The Artist's Country

It was many months ago while travelling between countries that Kino chanced upon the statue. Fog shrouded the morning and its memory.

"Kino, what is that?"

At the side of the well trodden dirt path stood a massive stone carving of a lion. Its stance and height were intimidating, though age and the elements had taken their toll. After bringing Hermes to a stop, Kino looked up to meet the lion's gaze.

"A shadow of its former self," said Kino. This, she explained, could be deduced by the parts not exposed to rain. While the exterior surfaces were bland, interior surfaces of the mouth and ears were exquisitely detailed.

"You're right! I wonder why no one told us about it?"

"Now we know they have no appreciation of art. I'm glad we found it ourselves."

They admired for a few more minutes before continuing down the path.

---

"Welcome, traveller. How long will you be staying?"

"Until the day after tomorrow, thank you."

"Okay," said the receptionist, "we've a few rooms you can choose from here at the visitor's lodge. I'll inform our Alpha of your arrival - he may grant you a personal audience."

"That would be… informative."

The tall receptionist twirled about and made for a door opposite the desk, her long black hair in tow. She happily presented a room large but sparsely furnished, noting that this setup would be ideal for Kino's transportation. Kino accepted before being offered a personal tour of the country's sights.

"Offer appreciated, but no thanks."

"Sure?"

"Hey, we do this all the time, remember?" said Hermes.

"Ah, right. Well, enjoy your stay.

---

"So what do you think of this place so far, Kino?"

The traveller leaned over the bridge's rails, staring off over the stream waters that cut the country in half. "Nothing, really. It's big, with much variety but little stylistic organization. Stone mansions are crowded by wooden shacks; linen clothes and sackcloth convene as wearers converse."

"An eccentric place."

"There has to be more to it than this. I suppose we'll see tomorrow."

---

"Oh, Kino," said the receptionist, "the Alpha's office responded. He'd like to meet you two by the memorial tomorrow."

"Where's that?" asked Hermes.

"The other side of the river, heading south. You can't miss it."

"We'll be there! Thanks for the arrangements."

Kino, silent throughout, steered Hermes into their quarters for the night.

---

The pair sped south along a dirt pathway next to the river. Hermes asked why such speed was necessary; Kino said that she wanted a good look at "this memorial, before the Alpha comes." The ride continued until they saw a massive clearing ahead. The usual residences, fields and markets gave way to a meticulously interlocked stone terrace at least a hundred meters in diameter. At the center, amidst the passing people, was a solid platform upon which stood a girl, encased in a transparent capsule. Kino restrained a gasp as she realized that, no; it was a statue of a girl. With eyes locked in position, Kino stopped Hermes, dismounted and advanced towards the wonder.

"It's amazing! The carving's lack of applied color is the only betrayer. And her stillness. I still can't tell if she's real," said Hermes. The motorcycle continued to express awe as Kino simply stared. When once they reached the platform, Kino kicked Hermes' stand out and ascended the stairs. Six feet above ground, Kino circled the object of her astonishment.

"It is amazing," she declared. Everything from her thick, long hair spilling out around the edges of her hood to the difference in texture between her face's skin and her full length robe was exquisitely detailed yet humanly imperfect. Somewhere – perhaps it was on her awestruck face – there was artistic exaggeration that made the viewer instinctively turn the head and look for the focus of her fascination.

"This is the best carving I've ever seen."

"That's because," said a stately voice, "your first impression was correct. It's real."

Kino turned to face her speaker. She respectfully made eye contact before descending the platform, almost missing the four bodyguards standing just past arm's reach on all sides of who she presumed was the Alpha. Their firearms were clunky but likely very effective, and their sabres would make any close encounter a lethal one.

"Don't let them frighten you, traveller. They've not fired a shot in decades."

"I'm Kino. That's my companion, Hermes."

"Hello, Kino and Hermes. I am the Alpha of this country." On level ground, his six and a half feet were far above Kino's height. His well fitted pants and vest were made of goatskin; his hair, long and messy. His was a utilitarian yet distinct appearance.

"Alpha," if this isn't a carving, what is it?"

"Your kind always asks about that. I never tire of explaining, though my escorts may tire of hearing." Surprisingly, one of the guards smiled. "A young woman, three hundred years old. She was turned to stone when her gaze collided with the beast's."

"What beast?" asked Hermes.

"An ancient foe of all things living. It is humanoid, powerfully built with fearsome fangs and claws. Anything returning its gaze is transformed to stone. Generations ago, my ancestor fought it off with this." He pulled a mask from a pouch on his upper back and slid it over his face. Almost egg shaped, it covered the entire front half of the head; its featureless surface reflected Kino's inquisitive look.

"A mirrormask."

"Yes. Perfectly reflective on the outside, perfectly transparent on the inside. "My ancestor crafted this by means unknown and, sword in hand, fought off the beast who dared not catch a glimpse of himself.

"Whooahh," said Hermes.

"Impressive. I've never encountered anything like it," said Kino.

After a moment of silence, the muffled Alpha ordered, "Men, back to the hall. I'll return within an hour."

"Yes, sir. We'll tend to other duties.

The Alpha then strode off to the great river's edge with Kino and Hermes beside, chatting about trivial things. They came to stop on a grassy patch next to the water.

"I sense, Kino, that you don't believe."

"I've seen many strange, beautiful things in my travels."

"You didn't answer me, traveller."

"I haven't decided yet. What about yourself?"

"I am obliged to believe. I find it no difficult feat in view of the evidence." He finally took off his mask as he continued, "but, if you want to see the other side, travel south for two hours with Hermes, next to the stream. I've heard that it can be found there, in a small burrow."

"Thank you," said Kino. "We'll go there once we've left."

"You weren't straight with me, Kino. You have decided - or you're suicidal."

---

"Kino, where were you all day?"

"With you, Hermes."

"Pfft. In body, maybe…" muttered Hermes as he was being rolled into his room.

"Hi, you two!" came a cheery voice from behind them. "Did you have a good time today?"

"It was educational," replied Kino. "And I can't wait for the next one to start."

"Oh, Kino," groaned Hermes. "Excuse her, she's just excited to see something else."

"Oh. I see. Come to think of it," said the receptionist, "I meant to ask you about something in view of your experience. I was told that my grandfather is actually from another country far away. Some land of wizards, or something…."

"I'm exhausted" interrupted Kino, "but I suppose Hermes could spend a few hours talking with you."

"You know me so well, Kino!"

Kino then rolled Hermes back over to the desk and kicked his stand.

"Well, good night. See you in the morning."

---

The next morning, after a good meal, the two left earlier than usual and sped south along the wide river.

"You know, not everyone buys it," stated Hermes.

"Oh? You mean the attendant at the centre?"

"Yeah. She said she had no belief in a beast and masked swordsman and stone girl and all that. It sounds a little ridiculous to her."

"Maybe it's her ancestry speaking."

"Yeah, well, she's not defiant about it."

"Her? Defiant? I doubt that's possible. But we've seen stranger things, I suppose."

The sun peaked, and the rocky terrain offered little vegetation and resulting shade.

"Kino, why'd we stop?"

"Look at the bottom of that cliff face." The mouth of a cave, clearly artificial, both beckoned and warned. "Shall we?"

"Kino, do we ever say no?"

"Silly me." Kino pushed Hermes forward to the opening, keeping her natural hand ready to sling. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up as they walked through the stone corridor.

"I wonder who would cut a cave for themselves in the middle of nowhere like this?" asked Hermes.

"I would. Welcome to one of my nine abodes." The deep voice sounded clearly around the tunnel, pushing Kino's hand to her persuader. "Despite my appearance, I assure you I'm harmless." The speaker came into view around a corner in all its beastly appearance. It was tall, humanoid and powerfully built with burning red eyes; Kino couldn't keep her hand off her firearm. "Who are you? And, curiously, why are you here?"

"I'm Kino. This is Hermes. I was told of this place and its inhabitant by the Alpha from the country to the north…."

The creature's chuckling cut her off. "Them? Him? I feel like a good laugh; with what nonsense did they depict me?"

"Well," braved Hermes, "they were right about the fangs."

"And the claws. But you're clearly not petrified."

"So," said Kino with a smile, "it wasn't you who made that memorial."

"In fact, it was. Here, come to my central chamber and see for yourself." Still sure to keep a comfortable distance, Kino followed him down into his enclave. A thin, luminescent tube snaked around the walls of a sparsely furnished inner dome. A few tools were strewn about, with what appeared to be a desk at the far edge. At the centre sat a chunk of stone about Kino's height. "These," it said as it exposed hooked, frightening claws, "are for the fine details on that." He pointed lazily to the stone chunk. "No hammer or chisel can compare at detailing."

"So it was a stone carving. But they said it was three hundred years old!"

"They don't lie this time, little girl."

"Well then," Kino inquired, "what's your version of what happened back there?"

The humanoid's tongue lolled out between its fangs in what appeared to be a smirk. "My version? Cautious, little girl. Good. Here it is: Another nice little girl from that country who also liked exploring met me by accident as I was passing through the country side. I'll never forget the look on her face when she first saw me, and, after that, the way she so guilelessly wanted to know who I was and what I did. She wasn't afraid of me… after the first few seconds, anyways."

"You re-created first contact beautifully," said Kino in a warmer than usual tone.

"Thank you. I wish she could have seen the final product herself. A few weeks before completion, she stopped visiting me near my old hill. I wondered but kept working; I wasn't prepared to walk into the country and ask around, though I was spoken about at that point. I lugged the completed work to the country's border in the middle of the night and hid nearby in case the finder would have something to say. When two young girls came along the road that morning and saw the statue I overheard them exclaim something about 'that girl who vanished'. I suppose another person at the top of their pecking order seized an opportunity with a little fear mongering. And here we are."

After a moment of silence, Hermes stated, "that answers everything. But what about the little girl? No one disappears like that."

"I searched the surrounding forests and plains for a week, knowing her adventurous spirit, but to no avail. Then I remembered that she told me she would explore the bottom of the river with a breathing tube." With a touch of hesitation, it continued, "I surmise she drowned and was taken away by the river."

"I'm sorry. That must have been awful," said Hermes.

"It was."

"Why don't you go clear this up?"

"Why should I? Let him do what he wants while I do what I've been doing most of my life: create my works of art with love and gift the people. They can choose to take it or leave it."

"Well," said Kino, "they certainly took it. May I presume, sir, that you left one gift for the country of wizards?"

"Sir? Fine. Yes, that was mine. Do they like it?"

"Yeah. Centre of the town!" said Hermes. The two continued to chat for a few minutes about the carving to come and the surrounding countries.

"Actually you two, I was intent on starting with my latest work."

"We understand. We're unexpected guests," said Kino.

"Awww… but…"

"Don't worry, mottorad, you know where to find me. I'd like to hear your story next time."

"We would love that," said Kino as sincerely as possible. "We'll leave you to your work for now."

"Bye, sir!"

As they turned to leave, it called out, "Young woman, will you take some casual advise from an old beast?"

Kino turned her head back without steering Hermes around, giving her and the beast visual privacy. It hunched over the statue to be, laying its head atop crossed arms.

"Go ahead," said Kino.

"Your… emotional prudence and objectivity are beyond your years. Beneficial, these, in this world. Just be careful, please, that you don't become too…" and it pointed to the rock chunk under its arms. "It took months of chiselling and year of experience to unlock that little girl from stone. Don't you go in the opposite direction."

"I'll remember that," said Kino gravely, "and consider it."

---

It was in the course of small talk as they rode south that Hermes couldn't help but ask, "Do you think it will last?"

"Do I think what will last, Hermes?"

"The country's myth?"

She'd been contemplating this question for most of the day. It was only now that, for some inexplicable reason, her mind dug up the memory of a stone lion on a foggy morning. Rejected and worn, continued harsh weather would whittle it away to a featureless lump of stone. Tickled to realize who had made it and satisfied to have formed the answer to Hermes' question, Kino smiled broadly.

"Well, like he said, 'they can choose to take it or leave it.' Sooner or later, it'll pass."