A Treacherous Joy
A deep, inexpressible joy filled her heart, a treacherous joy that she sought to hide at any cost, one of those things of which one is ashamed, although cherishing it in one's soul . . .
-Maupassant, "A Life"
"Is Daddy home yet?" Lili sighed. "Did Mommy get to see Daddy? Did she get to say 'welcome back' to him? It's getting so dark. I wonder what happened? Yuna's daddy and Ei's daddy are already home. They always come home on the same bus. You know, sometimes me and Yuna and Ei go and meet them there."
"I see. And Daddy's very happy, isn't he?"
"Yeah. Really. He picks me up, and kisses me on the cheek. But it's kind of embarrassing. I don't need to get a kiss from Daddy to be happy. I'm not a little girl, you know. But Daddy still thinks I'm a little girl. That's why he kisses me in front of all those people. It's kind of a problem."
Karan smiled at Lili's endearing attempt at sounding like an adult. Lili sighed again. She cupped her chin in her hands, and let out a long huff. It was an adult woman's gesture―was she imitating her mother, perhaps? Usually, Karan would burst out laughing and tease Lili, calling her a right young little lady, but today she couldn't quite bring herself to. Her heart felt heavy, as if Lili had transmitted her melancholy to her. Smiling was the best she could do.
"Daddy'll come home, right?"
Karan stopped in the middle of wiping a tray, and glanced at Lili. Lili's favourite cheese muffin lay half-eaten on her little plate.
"Getsuyaku-san―your father―is probably very busy at work. I bet he missed his usual bus. I'm sure he'll come home on the next one."
Karan gave a little sigh as well after finishing her sentence. These words wouldn't even serve to make Lili feel better. Lili didn't want to hear these banal words of encouragement.
She felt frustrated and ashamed that she could not even relieve a little girl's woes.
Lili's eyes, always so lively and full of joy, were now clouded over.
Her father, who usually came home every day at the same time on the minute, had not come home. She was worried sick.
Karan couldn't bring herself to laugh it off as an exaggerated concern. Lili had sensed something wrong with Getsuyaku, and it was paining her heart. Renka―Lili's mother and Getsuyaku's wife―had even gone to the bus stop to pick him up despite her difficulty moving around. There must have been something about Getsuyaku that caused his wife and daughter to feel uncertain and unsettled. It was not only Getsuyaku, either.
This uncertainty―an intangible uncertainty―had by now covered all of this city of No. 6.
One could call it a looming threat.
Several dozen citizens had already suffered at the hands of death―been sacrificed. Karan wasn't sure if "sacrifice" was the appropriate term, but she thought the eeriness and terror that the word invoked matched perfectly well with the city's atmosphere; of that, she was most certain. Karan herself was troubled, apart from her thoughts about Shion, with an uncertainty that dug into her heart.
Is this really happening?
People are dying left and right.
Without warning, they would collapse and cease to breathe. Karan had yet to see it for herself, but she had heard that the victims all lost their hair and teeth, were covered in wrinkles, and died looking a hundred years older. She had heard that even the most vibrant young man or beautiful girl ended up in this grisly form. Without exception.
Why? What's the cause?
A new virus? Poison gas? A plague?
Speculation was rampant, and yet, not one person could give a definite cause. No one could spot a common trait among all of the victims. Their ages, body types, environments, workplaces and development histories ranged widely, and barely overlapped.
Apart from the fact that they were exclusively No. 6 citizens.
One collapsed in the square in front of City Hall; one in the street; one in his own kitchen. In all cases, the victims were alone. There were no concentrated outbreaks of casualties in one spot. They all occurred in pinpoint locations. Many were safe who had seen the victims die right beside them. Any acquaintance in mid-conversation, any friend walking beside you, any stranger walking past you, could become a casualty. Shrieks and wailing voices burst into the air everywhere.
No one could predict who the next casualty was, or when and where it would occur. That was fear itself. An insurmountable fear.
My sister collapsed just now. She wasn't even thirty. Now she's transformed into an elderly woman.
My neighbour just died. We were just having a normal conversation. 'What's gonna happen now?' 'This is scary, isn't it?', just stuff like that. Then she suddenly started to double up in pain―
What's going on here?
This is a concern for everyone now.
Maybe tomorrow I'll be next... no, maybe even in a minute...
I might be the next sacrifice.
What the hell is the mayor doing? Why doesn't he try to deal with this?
Isn't he going to help us citizens?
Fear became discontent toward the politicians who twiddled their thumbs in the face of the situation. Discontent became criticism, which turned into a simmering rage.
The mayor, through various media organizations, called for calm amongst the citizens, and advised them to take careful action. But even as the mayor's image flashed across the display, another casualty fell right in front of it, another among the dozens today. He would convulse again and again, then age rapidly. It was impossible to remain calm.
Give us medicine.
Tend to the wounded.
Give us the truth.
The cries of the citizens echoed loudly in every corner of the streets. And on top of this situation, Lili's father had not arrived home. Her mother had gone out, and not returned.
The girl's tiny chest was probably full to bursting with uncertainty. Perhaps she was desperately trying to keep herself from crying.
Karan understood well the suffering and pain of being concerned but unable to do anything about a family member. She had experienced the frustration of only being able to wait. It was a pain that had soaked deep into her bones.
"Lili." She stroked the girl's soft hair. "Have the rest of your muffin."
"You love your father, right, Lili?"
Lili looked up at Karan, and gave a huge nod.
"Yup. I looove him. I love Daddy lots and lots. I love Mommy, and the baby in Mommy's stomach, too."
"Yes, and your father loves you too, very very much, right? He kisses you on the cheek, and he says 'I love you, Lili' while he does, right?"
"Yeah. Daddy always says 'I love you' to me."
"Then everything will be fine. Your father will come straight home to you, Lili. You know, in the end, people come home to the people they love most."
Lili blinked. "Is that true, ma'am?"
"Yes. It's true. True as can be."
Lili's mouth relaxed. A smile spread across her face. She picked her muffin up, and took a bite.
"There are still more left. Three, to be exact. One for your mother, your father, and for you, Lili. You can take them home, if you like."
"Thank you, ma'am."
After finishing her muffin, Lili put her hands together and gave a loud thanks for her meal.
"I love you, too."
"My, Lili, that's wonderful. Thank you."
"And Shion too... but not as much as Daddy, or Mommy, or you, ma'am."
"Shion will come home too, right?"
"People come home to people they love the best, right? So Shion has to come home to your place, ma'am. Right? He'll come home, right?"
Lili seated herself deep in her chair, and dangled her feet over the edge.
"When I got hurt once, Shion made it all better."
"Oh? He did?"
"Yeah. I was playing tag with Ei, and I fell down. I fell, and then Ei came and fell down on top of me, like ― crash! ― and it really hurt. Ei''s kind of fat. But she's really fast at running, you know. And she's good at drawing pictures. I like drawing pictures, too. We draw pictures together a lot."
"You're good friends, then?"
"Yeah. Really good friends. But we fight sometimes, too. Sometimes we have fights that are so big, I think we're never gonna play again for the rest of our lives."
"But if you can fight and make up again, that means you're truly good friends. So you fell down, right, Lili? And Shion made it better?"
"Yeah. My leg was bleeding really bad. And it hurt a lot. I cried lots, and Ei was crying, too. But then Shion passed by, and he picked me up and took me to a tap and washed off the blood, and... oh, and then he put some medicine on it. He said, 'it's stopped bleeding, so you can stop crying now.' And then he patted my head. He wiped Ei's face for her, too."
"And... when was this?"
Lili stopped swinging her feet, tilted her head a little, and looked at Karan.
"Lemme see, ummm... a little before Shion went away. When he was still going to work at the park. You know, ma'am, Shion is really nice. Mommy said so, too. She said he's really kind, and handsome, and such a great person. She said, 'When Shion comes home, you should ask if you could be his bride'."
"Oh, Lili, you as Shion's bride? That's some happy news."
"But it's just that, well, Ei..."
"What about Ei?"
"Umm, she says she's in 'love at first sight' for Shion. I asked her, 'What's love at first sight mean?' and Ei said, 'It means you get married, of course'. But if Ei and Shion get married, then I can't be his bride. Mommy said I can't lose to Ei, but it's really hard."
"Oh, my." Karan laughed out loud. For even just a moment, she was able to forget the uncertainty and melancholy forming a malignant lump in her heart.
As far as Karan could remember, Lili had not mentioned Shion's name at all since the day he had vanished from Karan's sight. Lili had probably sensed that reflecting on memories of Shion would cause suffering for Karan. Or perhaps she had been warned by Renka.
'Lili, from now on, I don't want you to talk about Shion in front of Karan.'
'Because she'll be sad.'
'Mommy, did Shion do something really bad? Is that why he got caught and taken away? Everyone says so.'
'What do you think?'
'Me? I think... Shion wouldn't do anything bad. He's so nice. He would never do anything like that. Ever.'
'And you're right. See, you do know. I'm impressed with you, Lili. Whatever happened must have been some kind of mistake. Shion is such a wonderful boy. You wouldn't find anyone nicer. He's kind, handsome, and just such a great person. I know, Lili, when Shion comes back, why don't you ask if you can be his bride? Don't lose against Ei.'
Perhaps mother and daughter had had that kind of conversation, and grinned at each other.
Karan had been surrounded by caring people all along.
Through days of frantic frustration and anguish, she had always thought she was fighting alone. But it was not so. People around her, people right by her side, had been quietly expressing their concern all along.
All this time I was being supported by such a little girl. And―
And by Nezumi's letter.
There were many pillars. The hearts of others held her aloft.
"Lili, thank you." Karan gently embraced the young girl.
The emergency buzzer went off.
A part of the wall turned into a screen, and the face of a young woman appeared. She was a newscaster directly affiliated with the Information Bureau.
"This is an urgent broadcast. As of this moment, the authorities have announced a state of emergency. Citizens are advised to return home immediately. All subsequent outings of any kind by citizens will hereby be prohibited. There are no exceptions. If you do not comply, you will be arrested and taken into custody. I repeat. We are entering a state of emergency. Citizens are advised to..."
The newscaster had been reading rapidly through her papers, her eyes cast down, when suddenly she snapped them open wide. She stood up, and clawed at her throat.
"Help me! No!!" Her shriek rang out.
Karan reflexively put her arms around Lili.
"Ma'am, what's happening to her?"
"No! Don't look!"
The caster's flaxen hair turned white before their eyes. Dark spots appeared on her cheeks, and spread rapidly.
"Help... me..." Her fingers curled as if trying to grasp something in the air, and she collapsed behind the desk.
The broadcast cut off abruptly after that.
A state of emergency―it was nothing so tame.
This was an abnormality. A situation far beyond the bounds of common understanding. It was twisting and rearing before them.
She felt faint.
No, it's not me. No. 6―this city―is the one that's creaking from the stress. It's shrieking, just like that newscaster.
Confusion. Disaster. Danger. Suffering. And, fear. Plagues that should have never existed within No. 6 were sprouting furiously.
She heard laughter.
Somewhere far, somewhere far in the distance, she could hear laughter.
Who? Who's laughing? Whose voice is it?
Brittle, dead leaves fluttered past her window.
One, two, three...
A wind was blowing. A strong southern wind was blowing against her. It usually unravelled the rigid cold of winter, and brought with it the premonition of spring. The southern wind which usually made her heart feel so lively was carrying that voice to her ears.
"Ma'am, I'm scared." Lili clung to her. "Someone's laughing in the sky."
"Lili, you can... hear it too?"
"I don't know. I don't know, but I'm scared."
Lili began to cry. "I'm scared!" she sobbed.
"It's alright," Karan soothed. "It's alright, Lili. I'll protect you. So don't be afraid."
You supported me all this time. You cared for me, you were concerned for me. So this time, it's my turn to support you. I won't let people snatch you away, so easily like they did Shion and Safu. I'll protect you, you just watch.
Karan bit her lip, embraced Lili still more tightly, and turned to face the wind that blew outside her window.
I will protect you to the end.
How could this be happening?
The man was confused. The cause was beyond his grasp. This was the first time something like this had occurred.
"Why have you let this happen?" he yelled, Fennec, the mayor of No. 6."Why have they begun to act on their own? I thought you said you were able to control them perfectly."
What noise, the other man thought. What a noisy lout. He had always thought of the other man as a cowardly, yapping dog who knew how to do nothing else. The years evidently had not changed his character.
"Soon, it will awaken. Then, everything will settle down."
"Really? You are telling the truth?"
"Really, Fennec. These are only small precursors to the main event. Miniscule disturbances."
"Miniscule disturbances―this, you say? The city is in a panic, for goodness' sake."
"Then, announce a state of emergency."
"I've announced it ," the mayor said shortly. "But if we have any more deaths, the Security Bureau alone won't be enough to suppress the chaos among the citizens."
"Mobilize the army."
The mayor froze.
"Yes. Even if there is a possibility of a riot, there would be no problem with the army there. No cause for concern at all."
"You're telling me to point weapons at my own citizens? These citizens of No. 6?"
"That's what an army is there for. To neutralize anything that rebels against No. 6, whether it be from the inside or the outside."
"Fennec," the man interrupted. "You are the one to make the decision. You are the King, after all. It's not something I can intrude into. But do not forget. You are the sole person who dominates everything on this land. Rebelling against you is the same as betraying No. 6."
The mayor remained silent for a while, and then gave a resolute nod.
"You're right, in fact. Every word."
"It may have been out of place for me to say this―"
"No, I don't mind. I forgive you."
Forgive? Forgive me? The man sneered inwardly.
"I will order the army to mobilize into battle formation and await further instructions."
"That would be best. It is a grand opportunity to show your foolish people the extent of your power."
The mayor swept out of the room, his gait stormy. He seemed to be in a temper.
The man sneered inwardly again, and closed his eyes.
Soon, it will awaken. And when it does―
Getsuyaku shut off the water flow.
Today, he was going to finish up work early so he could go home.
At the end of every shift, he took a shower and drank a cold glass of water. It seemed almost too mundane to call it his high point of the day, but he nevertheless couldn't deny that taking a shower put him into a good mood.
Well, that's all the work that needs to be done today. I can go home now.
A smile tugged at his lips every time the thought crossed his mind. He could see the smiles of his wife and daughter right before his eyes. His daughter was not of his blood; his wife had brought her from a previous relationship. There were times when he felt troubled at whether they could still become father and daughter, even though they weren't related. Now, he found it funny that he had even bothered to worry. Blood relations didn't matter. It had nothing to do with how one felt love. He cared for his daughter so strongly, he could most certainly say so.
Small and lovable Lili.
Every time he kissed her on the cheek, she would smile sheepishly. In a year, she might even be rejecting him with a cool "Daddy, don't." But her gradual blossoming into adulthood made her endearing all the more. If I could, I wish she would let me kiss her forever―but that's probably not going to happen. But what about today? I wonder if she's come to pick me up at the bus stop. If she has, I would be so happy. Lili would come dashing up as soon as I get off the bus. She'd say, 'Welcome home, Daddy,' and she'd give me a hug. I would pick her up, and give her a kiss on the cheek.
It was his moment of complete bliss.
And he could experience this because Lili, his daughter, was there for him. His second daughter, too, was almost on her way. He had been told at the hospital sometime before that the baby was going to be a girl. My second daughter, and Lili's little sister. One more member in the family.
Getsuyaku changed out of his clothes, and smoothed his hair with a hasty hand.
He had only to think about his wife and daughter. He would not allow his thoughts to wander and dwell on what he did today, or anything of that sort.
Nothing happened today. I didn't do anything. I don't know anything.
And that's exactly how it's going to be.
Tomorrow, Inukashi would give him the rest of his payment. He knew Inukashi wasn't lying. He was wily, thorough, and miserly, but he kept his promises. In that sense, Inukashi was someone he could trust. If he hadn't been such a person, there was no way Getsuyaku would have co-operated in smuggling, even if it was just garbage or leftover food.
The payment this time around, however, was off the charts compared to the usual.
Getsuyaku counted on his fingers, curling each one, starting from his thumb.
Gold... three gold coins. It's quite a payment. Add that to the previous one, and that makes six gold coins. This is enough money to let me live like I'm on vacation for a good while. Of course, that's not what I'm going to spend it on. I'm going to keep it for Lili, and for the baby that's on its way. Renka would be happy for me. But―last time I handed her the gold, she looked more worried than happy. She went pale, and asked me, 'Where on earth did you get all this money?'. I managed to scrape together an excuse, but that was a close call. I made Renka worry more than she should. This time, I have to make it good. I have to come up with an excuse that'll satisfy her. Maybe something about special compensation. I hope I can pull off the lie.
Six gold coins. A payment off the charts.
After curling all his fingers in, he slowly raised his pinky.
I want to buy Lili some spring clothes. And Renka, too. Renka is so beautiful, but since we don't have the means to be fashionable, she always dresses frugally, and it makes her look older. She would look so stunning in a brightly-coloured dress, in pink, or blue. And Karan-san. She takes care of Lili all the time. And she's so good to her... I have to give her something to thank her. Hmm, what should I get?
His dreary mood began to clear. He felt excited. He could see himself shopping with Lili, taking her by the hand. He could see Lili turn around to grin at him. Renka was also smiling.
Oh, I couldn't be happier.
He felt it from the bottom of his heart.
He drained his glass of water.
Alright, let's go home.
The emergency alarm went off. The lamp flashed.
His heart contracted. He could feel the blood receding from his face.
The door connected to the Correctional Facility was beginning to open. Getsuyaku had passed through the same door only moments before, entered the Correctional Facility, done his cleaning duties, and returned to this small room. He had resolved to finish work early that day, and had taken a shower. He had drank a glass of water.
That was it. That was it.
He shrank bank.
That's all I've done. I only did my job, did it properly, as usual, and tried to go home.
'Make a good getaway.'
Hadn't a young man who passed him on the stairs said that? Getsuyaku was almost certain. The youth had a certain severity to him despite his age, and yet could manage to smile in a very alluring way. Make a good getaway. Was that a warning? Should he have obeyed those words and made his escape as swiftly as he could? But he had been afraid of being in a panic. He had been afraid that he would draw suspicion. If I run, that's like admitting I did something wrong. I didn't want people to be suspicious. I still have to come in tomorrow, and the next day. Once they're suspicious of me... I―I don't want to lose my job. I was still planning on coming into work tomorrow. That's why I ignored him. I foolishly pretended that I didn't hear.
Make a good getaway.
Oh―how wrong I was. I should have listened to that man. I should have escaped.
The door opened.
I should have escaped.
Two Security Bureau officials stood there, guns aimed and ready to fire.
"Getsuyaku, is it?"
His legs were shaking. His hands were shaking. His whole body was shaking.
No, don't shake. I'll draw even more suspicion. Pretend you don't know. Pretend you don't know, and―you haven't done anything.
"―Yes, it is."
"We are escorting you. You are to obey."