One day, Kino the Traveler entered a town...
He met a little girl who told him about her land. He disapproved when she told him that, like all children, she would go to the hospital on her twelfth birthday, where doctors would "cut the child out of her" and she would emerge a grown-up.
"That doesn't sound very grown-up to me!" Kino protested.
So the little girl asked her parents if she absolutely had to have the operation. Scandalized, her parents obeyed their town's laws as they must, being grown-ups, and attempted to end their defective child's life.
But Kino the Traveler, willfully or by some instinct, took the blade instead.
When his blood flowed between the cobblestones as if loath to stop traveling, something unexpected happened - Kino's motorcycle spoke! It said, "little girl, do you want to stay here? I think you should run away!"
And she did.
The little girl donned the murdered traveler's coat, took for herself his name, and rode his Hermes, the quietly miraculous talking motorbike. She traveled the world in his place, as if this was now her duty. She forgot her parents, she forgot the way to her nation, she forgot even that she'd ever had a home.
One day, Kino the Traveler entered a town...
"We need to pull over."
The voice belonged to Hermes, manifested as a chrome Brough Superior motorbike, a vehicle of surpassing excellence. His rider, by contrast, looked wan and ragtag in her dripping khaki trench coat and worn black leathers.
The sun was just setting, not that one could see it through the downpour, and Kino had been peering into the wet dusk to find a proper campsite. But the locals had planted thistles, thorny rose bushes and stinging nettles along the sides of the roads to discourage trespassing. Ranchers or somesuch... Kino had seen this sort of territoriality before and did not appreciate it. By what right do mere humans claim land they did not create as their own? Kino mused. Her soul was not chained by geography and she refused to be bound either way by such folly.
Kino shook her head. Probably her attitude had been jaundiced by the painful inconvenience such hedges always brought her. Anybody who'd ever struggled through such a barrier, twice over, simply to answer nature's call would likely agree.
"Kino, we need to pull over, now!"
"Isn't that usually my line?" Kino snarked.
"Get us both out of sight. Hurry!"
At that, Kino's smirk fell and her eyebrows shot up. She cut the throttle and looked backward. A pair of bright headlights flashed behind them, perhaps three clicks away but closing fast. The damp wind carried the rough growl of an engine.
Her hackles rose at the sight. Something bad is coming...!
Kino remembered with sudden dread that, except for a single knife, she was defenseless. With no more argument she dismounted and pulled Hermes into the briars with her.
"Down," Hermes whispered. Whatever had alarmed Hermes, he was serious, for he disliked lying on his side. Kino obeyed.
Together, like earthworms in the mud under the thorny hedges, they watched in silent stillness as the engine noise, and the sound of antique pop music, grew louder.
A woman's merry, amplified voice sang out, "...tail lights. I passed him at do-hi-ni and I started to swerve." The bouncy tune sounded out of place in the somber rainstorm. Eye-biting white halogen headlights rushed forward, turning the rain into twinkling stars. When they passed Kino closed one dazzled eye and opened the other, as she'd been taught long ago, to catch a speed-blurred glimpse of a car.
Automobiles were of course the bane of all cyclists like her, and she felt special ire against ponderous, blundering gas-guzzlers like that; they often carried equally clumsy drivers.
"I pulled it out and there we were..." Red tail lights receded into a curve ahead until only the sizzling sound of rain remained. At that speed in the downpour, Kino expected the car to skid. But the driver was very good or very lucky, or the car's traction defied all reason.
"Wow! That's not a good omen," Hermes finally said.
"Hmph!" Kino grunted. "It's gone."
"Just be glad she didn't see us."
"She?" Kino pulled Hermes fully through the hedge and righted him. "Lemme guess - you used to date?"
"More like we've traded paint. You should be grateful I'm around to protect you."
"I am," Kino said lightly, more alarmed than she cared to admit by Hermes' tone.
Kino looked about. The ground was slightly raised at the sides of the road. The slope looked like it would protect them from flooding. Horrible camp site, but she did not like the idea of driving on wet roads at night, especially not with "bad omens" about.
"Well, there's s'posed to be a campground around somewhere, but I guess we're stuck here for the moment. Ugh!"
So she tied a waterproof tarp over Hermes that they'd made off with from shipboard life, and then set about putting up her tent.
"Can you do without a fire?" Hermes asked.
"Couldn't build one anyway in this mess. This is one of those nights that make me reconsider the choices I've made."
Kino tied an additional bit of rope around both Hermes and the hedges to help keep the tent pegs from popping out of the mud. As a last precaution she pulled camouflage netting over the tent and finally, she peeled off her wet clothes and shrugged into her cold sleeping bag.
"We've been going unarmed long enough," Kino said to Hermes through the rain. "The roads are just too dangerous."
"How much farther?" Hermes asked.
"Should get there tomorrow, with luck," Kino answered. "Wake me if this place starts flooding, okay?"
"Absolutely. Kino? Don't you have any vices?"
"Hmm? Now that's a funny question to ask. What brought that on?"
"I'm just making conversation. This road's straight and boring. Could we drive some mountain passes again? For fun this time, not to run away."
"I'd like that too." The light conversation helped distract her from her current discomfort and loneliness. Clever Hermes, bless you! "Y'know, you're not complaining like you usually do."
"I'm rim-deep in mud and the rain on this plastic all night's gonna drive me absolutely nuts."
Kino chuckled. "That's more like it."
"Cold and wet doesn't really bother me, though, so I figured you didn't want to hear me griping. And you changed the subject again," Hermes gently accused over the clatter on the tent's canvas.
"Oh, vices! Like what?"
"You don't smoke tobacco, and you don't drink alcohol."
"I've tried both, ganja too. I'd just as soon inhale your exhaust as smoke. I like a little wine with supper sometimes. I tried getting drunk once but I don't see the appeal."
"So you don't have any?"
"I do have one, a big'un, and I'm very grateful for it."
"Grateful? Why's that?"
Kino yawned without apology. "If somebody was perfect, then they'd get really proud and judgmental and arrogant, and those are unpleasant people."
"That doesn't count. Pride's a vice too."
"Wise words. Hmm... so a perfect person who was somehow modest too? I think that person would be boring. So long as they're not too bad, foibles are kinda endearing. They make us lovable and human."
"You're not perfect, therefore you are?"
Kino chuckled. The bag was getting warmer. Sleep was only a minute away now. She considered idly, why haven't I ever talked with him about this? The spirit haunting her motorbike was very old, she knew that. But his wispy tenor voice made him sound like a wide-eyed child. However old he was, Hermes looked upon humanity from the outside, like a curious spectator.
"How can you have a vice I'm not aware of?" he asked. "I know all about you."
"No you don't," Kino teased. "I don't get the chance to indulge much."
"And you still haven't told me-"
"'Cause it's embarrassing!" Kino laughed to shake off her sudden shyness. Hidden inside her tent or no, she still put her hands over her face, like a child playing peek-a-boo. "Besides if I told you, you might not think of me the same way."
Hermes paused to ruminate, while Kino felt the familiar, dark oblivion rising like some inner tide to engulf her.
"Kino, after that long talk we had I'd think you know better that that."
"Uhm?" She started awake a little. "What long talk?" She mumbled.
"Well, I meant I wouldn't travel so long with somebody I didn't think very highly of."
"Thank you Hermes," Kino said softly, but she wasn't really awake when she said it.
Hermes awakened Kino as usual just as dawn was whitening the eastern sky. Kino noted the clouds had blown over. It would be a beautiful day.
But for the moment, packing her things was drudgery. The ground had turned into saturated mud, even on the slope she'd chosen. The mud stuck in great heavy globs around her boots, sucking her into the slope and even weighing her feet down on the paved road. She took some time scraping the muck off, tidied herself as well as she could, and gratefully kick-started the engine.
Naturally, it wasn't ten minutes later that they found the crossroads, with a travelers' rest stop set on a small rock outcrop, a perfect campground for rainy nights. Hermes' very engine chuffed its disgust. "So close!" Kino groaned, though they'd had no way to know this was only a little further.
They turned into the campground. A drab, bunker-like concrete structure dominated the mesa. "A'right, let's get cleaned up, Hermes. Starting with you!"
Kino found a spigot and hose and set about spraying away the grime and mud on her bike, taking special care with bearings and movable parts, until Hermes glittered in the morning sun. She checked him over... the rust pitting speckled all over his frame was getting worse. She idly wondered if it hurt or made him itch. She'd need to take Hermes to a workshop sometime soon. It would absolutely not do to let rust dig into Hermes' bones.
Her equipment, tent and sleeping bag were next. Though the work was tedious, she wanted to forget last night as quickly as possible, so no muddy reminders!
"Feeling better?" she asked Hermes.
"Much! But you look like a drowned rat.
"I'll bet! My turn. Pray they have hot water."
Kino wasn't disappointed. She could feel steam in the air as she approached the bathing facilities. A sturdy woman standing guard at the entrance said, "Sir? Young sir! There's a lady in there. You wait your turn."
"Oh!" Kino removed her khaki hat and trench coat. "Y'know, sometimes it's a lot safer traveling—"
"Why bless me if you aren't a girl! And you look perfectly fine either way."
Kino smiled as she pulled off her leather riding jacket, revealing a waistline impossibly slim for a male. "Much too generous, 'cause that rainstorm left me a mess." Kino was surprised because although she knew the woman's language well, she'd never expected to hear it out here. Lady's a long way from home.
"And ma'am," here Kino wagged her finger in a mock threat, "you're standing between me and hot water. Very dangerous."
The woman hesitated. "Well, I guess you've every right to go in." Kino noted the matron's reluctance, but simply couldn't be bothered with it.
The campground's public shower was spartan and cheaply built: bare concrete slabs mounted with utilitarian sinks, toilets and showerheads. Nevertheless, the hot steam was already lifting her spirits.
"Helloooo?" Kino called. Always best not to surprise someone in the bath.
"Hello back," a voice answered. A young woman about Kino's age squatted just inside the shower, her long black sopping-wet hair draped around her shoulders. As the campground lacked laundry machines, she was washing a large pile of clothes under a shower head and wearing nothing more than a pair of sneakers. The stranger reflexively pulled a muddy shirt up between them as Kino entered.
She looked Kino over. "You poor thing! You got caught in that rain last night?"
"Yup! Wish I'd known, I camped only a few miles south of here. Do you mind sharing? I could wait if you want."
The stranger shivered in sympathy, despite the steaming hot water cascading over her. "Sounds like you just about caught your death. You come get yourself warmed up right away." She smiled and set back to scrubbing, apparently content enough with the situation.
Kino decided it would be impolite not to accept, the stranger having set aside modesty, or whatever taboos her culture might or might not have, for her sake. Kino squirmed out of her sticky, damp clothes, save only her boots. Definitely not a good idea to let bare feet touch the moldy concrete floor. Kino set to work on herself and her own things under the far shower head. She forced herself not to look over at the shapely figure squatting so near. My, oh my!
The hot water felt glorious, like liquid sunshine across her back. Kino gasped her appreciation, provoking a chuckle from her new acquaintance.
"We had a miserable night too. Our canvas blew right off and sent all these clothes into the mud. Oh wait! What're you riding?" At this, the girl looked at Kino with suspicion.
"Motorcycle. Brough Superior. It's right outside."
"Oh good! We found a hit-and-run last night. Two people, very dead."
"But that was a car, so you're okay."
Brrr...! Sounds like Hermes was right about that car... am I wrong or is she peeking at me?
"Hey, what're you gonna wear when you're done?" the girl asked, and Kino suspected it was an excuse to glance over at her again.
"It's warm out now. I was planning to just wear my shirt and trousers and let the sun dry 'em."
"Don't you dare! You trying to catch pneumonia?" the girl shook her head.
Truth be told, given the harsh conditions of her life and how extensively she traveled, pneumonia was the least of the horrid diseases Kino kept herself vaccinated against.
"You can wear something of mine until your gear there gets dry."
"That's very generous of you." Kino answered, and she meant it.
Oh, why not? Serves her right. Kino stole a furtive eyeful of her own. They were indeed about the same size, though the stranger was better endowed up top. Down below too, Kino compared their hips with more than a little envy. She looked down at herself as she rinsed soap off and felt a little grateful that her time at Koth-Shem had put muscle on her. I'll always be long and lean, but at least now I look like so much whipcord instead of some bony marionnette. Not a bad six-pack, there.
"I'm Gia," the woman said, dropping all pretense of looking away. "Figure I ought to introduce myself since we've already seen so much of each other."
"Kino," Kino answered with a little awkward laugh. She stood on one foot and poured muddy water out of the opposite boot.
Please don't call me "miss." It's a little embarrassing.
Within the hour, Kino was wearing a dry pullover shirt, denim shorts and little shoes, courtesy of Gia. The stocky woman was apparently the mother of the clan, perfectly matched to her graying fireplug of a husband. The trio welcomed Kino to their park bench breakfast like a family member.
"Yeah, traveling's like that." Kino said. "It seems pleasant and peaceful enough but you don't dare let your guard down."
"Well, do you know anything about what happened?" Gia's father had a round bearded face and a jolly smile, though something in him reminded Kino of a bulldog.
"Gia told me about the bodies you found. Last night while I was camped I caught a glimpse of a big red car. Really moving too, rain or no. Reckless."
"Terrible!" the mother clucked.
"But then one meets good people like you. Makes traveling worth it."
"Would our guest," the father said, "like to lead us in a prayer before we eat?"
The question caught Kino by surprise and she paused a moment before answering. "Sir, where I come from nobody but the head of the family does that."
The parents exchanged a glance. "Sounds like sensible folk," the mother commented.
Kino wrapped her poker-face around herself like a warm blanket. She'd lied, of course. But the truth was so complicated. Kino's one-time family and home town was indeed patriarchal and chauvinistic but they had no use for religion. Master had taught her about all sorts of beliefs but Kino wanted personal experiences before forming opinions of her own. And how could she even begin to explain her time spent with a primitive tribe, her encounter with the gentle hai-bah-neh or the mind-croggling vision Hermes had shared with her. Heck, I'm still processing that one!
"So, you've been on the road a while?" the father asked when they'd begun.
Kino held up a finger while she chewed, then... "Uhm, long years! Yourselves?"
"Nathan's work requires him to travel." The mother said. "We all got awfully lonesome, so as soon as Georgiana there was old enough, we started coming with him."
"My perfect little girl," the bearded father smiled and ruffled Gia's curly locks.
"Georgiana?" Kino gloated.
"Daaad!" Gia protested happily.
"So where're you headed, Kino?" asked the father, perhaps to save what remained of Georgiana's dignity.
"There's a town up ahead and to the east. I need to retrieve something there."
"Kino!" Gia said. "Travel with us. It's not safe for anyone on the road alone."
Kino considered. "I'm used to traveling alone but..." Kino remembered that sick, helpless feeling of being defenseless. "Sir? You happen to be armed?"
"Shotgun on the rack in my truck." He shrugged. "Like you say, gotta keep your guard up."
Bad omens. "I think Gia's right. Until we reach the next town, I'd be very happy to travel under your protection."
It took a little while for Kino and Gia to tie Hermes to the back of the truck. But soon they were off, rumbling along with the elders in the front cab, Gia and Kino happily rocking on a mattress stowed among boxes and crates in the back. The pair giggled like kids on a camp out.
"Like my little nest?" Gia crowed. "We drive in shifts and take naps back here, when it's not too hot or cold."
"Neat!" Kino lounged on the mattress and let the rocking of the truck lull her.
"Be careful you don't bang your head though," Gia warned, "especially if the road gets bumpy. You travel all by yourself?"
"Have for some time now. I'm legally an 'emancipated minor.' It's all been taken care of."
"Isn't it scary?"
"Sometimes. The cities are okay, usually. The roads in between now... highwaymen and tramps and wild animals, I trained for years to be ready."
"Hoo! When I told my teacher what I wanted to do, she started me off with some stories. Ever read 'To Build a Fire' or 'Snows of Kilimanjaro?'"
"Don't think so."
"Well, when those didn't scare me off, she made me memorize a military field manual on wilderness survival. Taught me how to use firearms - that was fun!" Kino grinned at the memory. "Several languages, we'd speak in a different one every day of the week." However relaxed she was, Kino reminded herself not to mention some of the more... unusual aspects of her education, like how to build bombs. "Only thing she couldn't teach me was how to ride a motorcycle. Hermes taught me that."
"Wow! But your folks, uhm..." Gia sensed she might be touching a tender spot. "...you left?"
"Yeah I..." Why am I telling her this? I never talk about this. "...left. I really don't wanna talk about that, no offense."
"'Emancipated minor.' I think I'd like that."
"You're almost a year older than me, right? You could do it, easy."
"I wouldn't," Gia answered. "It'd hurt their feelings. I mean, it's not perfect. They expect me to study hard, and I hafta be such a 'good girl,' or they take a belt to me. But I love them, and I'm basically happy, so I'm in no hurry to grow up.
Kino shrugged. "You're almost there anyway. Wouldn't be worth the bother."
"Yeah, but I don't have interesting stories to tell, like you do."
"I'd bet you do. You know how rare it is I meet somebody like us on the road? You go to school?"
"Not any more. My dad missed us, so now we travel with him."
"I have funny recurring dreams of being in High School, like there's another me out there somewhere living a normal life. Heh! But since mainly I dream about sitting at a desk being bored, I'll stick to the road. Someday I ought'a settle down a couple of years to learn the normal stuff: chemistry, algebra, literature. I feel like such a dim-bulb when I meet somebody with a real education."
"How many languages do you speak?
"You mean fluently, or just enough to get by?"
"You have a real education," Gia concluded. "Aren't you lonesome, though?"
"...I guess I am. Hermes keeps me company, thank goodness."
"You're gonna hafta explain the talking motorbike."
"When I've got it figured out," Kino laughed. Hoo-boy... yeah! Kino had a lot to sort out with Hermes.
"You two've been together a while," Gia commented. "You're starting to sound like each other."
"We bicker like an old married couple half the time. I'm kinda jealous of you," Kino confessed. "I can't ever go back home, for all kinds of reasons. If I'm ever gonna have a family again, I'll have to build mine, from the ground up."
"And you won't be the kid," Gia added, a note of sad sympathy in her voice. Then she squirmed over and hugged Kino. "I want you to travel with us."
Kino opened her mouth to say the usual, reflexive, diplomatic refusal, but what came out was, "I'll consider it."
Wait... you'll 'consider it?' Kino, what's gotten into you?
"I'm so used to traveling by myself..." But then Kino mentally slapped herself, hard. No! You promised, remember? No more hermiting!
"Hey," Gia grinned like a naughty, mischevous child. "You gonna gimme back my clothes?"
"'Course, soon as mine are dry."
"Uhm mm," Gia said in a warm whisper in her ear. "I want 'em back now."
Kino blinked, then blushed in the semi-dark. She looked around at the blank walls of the trailer, listened to the big rig's rumble and the noise of tires on the road.
No more running away.
So Kino crawled over and pulled the canvas down to the rear bumper, leaving Hermes alone, tied safely in back.
Here's where things get interesting!
It was just past mid-day when the truck stopped and the family emerged to stretch their legs. A peaceful-looking town waited just ahead, on top of rolling hills. Kino, back in her own clothes, untied Hermes and checked him over.
"I'll meet you at the inn once I'm done with my errand," Kino promised them. "Thanks so much!"
Gia's parents waved together. "It was very good traveling with you, Kino," the mother said.
So she hopped onto Hermes with a smile and set off.
"You're in a good mood. What's that tune?" Hermes asked.
"Oh! Yeah, I am, aren't I? I dunno. When that big car drove by it was playing some old song."
"Well don't sing that! It's another omen."
"You never struck me as the superstitious type."
"Kino, that song's called 'Dead Man's Curve,' and it's cursed! It's about a horrible accident. The writer had one soon after and got brain damaged."
More superstition? Kino shook her head.
"Anyway, I'm glad you have a memory for music. I'm just about out of gas, you've got no money and no weapons-"
"All just about fixed."
"That's if your memory's good."
One of the first things Kino's Master had taught her was "The Traveler's Song." To anyone but one of Master's students it would sound like silly doggeral, nonsense poetry. For example... Hathorne's Rest lies to the south. Southwest corner by old man Blout.
"Oh, my memory's just fine, Hermes," Kino burbled. "You'll have gas soon. You're such a worrywart." With that, Kino started wordlessly humming the song. Its rigid hickory-dickory cadence and simple major chords marked it as a children's tune, but it still made for a fun little ditty, and Kino had loved singing since before she could talk.
"Kino, may I ask a question?"
"Shoot!" Kino said airily.
"Your vice doesn't happen to have anything to do with Gia, does it?"
Kino let them slow to an idle. She sat stiffly atop the softly rumbling engine for a long, uncomfortable moment.
"You guessed," she finally managed.
"'Guessed?' Kino, I'm in a unique position to know all kinds of things about you that you don't realize. For example, I know every time you eat those cheap off-brand ration bars."
Kino thought for a moment, blinked, then she slapped Hermes' saddle.
"For shame, Hermes!"
"Hey! Your digestion's not my fault."
"Well! I won't be buying those anymore."
"I'd appreciate that. And with the way you act and dress I'd hafta be very naive not to suspect—"
"Hermes!" Kino barked sharply. And she started them rolling again in uncomfortable silence. She could feel the wheels in her head starting to shimmy.
"Besides, I could hear you two over the noise of—"
Screeeech! Kino's hard braking jerked them to another halt, and another awkward silence.
"...ow." Hermes said meekly.
Kino struggled to calm herself. Then she said evenly, "Hermes... you are my best friend. But there are some things... some private things even best friends do not talk about. I'd appreciate your understanding that."
They set off again.
Kino sighed. Why was it so much easier with Master? I just presented myself in my riding leathers and my short haircut on her doorstep and the canny old woman immediately knew. "So," Kino said quietly after a while, "do you still think of me the same way?"
"Of course!" Hermes answered. "I should tell you stories about my family someday. Anyway, I think Gia's very nice. She's about your age and she's prettier than you." At this, Kino stuck out her tongue at Hermes. "And I like her parents."
"They're very demanding," Kino commented. "Gia works hard to be perfect for them. I'm not sure it's healthy for her."
"Yeah, they're a little rigid. I hope I'm not going to be riding on the back of a truck a lot."
"Heh! I dunno. Hermes, I have no idea what love is; I've never been in love. I think I'm infatuated, though. It's her smile. Everything's kinda sparkly when I'm around her."
"Sparkly, huh? Yeah, you're hooked. That's just fermions, but infatuation can grow into love if you give it time. Or not. So take it slow."
"That's pheromones, and where the heck did you ever hear of 'fermions?'" Kino laughed.
"Gia doesn''t have your sophistry though. You've been on your own for years and she's still living with her folks."
"'Sophistication.' I guess you're as flustered as I am, huh?"
"Oh, speaking your language always makes me sound like a simpleton!" Hermes groused. "I'm not, you know. And I don't hafta remind you I can only carry one."
"Whoa, slow down there! I don't think we need to be talking about that just yet."
"Kino, I'm your best friend, remember? And I've never seen you... chirping like a songbird. If I'm in the way of something that makes you so happy—"
"Very premature, but thank you." Kino slowed to a stop, killed the motor and dismounted. Then she turned back. "You really don't see me differently, do you?" She patted Hermes' handlebars affectionately, and then rummaged about in her packs for a small military-issue shovel.
All over, just like that! Were still Kino and Hermes, fellow-travelers.
The pair had parked next to the gate of a cemetery. "Hathorne's Rest."
"Southwest corner, by old man Blout." Kino quoted. Shovel found, she walked Hermes over to the southwest corner.
The cemetery had been built just at the base of a precipice, whose shadow loomed over it making it cool and shady, with just that touch of gloom. Not a place people would willingly stay in but fine for burying the dead. The fence had been built square around the lot, though the western fence served no real function, as it only closed off a narrow strip of land at the bluff's edge. Kino and Hermes slowly walked that narrow strip.
"And there's Old Man Blout," Kino said. They stopped at the fence and looked with satisfaction at the Blout family monument. By the dates, the patriarch had lived almost a hundred years.
"South, Blout? What a sloppy rhyme!" Hermes protested.
Kino shrugged and started digging. As they were technically outside the cemetery, if only by a foot, they couldn't be accused of grave-robbery. And this was an out-of-the-way spot. Perfect for buried treasures.
"Hermes? Am I wrong or are you jittery?"
"I told you, I have a bad feeling. Maybe it's the cemetery we're in. Or the thunderstorm last night. Or maybe it's that car I'm expecting to jump us at any moment."
"Point. What's up with that car already?"
"Some stories only get you laughed at," Hermes grumbled, "until you tell 'em around a campfire, at night."
Soon Kino found it, a large packing crate several feet under the earth. She opened it and was pleased to find a treasure trove: canteens filled with purified water, packs of carefully preserved food, ammunition, cans of petrol, and even a small package of money. The prizes of the lot though, were a pristine .45 long-barrel and a .22 caliber with laser sight, both bearing Master's mark. Cleaning equipment and lube too. Strange that she'd missed the smoky tang of solvent on her hands. Kino happily strapped the gun belt around herself.
"I'm complete again, Hermes!" She announced. Kino practiced drawing her new Persuader and found it comfortingly familiar. She refilled Hermes' tank and pocketed the wallet of cash. The resealable plastic envelope it came in became home to the souvenir Kino kept in her breast pocket.
She set about closing and burying the crate. "We'll need to find some work so we can restock this cache."
"Why's that? You might come back?"
"Maybe. But more importantly I got the impression from Master that I'm not the only one who knows the traveler's song."
"So we're part of a secret society? How cool is that!"
"I suppose, but I dunno anybody else in it. There's Master of course, and Kino the First." Kino patted her breast pocket. "I suspect the third-generation 'Kino' is off exploring realms I can barely imagine. Who knows what other travelers are out there?"
"You're thinking of teaching Gia the traveler's song, aren't you?"
Kino smiled. "We'll see."
Work done, she guided Hermes out from the narrow space between rock and fence. She began to kick-start the engine, then stopped.
"I hate to admit this. For the first time in a long while, I feel relaxed and happy, and I want a little siesta under that shade tree."
"Huh? You never do that. 'Life is for living,' right?"
"I know." Kino stretched out under the tree, and stared up at the sun through the leaves. "But I've been doing a lot of living recently. If I never see a ship's galley again..." She let her voice trail off.
Is she still out there, traveling?
-No idea. Wait... who are we talking about?
"Greetings visitor," the gatekeeper emerged from his little hut and took his place next to the bamboo portcullis. "Have you come for business or pleasure?"
Kino made an effort not to stare at the aged man. There was something wrong with his vapid smile. Perhaps he's mildly senile?
"Business. I need to find a job for a little while."
"Oh! I'm very sorry. We never employ anyone but our own people."
Protectionist policy? Interesting. Always something new and different, wherever I go. "Pleasure, then."
She filled out a couple of forms, accepted the temporary identification paper he provided and even gave him a hand raising the heavy portcullis. Never hurts to have the local authorities think well of you.
"So Gia's family is staying at an inn here?" Hermes said as they entered.
"Hermes...?" Kino said, her voice lowered.
"Do you notice something... strange here?"
"Uhm... let's see. I see a street. Architecture's a bit shabby. Lots of townspeople shuffling about."
Kino felt a little chill. Everyone wore that same... defective smile. "This place is creepy!" The faces about her seemed limp, somehow asymmetrical... wrong. "Everyone looks... if I didn't know better I'd think we'd walked into some sort of hospice for the mentally incapacitated."
"I'm sorry. I'm not as good as you at reading expressions. Are you sure?"
Kino cocked her head; it was a subtle thing, really. Almost... am I imagining this? Then she shook herself. A traveler didn't survive long without trusting her instincts. "Hermes, this place isn't right."
"Time to go!" Hermes said.
"If I was still unarmed, I'd agree - absolutely. But I'm curious now." She towed Hermes up to a kiosk and found a sandy-haired man waiting inside.
"Hello," the man said with a cloying voice. "May I interest you in a snack? We make all kinds of sandwiches here."
"Alright," Kino said. "I've had enough. Why the blank stares? Why the creepy little smile? Why is everybody here-?"
But abruptly, she knew the answer even before the man, still wearing that simpering, lopsided smile, started explaining. Reality swerved beneath her feet. She didn't listen to him as he babbled all-too-familiar words about operations and adults and growing up.
Kino looked around herself in shock. Oh no! But yes, this street... she should have recognized it. "Everything looks so much smaller," she mumbled to Hermes.
"What do you mean?"
"I didn't recognize the street because everything's so tiny. I thought this was a grand boulevard... now it's a cramped little sidestreet."
"Oh, I get it! Everything here looks smaller because you were smaller last time."
"I'm home," Kino said, not at all sure how to feel about this. She stared around herself in renewed wonder. So tiny... but just around this corner and two blocks down – she knew! - was the street where Kino the First had met a pensive little girl with long brown locks.
Kino took Hermes' handlebars and walked him around that corner and two blocks down. Even the barrel was still there under the sign. Only the little brown-haired girl named after a flower was missing. With their places reversed, she felt a sudden insight. The melancholy face she'd worn for being insulted had drawn the first Kino to her. She was the only fully human person he'd seen all morning.
That young man I was just talking to... was that the boy who used to make fun of me? Any resentment she still felt toward him was immediately crushed by a wave of pity. Kino felt an irrational urge to go find him and blow what brains he had left out of his skull. Shooting him would be a mercy!
Kino looked at the passers-by as she walked Hermes down the street. Each one wore that same uncanny smile, bore that same slackness of face she'd come to associate with the mentally ill or defective.
At the twelfth birthday they take their children to the hospital for an operation. They "cut the child" out of them. Once upon a time, I thought this was normal because I didn't know any better. Everyone around me is brain damaged! And if things had gone as planned, I'd be one of these walking dead right now.
She noticed with a further little shock that about half the people had gray eyes surrounded by a darker black ring, and knew they were identical to her own, so unusual elsewhere. She'd developed a little vanity about her "haibane-gray" eyes and she irrationally resented that they were so common here.
"Kino? I know this house. Isn't this-?"
She looked up at the rinky-dink half-scale model of her parents' grand hotel. How squalid. How small.
"Yeah. This is where I was born and raised." Her guts wrapped into a tight, painful knot.
If I'm recognized here, will the townspeople try to kill me?
She had Hermes. She had her pistols. She was not a helpless child anymore. And she suddenly felt the need to prove it. No more running away. She popped Hermes' kickstand down and walked through the door.
Kino forced herself not to see the lobby with new eyes, but with the eyes of the little girl she'd once been, a little girl she now had almost nothing in common with. The room was unchanged. No sign of dust, for her mother could never tolerate dust.
No one here? She waited. She heard footsteps coming down the stairs. She was startled to absolutely recognize the gait, the weight and rhythm.
A graying, balding old man stood in her father's place, wearing the same cast-iron smile. Kino watched for even the slightest hint of recognition and found none on the unshaven, flabby face.
"Good afternoon, traveler. Have you come for a room?"
Kino simply shook her head once, pivoted on her heel and exited.
"Uhm...?" Hermes inquired.
As she mounted Hermes, she answered the unspoken question. "I don't know what I expected in there, Hermes. I saw my father, and I didn't feel anything. No shock, no vestiges of love, no anger. Just... a great big zero."
"I think this place is very, very unhealthy for you. Let's get out of here. Lemme rephrase that: let's get the hell out of here!"
It was very rare for Hermes to use such language, but that was the least of the current assault on Kino's sensibilities. "Do you suppose," Kino said as she drove Hermes slowly down the narrow streets, "that Master set that cache near here deliberately, so that I'd have to face this place again some day?"
"Well, I wouldn't put it past her. She's not above sneaky stuff like that."
Kino glanced up to the hospital high up on the hill. She'd once been told that a city's highest building revealed what was most important to the inhabitants.
"Perhaps I should blow up the hospital."
"Yeah, that sounds dangerous."
"But they'd just build another, wouldn't they? So I'd need to kill off the whole town, and I don't have enough bullets for that."
"Whoa...! Do you have the right?"
Kino remembered how she'd left - the knife her father had brandished, the dead traveler at his feet. Yes. Yes, I certainly do!
"I have a more important engagement," Kino concluded, forcibly replacing her glum look with a smile. She could feel the authenticity of her simple smile, completely different from the mirthless toothy grimaces around her. "Gia."
The very name made something warm stir deep inside her, banishing her grim reflections. Kino wondered if Hermes really could sense that in her. "I'm gonna go collect her, and as soon as possible we're gonna smash through that gate together, for old time's sake. You game?"
Hermes actually laughed. "That would be fun! Then we can tear down that hill road really fast."
"And I'll tip you over. Gia and I will land in a heap in a big patch of red flowers - I hope they're in bloom."
"And I'll say, 'Who would do such a thing!'" She could hear the triumph in Hermes' voice. Her heart sang out in something very like a prayer, Oh thank you Kino, thank you for not coming a week later!
"Hey, you took the first Kino's name, right? What was your name before?"
"I never told you? My father named me after those very flowers. "Ru-ri-ha-ko-be,'" she pronounced the word carefully for her friend. "But that's kinda long, so my folks just called me 'Ruri,' which means something completely different. I never liked it. They insisted on dressing me up in pink, and the kids here always called me 'urei.' Gloomy-"
"Waitasec! You're named for red pimpernels? Hehee, I know a book you gotta read!"
Before Hermes could explain further, they arrived at the site of one of her estranged family's business rivals. And thank heaven they're not staying at my parents' hotel. That would just be too awkward, Kino thought with a wry grin.
She hummed to herself as she parked Hermes and dismounted with a happy hop. Kino felt very aware of the way her hips bounced as she strutted to the inn's door. Her new darling waited inside, and the world was going all sparkly again. I feel just a little bit sorry for Gia, she's in for a rough night.
"Hello, mister innkeeper," Kino sang out to the man with the creepy empty smile standing behind the desk. "Which room is Gia's family in?"
"You would be Kino, wouldn't you?" The man said with a voice full of sickly syrup. "I'm to inform you that Miss Gia is convalescing, and the family wishes not to be disturbed."
"Convalescing?" Kino stopped mid-hop. "From-?"
Kino's eyes widened and grew crazed, as if her hand had frozen around a high-voltage line. Her Persuader appeared in an eye blink and she charged up the stairs!
I know I won't forget that horrible sight.
I found out for myself everyone was right.
...won't come back from Dead Man's Curve.
Hermes waited in the evening sun, orange light gleaming from his chrome. He was startled when Kino stepped out of the hotel so soon, without even a greeting.
"That was quick! Did you-" Then Hermes sensed it. Suddenly he didn't dare say a word as Kino mounted and kick-started the engine.
At the city gate, Kino allowed the motorbike to coast to a stop. She slumped in the saddle and waited impassively, silently, for the guards to raise it.
Hermes, all his attention focused on his rider, noted that although her expression appeared neutral this was not her "poker face." No, the light had vanished from Kino's gray eyes. The vacancy in them frightened him like a scream in the night. His rider was in shock.
When the guards finished raising the bamboo portcullis, she listlessly twisted the throttle and rode Hermes out of the city. They cruised slowly, almost languidly downhill along the winding road.
In due time they arrived at their familiar patch of pimpernels, unchanged by the years. Kino did not allow the motorcycle to tip. She did not fall into the flowerbed. Hermes did not receive his cue to say, "who would do such a thing?" No. Kino gently applied the brakes and pushed down the kickstand. She dismounted.
And then she sat, almost stumbled into the flowers as if her legs had given way. If the thump of her landing hurt she showed no sign.
Hermes worked up the nerve to softly ask, as gently as he could, "Kino? Can you explain?"
Kino turned her head, or rather let it flop to the left toward Hermes like a corpse. And her eyes... the last time Hermes had seen that look in her eyes they'd witnessed a volcanic eruption and the death of thousands!
"Gia's parents brought her here," Kino said, "so the operation would make her nu—nuh..."
"...normal," Hermes finished for her, because watching her fight to say the word hurt.
Kino turned her gaze forward, though there was nothing to look at; she wasn't looking. Hermes felt much relieved to not see those screaming eyes any longer.
Sometimes Hermes didn't understand humans, but he was old and wise nonetheless. He knew enough not to trivialize this with some petty condolence, nor even to make a sound. Hermes watched over Kino while the sun set. He watched over her through the long miserable night. And in the morning he would carry her far away from this horrible place.
Foibles make us lovable and human.
-You're not perfect, therefore you are?