit. Chit chit chit.
"Hey, cut that out," said Shion, suppressing a laugh. "I'm not a playground slide. Stop that, it tickles!" Shion gave his body a shake.
The air buzzed. The darkness rippled uneasily. Shion could feel the presence of the rock dwellers: breaths sucked in, inaudible whispering, shifting bodies, furtive glances.
"An intriguing child."
A voice came raining down from above. It was a low voice, but it rang out clearly. It wasn't quite the level of Nezumi's singing, but it was deep, soothing, and flowed into his ears comfortably. Was it the same voice as a few moments ago? The voice that had come floating down from the black painted void?
'Let us hear your story.' Was it the same voice as that?
He looked up.
He saw a figure of a man seated in a chair in the middle of an alcove, in a spot that was jutting out like a balcony. At least... he thought it was a man. It looked like... an elderly man with long white hair and a long white beard, clad in a long gown-like garment. It was too dark to get a good look at his face.
"An intriguing child. You haven't stirred any animosity or apprehension in the mice. Shall I ask you your name? What are you called?"
"Shion―ah, a beautiful name."
"Th―Thank you. For, um, complimenting me," Shion stammered. "And you are?"
"Me? What about me, Shion?"
"What is your name?"
The darkness rippled even more fiercely. The rats chattered on his shoulders. Laughter rose. From alcoves in every direction, various kinds of laughter rose, and showered down upon Shion.
Giggle, giggle, giggle.
Name, he says.
Giggle, giggle, giggle.
He asked for his name.
Giggle, giggle, giggle. Giggle, giggle, giggle. Giggle, giggle, giggle. Giggle, giggle, giggle.
He had no idea why he was being laughed at. He had only asked for the man's name. Why was that a cause for such derision?
Giggle, giggle, giggle. Giggle, giggle, giggle.
The laughter didn't cease. Shion turned to look at Nezumi, who was standing at his side.
Nezumi stood unmoving. He wasn't smiling. Naturally. No expression adorned his face. He was like a statue.
"Rou." A deep voice pierced through the rippling darkness. The noise in the caverns was silenced immediately. An almost painful stillness fell, like one you encountered in a forest when all the winds had died. In this stillness, only the elder's words unfolded leisurely.
"Rou. That is what I am called."
"Rou―that's your name?"
"Perhaps, perhaps not. It may only mean 'old person'."
"So this is not your real name?"
Some moments of silence.
"Young one. No one here places importance on names. No one. Has Nezumi not taught you that?"
Come to think of it―
Come to think of it, I still don't know Nezumi's real name.
"Rou." Nezumi moved. He had taken a step forward. "I want you to hear our story."
"Let us hear it." The elder straightened his posture in his chair. "You have returned. We were never supposed to meet again, yet you have appeared again before my eyes. Let us hear the reason."
"Grateful? Nezumi, I see you have been grown weak and cowardly from being buffeted by the wind outside. But no matter how weak and cowardly you have become, I hope you have not forgotten the rules."
"Of course not."
"Those who have left this place must never return. You have broken that taboo. You must recompense."
"I know. I'll pay the penalty. So listen to me, please."
The elder snapped his fingers. Although Shion had not noticed this before, two long poles were attached to the legs of the elder's chair. It was perhaps better called a palanquin than a chair.
Two men held the poles and hoisted the elder along with the palanquin.
There was nothing filling out the lower part of the elder's gown. The hem hung lifelessly. The elder had lost his legs from the knees down. Both of them.
The palanquin with the elder in it began to descend from the boulders slowly, as if slithering down the wall. A shadowy figure, whose long hair was bound in a ponytail―a woman, evident from the outline of her body―was sweeping the path in front of the palanquin with what looked like a broom. She was like a forerunner for a procession.
There was a path. A path just wide enough for people to brush shoulders as they passed. The slope was steep, yet the men walked steadily down it, without missing a step.
It was not something naturally-occurring. Walkways had been carved into the boulders by human hands. If he looked closely, paths spanned all along the rocky walls; perhaps it was structured so that people could come and go freely.
Is this... a settlement?
Shion took in his surroundings anew. At the same time, he set his brain to work. Caverns, which were no doubt residences; paths on the boulder walls; this chamber; the dark space that continued beyond this chamber―and he could almost smell something being boiled or stewed. And faintly, very faintly, he could feel a wind. Which meant the air was moving, and this place was connected to ground-level. Here was a settlement of humans.
An underground settlement?
He restrained his thoughts, which threatened to stray every which way. He organized them, and searched for a coherent thread.
Nezumi had said that these residents of the dark were not people who had survived the Hunt. It was perhaps so. An underground world, where no sunlight would reach, would be too harsh of a condition for people to live in. Humans were organisms that were adapted to life above ground. It seemed implausible that one could keep living in a place where there was barely any change in amount of sunlight, air current, and natural surroundings. But before his eyes were those very people themselves, and the signs of human residency.
The scene before him was clearly not something that had been created overnight. He could gather that much. Had these people lived underground for a long, long time, having established their settlement, and gradually adapted this way? It was the only guess he could come up with.
Shion unconsciously let out a long sigh.
Remember this place. The basement of the Correctional Facility. What is a settlement doing here? Is it a coincidence?
Shion's thoughts emitted frustrated sparks inside his head. No matter how much he thought about it, he wasn't able to grasp it. He couldn't set foot outside of the boundaries of speculation. But that was also why he thought harder. He speculated. He devised theories of "what-if"s. Desperately.
What if people had been living in this place for much longer―this place that had been a series of large caves from the very beginning?
What if there had been people living on this land long before the birth of the nation-state of No. 6?
The West Block area had once been a small but beautiful town. Many kinds of people, Rikiga included, had resided there. His mother had been there. And his father―though he had no memory of him or his face―had also been there. The town had mutated, and became the mother from which No. 6 was born. Except it wasn't the town that had changed, it was the people. Under human hands, the massive walls of special alloy and the enormous city-state had been born. Outside of the walls, the remnants of the town became a barren wasteland known as the West Block. But that was only the west side.
Was the western town the only place No. 6 had destroyed? What about the northern mountains, the forests, the grassy plains that stretched from south to east, the lakes and marshes that dotted the land from eastern to western edge? Considering No. 6's geographical area, it was logical to think that it had enlarged in all four directions, proliferating and expanding...
A chill ran down his spine.
In the northern mountains, the southern plains, the eastern marshes. Somewhere, a race of peoples unknown to Shion had once lived. And not only one race. In the mountains, forests, and plains, people had carried on their lives. In these caverns, too....
Aboriginals. A people who had taken up residence in the caves from a time dating far back.
They had been people of a different kind of world than the town Rikiga and his mother had lived in; they had probably stayed in their own territory, as the "town people" lived in theirs, and had not had any contact with them. Perhaps neither group was even aware of the other's existence.
This stretch of land had once been a sprawling forest. On this planet, there were only six regions which fulfilled the conditions adequate for human life.
People built towns in those regions, and those towns eventually grew into city-states. Learning from history's moral lesson, they had abolished civil wars between the states. They agreed that a ban on all military power was the bottom line for the continued survival of mankind, and so, they had acted in accordance with the Babylon Treaty, which called on the abandonment of all armies and weapons. Also in accordance, each city had discarded its unique name, and adopted a simple number as its title―from No. 1 to No. 6.
The six cities, while still respecting the uniqueness and independence of each, nevertheless maintained strong ties, and were acknowledged to be part of one nation; both political leaders and the populace agreed that this was the mindset each and every one should have.
These lands are the only things left to us. Further destruction is not permissible. War is evil. It leads everything to extinction. It threatens our very existence. We must abandon all weaponry for the future of humankind.
Under this ideology, we shall found six cities linked in friendship and understanding.
From No. 1, to No. 6.
The sixth region had been blessed with natural conditions more favourable than any other. Everything was utilized to the fullest―nature's bounties, human intelligence, and scientific technology―to build this utopian city, one rarely found throughout history.
This was the birth of the Holy City of No. 6.
That was an outline of the history Shion had learned as an elite candidate in his perfectly-equipped classroom.
His chill had gotten worse. He felt like he was frozen right down to his fingertips.
If he closed his eyes―but even with them open―he could see images of the Hunt flashing in the back of his mind. It was reality. Those were scenes he had seen with his own eyes.
Barracks had been blown apart; tents had been torn down. Frantic, fleeing people had been ruthlessly murdered. Men and women, both elderly and young, and even infants had been indiscriminately vaporized. The most modern weapons had attacked people who could only retaliate by throwing rocks. It was a massacre if anything.
'Abandon all weaponry' indeed.
He had been biting his lip without thinking. The bloody taste spread inside his mouth. He swallowed it with his spit. He did not know about the other cities. But―but...
At the very least, he knew that No. 6 was on its way to becoming an armed state with overwhelming military power.
He swallowed his bloody saliva again.
When did that city start to change? When did it begin to stray from the policies and ideals of the Babylon Treaty? Since when... since the beginning?
- Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Macbeth. Project Gutenburg. 14. (back)
- turn to him: The expression "turn around to face someone" is often used in the romantic sense to mean "requiting someone's feelings". The way it's phrased seems to stand out here. I may be reading too much into this, but I wouldn't put it past Asano. (back)