The algae suddenly rippled. They were not languid movements like those moments before; now, it bristled like a thin tree being blasted by the wind.
It was an unsettling movement.
A silver fish burst out of the tangle of algae and sped past Nezumi’s line of vision. It was but an instant―but Nezumi could clearly see it swallowing half of a little fish. Predator and prey. The eaters and the eaten.
The disturbance was brief, and before long the tangle of algae returned to its normal state and the little fish resumed swimming about as if nothing had happened.
Nezumi found a blue stone on the waterbed. He picked it up without hesitation. The stone was neither glittery nor beautiful. It was just a crude, misshapen rock.
A breath escaped his lips and formed a jet of bubbles. Suddenly, he couldn’t breathe. Unless this was some kind of dream, he knew it was impossible for a human like him to remain underwater for much longer.
Nezumi paddled the water and aimed for the surface.
The sun was apparently back out, for the surface of the water was glowing white. A black shadow lay diagonally across the surface. It was the shadow of a fallen tree. A dying tree had tipped over at the roots, and was half-hanging into the water. Nezumi grasped a branch and pulled himself up. Water rushed past his ears and his hair clung to his neck and shoulders. He could let out a long exhale now. He filled his chest with air.
The falling tree was still partly connected to its roots, and perhaps due to that, its leaves were lush and its branches grew out in all directions without showing signs of withering. Nezumi swung his leg over the trunk, and took another breath. He had not expected a tree of this size to be growing here. This unremarkable oasis in fact hid many treasures within.
Something moved in the corner of his eye, around the area where he had tossed his belongings. It seemed like a person.
Scritch, scritch, scritch!
The voices of the little mice turned harsh. They were baring their teeth in apprehension at the suspicious shadow before them.
“Ow! Stop it! Ouch!” yelled a voice. It belonged to a man. “Jesus, what the hell are these things? Go away! Go on, beat it! Stop biting me! Damnit, I’m gonna roast you whole and eat you. Ow, my earlobe!”
Apparently the little mice had launched into their attack. The man’s cries grew shriller.
“Ow, ow, ow! Damnit, you bastards!”
The man attempted to flee, leaving curses in his wake. He swung his arm around to brush off the mice. His hand firmly clutched Nezumi’s belongings.
Nezumi stood on the fallen tree and gripped the rock in his hand.
The man jumped and whirled around. Nezumi hurled the stone straight towards his face. At the same time, he himself plunged into the water. He swam towards the shore.
The man was kneeling on the grass, covering his face with both hands. Blood was dripping from between his fingertips. Hamlet and Cravat leapt onto his shoulder as Nezumi swiftly donned his clothes.
The little mice clamoured over each other as if making a passionate claim.
“Right, I get it, I get it. You two did a good job.” Nezumi petted them both on the head with his finger. Cravat then dove into his pocket, and Hamlet into his mop of wet hair.
“Ugh... it hurts. My eyes... I’m blinded! Help me!” The man stretched his bloody hand out into the air and flailed.
“I aimed for the middle of your forehead, and my aim is good. I’ve never missed once. I’ll go so far as to say I went easy on you.”
The man looked up at Nezumi with a hand still on his forehead.
“Went easy?” he said incredulously.
“I sure did. I could have lodged that rock into your forehead. I showed compassion to a thief. You should be thankful.”
The man took his hand away. Blood was spurting out of the centre of his forehead and running down his face.
“You call this going easy?”
“Of course. No harm done to your skull or your brain. You just got a little torn flesh there. It’s almost too lenient a punishment for theft.”
“Why, thank you,” said the man sarcastically. “I’ll be sure to get my brainwaves checked out at the hospital. Ugh, god, it hurts! It’s stinging!” The man groaned as he washed his face. Then, he took out an array of bottles in many sizes from the cloth bag slung over his shoulder. Inside the bottles were liquids of every colour. The man skilfully mixed some liquids together to produce a lilac-coloured, slightly viscous solution which he soaked a cloth with and applied to his wound.
“Hmm, this should do it. The wound should close up by tomorrow morning.” The man then wound the cloth around his forehead and grinned. He was tanned, and deep creases lined his eyes and his mouth. There were prominent white streaks in his shaggy head of hair. Yet his voice and the glint in his eyes were lively―youthful, even.
His age was a mystery. It was hard to tell whether he was young or old, but he was still a thief nonetheless.
“But let me say, boy―” Once the man had put away the bottles into his bag, he turned to Nezumi and began to talk to him with a smile. His tone was much like that of a teacher lecturing his student on the principles of higher learning.
“Now that I can get a closer look at you, I can see you’re quite the beauty. A beauty like you shouldn’t be swimming naked in a place like this. This place is dangerous―breeding grounds for vagabonds and rogues. Swimming in this place with not a thread to clothe your body―why, you’re like a sweet lamb wandering amongst a pack of wolves. Caution is what’s needed, boy, caution.”
“Thank you, I didn’t expect to be lectured by a thief. Good to know you don’t even feel guilty about what you did, old man.”
“Old man? Are you calling me an old man?”
“Well, it’s not about me, is it? I’m neither an old man nor a thief.”
The man blinked. Twice. Thrice. Four times. Once he stopped blinking, he burst out into laughter.
“Ha ha ha! That’s funny! Ha ha ha ha! That was a good one! You have a sharp tongue for such a pretty face. Ha ha ha! Ah, you’re an interesting one!” he chortled. “Ha―”
The man’s laughter ceased. Nezumi had pressed a knife to his throat.
“What an irritating voice you have,” Nezumi hissed. “Why don’t you quiet down for a little―no, forever,” he whispered into the man’s ear form behind. Nezumi knew well how much fear his whisper instilled to the person at knifepoint. He also knew how effectively this fear was at disabling the victim.
The man shuddered.
“Oh... no, c-come on, wait a minute. You don’t have to use a knife to shut me up. Really, I’m honestly sorry. I’ll apologize if I’ve offended you. I’m sorry.”
Nezumi drew back and put away his knife. The man clutched his throat and moved his lips. A long exhale hissed from between them.
“God, impatient despite your looks, aren’t you? I thought you’d have a more graceful manner.”
“I reserve my manners and grace for other people who are also graceful. You’re a thief. You tried to sneak away with a stranger’s belongings. I think you deserve a slash across the throat with a knife much more than graceful manners.”
“Have you ever killed before?” The man looked up at Nezumi from beneath his eyebrows. “Have you killed a man with that knife, young’un?”
“I don’t have any obligation to answer a thief.”
“No, don’t misunderstand me. I wasn’t trying to steal your things.”
Nezumi looked down at him expressionlessly.
“It’s true,” the man insisted. “Believe me. Here, this is proof.”
The man thrust his hand into his cloth bag and began to take out one item after another. There were several vials of medicine, a bag of cured meat, a water jug, a wrapped loaf of bread, a hunk of cheese, rock salt, and a small pouch. The man opened the pouch and showed it to Nezumi. It was full to bursting with gold coins.
“See? Sorry to say this, but I’m a little more well off than you. I don’t need to steal your things. I hope you understand now.”
“I don’t understand at all.” Nezumi shrugged just his right shoulder. “I don’t care how well-off you are. You still tried to walk away with my stuff. That’s the fact of the matter. That was theft and there’s no saying otherwise.”
“I guess it can’t be helped if that’s what you think I am. So this wound,”―the man gently touched his forehead―”is my curse and mark of Cain. I’ve already been through hell, whatnot with this wound on my forehead and being bitten by mice. Can’t you just take that and say I’ve already paid my dues?”
“Awfully in your favour, that interpretation, isn’t it?” Nezumi slung his load over his shoulder and smiled faintly. Suddenly, everything felt foolish. Soon the sun would set. He had to secure a spot to sleep for the night. There was no more time to waste with this smooth-talking thief.
“Oh, leaving so soon?” The man stood up. He was wiry and tall. He was clad from top to bottom in rough, white cloth, and was wearing dirty leather sandals.
“You bet I am. I’d rather not stay to chat with a thief.”
“I told you I’m not a thief. I just wanted to find something out.”
“Yes, find out where you came from.”
“And what would you do with that information?”
The man straightened up. “No, I just thought... just maybe, that you were from No. 6. It was just a thought.”
He had not expected to hear this name out here.
The artificial city which some called a utopia, which was supposed to have been the embodiment of humankind’s intellect and hopes, had quickly transformed into a towering monster. The city had crumbled as if succumbing to the weight of its own horrific ugliness.
Nezumi, I’ll wait here for you. I’ll keep waiting.
Shion’s voice echoed deep inside his ears.
“Aha, I see. So you are from that city.” The man jumped up and attempted to grasp Nezumi’s hand.
“Don’t touch me.” Nezumi batted away the arm that was offered to him. He hadn’t meant to do it with much force, but the man staggered back and plunged one foot into the water.
“No need to be so hostile,” the man said. “It’s just that if you are a resident of No. 6, there are a lot of things I’d like to ask you.”
“And I have less than a grain of sand’s worth to say to you. I’m not a citizen of No. 6.”
“But you know about it. Is it true that the city is destroyed now?” The man’s expression showed an obvious tension. The corners of his eyes were turned up, and they twitched slightly.
“I hear rumours everywhere, but no one knows the truth. And I think you know. I saw vacuum-packed rations and a lightweight LED generator in your pack. That’s from No. 6, isn’t it? I can’t think of anywhere else you would get it.”
Before the day of Nezumi’s departure, Karan and Shion had packed all manners of things into Nezumi’s bags, Karan with the face of a mother seeing her son off, and Shion in stolid silence.
We really are saying good-bye.
Nezumi had finally felt the reality of their parting in his flesh as he watched Shion’s profile, with the boy’s lips pursed in a stiff, almost grumpy, line.
Tomorrow, I’ll be leaving. Shion will stay, and I will leave.
Their two lives, connected almost miraculously four years ago, were now parting and going their separate ways. Nezumi and Shion had lived together for less than half a year. It was a very short period compared to the days he had spent alone until then, and probably to the days that were to follow. It was a brief, yet intense, period.
Would there be any period in the future more intense and finely-defined than that period I spent with him?
Nezumi shook his head. No. 6 had fallen. He had fulfilled what he had set out for.
So it’s fine.
Shion was a person of the past. Although he would remain in Nezumi’s memories, never to disappear, he was not involved in Nezumi’s present.
He had to draw a line. If he didn’t he would not be able to move forward. He would not be able to live the present if he was trapped in the past.
He’d had enough. Enough of dragging the past behind him and bearing its weight. He wanted no more of it.
“Come on, won’t you answer me?” A pleading tone crept into the man’s voice. “I hear rumours. Lots of them. I hear that No. 6 has fallen, but I’ve also heard that that’s all a lie, and that city is still there, still prospering. I can’t tell if either story is true or false.”
“You can always see for yourself.”
The man drew his chin back and let his throat rumble.
“...But No. 6 is such a distant land.”
“It’s only about a six-month walk. That’s pretty close.”
“Half a year... just thinking about it makes me feel faint.” The man gave such a lengthy exhale that his body seemed to shrink a size.
“Aren’t you a traveller, too, old man? Or don’t tell me you’ve settled in this wilderness?”
The man’s lip curled revealing a part of his teeth, which were surprisingly white. His tone and his voice carried none of the piteousness of before.
“Oh, I wouldn’t be so incredulous. It might be a more comfortable place to live than you think.”
The earth was mostly uninhabitable by humans for the long-term, aside from the six cities and their surroundings―it had been said so for years.
People had built the six big cities in search of the right location, land, and conditions for survival. Those who could not get inside had no choice but to die, or to cling to their lives by hanging on margins of the cities.
But after wandering the wilderness, Nezumi realized that not all of it were badlands that inhibited any chance of survival. There was more greenery, more oases than he saw back when he had wandered with the old woman; there were even scattered streams, grassy fields, and marshlands.
It seemed as if the environment was recovering suddenly and rapidly, though Nezumi could not tell if this improvement was the earth exerting its inner strength or something that was simply temporary. Nezumi figured no one would be able to tell.
But he did feel one thing: both the earth and humankind were resilient.
Humans were gathering near bodies of water and establishing small settlements. They irrigated water and ploughed the fields, planted seeds, tended cattle, produced children, and were attempting to rear them. Although they were in extremely harsh conditions, they were establishing lives that were separate from the six big cities.
Shion, the world is shifting. It’s always moving and changing shape. Have your eyes caught this change? Have your ears caught the sound of this change, its movements in the womb?
He spoke mentally to Shion, who was probably still in the midst of a difficult battle in a newborn city.
“Oh, I know. How about this: why don’t you stay over at my house tonight, young’un? I’ll give you a night’s lodging as a way to apologize for my rudeness. Will you sit down with me and tell me your story? It’s a small cottage, but I have a bed and a bath. It’s a pretty good lodging for these parts.”
“I won’t take it.”
“Why not? It’s a warm bed and a hot bath.”
“You could offer me a marble bathtub and I’d still refuse. I don’t even want to set foot into a thief’s lodging.”
“As I said before, I’m not a thief. I’m No.6’s―” the man abruptly shut his mouth. Nezumi could hear the clear sounds of a horse’s neigh and human footsteps. There were several horses and men. The air suddenly carried a scent of foreboding.
“Oh, no. They came after us.” Colour fled from the man’s face. In an attempt to escape, he tripped over his feet and landed on his bottom.
“There, I see him! There he is!” Three men appeared, wading through the shrubbery. All three of them were of immense size. One was tan-skinned, and the other two were fair-skinned with a hint of pink.
“We found you, fraud! Don’t think you can get out of this alive.” The tan man raised a thick arm. His animal aggression was overwhelming. “What the hell kind of elixir is this?” he roared. “It’s just coloured water! Stop fucking around.”
“Take him down!”
“Finish him off!”
The two fair-skinned men yelled at once. One of them had his grey hair tied up like a horse’s tail, and the other’s head was shaven clean.
“You tricked us out of our money. I don’t think anybody will have a problem if you happen to get finished off.”
“W-Wait! Hold on a minute! You misunderstand me. That medicine is really an elixir. Y-you must have made a mistake while you were preparing it―”
“Shut up! Still got the balls to lie, huh?” bellowed one.
“Rip his mouth apart and pull his tongue out so he can never speak again! While you’re at it, break two or three of his teeth!”
“Eeek!” the man cried. “P-Please, let’s calm down and talk about this without resorting to violence. I-I’ll give you your money back!”
“Money?” the tan man smirked. It made for a perfect stage villain’s face. “Of course you’ll give it back to us. I’ll take my time with the money after I’m finished with you.”
“Eeeek, help! C-Come on, young’un! Help me!” The man looked at him with pleading eyes.
“Hm? Who’re you? Are you this fraudster’s friend?” The ponytail man’s eyes bulged as he glared at Nezumi.
“Never. I was just passing by. See ya.” Nezumi turned his back on the men. The last thing he wanted to do was get involved in a scuffle, much less a dispute involving a thief.
“W-Wait! Please, don’t leave me!”
He heard the dull sound of flesh hitting flesh behind him. He heard someone collapse to the ground.
“St-Stop.... help me, please.”
“A fraudster like you should just own up to his crime, Shion.”
Nezumi’s feet stopped.
“Did you say Shion?” He turned around.
The man came crawling up to him, bleeding from the corner of his mouth. He clung to Nezumi, pleading for help over and over.
“Is your name... Shion?”
“I―it’s what I call myself, but...”
“It’s not your real name.”
“It’s my son’s name. H-He’s an adorable baby, like an aster flower.”
“Your son’s name?”
No way. Can it be?
“Hey, kid.” The man with the ponytail strode over to him. “If you’re just a passerby, you better hand that man over to us and get going. Or else―”
“Or else, what?”
The ponytail snapped his fingers as his face twisted into a grin.
“Or else you’ll be buried in the wild right alongside him.”
“Oh, I think I’d like to decline, if you don’t mind. I don’t really like being in the dirt.”
“Hey, fella.” The tanned man twisted his face into the same kind of vulgar grin. “You’re actually quite the looker up close. It’s a waste to put you underground. Why don’t you come along with us? We’ll give you a good time.”
“What, you didn’t realize I was beautiful until you looked at me up close? I can see eyesight wasn’t one of the things you were given, along with looks.”
“What the hell did you say?”
Nezumi put his pack down and gave a small sigh. And so it goes in the end. Shion, your name always gets me involved in some kind of conflict. I hope you’re aware of that.
“Turning against us, huh, little bastard?”
“I wish I didn’t have to.”
“Hah, well, that’s fine. We’ll just beat you up a little until you quiet down. After we get rid of the fraudster, we’ll have all the time to enjoy with you.”
“Not the face, though. This one brings in the bucks.”
“I know that. Heh heh, we found ourselves a gem.” The tanned man licked his lips. Then he clenched his fist and lunged forward. His movements were practiced and smooth, like one who was used to violence and fighting.
Nezumi retreated a step and whistled. Hamlet burst out of his hair and launched itself at the tanned face in front of it.
“Argh! What is it?!”
Before the tanned man could grasp Hamlet, Nezumi sank his knee into the man’s belly. The man’s enormous tanned body fell to the ground without a sound. Nezumi jumped over the fallen man and drew right up to the ponytailed man.
The ponytail bore down on him, his eyes bulging. Nezumi already had an idea of the timing. He dodged the blow, slipped close to the man and hammered the blade of his hand into the man’s throat. The ponytail bent over backwards before collapsing on his back. He, too, was unable to raise so much as a cry.
“Oh, you’ve done it―” The bald man, the last one remaining, drew a dagger out. “I’m gonna smash you.”
The bald man’s movements were slightly less nimble than the other two. Nezumi spun around so that he was behind him, and coiled his arm around the man’s neck, tightening his grip.
The dagger fell at his feet. Nezumi kicked it towards the spring. A moment later, he heard a clear splash.
“A knife isn’t something you just swing around. I suggest you get a little more training.” Nezumi tightened his headlock even more. All the strength left the bald man’s body. When Nezumi uncoiled his arm, the man fell to his knees with a muffled gasp.
Hamlet scurried up to Nezumi’s shoulder and chirruped softly.
He heard applause.
“Brilliant. I felt like I was watching a stage play. Amazing. Just stunning. That was good work. Hey, what are you―”
Nezumi snatched the pouch of gold coins from the man’s cloth bag and placed it in the tanned man’s hand. The tanned man groaned softly and raised his head slightly.
“Sorry about that. Can you take this money as an apology for what he did and write it off? Please.”
The tanned man blinked. He seemed to nod ever so slightly.
“H-Hey! That’s too much. It’s my money!”
“There’ll be no grudges this way. Or would you rather these men follow you around everywhere? Let me tell you that these types are tenacious.”
The man shrugged, and resumed clapping.
“I see. But anyway, you certainly did a brilliant job of cleaning them up. I’m humbled.”
“Were you a citizen of No. 6?”
The man’s hands froze. Without his smooth talk and clapping, the silence seemed to ring in Nezumi’s ears.
“Answer me. Did you live in that city?”
“...Yes, I did. But I said my goodbyes a long, long time ago.”
“Why? Hmm, let’s see. Because that city was fake, young’un. If it’s fake, it will always someday begin to unravel. I knew No. 6 would probably begin to tighten its surveillance and become even more domineering in its attempt to keep itself together. I didn’t think I could stand being suffocated like that.”
I see. So this man saw through No. 6’s true form and its destiny.
“And you escaped from the city alone, leaving your beloved little boy behind.”
“I couldn’t convince my wife to leave. She refused to leave No. 6 with me. I don’t think she could trust me completely.”
“That’s shrewd judgement enough. If she had come with someone as irresponsible as the likes of you, she would’ve been a pile of bones by now.”
“Not exactly a polite one, are you? But anyway, is it true? Has No. 6 really been destroyed? It has, hasn’t it? An artificial world like that would never be able to exist in reality for long. It must have crumbled from its foundations... it’s true, isn’t it?”
“If it is, what do you plan to do?”
“I’m going home.”
“Home? To No. 6? It’s pretty far-off.”
“Oh, six months of walking will get me there. It’s not a big deal. You said so yourself.”
“Yearning to see your wife and son again, huh, even after you abandoned them once? Pretty selfish thing to do, I think.”
“No... that’s not all of it.” The man fell silent for a while, then raised his face determinedly. “I owe you. You saved my life. So let me tell you something. Come here.”
The man invited Nezumi out of the shrubbery. Three horses were tethered and grazing. They were a dark brown colour.
“No one will overhear us here. Take this.” The man drew a bag from under his shirt. He had apparently kept it hanging around his neck. Both the fabric and string of the bag were worn and faded.
Inside was a rock a round smaller than the fruit on the bushes. Nezumi did not even have to take a closer look to confirm. This was....
“Is this... gold ore?”
“Yes. Listen to me: there are gold deposits in the area around No. 6. I don’t know how large the area is, but I think there’s a considerable amount of gold hidden there.”
“It’s true. I discovered it when I was younger. I might look like this now, but I was once a geologist. We investigated all soil around No. 6, and this was part of the discovery.”
“But you put it under wraps and didn’t report it.”
“Of course I did. Why would I have to report it, anyway? Gold would never bring prosperity to No. 6. It would result in a hundred troubles with not one good thing to make up for it.”
“I can see that.” Nezumi felt a slight chill.
“As far as I know, the ore hasn’t been discovered yet. I haven’t heard any rumours about any discovery. Besides, No. 6 is destroyed now, so the place must be in the throes of confusion. Which means I can enter and leave freely. I can even dig up gold in broad daylight and no one would reprimand me.”
“Wait a minute. Where’s this gold mine you’re talking about?”
“A strip of land running from the north to the south. Part of it even reaches the region that used to be called the Land of Mao. None of it is visible above ground. The gold is slumbering away, deep inside the earth. Plus―”
The man lowered his voice and continued in a low murmur, as if to build tension.
“I can’t say this is for sure yet, but... there’s also a possibility that there’s a huge deposit of rare metals right beneath No. 6. Nickel, gallium, zirconium, niobium, indium.... I can’t say much more, but what do you think? Great news, isn’t it?”
Nezumi’s chill worsened slightly.
“...It’s great to hear as a fairy tale. This is how you’ve tricked people all the way up until now, isn’t it? As the fraudster that you are.”
“I’m not a fraud. I’m the one who waits.”
“The one who waits?”
“Yes, I’ve been waiting―for No. 6’s fall. And it seems like the time has finally come. I have to make preparations to go back home. Hey, why don’t you come along with me? I couldn’t ask for a better partner. Let’s go back to No. 6 and claim that enormous fortune for ourselves.
The man’s eyes shone with a disgusting, slimy kind of light. It was not the lively kind of light that illuminated the way forward. His eyes were glowing dimly from their depths in an attempt to lure the prey close.
This man.... Nezumi realized he had gritted his teeth. This man isn’t insane, nor is he trying to trick me. He’s just telling the truth―at least the truth as it appears to him.
“And what do you plan to do with those riches? Enjoy a luxurious retirement?” No. That isn’t what this man wants.
“I’m going to buy it.”
For an instant, Nezumi’s voice and breath caught in his throat. All he could do was stare, bewildered, at the man.
“Buy No. 6? What do you mean?”
The man stowed the ore back in its pouch and smiled amiably.
“Listen, young man. If you plan on taking over the world, you won’t be needing armies, commandments, or thorough systems of surveillance and control. You need wealth. Wealth is the single largest, most significant weapon. No. 6 didn’t quite get that part right. Well, the city was also unlucky to have a foolish ruler.”
“You plan on becoming the ruler of No. 6 with wealth?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” The man cocked his head to the side. “Who knows what fate will bring? I’m not much of an ambitious person. I don’t aspire to be an emperor or a ruler.”
“For fun. I can make a mess of people’s lives with these two hands. It would be jolly. Just jolly. No game could be better than this.”
“Wh...” Nezumi stared harder at the man. He was not like Shion. Shion never looked at people’s lives as something to toy with. He never manipulated them for fun.
“No. 6―that city is finally on the road to rebuilding. They’re trying to establish a new city-state, and you’re just going to make a mess of it because you feel like it?”
“Rebuild? New? Impossible. It doesn’t matter who gets involved and in what manner. A state is a state. It’ll eventually strengthen its government and attempt to put people under its rule. That’s the true face of a state, and the history of humankind has proven that fact to us. No. 6 can change its robe as many times as it likes, but it’ll still be No. 6, all the same. If there is any change, it would be whether the person at the core of No. 6―its ruler―is foolish or intelligent. He’ll set his methods of rule in place: if he’s foolish, he’ll make it obvious; if he’s intelligent, he’ll be nimble and discreet. The fool would eventually destroy himself, but a man of decent intellect would gradually gain complete hold of No. 6. Those are the types you should be the most afraid of. So?”
“What kind of person is involved in the rebuilding of No. 6? From your point of view, is he foolish? Is he intelligent?”
Nezumi shook his head slowly. The base of his neck ached dully.
“He’s very bright, and holds substantial intellect. I can’t imagine him becoming the type of ruler you were talking about.”
“Ah, you have high regard for him, I see. And you must know the man―he is a man, right?―you must know him well?”
In a sense, I know him more than anyone else. And in a sense, I know nothing at all.
“And you also believe in him.”
I do believe in him. Nothing in the world would be worth believing if I couldn’t believe in Shion. I believe in him. But I was also afraid of him, wasn’t I?
Nezumi fell silent. The man glanced at him and stepped forward.
“How about it? Come with me. I’m not quite sure about the rare metals, but there’s definitely gold.”
Nezumi took a firm step backwards.
“No thanks. I’ll drift to wherever I want to go.”
“I see... that’s unfortunate.” The man grimaced as if he were really disappointed. “But I guess there’s nothing we can do. I’ll be off, then. I think I’ll borrow this horse here. Considering how much gold I paid back there, I don’t think he’ll mind if I take one horse.”
The man took hold of the reins of a grey horse and turned around.
“One last thing. People change, boy. That man you believe in will change, too. Anyone who stands at the top of a state will change. If he doesn’t change, he’ll be destroyed. You remember that.”
Nezumi touched the knife attached to his belt. Maybe if I finish this man off here... if I finish him off, I would nip a bud that would otherwise bring harm to Shion.
His fingers itched. Nezumi clasped his itching fingers.
I’ll never forgive you for harming, much less killing, someone for me.
Nezumi, don’t kill him. Don’t commit a crime for my sake.
Shion was holding his arm back and pleading with him desperately.
Nezumi, don’t kill him.
That’s right. That’s what you would say. I know you would say that and stop me. You’ve always been, and always will be, a naive do-gooder.
“Well, if the fates bring us together, let us meet again.” The man mounted the horse with a sweep, and dug his heels in. The grey horse gave a whinny and started off. The man and the horse disappeared in a cloud of dust.
The wind blew, making the bushes sway.
The clouds covered the sky as the land enrobed itself in the darkness of nighttime.
A tiny crack appeared in the clouds, revealing deep purple sky.
A solitary star twinkled.
Far off into that sky was No. 6.
Nezumi yielded to the wind as he gazed intently up at that star.