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The eastern sky was still inky black when Nezumi awoke. He got up abruptly, and looked around. He heard quiet sobbing. The voice had woken him up.
The campfire was still burning. The flames undulated.
"Gran... what's wrong?"
The old woman had curled up into a ball with her face in her hands, sobbing. Nezumi had never seen her shed tears before. He inched to her side and placed a hand on her knee.
"What's wrong? Are you hungry? Does it hurt somewhere?"
The woman did not answer him. Her silent sobbing did not stop.
I don't want you to cry.
Don't be in pain. Don't be sad. Please, gran.
"I am sorry..." The sobbing stopped. "Shame on me... but I could not bear it..."
"But what was wrong? Are you alright?"
The woman's hand stretched out to pat Nezumi's head.
"My beloved homeland is so close. But―now, most of the Mao forest is lost. That demonic city is giving rise in its place. Little remains of the forest that I grew up in, where your mother and father grew up in, where you grew up in. We cannot even set foot into that small patch of forest now. Yet, it is close... so close..."
"Gran..." Nezumi touched the woman's cheek with his fingertips, and wiped her tears away. They were surprisingly hot. "Don't cry. You can't cry. It'll weaken your heart."
The old woman nodded and peered into Nezumi's eyes.
"Let me teach you a song."
"Yes. Your mother was the greatest Singer in all of Mao. I was, too―many, many years ago. I taught your mother how to Sing."
"Are you gonna teach me?"
The old woman looked Nezumi straight in the eye, and nodded deeply once more. She was not crying anymore. Her dry eyes were darker than the sky above. Her dark eyes reflected the flames of the campfire.
"You are fit to be a Singer. You often used to go to out to the forest and sing with your mother. Do you remember?"
Nezumi shook his head.
All of his memories were vague leading up to that day when everything disintegrated into flames. He had difficulty recalling anything clearly.
"Just... a voice."
"Voice, did you say?"
"I remember a voice. A voice that said―I'll teach you a song that you will need to keep living."
Let me teach you a song. I will teach you a song that you will need to keep living.
Had he not heard a voice say that?
The old woman gave him a startled look, and her mouth twisted.
"Was that... your mother's voice?"
Nezumi fell silent for a moment at her question. He could not remember his mother's voice. Run―only that short cry stuck stubbornly in his ears, and blotted out her singing voice and her laughter. But even if he didn't remember, he felt certain about one thing―it was not his mother's voice.
"No. It wasn't... human."
"...I see." A sigh spilled from her twisted lips. "I see―you already know."
"Huh? I don't know anything. I feel like I heard the voice in a dream." Perhaps it was nothing but a drowsy dream, an illusion in sleep. But the old woman shook her head slowly.
"It was no dream. You are a Singer. The Forest God has chosen you."
"Yes. She is the forest itself. She blesses the Forest People and also instills them with fear. She is always by our side, watching over us, blessing us. At times she will hurt, destroy, and obliterate us."
Destroy and obliterate. Does she mean the fire? It scorched, thieved, and banished everything to nonexistence.
"No." The old woman had keenly sensed his unspoken thoughts. She shook her head vehemently as if to interrupt his words. "That fire is different. That is made by humans. It is a result of human malice and greed. It is not the same as the destruction brought on by the Forest God."
The old woman threw some withered branches into the fire. The flames swelled slightly. The fire in front of him was gentle. It provided him warmth and heat for cooking.
"The people of that demonic city burned the forest to the ground. They turned the Forest God's holy dwelling place into ashes."
"Did the Forest God die that day, too?"
"The Forest God does not die. She will never be killed by human hands. The people of the demonic city know no God. They do not know her terror. They do not try to know."
"It's called No. 6."
"That city is called No. 6. I heard from someone."
"A traveller. He said he was a bard." Nezumi had met a group dressed in white while he was collecting branches in the barrens. All of them had white bags tied to their backs.
They told him that there were six city-states in the world, and people gathered in and around these places to live. Among them, No. 6 was the most beautiful and abundant, as well as the most isolated.
"You have a good voice," a bard atop a horse had said to him. The man had light brown eyes, the same colour as the earth on the barrens. "A very good voice. If you train it, you could become a first-rate singer. How about it, kid? Why don't you come along with us?"
Nezumi would be lying if he were to say he wasn't attracted to the offer at all.
He would travel the world, with instruments and songs as his companions. Free from hatred, free from the burden of his memories, he would sing, play, and dance as his heart desired.
Nezumi was deeply attracted to the idea.
He felt a sort of pleasure as if he had immersed his body in a cold, clear stream. Yet, he took a step back, and shook his head.
He could not go away and leave the old woman. And more than that―he could not live on and let that city stand without punishment. He was not about to throw away his hatred.
"I see. That's too bad," the travelling bard exhaled, and bent over his horse. "I'm sure we'll come across one another someday. You're the same as us. You're not stationary―you're the drifting type. Just to let you know, I do have an uncanny eye for seeing people for who they really are," he chuckled.
His long fingers, suited for playing instruments, touched the horse's neck. The desert horse neighed. It set off on a trot on its stout, thick legs.
The group disappeared quickly behind the cloud of dust they raised.
"No. 6," the old woman muttered as she stared into the fire. "The name does not matter. That city, and all who live in it, will fall someday. The Forest God will not forgive them."
The branches burned. The old woman's profile was lit up in the darkness by the flames.
"The Forest God will not forgive. She will bring judgement down upon them."
"Does that mean we won't have to get our own revenge?" Could we throw away this hatred, the memory of that scream?
"No, I will not forget," the old woman said. "I will not throw my hatred away. It may be... too late for me. I have grown too old. I will probably not live to see God's judgement with my own eyes. That is why I will requite myself. If I could get even one stab―"
And the old woman had kept her word. Knife in hand, she had rushed upon the mayor, who had come to the Correctional Facility to do an inspection. The woman did not even manage to slice through his clothes, much less stab him. She was shot through the chest, knife still in hand, and died in Nezumi's arms as he rushed to her side. It was almost a miracle that Nezumi was not killed along with her.
He was captured and thrown underground, where he met a man who called himself Rou. Perhaps Rou had somehow been in contact with the old woman, for he knew everything about Nezumi and accepted every part of him.
"I will pass down all of my knowledge to you," Rou had said. Sounds a lot like what God's voice said, Nezumi had thought wryly.
That was two years before he met Shion.
Nezumi stopped to look up at the sky. The sun's rays were fast losing strength and were on the verge of wilting. Days were short in the West Block, and nighttime came early. Since the sky was blocked out by the looming figure of No. 6, the sun only shone down on this land for a brief while.
No. 6 dominated even the skies. It tore apart and devoured a world that was supposed to belong to no one.
Nezumi gently felt his back. Even now, it still throbbed sometimes. His burn throbbed as if to command him never to forget.
Never forget. Never forget. Never forget. Never forget. Never forget. Never forget.
I will not forget. I couldn't forget, even if I wanted to.
He despised No. 6. It had killed his father, mother, and the old woman. It had burned the forest down, and massacred the Forest People. It never hesitated to crush human lives beneath its heel if it meant prosperity for itself. It desired not coexistence, but its own sole reign on a foundation of countless dead bodies.
Only its own prosperity, its own bliss, its own pleasure. What a terrible existence it was.
He despised it.
The whirlwind of his hatred almost suffocated him. But, yet―
Shion lived in that city, too. For Nezumi, each and every thing in No. 6 had always been a target of his hatred. Not only did he hate the rulers, he hated the citizens of that city as well who lived undeserved lives, ignorant and lacking even the will to enlighten themselves.
Hate? Do you really? Then can you bring yourself to hate Shion as well?
Nezumi's own self questioned him.
Could I bring myself to hate Shion completely?
It was a bitter question every time. The bitter taste that spread in his mouth was enough to numb his tongue.
My hatred is so strong, and my wound throbs so painfully, and yet....
His began to walk, and stopped again. He could hear a melody. He strained his ears. He could hear it.
Nezumi quickened his step. He turned a corner and was greeted by a plain dotted with boulders. On the edge of this plain stood a small playhouse―his workplace.
A man leaned upon a white boulder, playing a string instrument. Both his long upper garment and his pants, whose hems were gathered at the ankles, were faded and dirty. It was impossible to tell what colour they had been before. But the instrument in his hands was magnificent enough to turn heads.
Four strings were drawn across an eggplant-shaped body, and that body caught the rays of the weak evening sun and sparkled. If he squinted, Nezumi could see that the body was carved with intricate symbols and decorated with miniscule bits of gold, silver, and hazy silver.
It emitted a strange music. It was quiet yet clear, which added to its sorrow. It gently stroked the sadness buried in the bottom of one's heart. It did not agitate the sadness―it only smoothed it gently.
The man looked up. Their eyes met. Was it that bard? The man who had invited him to join their travels long ago? He looked as if he could be, yet he also looked like a complete stranger.
The man strummed vigorously. A melody was born.
Nezumi sang a scat along with the melody. He couldn't help it. The man's music and Nezumi's voice blended together and flowed gently along. Like the sky which was now beginning to lighten, the song, reminiscent of a blooming flower, flowed like a large river under a cerulean sky.
It was a comforting feeling.
Nezumi's body felt lighter as a breeze swept through him. Floating on the wind, he rose high into the sky.
In the air, he danced high and low, turned over, glided in a wide circle, and rose up.
The man's fingers stopped. Nezumi also closed his mouth.
"Don't stop," said a woman's voice.
"Keep singing," added a man's voice.
A throng of people had formed around the two.
I didn't even notice such a huge number of people. For an instant, Nezumi felt a chill down his spine. He was usually especially sensitive to any presence behind him. Even the footsteps of a single child were enough to make him react. He braced himself even at the sound of a tumbling rock. Otherwise, he could not survive.
If there was any exception, it was Shion. Shion's presence was the only one he lost track of at times. For some reason he couldn't figure out, he could not perceive Shion.
"Let us hear more."
"Let us hear that song again!"
The man looked up at Nezumi and grinned. "How about it, young'un? Feel like going for another?"
"Nah, I think my time is up. My nagging boss is here."
"Hey, Eve!" He was grabbed by the arm. Nezumi turned around and skilfully pried the hand off.
"Hello, Manager. Looking dashing as always."
The stage manager, dressed in a red jacket and bow-tie, placed both hands on his hips and set his feet apart. He looked to be at the peak of displeasure.
"What are you thinking, singing in a place like this? These people haven't paid us a cent! I don't know what you're doing, singing for people who aren't even our customers. Ridiculous... what? What's so funny?"
"No. Just wondering if you were enthralled by it too, manager."
"Wh―don't be an idiot!" stammered the manager. "I just came to take a look, since you were taking so long. And I found you here, having your nice little outdoor concert. Do work that brings in the money, I tell ya."
The manager tugged at the ends of his handlebar moustache, then turned to the man and smoothed his face into a suave smile.
"Say, sir, you have quite an impressive hand at playing. How'd you like to come work with me? With your playing and Eve's singing, we're sure to be the talk of the town. We'll draw in a huge crowd."
The man shook his head silently in a gesture of refusal.
"I wish you'd say that line to me."
"Eve, don't give me that crap," snapped the manager. "I pay you a fat sum all the time."
"Oh, really? There must be some chasm between your perception of 'fat sum' and mine."
The man stood up quietly. He drew close to Nezumi and whispered into his ear.
"Are you also the wind?"
"A wind that blows over this earth as it pleases. It neither dwells nor sets its roots down in one spot. Like us."
Nezumi stared into the man's eyes. They were light blue. Could he possibly be that bard?
"You sing, we play," he continued. "That's just who we are. But why do you dwell here? Why won't you be free, like the wind? What has trapped you and kept you here?"
The man drew back. He strummed just one string. Then he stowed his instrument in his bag and slung it over his shoulder.
"Best you free yourself soon, young'un."
Nezumi could not answer him. He only watched the man off.
What has trapped you and kept you here?
Would I be able to cut these chains free? Could I cut my chains of hatred? And Shion, who binds me? Would I be liberated?
Someday, I'll choose to live that way.
That day will come.
Then it's goodbye, Shion. And goodbye, No. 6.
"Go home, go home! If you want to hear Eve's singing, come back to the playhouse with some money. Big concert tonight!" The manager's gravelly voice rang out into the crowd.
Nezumi stood rooted to the spot as the wind blew past him, caressing his hair.
Read Chapter 3.