Rikiga peered into the bundle in Inukashi's arms, and exhaled a breath that reeked of alcohol.
"Mama," he echoed.
"What? You miss your Mama, old man?"
"She must be really comfortable in there," quipped Inukashi. "And she probably wouldn't want to see how much her son has gone downhill anyway. Maybe she's choosing not to come out."
"Who are you calling downhill? But anyway, about Shionn..."
"What about Shionn?"
"He called you Mama."
"So he did."
"Why 'Mama', huh?"
"See, there it is again."
Inukashi lowered Shionn back into the bathwater, and warmed him. Shionn found it very comfortable, apparently, for he gave a relaxed smile. Its radiance touched upon everything: beautiful things, refreshing things, exciting things.
I didn't know babies were such precious beings.
"Why is it 'Mama', Inukashi?" Rikiga insisted.
"Everything is 'Mama' to babies, old man. Hard to believe, but even you were crying for you mama some decades ago. Did you stop crying once someone flashed you a gold coin back then too, huh?"
"You're one to talk," Rikiga shot back. "You're just as attached to money as I am. Look at the pot calling the kettle black."
"Hah, shut up."
They're such precious beings. I never knew.
All the babies Inukashi had buried without feeling―in the frozen ground; in the sun-beaten and parched soil; in the muddied earth of the rainy season―now, for the first time, Inukashi cast his thoughts to each and every one.
Maybe Shionn wasn't the only one. Was that baby a precious existence? Or that baby, or that other baby, too? If they were, then... they shouldn't have died like that. It doesn't make sense. It doesn't make sense that they have to die so skinny, with their skin so wrinkly you'd think it was some old woman. To draw their last breath with such innocent eyes, without any hatred for anyone, without even knowing how to hate. Like the one I buried at the root of a honeysuckle bush,or the one I dug a grave for in red soil, or the one I wrapped in rag before burying, or that one, or that one, or that one―they all should have been cherished more;. They shouldn't have been forced to die that way.
Shionn, don't you die. Live on. Live, and grow big. Learn to hate, learn to cherish.
Inukashi scooped the baby up, and briskly put his clothes back on him. A black female dog got up as if it had been waiting its turn. The mat it had been sprawled on had cotton stuffing poking out of its ripped seams. Inukashi had fished it out of the rubble in the marketplace. It was faded, worn thin in many places, and more like a rag than anything else. But upon closer examination, one could see an adorable pattern of baby chicks. Maybe a baby much like Shionn had been using it before. On the day of the Hunt, maybe he had been put to sleep on this very mat, and been immersed in a dream.
"He's all yours," Inukashi said to the dog. After Shionn had been laid down beside the dog, he immediately latched onto the dog's teat. He suckled eagerly, making gurgling sounds in his throat.
"Rather furry nurse he's got."
"We've got as many furry girls as you'd want," Inukashi said. "Black fur, red fur, white fur, spotted fur. Care for a night with a lady of your choice?"
Rikiga ignored Inukashi's sarcasm, and heaved a sigh.
"A human baby being raised on dog's milk... that's quite something. But is that alright? God forbid he should start barking next."
"He just said 'Mama', didn't he?"
Rikiga looked down at Shionn, and heaved another sigh.
"Have you made the preparations?"
Rikiga's face slowly turned towards Inukashi. "Yeah." He lifted his arm languidly, and pointed at the black bag on the table.
"Good. Let's go, then." Inukashi lifted the bag. It weighed down heavily in his hands. Rikiga knitted his brow and made a reluctant face.
"Inukashi... why don't we call it quits?"
"Let's just forget about the whole thing."
"Forget about it, and then what?"
"We crawl back into our holes and keep quiet. Don't you think it'd be... better that way?"
"Of course." It would be better, old man. I feel that way hundred times stronger than you. I want to forget all about it, and crawl back into my den.
It would be cold tonight, but not enough to freeze. If Inukashi had his dogs with him, he'd be able to ward off the cold. Just minutes ago, he'd filled his stomach with stale biscuits and a soup of vegetable rinds. It was good. That means right now, I'm more or less fulfilled. If I could just lie down with my dogs and fall into a deep, deep sleep...
That'd be nice.
"Right?" Rikiga continued. "Why don't we do that? You have Shionn. You have to protect him. If something happens to you, who's going to take care of him? Think about it."
"The dogs are here. The dogs will raise him even without me. Just like my mum did."
"Yeah, but... Inukashi, let me be straight with you. I value my life as much as you do. I don't want to do anything dangerous. So," he said hesitantly, "let's back out of this. Forget it ever happened, hm?"
"And what happens to Nezumi and Shion? You gonna abandon them?"
"Those two are already dead. There's no way they'd be alive. They couldn't have lived if they've been rounded up by the Hunt, anyway. You know this as well as I do. That's why it's useless. We're about to put our lives on the line for something completely useless. Come on, let's just stop this. It's for the best."
Rikiga drew his chin when he saw Inukashi's gaze.
"That's enough yammering. It's almost time. Let's go."
"I'm going. If you wanna quit, old man, you go do that. I don't care. The bag comes with me, though."
"Inukashi, why? Why are you so bent on fulfilling your duty to them? You always acted alone. So have I. I could understand for Shion, but to go this far for someone like Eve..."
"He's one of us."
"They're part of our group. I can't abandon them."
Rikiga's dark eyes darted about. His mouth twisted into a scowl, like someone had force-fed him some bitter herb. He scratched furiously at the rash on his chin.
"I can't even bring myself to laugh at your joke," Rikiga said scathingly. "You've got no taste. Just listening to you makes me nauseous."
"Well, gee, I mean, your stomach is probably already a mess from your binge-drinking. I'd advise you to give up the booze for you own sake, though it's probably too late for you. Heheh, but I sounded pretty cool back there, didn't I? You'd agree I was pretty suave, right?"
"Idiot. I can't believe you could rattle off those embarrassing lines as if you actually meant it. Maybe you've got potential to be an actor like Eve. You must be kidding me," he spat, "one fox is enough."
Inukashi bared his teeth on purpose into a vulgar grin. Rikiga's mouth twisted even more severely.
"The only members of your 'group' are your dogs," he said. "You have as little trust for humans as the length of your pinky. Keep shooting off lies like that, and one day your tongue will rot."
"Ooh, I wouldn't want that," Inukashi said sarcastically. "Fine, let's be frank. You first."
"Me―" Rikiga began. "Well, like I said, I want to back out. I've been saying this over and over."
"That's honestly how you feel?"
"I'm an honest man. I don't lie."
"I can't even bring myself to laugh at your joke. Forget your tongue. Watch it before your wang rots and falls off, too. How much money did you spend to come up with what's inside this bag, huh, old man? I'm sure you've gotten tons of gold from Nezumi, but at best, that gold'll offset your expenses and you'll be even... no, you'll probably be down. If you scamper on back to your hole, you'll be losing all that extra money you spent for nothing. Could you stand that, really? Of course not. Are you the kind of humble man to just back down and submit to your loss? Hmm, even a pure and innocent kid like me finds that hard to believe."
Inukashi whistled. A few dogs that had been laying low near the walls stood up. He whistled again, this time at a slightly lower pitch than before.
The dogs surrounded Rikiga. Without so much as a snarl, they formed a circle with Rikiga at the centre.
"Don't assume they're just normal dogs that are a bit on the big side," Inukashi said. "These guys have been trained to be guard dogs since they were born. I trained them myself, you'll see they're not just any kind of dog. What would I call them... yeah, like elite troops trained exclusively for the offense. They'll latch onto human throats―hell, even a tiger's. It's too bad we don't have any tigers around here. We got tons of humans, though."
Rikiga clutched his throat, and shrank back. A pronounced fear swam in his bloodshot eyes.
"Inukashi... cut that out, that's a stupid joke." He knew it was no joke. Rikiga's voice cracked, and the fear in his eyes deepened.
Inukashi repressed his emotions, and continued speaking in a flat tone. A cold, inscrutable voice was much more fearsome than a rough and aggressive manner. He had learned that from Nezumi.
"Only Nezumi was able to escape from these guys. But barely. They managed to chomp down on his shoulder. Pretty deep. He didn't make a sound, but I think it must've been painful."
"That Eve, huh... what an accomplishment."
"Hmph," Inukashi sniffed scornfully. "If you've got better moves than Nezumi, old man, you'd be able to make it through. If not―"
"As if I would be able to scurry around like Eve does. Just climbing the stairs leaves me out of breath these days, and I know it's nothing to brag about." Rikiga sighed deeply, and let go of his throat. "Fine, Inukashi. I lose. This is your kingdom, after all. I could struggle all I want, but I wouldn't be able to win."
"Feel like coming clean now?"
Rikiga glanced furtively at Inukashi's face as if to gauge his mood.
"Starting to resemble Eve more and more. Don't let him poison you. Nothing good will come of it. Actually, you might be beyond all help already."
"That was the most useful piece of advice I've ever gotten from you since we met, old man. Thanks. But you don't need to worry. Once this business is over and done with, it's good-bye to him for good."
This was his honest intention.
Inukashi didn't like to be around Nezumi. He couldn't see through Nezumi at all, nor could he place a finger on him. But despite that, Nezumi had a strange magnetism about him. Inukashi found himself entangled in Nezumi's web. Like Rikiga said, he was being poisoned by him.
Danger, danger. Gotta say good-bye.
"Good-bye? Are you leaving this place?" Rikiga asked.
"Never. This is my kingdom, I would never leave. I wouldn't even hand this place over if No. 6's army came crashing in. I'll be saying good-bye, but I won't be the one leaving. It'll be Nezumi."
"Yup. The fraudster actor." Inukashi licked his lips. They felt dry. The dog that had been nursing Shionn gave a wide yawn.
"He's a wanderer. He appeared in this place out of nowhere, and decided to stay. Eventually he'll go wandering again. He's like a whimsical cloud. He'll rain himself out for a bit, and then he'll disappear over the mountains."
"I see. So that's what you think of him."
"That's what I expect him to do."
I'll live on this land for the rest of my life. But he'll probably disappear.
It was a gut instinct. He had nothing to prove it. He had heard nothing from Nezumi himself. It was only something that he, Inukashi, personally felt. But he felt like he probably wasn't far from the mark.
Like the clouds travelling across the sky on the wind, like petals scattered on the surface of a river, he's going to vanish from our sight.
I can't wait.
"Well, enough about Nezumi. Enough about me, too. That leaves you, old man. So? Why did you try to lead me away from this plan? Why'd you go as far as to put on a lame act just to make me withdraw?"
Rikiga puckered his lips, like Shionn did often. The gesture on a plump baby was adorable, but on a middle-aged man flushed with booze, it was rather revolting. Inukashi averted his eyes.
"You've got it wrong," Rikiga insisted. "I was just scared for my life. You could say I got cold feet. I was sitting down with a few drinks, and the more I thought about it, the more afraid I became of what I was about to do. All I could think of was how much I didn't want to die, and I just couldn't stand it anymore... I don't know if it's because of the alcohol, but I feel like these days, once my head gets fixed on a thought, it just stops working. I just get stuck deeper and deeper in the rut. You know, Inukashi, maybe I haven't got much longer to live."
Rikiga slumped his shoulders dejectedly. His eyes turned pitiful, like a sodden puppy. Inukashi had felt pity for sodden puppies before, and taken them under his wing numerous times. But not humans. He felt even less inclined when that human was carrying some emotional burden.
Inukashi snapped his fingers.
A larger black dog, which had been standing in front of Rikiga, crouched into an attack stance. It flashed its canines and gave an intimidating growl. Its gaze was fixed squarely on Rikiga's throat.
Rikiga gave a terrified whimper. "Hey, stop it."
"I don't have time for your hammy acting, old man. That's it. I've had enough. Just answer my question. Once you get your throat torn apart, you wouldn't be able to talk even if you wanted to."
"I-I'm talking right now, aren't I?"
"Old man, you said before―the day before the Hunt. When I said I wanted out from this plan, you were hell-bent on stopping me. But today, you're saying both of us should have nothing to do with it. Some 180-degree change, don't you think?"
"I'm inconsistent. Always been."
The black dog snapped its jaws, opening its mouth wide. Its sharp fangs showed, and saliva dripped onto the floor. You could almost hear its steady pat-pat.
Rikiga clicked his tongue. "Tsk. I've gotten old, to take threats from a dog-boy like you. Fine, I'll talk. That's what you want, right? Fine. Damnit, this pisses me off."
Rikiga produced a small bottle of whiskey from his jacket pocket, and drained it in one draught. He let loose a rude burp.
"Pray excuse my lack of manners, Your Majesty," he said sarcastically. "So, Inukashi―about the strange incidents that are occurring inside No. 6. Looks like they're real. Everything seems to just have erupted all at once. I didn't expect this turn of events. Couldn't even predict it."
"What's happening all at once?"
"Citizens dying right and left inside the walls."
"Holy City residents?"
"Yeah. Today was―what do you call it, the Holy Day, or some festival or other, that honours the founding of the city, right? People who gathered for the festivities just collapsed all over the place. And none of them survived. They died. Each and every one of them."
"Is that―an accident? Like a poisonous gas leak, or something―"
"That would result in a massive death concentrated in one place. But it looks like the commotion is happening all over the city."
"Terrorists? Have there ever been terrorist organizations in No. 6? That's the most thoroughly-monitored city-state I've ever seen. There's a city that exterminates undesirables right down to the last cockroach. It's impossible."
"Then why's it happening?"
"I don't know. I've only skimmed the news from No. 6. It pretty much said a random accident occurred in the middle of the ceremonies that resulted in civilian death. The ceremony was cancelled partway through."
"And where do you get 'dying left and right' from that? Are you sure you're not just being delusional, old man?"
Rikiga's lip curled into a smug grin. "I've had a long relationship with that city, you know. I've got my own intelligence network. But, well... not all of them are trustworthy, though. Anyway, if that city's media is saying 'a few deaths', then there has to be at least a few dozen. When they say the cause is unclear, it means they have no clue what it is. But this is No. 6. This city is home to some of the brightest scientific minds. What in the world is going on that they can't solve?"
What's going on? The thought crossed his mind momentarily, but the answer was still shrouded in a fog. He couldn't even make heads or tails out of it.
"You know the answer, old man?"
"Me? Obviously not. If I had that much power, I wouldn't be sitting here being threatened by your dogs. But―think, Inukashi. That high-and-mighty city is running itself up the wall, unable to deal with the problems that are occurring inside it. Doesn't it make you excited?"
"Well, yeah..." Inukashi said somewhat dubiously.
Rikiga's grin widened. He looked genuinely happy. Inukashi knew his dogs usually made that face when they were given a pork rib.
"It's the first time, isn't it, Inukashi? No. 6 has never been this confused... this is the first time. Maybe it'll turn out as Eve said. No. 6 won't last much longer. It'll crumble from the inside."
"You know, I've never taken that fraud of an actor for his word. Neither have you."
"No, I haven't."
"But this time around, he might not have been tricking us. That city might fall apart, just like Eve predicted. The signs were all there. They're just getting stronger, building up to this. And if that's true... then next, the big quake will come―"
Rikiga's hands came together noisily as if to squash something invisible.
"―and flatten it."
"Ahh, I see it now," Inukashi said. "You believe Nezumi, old man. You believed the Holy City would fall. So would the Correctional Facility. It might become true, and not just end as a fairy tale. Which means the gold bullion that's supposedly stored in the basement of the Facility is starting to sound a lot more real too, along with the chance of stealing that treasure. The possibility keeps climbing."
Inukashi pointed a finger at the ceiling. Rikiga turned aside.
"But then you started feeling reluctant," Inukashi continued, "about sharing it with me. The more you thought about it, the more you didn't want to hand it over. So to get your full claim over the gold, you put on this hammy act. You're helpless, old man. Forget booze, all that greed has probably got to your brain and turned it to mush."
"Not much better yourself. You seemed eager about the gold bullion. You were licking your chops, you were."
"Yeah, I'm eager alright. It still makes me drool. But let me tell you, until now I've been on the fence. I was pretty suspicious about whether there was really gold in the basement of the Correctional Facility. But if you're going so far as to put on an act to snatch it all for yourself, then... heh heh, I think now I believe it a lot more. You got your information from a girl named Suru, right?"
"Yeah. No. 6 executives are her best customers. When a guy tells stories to his prostitute in bed, it's bound to be trustworthy."
"I see. So, No. 6 gets to be wiped out and we get rich at the same time. Sounds awesome. So great, in fact, I think flowers are going to sprout on the top of my head."
"If everything goes well."
"What? Don't rain on my parade here. I've had enough of your theatrics."
"That's not it." Rikiga walked over to the windowsill. The dogs silently made way for him.
"What?" Inukashi snapped. "We gotta get going, or else―"
"Do you think it'll really be destroyed?" It was a dazed murmur. "Is No. 6 really going to disappear entirely?"
"Who knows." That was the only answer he had. Rikiga continued to mumble as he stared out the window. Inukashi's reply had probably not reached him.
"But... if that really happens... what'll appear in its place?"
"A world without No. 6... once that thing disappears, what'll happen? What's going to appear out of it?"
Inukashi felt like someone had bumped him roughly on the shoulder. He sucked a breath in. He felt like he was breathing in tiny shards of glass. His chest pricked painfully.
A world without No. 6. The aftermath.
He had never thought of it.
He couldn't even imagine it.
What would appear?
He tightened his grip around the handle of the bag.
"I don't have a clue. I just know one thing is for sure."
Rikiga turned around and blinked at him.
"Money is money. No. 6 could disappear tomorrow, or it could last for a thousand more years. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter what appears. That gold is a hell of a lot of treasure, and that's never gonna change."
"I see." Rikiga shook his head, grinning. "You're a tough one. Hah. You might be an even tougher cookie than Eve. I should watch out for the dog instead of the fox, shouldn't I?"
The ambiguity was now wiped clean from his tone, and Rikiga's face turned back into the one of the alcoholic that Inukashi knew so well. This was the countenance of a greedy but cowardly man, indulging in both booze and women alike, living no dreams―just harsh reality. Inukashi somehow felt relieved.
"Let's get going, old man."
"Yeah," Rikiga answered promptly this time, and started walking. Inukashi snapped his fingers, and a few dogs sprang up and bounded ahead of Rikiga out of the room.
"Are you taking them, too?"
"Yeah. They'll be much more useful than what's inside this bag."
Shionn began to fret. The female dog swung its head around and licked the tiny body gently with a warm, soft touch. Inukashi remembered it, too. The baby would probably soon fall fast asleep.
See ya, Shionn. You wait here. Be a good boy and watch the house with the dogs while I'm gone.
I'll come home.
I'll come home for you someday.
Wait for me.
"Mama, mama, mama," Shionn called, right before he was about to step out of the room. Inukashi closed his eyes, and slowly pulled the door shut.
Read Chapter 3.