"Land of Total Equality"
-No One is Special-
"Well, that's interesting."The young traveler didn't answer her companion's dry observation. She merely continued staring up at the strange rusted sign posted by the side of the road. It stood some five meters by ten wide, painted a garish yellow, and had letters the shade of bright red apples. The color scheme of the billboard wasn't what struck her as odd though, as she had seen many similar examples of gaudiness in her travels. It was actually the message itself that peaked her interest.
"Welcome Travelers. No Descrimination Allowed."
"I guess the people of this country are very tolerant of others," Kino finally remarked after her moment of pondering.
"They spelled discrimination wrong," Hermes grumbled.
"Yes, well. Nobody's perfect." Kino readjusted her goggles before revving up the motorrad's engine. With a spray of gravel the two travelers were off, soaring down the dirt road that took them further into the pretty countryside nestled between two snow-capped mountains.
"So," Hermes spoke up some twenty minutes into the ride. "What can we expect from this country?"
Kino drove silently for a few moments, unsure of how to answer. "I'm not really sure. From the travelers I've spoken with, all seem to hold different opinions about this country. Some rave about it while others throw insults." She smirked wryly. "I guess it's one of those 'love it or hate it' type situations."
Hermes grunted. "Oh well, I suppose we'll find out for ourselves when we get there."
It took another twenty minutes for the two to reach their destination. The road wound through the rolling hills of grass, the green a remarkable contrast to the almost infinite blue sky above. Seated atop a particularly flat grassy plain was a large, thriving city of red brick and gray mortar. Its outer walls were made of the same material, and rose several hundred feet above the ground. The road had branched off in the direction of the city as well as away from it, the latter path heading westwards through the hills towards the horizon and presumably to the next country beyond.
Kino turned Hermes towards the city's gates, which she noted was made of heavy wrought iron. A fine bit of rust marred the surface of the barrier, making it look somewhat more delicate than it should have. Kino parked the motorrad in front of the gate and patiently awaited one of the sentries to acknowledge her.
"Welcome, traveler," greeted one of the city guards. "Welcome to our humble country. What business do you have within our gates?"
Kino smiled in a friendly manner before speaking. "Hello, my name is Kino. This is my partner, Hermes." She patted the motorrad's fuel tank affectionately. "We merely wish to visit your land, perhaps learn of your customs and history."
"Ah, a scholar are you?" The guard regarded the young woman with a slight bit of uncertainty; she seemed much too youthful to be an academic.
"Oh no, I'm more of a tourist, actually." Kino scratched the back of her head, somewhat embarrassed.
"I see." The guard took a clipboard from his belt and began writing some information down. He then passed it over to Kino along with his pencil. "Well, I see no problem with that. Just fill this out and you may proceed."
"Thank you very much." Kino smiled before turning her attention to the form.
After settling into the inn, the two travelers took to the streets in search of a restaurant so that Kino could have an early dinner. As they rode through the neat cobblestone streets (which Hermes had complained about, saying they were not good for his shocks) the motorrad noticed something strange.
"Is it just me, or is this place kinda weird?"
Kino frowned. "What do you mean?"
"Well," Hermes thought for a bit, not sure how to phrase his misgivings. "Things just seem... off. I mean, look at all the buildings."
"What about them?"
"They're all the same!" Hermes scoffed. "I'm no archetype or anything, but I know you're not supposed to make all the buildings in the country the same way."
"That's architect," corrected Kino.
"Yeah, that's what I said."
Kino merely continued driving, putting off Hermes's worries to mere nervousness on the motorrad's part. She supposed that he did have a point, though, when they drove past what seemed like the same two-story building that they seemed to have driven past a dozen times all ready. Yet this one was a bookstore, while the others were of different types of establishments.
"Maybe they had one architect design the whole city," she thought to herself in an attempt at reassurance.
Hey, it could happen.
"So, how was it?" Hermes asked as Kino stepped out of the restaurant.
"It was okay," shrugged the young woman as she replaced her cap and coat.
"Yeah." Kino straddled the motorrad's seat then reached into her pockets to pull out her gloves. "The soup was a bit bland, and the meatloaf overcooked. It wasn't the best I've ever had, but it certainly wasn't the worst." She tugged the gloves on before starting the engine. "I suppose you could say it was adequate."
"That's a relief."
When traffic had cleared, Kino pushed into the street and drove off. "What do you mean?"
"I thought I was the only one who noticed," replied the motorrad. "This entire place is 'adequate.' Nothing really stands out. It's bland, like the soup you ate."
"Hermes," Kino chided.
"What? You don't actually think this place is lively, do you?"
She thought for a bit. "No, I suppose I don't." She then smirked. "But still, it's not very nice to say it out loud. At least wait until we're out of the country before you start insulting it."
The following day started like any other for Kino. After getting up before dawn, she cleaned her guns then practiced her draw. The small room she and Hermes shared was soon filled with the familiar sound of metal sliding against leather as she extracted and replaced both Canon and The Ranger into and out of their holsters. Her speed at the quickdraw, as always, was on par with the best in the world.
They then went out to have breakfast at a small cafe near the inn. Like the restaurant she had eaten in last night, the food was of the same run of the mill stock; it wasn't that good, but then again it wasn't that bad, either. Kino grudgingly realized that she most likely wouldn't find anything better during her stay.
She quickly got her mind off of her stomach when Hermes voiced an interest in seeing some of the local sights. At the suggestion of the cafe owner, Kino decided to go visit the Art Center, which she was told housed the works of all country's most well known creative talents. She also learned of the army's shooting range that, she was happy to hear, was open to the public.
"So, where to first?" asked Hermes as she pulled him away from the cafe.
Kino thought for a moment. "I guess we'll go visit the Art Center first. I want to try out that shooting range, but I better leave that for later. I wouldn't wish to wander around a museum while covered in gunpowder, smearing dirt and grime all over the precious works of art."
"Um, you've done that before, Kino." Hermes muttered.
She rolled her eyes at her companion. "It was just that one time. The locals weren't too mad."
"If you say so."
Kino nodded in agreement. The painting before them was indeed very... very. The duo decided to move onto the next piece.
Kino nodded once more. This painting, though different from the previous one... wasn't. The two quickly shifted over to a nearby sculpture of... something.
The two travelers were taking a break from their art critiques, currently enjoying the noontime sun outside the Art Center. Kino sat upon the grass leaning against the rough bark of an oak tree while Hermes stood parked nearby.
"Kino," spoke up the motorrad, "was it just me... or was that the most mediocre bunch of art you've ever seen? I mean, if this is the best this country has to offer, then this place is in trouble."
Kino sighed. "I know what you mean. Most of the paintings were landscapes, and the sculptures just various studies of the human figure. I guess they were pretty well done, but... I don't know. They just didn't seem interesting, not to me anyway."
"I don't think they're interesting to anyone. Haven't you noticed this place? It's completely empty. There's nobody coming to look at the art." Hermes grunted. "Well, except for us, anyway."
Kino chuckled. She then stretched her arms and quickly got to her feet. "Well, let's get going. I doubt we'll find anything worth looking at here. Like the food, art doesn't seem to be this country's strong point."
"Oh rats," Hermes remarked sarcastically. "And I was so looking forwards to seeing more pictures of trees and naked people."
On their way to the shooting range, Kino and Hermes came to a street that was being closed off by the constabulary. One uniformed man held up a stop sign whilst two of his fellows set up a wooden barrier in order to close the street off from traffic. There were various people milling about on the sidewalk, some talking amongst themselves while others bought food from vendors. From the looks of things, there was some type of parade about to come underway.
"Excuse me," Kino asked the policeman with the sign. "I'm a traveler. Could I just ask why this street is being closed off? It looks as if a parade is coming through."
The man smiled and nodded. "You're right. Today is Citizens' Day."
"Citizens' Day?" asked Hermes. "What's that?"
The policeman, bored from holding up his sign and glad to have any chance to take a break from the tedium of his job, was more than happy to explain. "Citizen's Day is a holiday held by our country once a year to celebrate and give thanks to all our wonderful people. We in this land feel that all our citizens are special, and that all of them deserve a special day to celebrate it. Unlike the more barbarous countries of this region, we regard all people as equals. Race, religion, age, sex... all these qualities are secondary. It is the person himself, or herself, that matters. Thus, we hold this wonderful parade."
"That's a very progressive view. I'm glad to see such kind beliefs held by an entire nation." Kino smiled. At last, it seemed as if she had found the "good" in this country. During her travels, she had seen many horrendous things done by nations who, for one reason or another, were quite intolerant of the differences among their people. It was nice to see a country that accepted the variations in humanity. Sure, their art and food were mediocre, but at least their personal views were agreeable.
Unfortunately, because of the parade, she and Hermes would be forced to find a different route to get to the army's shooting range. Kino sighed and restarted the motorrad.
"Just a minute," spoke up the policeman just as she was about to pull away. He was obviously a bit reluctant to get back to his boring sign duty. "Uh, aren't you going to stay for the parade?"
"Sorry, it looks like fun but I was set on heading over to the army's shooting range. I want to get there before it closes."
"Ah." The officer rubbed his chin. "That's too bad, you're missing a fine parade. May I just ask how long you're planning on staying in our fair country?"
"Just until tomorrow," Kino answered.
The man smiled widely and snapped his fingers. "Oh! You should head over to Lime Street tomorrow then. We're having another parade."
"Another parade?" Hermes grumbled.
Kino frowned in confusion. "I'm sorry, I don't understand. I thought you said Citizen's Day was held only once a year."
The officer chuckled. "Yes. Citizens Day is today, of course, but tomorrow is Equality Day. That's when the people of this land celebrate and give thanks to the equality we all share."
"I see." Kino looked towards the closed off street. There was a marching band strutting up the lane, signaling the beginning of the parade. Marching in front of them were two guardsmen holding up a wide banner imprinted with the words "Happy Citizens' Day!"
Kino turned her attention back to the bored policeman. "So, how many parades does this country usually hold?"
The man furrowed his brow. "Hmmm... well, barring rain or accidents, we usually hold a parade three hundred sixty-five days a year, each to commemorate a very specific holiday." He nodded. "Yeah, that sounds about right. Oh! Except on Leap Years, when we hold three hundred sixty-six parades. That extra one is for Leap Year Day, when we celebrate, uh, the leap year day."
"So you're telling us that you guys hold a parade in this country every day?" Hermes asked, his tone sounding slightly appalled.
"Yep, pretty much." The officer smiled. "We in this country have a lot to celebrate. Although I have to confess: my favorite holiday has to be Man and Woman Day. That's when men and women rejoice the fact that they're men and women."
"But if you have a holiday every day, doesn't that take away from the overall experience?" Kino asked. "Daily celebrations will just turn something that's supposed to be rare and special into an ordinary, everyday occurrence. Aren't you afraid that what your honoring will eventually lose its meaning? "
The policeman looked shocked for a moment, but quickly laughed off his distress. "Oh my, you travelers certainly have strange ideas." The man shook his head sadly, as if pitying the two in front of him. "Our holidays won't lose meaning just because every day is a holiday! We celebrate our special-ness daily, so that all of us are reminded that we are special."
"Ah, I get it," Hermes stated after a brief silence. "Circus logic."
Kino flinched. "That's circular logic." She looked apologetically at the confused policeman. "We better go. It was nice talking with you."
The constable nodded, then waved as he watched them go. "Nice folks, those two. A bit slow, but what can you expect from foreigners?"
After taking some detour lanes, Kino and Hermes eventually made it to the army's shooting range. The range itself was a large outdoor complex that was built at the farthest northern point of the country. Just beyond the stationary target dummies was the flat, red brick of the city wall. The soldiers took positions about a hundred yards in front of the targets while they practiced their proficiency with the army's standard issue rifle. Most of the young men here were raw recruits, but there were several older soldiers around who were taking their time to improve their skills.
Kino watched the men closely, her eyes slightly wide in disbelief.
"Wow," Hermes muttered, "they really suck."
"Hush," Kino warned. She couldn't help but agree with him though; these men, for being professional soldiers, weren't very good at all. Many of them, when not missing completely with their shots, failed to hit the vital areas of the training dummies. Of course she knew that some armies specifically trained their troops to make wounding shots instead of killing ones, since a wounded enemy would require assistance from his fellows thereby lessening the number of fighting men on the other side. Despite this, the soldiers' aim, as well as their stances and movement, were sloppy.
If they were average citizens, or even rookie police officers, the men would be considered decent shots. But for a defense force charged with the duty of protecting their nation from harm... well, they were pathetic. It wasn't just the new recruits who were doing so badly either. The older men, some of whom looked to be high-ranking officers, were just as deficient.
"So, are you going to practice as well?" asked Hermes.
Kino thought for a moment before shaking her head. "No. That would just be cruel."
"Yeah, no kidding."
Kino began to move Hermes away from the range when the sight of one of the men nearby caught her attention. She glanced over and peered at the man, her mind recognizing something about him. Although she knew that she had never met him before, he just seemed incredibly familiar to her.
He was an older gentleman of about sixty years, sporting the brown uniform of the facility's cleaning staff. His short gray hair stuck out from under the brim of the cap on his head, its over-sized bill shielding his dark gray eyes from the sun. There was a long scar running down the left side of his wrinkled brown face, and he moved with a noticeable limp while he swept the ground of trash. All in all he struck a distinguished figure, though he was clad in humble attire.
"What's wrong?" Hermes asked, slightly worried at his rider's suddenly passive state. "Kino?"
"Huh?" The young traveler looked down at her companion, not registering his question at first. "Oh, sorry. I just thought I recognized that man." She nodded towards the old janitor. "He seems awfully familiar to me."
"An old friend, perhaps?" Hermes inquired, genuinely interested.
"I don't think so, no." Kino searched her memory and tried to remember if she had ever met anyone with the old man's features. Try as she might though, she could not recall ever meeting anyone who looked like him. His face though, especially the scar, gave the impression of familiarity.
Maybe he wasn't someone she had met? What if the man was someone she had heard of, or even read about? Kino wracked her brain some more.
Suddenly, recognition hit her and she was able to put a name to the old man's face. "Martin Fischer!" Kino almost laughed out loud, exultant at finally remembering the man's name.
"No way!" Hermes almost shouted in awe. "Martin Fischer? The Martin Fischer?" The motorrad elapsed into stunned silence, or at least that's what Kino had thought it to be at first. "Uh... who exactly is Martin Fischer?"
Kino chuckled. "I don't blame you for not recognizing the name. Martin Fischer is a famous persuader marksman. He was a legend in his time, said to be the best shot with a .357 Magnum in the world. I've read a ton about him, even saw his picture in an encyclopedia."
"Wait a minute, Kino. You can't be serious. That guy is a janitor at a shooting range in a country where even the soldiers suck at shooting," said Hermes, who was obviously a bit skeptical. "What would a legendary gunhand be doing at a place like this?"
Kino considered her friend's words. "You have a point. Still, I'm certain that man is Fischer. He's the right age, plus the scar is a dead give-away. Martin Fischer fell out of notice about twenty years ago, so no one ever knew what happened to him."
"Well, I doubt a guy like that would choose to be a janitor when he could probably single-handedly take over the country, what with having such lousy shots for soldiers and all."
"Will you leave the poor army men alone?"
Hermes made a non-committal snort as Kino pushed him over towards the humble janitor. "Excuse me," the traveler asked as she neared him. "I don't mean to bother you, but may I ask you a question?"
The old man glanced over at Kino and shrugged, his attention still focused on his sweeping. "I suppose that'd be fine. Don't really know what an old coot like me can tell you, though."
"I won't take up much of your time." Kino hesitated a bit, feeling uncharacteristically nervous all of the sudden. Although she knew there was no reason to be, if she were right then this man was indeed Martin Fischer. For a gunslinger and traveler like her, it was akin to meeting a famous author or stage actor.
The janitor seemed to notice her slight discomfort. "Well?"
Kino coughed. "Sorry. Uh, by any chance... would you happen to be Martin Fischer?"
The old man suddenly stopped his sweeping. Slowly, he turned his eyes up until his cool gray stare met hers. A small smirk twisted the corner of his dry lips, making his scarred face look very much amused. "Martin Fischer. Hah, I haven't heard that name in quite some time."
Kino returned his smirk. "Must be tough, not hearing your own name for so long."
"Indeed." Fischer laughed and stood up straighter, leaning his broom against one arm. "So, young lady. What can this washed-up old man do for you?"
"Oh, nothing, really. I have to confess, I was just curious." Kino scratched the back of her head, slightly embarrassed. She hoped she didn't come off sounding like a groupie. "I just never would have expected to meet someone like you in this place." She quickly remembered her manners. "Oh, sorry. My name is Kino, by the way."
"Pleased to meet you, Ms. Kino." Fischer shook her hand; his grip was tight and firm. After releasing her, he looked over to the soldiers by the range, sadly shaking his head. "They are pretty bad, aren't they?"
"Well, for soldiers they're terrible." Kino shrugged. "They're not standing correctly, so their balance is all off. Most of them don't even have their sights properly aligned."
"You're right. I see you're not a stranger to the ways of a marksman." Fischer grinned, his gray eyes sparkling. It had been so long since he had talked "shop" with anyone else.
Kino grinned as well. "I can handle my own."
"Is that so?" The old man glanced down at Kino's gun belt, which was visible since her brown overcoat was open. "Could I see your persuader?"
Kino hesitated for a second, as Master had always cautioned her against disarming herself for even the briefest of moments. She quickly gave in though, as the man in front of her did not seem overtly threatening. Besides, if he tried anything she still had the Ranger for back up.
Pulling Cannon from the holster strapped to her hip, she passed it over to Fischer who carefully took it into his hands. His eyes widened ever so slightly, as if in recognition of the weapon in front of him. The look quickly passed, and if any such recognition had occurred, then he quietly kept such information to himself.
"Interesting," Fischer examined Cannon in his hands, his eyes scanning the dark metal appreciatively. "This is indeed a very interesting weapon. Forty-four caliber, single action converted percussion pistol. It's been heavily modified, but masterfully so." He ran his hands over the grips, feeling the smooth polished texture of the walnut. "This is a very difficult gun to use, effectively at least. You must be very skilled indeed." He passed the persuader back to Kino, who in turn returned it to its holster.
Fischer smiled. "No, thank you. It's nice to know that someone in the world is still appreciative of a fine weapon like that." He frowned and turned an irritated glare at the young men over by the shooting area. "Most of the young people today have no clue what a real persuader is like. They put too much stock on a gun's bullet capacity, or the rate of its fire. Everyone nowadays carries those blasted semi-automatic contraptions. Bah!" The old man spat on the ground in disgust. "Being a marksman used to mean something, it used to be an art. Just you and your opponent, locked in honorable combat. Now all these young fools fight like hoodlums, filling the entire damn room with bullets. They have no regard for fairness, and could care less about hitting any innocent bystanders."
Fischer shook his head sadly, then sighed. "Back in my day, we used to make our own cartridges. It took hours, but hell, it was worth it. Back then you knew every damn bullet you fired. It had your sweat in it, your blood. It was a part of you, an extension of your will. You appreciated every shot you took, and were careful that whatever you shot at you hit.
"But now, these damn machines crank out cartridges by the bucket loads. Every bullet is impersonal, nameless. It stops being a part of you, and is instead just something else you throw away. You stop caring where your shots go, as you ain't got nothing invested in it. Bullets become cheap... lives become cheap." Fischer glanced down at his hands, frowning at their sight.
"Is that why you dropped out of sight twenty years ago?" Kino asked.
The old man looked up, his eyes slightly glassy. "Huh? Oh, maybe. Just a bit. Mostly though, I just got tired of the life." His wry grin appeared once more. "Care for a little bit of advice?"
"Don't ever make a name for yourself, Kino. If you do, people start expecting things of you. As your fame grows, so do people's expectations." Fischer looked away, his grin leaving him. "Eventually, those expectations outgrow your ability to meet them. Pretty soon, no matter how skillful you get, you won't ever be as good as how people think you are." He laughed bitterly. "I've beaten many people in a fight. Hell, I was unbeatable. The only one I've ever lost to, though, is my own legend."
"So, you came here to escape from it all?" Hermes asked, speaking to the old man for the first time.
Fischer didn't seem surprised. "Exactly. In this country, people don't treat you any differently from anyone else. You're no better than the regular joe, just another face in the crowd." He smiled. "After having people hound you everywhere you go and being held to unreasonable standards... well, anonymity ain't half bad."
"I think I understand," Kino stated, a small smile coming to her lips.
"Good, I'm glad." Fischer's smile wavered, his look turning serious. "Since I like you, I'll give you another piece of advice. While you're in this country, don't ever show anyone how good you are with your persuader."
Kino raised an eyebrow. "Why is that?"
"This is the Land of Total Equality," Fischer explained. "Being such, the people here believe that everyone, and I mean everyone, is to be held to the same standards." He pointed towards the men at the firing line. "Take a look at those officers. Don't you really think that after all their training, they'd be at least slightly better than the raw recruits?"
Kino watched the older men at the range. "Are you saying that they're missing on purpose?"
The janitor nodded. "Not all their shots, mind you. Just enough so that they're equal with the recruits."
"But that's insane," stated Hermes. "That means that their army would never get better. What's the point in practicing?"
Fischer sighed. "The point is in remaining equal, no matter what. Those men most likely are better shots than they appear to be, but in order to keep to the status quo, they purposefully hold back their ability."
"What if one of the new soldiers is actually a bad shot, and does worse than everyone else?" Kino asked.
"Well, that's the problem." The old man sighed. "Since that poor soldier's abilities aren't up to par with everyone else's, then everyone else is forced to fall down to par with his. In order to meet the status quo, they have to lessen everyone else's."
"So that means that the army is steadily getting worse?" Hermes asked.
"Not just the army, but the entire country." Fischer laughed softly, sounding very sad. "If someone paints a mediocre picture for the museums, then all the older, better paintings are burned. New ones are commissioned, a government committee making sure that the paintings are up to the new 'standard.'
"Here's another example. This one time, a thoroughly talent less cook decided to open a restaurant. His food was horrible! But in order to keep everyone equal, the other chefs in the country had to lower their standards to his level. Needless to say, eating at the time was not one of our favorite activities. Thankfully, the bad chef died about a year later from, of all things, food poisoning." Fischer laughed. "Anyway, as you can see, this country is very eager to keep everyone on an even playing field. Even if that means lowering it from time to time."
Kino was silent for a moment, digesting the information she had just learned. A sudden, disturbing thought came to her. "What about those who are better at things than everyone else? What about the really great artists, the truly fabulous chefs? What does this country do about them?"
Fischer's eyes turned dark, his frown deepening. "Well, the ones with the means to do so leave the country, to make their fortunes abroad. Those who can't either hide their talents... or they don't. For the ones who don't," the old man turned to the soldiers at the firing line, his eyes growing cold, "Well, those who don't meet very unfortunate fates. Let's just leave it at that."
Kino followed his stare, leveling her own at the uniformed men who were practicing their shooting. She watched them for a minute, wondering just exactly which of them were holding back their potential. "It isn't right," she finally stated. "People with gifts like singing, painting, even shooting... they shouldn't be forced to hide it just because everyone else lacks them. Everyone has a talent, and everyone is different. The people here claim that they celebrate the differences in others, that everyone is special. But they force those with the aptitude to improve life to hide their talents while everyone else lowers their expectations to suit those few who have none. This country isn't celebrating diversity; it's imposing uniformity."
Fischer sighed sadly. He looked over at the soldiers, and then drew his attention back to the traveler and her motorrad. "Kino," he said, his voice sounding very distant. "Let me tell you about my home land. It had a caste system, ruled by an elite class who believed themselves superior than all others. Below them were the soldiers who imposed their will. Below them were the merchants, and below them the farmers. The caste my family belonged to was even lower than them. I was of the Klofdum, the lowest class in the land. We were the people stuck doing the dirtiest jobs in the country, the jobs none of the other caste members cared to do. We cleaned the garbage from the streets, made sure the sewers ran properly, buried dead bodies, and the like. We were regarded as nothing more than animals, not even worthy of the higher classes' contempt.
"It was not unusual for my kind to be murdered by one of the other castes. In fact, it was commonplace. Doing so was not even illegal under the land's law." Fischer closed his eyes. "My mother was arrested by several soldiers, saying that they acted on the ruling class's orders. After tying her up, she was taken to their part of the city. There were no charges, and she had done nothing wrong. We found her naked body several days later, dumped outside our hovel of a home." The old man's voice twisted with emotion, as he recalled the memory. "That's one of the reasons I took up the persuader. To protect the remaining members of my family... and to get revenge."
Fischer opened his eyes, the gray orbs looking directly at Kino. "I have never told that to anyone but you, traveler. I did so in order for you to get some perspective on things." When he smiled, there was kindness in it, as well as a little bit of pain. "There are worse things in this world, my friend, than living in a land that celebrates mediocrity."
Kino became silent, unsure of what to say.
The next morning found Kino at her usual task, which was practicing her gunplay at the crack of dawn. As she drew her persuaders and trained in improving her speed, her mind mulled over what she had learned yesterday from the legendary gunslinger, Martin Fischer. Although she was still not convinced that what this country was doing was right, she had to admit that the old man did have a point. There were some things worse than being forced to live a "modest" life.
After her training session, Kino packed quickly and was ready to leave her lodgings at 10:00 AM. After checking out of the inn, she stopped by the cafe once more for a quick breakfast. She chatted with the proprietor for a bit, thanking him for pointing them to the museum and shooting range. After paying him, she and Hermes rolled off, ready to leave the Land of Total Equality behind.
Kino brought the motorrad to a stop outside a small wooded park when a strange sound came to her ears over the rumble of Hermes' motor. It sounded like music to her; the soft, sweet motion of a violin in play. She pulled up her hat and shut off the motorrad's engine, all in an attempt to place that strange tune.
"Whoa," Hermes said as he heard the lilting melody. "It's beautiful."
Kino nodded in agreement. The music was faint, yet its softness filled the air around them with its splendor. Like soft butterfly wings tapping against her ears, the supple melody drew her in, her soul demanding that she find its source and listen more to the intoxicating song.
The traveler pulled her motorrad towards the direction of the music, following the stone pathway leading into the park. The trees overhead shook gently in the breeze, the sound of the softly rustling leaves adding a wonderful accompaniment to the beautiful song permeating the air. Pretty soon Kino and Hermes came to a small clearing in between some trees, and at its center stood an old man with a wiry beard, a red violin tucked under his chin. His veiny, wrinkled hands clasped at the instrument and its bow tightly, yet also with a gentleness that was hard to describe. His hands fed their movements into the violin, and in turn it spewed forth a melody of unmatched beauty for all the world to hear.
Around him stood several people, transfixed by the wonderful sounds he was responsible for. Some had guilty looks on their faces, as if by just listening to the music they were partaking in some great sin.
"Utterly repugnant," growled a middle-aged woman who stood watching. "Someone call the guards. It would serve a show-off like him right to be arrested!"
Kino rolled Hermes to a stop in front of the violinist and listened to the music, standing transfixed like the rest of the crowd.
"We should stop him," stated a young man. No one moved though.
Kino closed her eyes, allowing the violin's spell to enshroud her being. She felt the music seize her, its being fill her. The pure, almost liquid beauty singed every atom of her body with its glory. It was like diving into the sun. The music had a radiance unmatched by anything she had ever seen. She never actually thought sound could have a luminance, until now.
The stoic traveler felt tears leak from her eyes.
Although it seemed as if the violinist had played for hours, to Kino it was pure tragedy when he finally stopped. The young woman opened her eyes, suddenly noticing that there were numerous soldiers surrounding her and the violinist. The others from the crowd had long gone, obviously frightened off by the armed men.
The old man simply smiled at Kino, seemingly ignoring the frowning guardsmen around him. "So, my young friend. I hope you enjoyed my little tune."
Kino was almost beside herself with joy. Never in her life had she ever heard such a beautiful melody. "Y-yes," she said as she wiped at her eyes. "It was brilliant. I have witnessed many wonders in my travels, and I must say that your music... it rivals all of them in scope. It was wonderful. Thank you so much for allowing me to hear it."
The violinist, who this time had tears in his eyes as well, shook his head. "No, my young traveler. It is you I should thank. For years, decades, I have hid my playing from the ears of my neighbors. I was too afraid of the consequences to ever play for anyone until now." He smiled widely at Kino, his heavy tears flowing down onto his beard. "I could stand to hide myself no longer. I just could not pretend anymore. I couldn't hold the music back. Even though I will surely not live past this day, I thank you, traveler, from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for listening, and thank you for your kind words. You gave my life meaning." The old man took a bow. "You gave my life meaning."
One of the soldiers approached him then, placing a hand on his shoulder. "It's time to go, sir." Even though he and his comrades had only been there for the last few moments of the violinist's piece, it had been enough to move him to the point of tears.
The old violinist looked up at the young soldier and smiled. "Yes, I suppose it is."
He allowed the young guardsman to move him towards the entrance of the park. The two were stopped, however, by a second soldier who stepped out from the group. The gruff man grabbed the red violin from the violinist's grip. He then grinned evilly at the old man. "You won't need this where you're going, pops."
Kino stood by and watched them, still unable to move. The old man's music, as well as his tearful words, had pierced her to the soul. She gripped Hermes tightly, wanting to stop the soldiers from taking the violinist away, but she knew she couldn't. She was a traveler, and her role was that of a silent witness. She had no right to interfere with the customs of other people, even if she strongly disagreed with them.
The kind soldier patted the old violinist on the back, a small attempt at reassurance. The man nodded sadly, then allowed the other to escort him out of the park. The other soldiers moved to follow, while the one who had taken the violin held back. He examined the instrument clumsily, looking much like how an ape would look investigating an advanced piece of scientific equipment. The gruff man sneered before lifting the precious instrument high into the air.
As Kino watched, he slammed the violin down hard on the ground. He used every once of strength in his beefy arms, seemingly intent at utterly destroying the object in his hands. The violin smashed open, the bright red wood splintering into pieces. The shards exploded outwards, showering the grass in bits of timber and string.
Curiously, the crash had made no sound.
It took several minutes for Kino to compose herself. After smashing the violin, the guard quickly left the scene. To his credit, he looked a bit guilty after what he had done. Kino tried not to step on any of the pieces as she rolled Hermes out of the park.
The two rode out of the country without saying a word to each other. They sped past all the buildings that looked alike, past the restaurant with the bland soup, past the street that held the parade during Citizen's Day. They stopped at the front gates, but only for as long as it took for Kino to sign the exit papers. The guard who had let her into the country two days ago smiled and waved to her; she did not wave back.
The endless sky and the sea of grass were the traveler and the motorrad's only companions as they drove away from the Land of Total Equality. The dusty road beneath them was smooth and easy to ride, unlike the bumpy cobblestones of the city. It felt good to be out on the road again, to feel the open sky and the shifting breeze.
"That man," Hermes spoke up, the first time he did so after hearing the violinist's music. "We never asked him his name."
Kino remained silent, but gripped the handlebars a bit tighter.
"His song was pretty," Hermes stated. "I feel sad for him, having to lock up all that wonderful music inside of him for all this time."
"Yes," Kino agreed.
"Then getting arrested after just one performance," Hermes continued. "It's such a shame."
"It is." Kino sighed. "His music... it was more than beautiful. It was dazzling. The sound, the emotion he fed into his violin. I've never heard anything like it before. It was like he was able to channel his feelings out into the open, to share his soul with his audience through his instrument. I could feel his joy at playing; I could feel his happiness as he finally was able to express himself after so long. It felt like I was flying."
Hermes was silent for a bit, thinking hard and choosing his words carefully. "That's true, but it wasn't what I meant. Sure it was sad that he wasn't able to do what he wanted for so long. But what's really tragic is that the world will never get to hear him." Hermes sighed. "If he were given the chance, how many beautiful pieces could he have composed? How many students could he have taught? How many lives could he have touched with his music?"
Kino didn't say anything, or was unable to. Hermes continued. "It's really sad that nobody else will hear the song we just heard. I really do think that the world would have liked it."
"Me too, Hermes." Kino smiled sadly. "Me too."