"What do you remember of your dream?"
"Uhm... a red light in the smoke, moving away from me." The little girl closed her eyes tightly. "A burning smell, the crackle of fire. I think I hear dogs barking."
"A child," the communicator offered helpfully.
"Two!" Kemuri's gray eyes opened in surprise. "I gave them... something? So they could escape, something important—!"
— Flowers and Smoke
"I'll be right back, soon as I get some answers." Kino promised. She popped Hermes' kickstand down, leaped off, and dashed into the campground office.
Kino had just awakened and was boiling her morning coffee when the staccato rat-tat-tat of automatic gunfire echoed down the valley. This wasn't some overenthusiastic hunting party, either. Kino knew what machine-guns sounded like from a distance; she'd heard the echoes of a major battle to the west, in town.
Immediately worried, or "properly paranoid," as her master would say, Kino put out the campfire and abandoned her coffee, creature comforts are the first casualties of war. She sheathed herself in her bullet-proof vest despite yesterday's sweltering heat, buckled her long coat over it, and set out to the office for news. Good thing I wake up just before sunrise. Guess "stand-to" really does work.
So by orangy morning light, she calmly but cautiously entered the cabin, to find the campground's tottery caretaker already struggling with a radio.
"What's going on?"
"You heard the noises too?" At Kino's curt nod he continued, "I can't get any news. Nothing but static."
"Hold it, back up a bit," Kino requested. He adjusted the dial, and Kino heard a distinctive squeal under the white noise.
"That's not static. It's jamming. Sir, is your country having tense relations with your neighbors?"
The grim look on the graybeard's face told Kino everything she needed to know.
"Best stay here," he said. "You'll be safer than in town."
Just as he finished, a low krump rumbled down the valley. Kino knew that sound too: artillery. This was no skirmish, the country she'd planned to visit today was being invaded!
With a final "good luck" to the caretaker, Kino exited the office and jumped back onto Hermes.
"We're in a war zone," she told him as she twisted the accelerator.
"You have the worst luck!" Hermes grumbled.
Too right. Thrown into a coliseum, almost ground into sausage by a primal spirit, almost hanged, marooned on a desert island... is this luck or is my whole world getting more dangerous?
"Where're we headed?"
"Back the way we came," Kino answered. "We're getting out of here."
"I like this plan," Hermes affirmed.
"My usual answer for trouble bigger that I am."
They bumped along at a speed much greater than was comfortable for Hermes on a rough trail. He was a racing bike, not a dirt-bike, after all, but he wouldn't object unless he feared for their safety. Soon they found the paved road slicing through the tall forest, and buzzed forward until the trees blurred beside them.
Kino started to relax when they rounded the curve and found the crossing gate. The men there wore familiar brown coats and had treated her politely enough. Hopefully they'll have some information.
Abruptly they raised weapons and an officer shouted "halt." Kino immediately tensed and braked. She slowed to a stop at the gate, and a quick look confirmed her worst fears: the men wore familiar black uniforms with this country's brown coat draped over their shoulders.
Oh, these guys! Again.
A blur of horrid images came back to Kino in a sickening flash: a courtroom, a nasty green cell, a gallows, the unsympathetic eyes of burly men leading her to wooden stairs.
Kino's poker face fell into place like a welder's mask. She even gave the officer a simpering little smile. "Good morning, gentlemen. I've had a lovely visit, but I need to be on my way now."
"Your travel documents," the officer demanded flatly. Kino obligingly shut off the engine, dismounted Hermes and handed the passport over, taking the moment to assess her situation. Three of them. The one to my right has a submachine gun. Fast cyclic rate, but my vest'll stop rounds of that caliber. Same with the officer's pistol. That fat fellow with the carbine is my priority target. Those'll cut through man-portable armor like toilet paper. Careful, they may be wearing armor too.
"Any idea what all that noise is about?" Kino asked innocently.
"Those weapons are not allowed here," the officer snapped as he opened her travel papers. "We'll need to confiscate them temporarily."
Exactly the same words, Kino thought. And he'll see his own country's stamp on the passport and start asking questions. No options.
The prior guards of this border checkpoint were not concerned with her firearms. I've a pretty good guess what happened to those poor guys.
Last time she'd met these black-shirted thugs, she'd surrendered her gun belt, not understanding what she was dealing with. After, Kino had mentally flogged herself for it. She really wanted to be law-abiding, but the black-suits had taken advantage of that, "confiscated" all her valuables and consigned her to a noose. Never again, she'd sworn. She'd planned and visualized and then practiced obsessively for a similar event, until the fear was gone, and with it her rage at herself.
And here we are. She reached for her buckle and obediently handed over her gun belt. But her hands had already smoothly palmed smaller pistols from her sleeve and vest, and the belt's leather concealed them.
Hermes knew exactly what she was up to, and chose that moment to switch to their language and unexpectedly uttered an out-of-character and blisteringly corrosive comment upon their mothers' romantic and hygienic habits. All eyes shot to him.
Unnecessary, but appreciated, Hermes.
She dropped the gun belt and blew the fat carabiner's skull open. In the same instant, her second pistol hit the man with the submachine in the chest, sending him reeling. Kino's motion was actually a modification of a martial-arts move she knew. Gun-fu. Heh! And I do not have a weaker hand, at least where shooting's concerned.
The officer, shocked, reached for his pistol, only to be caught short. You didn't even unbuckle your holster? I'm insulted! Betcha you don't have a round chambered either. She took the extra time to put another, better-aimed shot under that machine gunner's chin.
The officer finally got his holster unsnapped, but by then Kino had pivoted neatly away and had both pistols trained on him. She saw the fear in his eyes. You like to let other men do your fighting for you, doncha? He took a breath to say something. What, Kino would never know, because there was just enough Fury-venom left in her veins for her to enjoy erasing the man's face.
Using both rounds was wasteful, she scolded herself.
Yup, but it felt good.
"I bet there's a sniper!" Hermes warned. His engine roared to life as if by magic. Without wasting an instant, Kino pocketed her hot pistols, snapped up her gun belt and papers, vaulted aboard Hermes and, in a daring move, accelerated while skidding sideways under the cross guard in a dangerous game of limbo, trailing hot yellow sparks."
"You're learning," Kino snapped back, righting Hermes and tearing off. Sure enough, they soon heard a loud pop behind them. Caught you napping, didn't I? Amateurs! I wouldn't have missed that shot. I'm a professional, and I do not have time for shabby thugs like you!
She did not like her odds of beating a hidden sniper if she tried to fight, and her vest would only encumber her. So she opened Hermes' engine up, and in moments they were off-roading, with trees blocking a clear shot.
"He'll radio for reinforcements. They may respect the borders here, or not. Time to get far away from this warzone. I'm officially 'the enemy' now. Y'okay, Hermes? I scraped you pretty hard there." She steered them back to the pavement.
"If you'd stopped to raise the crossbar, you'd be dead now. Nothing a replacement part won't fix, and it was a neat move."
Kino nodded. "Maybe we should take that class I saw on trick-riding and racing."
"Pricy," Hermes answered. Aside from the initiation fee, in the course of such a class one would pretty much destroy a learning-bike, and probably accumulate some medical expenses.
"Let's focus. You notice their uniforms?"
"Yup. They're following you."
"Perhaps I offended them. They're expanding. Master told me about this, she called it a 'wildfire economy.' All the work, and usually some minority within the populace too, get fed into an all-consuming war machine. Then it conquers the neighbors to steal more resources to feed that machine, and on and on..."
"Until it hits a firebreak and burns itself out," Hermes answered. "It was long before your time, but I've fought people like that before."
"Huh. Bad news."
"The absolute worst! The farther away you get, the better. They'll kill you."
Kino brought them to a halt.
"Didn't I just say, 'the farther away you get...?'"
"Yeah. But what if they hit the town back here, too? I wanna know if we're headed to occupied territory.
So she pulled Hermes into a shady foxhole in the woods, covered them both with the light layer of camouflage netting usually reserved for her tent, and watched the road. "Foxhole?" Yeah, I'm in war mode.
Their little rise offered a view of the town they'd left behind. Kelbright, Professor Choi had called it. From a distance, nothing had changed. But Kino raked the streets with her sniper's scope, and it looked quieter than she remembered. Sure enough, she soon found some of those bully boys in black strutting about like they owned the place. Her heart sank.
"Damn, these guys move fast! And now I'm in for it. Time to improvise and hope for the best."
Obviously, riding in on Hermes was out of the question. Between Gia's bloodthirsty rescue and her own recent exploit, she'd been involved in the deaths of eight black shirts. If they were even remotely competent, that put her on a most-wanted list. They'd all have her description by now.
Kino took advantage of the quiet moment to reload and sequester her little holdout pistols, and snap her gun belt back in place. It had been a long time since Kino had put her natural gift for firearms to use. She hesitated to call it "fun" out of decency, though she felt pleased with herself.
Master was the soldier. She'd shared plenty of war stories, though Kino didn't pry, sensing that the old woman found much of her past uncomfortable to visit. The training she'd passed on to Kino was good. "Good as any infantryman," her teacher had pronounced, though certainly not enough to put her in Master's league. As much as Kino enjoyed firearms, she wasn't at all interested in killing people for a living. Such a life had taken something from Master's soul. Kino speculated that her charity toward the little orphan was some sort of penance, an attempt to balance the scales and restore her self-worth.
I'm lucky I didn't end up in some orphanage instead, or worse.
Kino scanned the road ahead and behind with a sniper's scope, while the other hand worked a pocket radio with earpiece. She was apparently out of the range of jamming, because now she heard scrambled communications, probably the invasion force. She found a news channel that repeated messages to stay in homes and off the streets.
The invaders have that station, Kino concluded. I won't get anything useful on that frequency.
She'd seen nothing on the road. No pursuit, no traffic at all.
Not good. I must be deep in enemy territory. That sniper will have reported my appearance by now. They may even have matched me up with the cross-dressing traveler who escaped execution. That was a loud, attention-grabbing rescue, Gia. Not that I'm complaining.
Gia, with her lock picks and counterfeiting, her criminal contacts and black magic, not to mention her pet demon-on-a-rope, was better-equipped to fight the world's monsters. But Kino had no way to reach her, at least not until their scheduled rendezvous.
"Hermes," she thought aloud, "These guys remind me of Veldelval. Not the best soldiers, not hardened. Fat and undisciplined. They count on superior technology. Neutralize that advantage somehow and they'll fold."
"I'd say somebody gave uniforms to a bunch of thugs and bully boys," Hermes added.
"Uh huh. Means they're not gonna worry about niceties like non-combatants."
"Kino, you are a combatant now."
"Yeah. Pity Koth-Shem is so far away. Corina's people would steal their tech and mop the floor with these goons. Okay, here's my proposal: hide you, then scout out the town."
"Why walk into a lion's den?"
"With Kelbright garrisoned, I don't know which way to go to get away from these guys."
"And if you get caught?"
"Go find yourself another rider."
"It's not like you to be so fatalistic."
Kino sighed. Skill and luck both got them through that checkpoint. But no matter how skilled she was, luck never held. One of so many depressing truths about war.
"Hermes, a question."
"You have an incredible gift for manipulating things behind the scenes."
"That was against one of my peers, I can't do that here. Remember Hanyuu? She broke the rules and saved her companion, but at a price I know you wouldn't want to pay! Believe me, you are my best friend, and I won't steer you wrong. But as far as human affairs are concerned, I'm a talking motorbike."
Kino had taken Hermes' ominous warnings lightly exactly once. Never again. "Alright. Guess I'll figure something out. Lemme go see what we're dealing with."
"Agreed. Hey Kino?"
"This is an awkward time. But you've been so busy you forgot something."
Kino looked with alarm to her companion's headlight. She somehow thought that was like looking into his eyes, and he didn't correct her. Foolishness, of course; Hermes could "see" all around him.
"While you were flying around up there," Hermes continued, alluding to Kino's recent aeronautical misadventure, "you forgot it was your birthday."
"Oh." Kino scoffed, relieved. "I forgot."
"I didn't. Check the maps."
Kino stood, opened the appropriate pocket of Hermes' bags, then the waterproof plastic liner, and gave him a sincere grin when she found the brightly wrapped present.
"That's very sweet of you."
"Don't sound so surprised, we are best friends, y'know. I was hoping you'd rummage in there and find it on your own."
"But just in case I never come back...?"
Silence. Kino abruptly realized Hermes was truly worried for her, and she was being thoughtless. Still not a people person. So she considered the package. "A book? It's a book, isn't it."
"I know you don't have a lot of time for 'em, but you should try to find time, y'know? C'mon, unwrap it!"
So she tore into the package without further urging.
"Finding it in translation was the hard part. I want you to have some fun, not treat it like another linguistic exercise."
"Shouldn't have bothered, I read slowly in every language, even my own."
"Want of practice."
She found the title on the hardback's spine and read aloud, "'Shuiro Rurihakobe no Renmei, Orukuzei Emma.' Hermes, there's nobody here by that name." She replaced her new book with the maps.
"'Rurihakobe' was your name, once upon a time. Anyway, happy birthday."
"'The Alliance of the Crimson Flower," I'm glad you found the translation. The original language has an alphabet 'stead of a syllabary. Alphabets take longer to read." With that, Kino put her hat on her head and started walking.
"Just get back here safe and sound so you get the chance."
Kino nodded and winked, feigning a confidence she didn't feel.
You're named for red pimpernels?
I know a book you gotta read!
Following the fiasco with Dr. Choi, she'd been too exhausted to do anything but retrieve Hermes from the parking lot, find a park at the edge of town and sack out for the night. Now Kino walked out of that same familiar park onto the paved roads.
A'right, officially in enemy territory now. And without Hermes, there's no way to run. Taking a huge gamble here, not much choice.
She'd transformed her khaki coat into a bag, and stowed her conspicuous gun belt inside. That was one of the niftier features of her travelers' long coat, making it useful even in warm weather. She had her smaller pistols up her sleeves, but she doubted they'd do much good if she was discovered, being on foot now.
Fortunately she knew this town. There was a dress shop near the university. She'd paid it no mind before, but now it was her first stop. Only half an hour's walk, but given the tension it felt like forever. She struggled to hide her apprehensions on her way to the tidy little store.
A worried-looking female shopkeeper sat behind the counter, beside an electronic register. Tech in this town is more advanced than the black-shirts home, provided that was their home I saw. Pity these folks didn't keep up a military.
"Hi," Kino said somberly, matching her tone to the sour look on the woman's face. "Any news?"
"The Renehwa are s'posed to make a speech at four," the woman answered. "Probably to tell us the fighting's over and to announce some more rules for us to follow."
"Renehwa." Hmm. They never bothered to introduce themselves. Of course, linguistically that might be Kelbright's name for them.
"I want to buy a dress for my girlfriend," Kino announced.
"You picked a fine time to be thinking about romance."
Kino grunted. She flicked through the racks and considered a professional blouse with shirt. Not easy to conceal weapons in. A pink dress with apron. Anything but that! Coveralls. Not girly enough. But with this peasant tunic over it, it might be. Colors clash a little, but a subdued blue-gray won't attract the eye. Best I can do.
"What do you think?" She asked the shopkeeper, holding up her selections.
"Not exactly romantic," the cashier answered.
"We're going to work," Kino improvised.
"Oh, I see. I'm sorry."
Kino quietly filed this away. Conscripted labor or something? Typical.
The woman plunked her selections into a sack. Kino paid with cash and offered the usual noncommittal pleasantries.
Kino promptly found an alleyway and transformed herself. Her riding leathers joined her gun belt in the bag. The coveralls gave her plenty of places to conceal weapons, and actually went with her riding boots. She removed the usual lifts and padding from the boots, because the added height belonged to her boy-look. The peasant blouse covered her vest and looked properly feminine. Now she looked like a tidy but common young working-woman. A girl disguised as a boy, disguised as a girl. Her armor underneath was hot and stuffy. Just hafta live with it.
To complete the transformation, I'll need some black dye, then comb my hair in a different style. With that done, she was fairly sure she could blend into the population unnoticed.
Just outside the alley was a bus stop, as inconspicuous a place as any to sit and ponder her next move.
My face and voice will still give me away as a foreigner. She knew the language and had a good ear for mimicry, but sooner or later someone would notice she wasn't local and ask questions. Just keep quiet and remember you're on a time limit. She'd left all her papers with Hermes, since they were as good as a death warrant. The longer you stay, the more the Renehwa will consolidate. They've probably already fortified the checkpoints after your little stunt. Disguise was a good first step, but however Kino looked at it, she was in grave trouble.
"Sixty three by fifty west," softly sang a baritone voice behind her, "in a hoodoo's shade you'll find your rest."
Kino stiffened. That was Master's Traveler's Song! Her teacher had long ago taught her a hickory dickory nonsense ditty whose codes revealed the locations of scattered caches of supplies for travelers in need. In fact, soon after she began her travels, the very verse he'd quoted had led Kino to a stash deep in the desert, and likely saved her life.
Either he's a fellow member of our secret society of travelers, or this is a trap. Wait... paranoia. If the Renewah find me, they won't need to get cute.
"All you need in Stepford's Green," Kino quietly sang the next verse, "in the gaze of Phoebe by the canteen." Hermes had once called it dreadful poetry, and he was right, but for now it made her feel safer and reminded her of happier days. As for "Stepford's Green," Kino had used up some ammo in Stepford, and didn't plan to return to find the cantina or the statue of Selene.
"I'd rather you not turn around," The man said from behind her, though Kino could see his shadow, and he moved a parasol to shade them both. "It would be best if you could not describe me."
"How did you know?" Kino asked.
"Your bag. I knew what to look for. Also, the enemy's chatter. You've been noisy. You're lucky I found you first."
"Better than being dead. Can you get me out of here?"
"You're not a high priority, no offense. You knew Doctor Choi and his family."
"And just how long have you been spying on me?"
"You ask a lot of questions," the voice warned. "We were watching the family; you happened along. How did he die?"
"Heart attack, while we were at a dig."
"Too convenient. He was poisoned, something meant for her."
"An engineer, and a target. We want to extract her. Useful."
Yeah, that makes sense. She's likely capable of building impressive weaponry, and with her country invaded, she'd relish the chance to strike back. I can make bombs too, but there's no need for the local resistance to know that. I'd never get out of here.
"She of course won't leave without her children," the voice continued. "Did you care for him, and his family?"
"I met them once, to share the sad news."
"You've seen how the Renewah treat prisoners. If you help them, we'll help you."
"I'm a traveler, not a spy or a criminal. I'm not qualified."
"Who is?" the voice grumbled. "The people I'm with, we did what we could to be ready, but we're making everything up as we go. Are you with us, or not?"
Kino considered her chances alone, without a middle-aged engineer and two kids to tend to. It was a toss-up. For all her pragmatism, the chance to save Dr. Choi's family from a gibbet tipped the balance.
Kino followed the man's directions to a dreadful-looking tenement. My day keeps getting better. The front gate hung ajar, and she half-suspected the building of being abandoned. Easily enough, she found door 112 and knocked.
"Mrs. Choi? It's Kino. Do you remember me?"
The door opened, and the familiar, sweet face of the rotund engineer appeared, frozen with confusion.
"May I come in?"
Mrs. Choi ushered her inside. The dog-eared apartment was unfurnished and unlit, with only a few necessities and a trio of bed rolls scattered about.
"Are you...?" Mrs. Choi prompted.
"Sent her to protect you," Kino affirmed. A bit of the worry left the haggard woman's face.
"I'm surprised to find one of my husband's friends in the resistance."
"Honestly, I joined half an hour ago. And they sent me to you."
Kino remembered the Chois' well-to-do house. Mrs. Choi had sat with her briefly on their wide porch in perversely perfect weather, not inviting Kino inside, to discuss her husband's demise. Kino wasn't offended, being the bearer of such shocking bad news.
"You look very different," the woman said.
"And you've been moving up in the world," Kino offered with sympathy, looking about at the dismal surroundings.
"It's condemned," Mrs. Choi groused. "Improvised safe house. I don't have much food to offer, just some sandwiches and water. There's running water."
Kino smiled. "A shower? Terrific. I've been camping out." And I prob'ly stink, I'm just used to it. Amazing what you get used to.
"Yasumi? Tegra? It's alright," Mrs. Choi called out, and two children emerged from their hiding place in the bathroom. Pointless, but a good effort.
"This is Kino," Mrs. Choi introduced the stranger. "She's going to stay with us."
Protecting them from the situation, Kino thought. So Kino smiled and tried her best to look harmless. "Hi Yasumi. Hiya Tegra."
"Hello," Yasumi answered. She was, Kino estimated, about ten years old, dressed in jeans and a matching denim jacket. Tegra was perhaps six, wearing khaki overalls, and was either very shy or had intuited something had gone very wrong in their lives, for he hid behind his big sister and moped.
"Mom, we wanna go home," Yasumi complained. "this place isn't nice at all, and it's getting dark."
"I know, sweetie. But we're just going to sleep here tonight. Be patient with momma." Introductions out of the way, she handed Kino a candle and a bar of soap.
By candlelight, Kino stripped off the dress, then used the black dye she'd bought. She scrubbed herself, and then her usual riding clothes down in the shower. Cleaning done, she dried off as well as she could without a towel. Fortunately it was a warm night. Can't stay here long, the climate here runs to extremes. While air-drying, she experimented with combing her hair in different styles. Finally satisfied, she donned her peasant dress.
Heh! Not bad. Even I'd be hard-pressed to recognise me.
She exited the bathroom, and Mrs. Choi hissed, "blow out the candle. It's not safe." Kino obediently did so, and waited for her eyes to adjust to the darkness.
"The children are asleep. Now, tell me any news you can."
Kino whispered what little information she had to share. Mrs. Choi had little enough in return. The Renewah had used parachutists to paralyze the city overnight, and the main force had attacked at dawn. The resistance had compiled a list of high-profile or high value targets, and sent their people off in a frenzy to secure as many of them as possible, before the Renewah could.
"We were given directions and rushed out of our house on foot, with gunfire and explosions only a few streets away. It was dreadful."
"Sounds like this resistance movement is well organized," Kino mused. "You folks must have known they were coming."
"We suspected. Have ever since they attacked our neighbors to the west."
"So I need to be traveling to the east to get out of here?"
"That would take you to a mountain range."
Kino chuffed. She might just manage the climb, but there was Hermes to think of. "Yeah, that's right. I have maps of the area, but I don't know which way to turn. The Renewah come from the west?"
Yeah, we traveled northeast after we left Stepford. That makes sense. "Okay, so escape to the north or south. It's a start."
Kino sighed. By rights she should have finished setting up her tent about now, in some peaceful glade, the petty, passing worries of civilized folk as far from her as the streetlights that obscured the tranquil stars. Now she was hiding in a moldy-smelling tenement from enemies that wanted to kill her because she was available to kill, with a dumpy mama and two rug-rats looking to her to protect them.
Hermes lectured me about trying to find a family. Well, here it is. Happier, Kino?
Nope! What am I doing, playing games with this "resistance?" Counting on the word of a man whose name I don't even know? This time, Gia won't be around to pull my head outta the noose. Screw this, I'm outta here!
"Thanks for the shower," she said to Mrs. Choi. "I—"
A knocking at the door interrupted her. Immediately, Kino produced one of her little wrist-pistols, and suddenly felt dreadfully inadequate. The Renewah'll come in force. Gunfire will only bring more of them. Crap! Stupid, stupid, stupid! I could still slip out of the back windows, in theory.
"You expecting anyone?" she asked Mrs. Choi. Before the woman could answer, a familiar voice asked, "Mrs. Choi?" and Kino dropped the pistol to her side - it was the voice of the man at the bus stop.
Kino opened the door, and found herself facing a tall, muscular man with mousy blond hair pulled back into a ponytail that hid behind the collar of his anonymous dark overcoat. Letting himself be seen this time, eh?
"Ah! Hello again. Miss Kino, I presume?"
"How'd you know my name?"
The man grinned mischievously, and despite her worries, Kino found herself smirking. "We'll get to that. My dear Mrs. Choi, your itinerary has been arranged." He entered their shoddy room without so much as a by-your-leave. "Time for you to go."
"Now hold on a minute, I told you I'm not leaving without Yasumi and Tegra, and I meant it."
"I certainly understand your sentiment, and sympathise. It is not possible to extract you as a group, I'm afraid. But I assure you, your children will follow suit—"
"Mommy!" Tegra suddenly blurted out, as he attached himself to his mother's leg, followed quickly by Yasumi. Their mother and the resistance agent urged them to quiet down.
Separation anxiety, Kino thought. And who can blame them! Kino flashed to her own parents, and abruptly found this scene unbearable to watch. "I'm gonna go sit outside," Kino said mildly, hiding her discomfort as best she might. "Let you two sort this out."
Before either could answer, she shut the door behind her, and sat out on the porch in the building's dilapidated, lonely corridor.
Okay, get up and get out of here. Now's your chance. Just leave. Sneak out of town, get Hermes and head north.
Day or night, the engine noise will draw the Renewah.
He said you're not a "high priority," remember? They'll take the engineer, and leave you and the kids.
Her internal argument was interrupted by the opening door. Their resistance contact exited.
"She'll be coming along," he gave her a confident smile. "Just a matter of settling the children down."
Kino didn't answer.
"I want you to know, you're appreciated. Finding someone who can care for the children and defend them is a rare combination. I should like to call upon you again."
"'Care for the children?' What makes you think I can do that?"
"Er..." she'd caught him off guard. "Well, being a lady and all." He considered Kino's glare, then cocked his head. "Oooohh... I think I see. Yes, that would explain the initial description of you as a young man. Ah! Dreadful of me to stereotype you like that. I do hope you're still game." At this, he leaned against the wall and gave her a jaunty wink.
I am not going to let you charm me, I'm not. But good effort! You'd be a real hunk if I didn't play for the other team.
"Incidentally, Miss Kino, why the deuce would you install an artificial intelligence onto a motorbike?"
Kino's head jerked up, shocked.
"You did wonder how I knew your name. Hermes is parked in back."
"One of our men encountered him. I simply put two and two together."
But Kino was already up and dashing away. She opened the creaky iron back gate, and actually bumped it against Hermes, who sat in the nearly pitch-black alleyway, his cooling motor ticking.
"Kino?" Hermes asked. "Am I happy to see you! You... look very different. I think I like it."
Kino gaped, her jaw slack. "You care to explain?"
"Well, some of the Renewah got ambushed near where you left me. When the folks without uniforms won—"
"Got it." She had shoved her pistol back up her sleeve and was already hauling him inside. They found Mrs. Choi following their mysterious friend out toward the back gate.
"Glad to see that's attended to," the man said cheerily.
"You be sure to get them out of here as soon as you can," Mrs. Choi said to Kino. It was clear she was barely containing herself, and Kino didn't need to wonder why.
"Miss Kino gunned down two enemy soldiers on her way to help us. In this situation, Yasumi and Tegra are incontestably safer with her than with you."
"Three," Kino corrected.
"Beg pardon, I was misinformed."
Sure you were, Kino thought. "What's the plan for getting us out?" Kino asked right in front of Mrs. Choi, by no means accidentally.
"Your friend Mr. Mahoma sends his regards. He's looking into sneaking you into the airport as early as tomorrow night."
"Roger," Kino grinned. She was surprised to discover she was looking forward to piloting again.
A loud thump! rumbled through the building, shaking plaster dust from the cracked ceiling.
"Aha! And there's our cue to depart. I'm afraid there's nothing for it. Let me reassure you both: everything always turns out alright, because evil is stupid. Article of faith for me. Tah for now, miss Kino."
Kino watched the pair as they vanished into the hall's darkness, until she heard the rusty iron gate screech shut behind them. Only then did she allow herself to cackle. "Y'know Hermes, I might just make an exception for that guy."
"Eh... exception for...? Ooooh! Hah! There's hope for you yet, Kino."
Kino answered by smacking his saddle playfully.
"Ow!" he protested. "Kino, he sounds about as deep as a piccolo to me."
That provoked another outright laugh. "Can't you tell when somebody's having you on?"
She taxied the motorbike inside, feeling much better about things now that Hermes was near. If I had just up and left, I'd have only found the hole I hid him in. Guess this is the right choice after all.
Sirens screamed outside, and Kino momentarily tensed. But they passed without stopping. Headed to that explosion.
They found the children standing morosely together in the darkness. "Tegra? Yasumi? I want you to meet my best friend. Say hello, Hermes."
"Hi. I like your names," he answered, taking his own cue from his rider's upbeat tone.
"It's a motorcycle?"
"Yup," Hermes said proudly. "Would you like to ride with us?"
"Yeah!" Tegra enthused. "Who wouldn't?"
It looks like Yasumi wouldn't, Kino noted. "Kids, I know you're worried 'cause your mom's left, but I'm your baby-sitter, and you don't have a thing to worry about."
"We know," Yasumi answered, more brightly than she'd seemed until now. "Mr. Flores told us."
"'Mr. Flores,' huh? Okay, you two have any questions?"
"When's mom coming back?"
"We're going to her."
"Hopefully tomorrow. Mr. Flores is organizing all that. Then we won't hafta stay in this dump."
"Yay," Yasumi smiled. "What was that noise?"
"Oh! Mr. Flores is throwing a little party."
"He's a saboteur?" Yasumi beamed.
"Yeah, that's it exactly," Kino nodded, immediately regretting she'd talked down to such a precocious child. "You're very smart, and I can see you're both well-behaved. We're gonna get along just fine. You have any homework to do?"
"Not tonight," Yasumi answered.
"Momma said," Tegra added.
"Brushed your teeth?"
"Before you even came," Tegra answered.
"Well, then it's past time for both of you to get back to bed. No arguments, now - Mrs. Choi said I could spank you if you didn't mind me."
"She did?" Tegra's eyes bugged. Kino nodded, and with that, both kids rushed back into their sleeping bags.
Call it a white lie under the circumstances, for the sake of their safety, and my sanity. "See you in the morning. Sleep tight." Too tired to unpack her own bedding, she moved Mrs. Choi's, and settled down next to Hermes, her back against the door.
"This may be easier than I thought," she whispered to Hermes.
"You should probably go to sleep. I promise I'll keep watch."
"How'd you know the locals had contacted me?"
"Didn't. But you had no way to get me into the city. I couldn't just sit out there waiting for you. Remember Master? 'Seize the initiative?'"
Kino nodded."Risky, but... good move. And I'm more and more impressed by 'Mr. Flores.'"
"I could tell."
"Not what I meant. I get the feeling he's the one in charge. He's orchestrated a whole resistance movement, this safe house, that explosion, Mrs. Choi's departure, your ambush, returned you to me, who knows what else! And he play-acts like he's arranging nothing more important than a dinner party. He's gotta be improvising half of this; he said as much, and there's no way he knew I'd show up."
She heard the children whispering themselves. "I can heeeaar you," Kino sing-songed, and they fell silent.
"...Or that he could trust me," Kino concluded thoughtfully.
"Of course he can trust you. Do you trust him?"
"I think so. If we're patient, he'll get us all out. I mean... she won't work for him if he abandons her kids. And 'til then, I'm their caretaker." She sighed. "I have no idea how to do that. You know how screwed up my childhood was."
"Attracted to a guy, now playing mom to the kids, I say you ought'a wear girls' clothes more often."
"That's enough of that from you too, Hermes," though she smirked as she whispered it. "It's late."
"Yes ma'am," he replied, amused. "G'night."
So Kino, more careworn than she dared to admit, gratefully curled up as well.
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.
She sat up in the darkness, having more trouble shaking off sleep than usual. But from Hermes' tone, something was very wrong.
Then she smelled it: smoke. Is the building on fire? Kino ran to the windows, and saw that it was still night, but an unnatural orange glow permeated the air.
Oh, this can't be good!
Her things were packed on Hermes. Time to go. She opened the apartment door and peeked out the corridor. No fire, but the same burning smell.
"Kids, up!" She shouted. "We're leaving." She grabbed poor Tegra and plunked him onto Hermes. Yasumi was already on her feet when Kino returned to snatch her hand. "I want you to hang onto me, Yasumi. Don't let go, understand?" She grabbed Hermes' handlebars and moving as one, they wheeled him to the back gate. They approached cautiously. It's just possible the Renewah set a fire to flush out people like us.
The alleyway was worse than Kino thought: thick smoke obscured the far ends like a heavy fog. Not good, not good! This is no small fire.
No panicking, Kino. Think this through. Okay, I need cloth... no wait! Canteen first. She wrapped her gun belt around her waist and found the weight reassuring. Her canteen was there with it, hooked in back. She dug into her supplies and found one of her shirts, and as quickly ripped it into thirds. A quick dousing from the canteen, and all three wore improvised gas masks. She plunked her riding cap on and yanked the goggles over her stinging eyes. She could hear dogs barking. They're using dogs! "Tegra, up front, you hang on in back, Yasumi. We're getting out of here. Keep your eyes closed."
"Kino, three people's not gonna be easy," Hermes warned.
"I know. Got a better plan?" With the kids arranged, Kino drove out of the alleyway, staying in first to manage all the extra weight.
The street was similarly obscured, but Kino saw several citizens laying sprawled and unmoving. Oh crap, what got them?
They rode northward, until abruptly they reached the end of the paved roads. Off-road with two kids and the baggage...?
There's some kinda chemical irritant in the smoke. Oh, what if it's poisonous!? This is hopeless - ditch the kids and run!
What...? To hell with that! With an outraged growl, Kino reached back and unhooked Hermes' main cargo bungee cords. Her supplies fell away behind them in a meticulously organized heap.
"Hang on!" Kino twisted the throttle and they roared forward.
For a moment, the smoke cleared, and they could see - bodies! Bodies lying on the grass. And red fireflies darting this way and that.
Lasers - snipers! You're in a kill-zone!
Somewhere inside herself, Kino howled in rage and despair: getoutgetoutgetout!
She turned and gunned the engine, despite the rough ride, and plowed straight into another billowing ball of smoke.
"Kino!" Hermes shouted. "We can't see. Slow down."
"They can't see us either," Kino answered. She knew she was teetering on the verge of panic.
She never knew what they hit, but Hermes flipped over, and Kino heard wind whistling around her ears as she fell – hard! – into the dirt.
The pain ambushed her as it shot up her arm and shoulder. The wind had been knocked out of her and she felt her belly spasming. Sobbing, Kino tried to lift herself out of the dirt with her pained right arm, and sure enough – broken.
For a moment, all her self-control crumbled away.
We're gonna die!
With a further wail of pain she tucked her right wrist into her collar, got to her knees, and stood. Tegra and Yasumi were already up, unhurt, but crying helplessly. She dimly saw in the smoke some of the formerly orderly citizens of Kelbright running away, like wildlife from a forest fire.
And that fire was closing in, Kino could sense it. The Renewah too, by the dogs' baying and howling.
I'm in the middle of a rout, a massacre. They mean to burn everything down. Using these tactics on civilians...! Kino stuffed her feelings into their accustomed safe-deposit box and twisted the key. I don't have time for a tantrum!
Her instincts screamed at her to leap atop Hermes and roar away at top speed. One-armed, she hoisted him upright. Her leg jerked of its own accord, trying to swing her astride Hermes' saddle before her next thought countermanded the move.
She couldn't help the fleeing, panicked citizens. But the children, their mother had entrusted them to her...!
What she did next, it would have been easier to yank her broken arm out at the roots. Kino clenched her teeth, then grabbed up Yasumi with one adrenalin-fueled arm and slammed her onto Hermes' saddle.
"Yasumi, you get your little brother out of here! Tegra, hold on tight." She shoved Tegra down behind his sister.
"I don't know how—" Yasumi started to say.
"Just like riding a bike. Hermes will teach you." She put her hat on Yasumi's head and pulled the goggles down.
"Kino...?" Hermes' voice. The only time he'd said her name in that way was as they'd fled the slavers of Koth-Shem, and Kino had proposed suicide rather than captivity. Again, his voice forced her to reconsider.
She grasped her best friend's handlebar with her good arm for a moment, long enough to try to find another option, another way. But the simple facts were, with her right arm broken she couldn't even work the throttle, let alone steer Hermes at any speed. And a green rider like Yasumi could never manage an adult's dead weight behind her.
She heard the roar and crackle gaining on them. The wind was blowing some of the smoke away, for a moment, but it was still strong enough to make her eyes water. And if it thinned out enough, one of those red fireflies would alight on her back.
"Get them out of here, Hermes - go!" she commanded, and ran with the handlebars, sucking murk into her lungs until Yasumi had picked up enough speed to stay steady.
And when Hermes outpaced her, she let him go.
It was the only choice, Kino thought. She remembered a man named Kino stepping in the path of a blade meant for her.
My debt is paid.
She forced her eyes open, to longingly watch as Hermes' red tail light receded in the smoke, now merely a single luminous red spot against the gray.
She wanted to fling herself to the ground and crawl into a hole and cry. But the roaring behind her made that seem pointless. She could barely see where she was going, and her whole belly was wracked by uncontrollable coughs. The smoke in her lungs... dogs barking... she was a fox at the end of the hunt.
No! She resolved to at least keep moving forward. To her final breath, she'd remain a survivor. One foot ahead of the other.
...Kino felt the shockwave, and let it slam her against the earth. Explosion? What happened? I've been shot? Am I dying now? She felt no pain, besides the dull ache of her arm, and the infernal itching in her eyes, which perhaps meant she was hurt beyond saving.
Huh. If I'm dying, it's not so bad, after all. I'm looking forward to seeing Guri again. Nice to have something to look forward to, and after this, I think they'll let me in. Poor Hermes! He'll be crushed, losing another rider like this. He'll put up a brave face for the kids, but he's really such a softie. I'm gonna miss him. And how am I still awake?
Her eyes opened before it occurred to her to wonder if she even had eyes any more.
The hell is that...?
The smoke had cleared, mainly, and a strange floating... pin wheel, for want of a better name, hovered high up in the sky. Kino tried to figure out what she was seeing. It looked like... a spartan assemblage of metal struts terminating in spectral lights, eight of them.
She coughed phlegm out of her lungs. Guh! Hope there isn't any permanent damage. The fire was moving on, around her. She could hear it again, now that the ringing in her ears had faded. She couldn't know it, but the explosive over-pressure from the whatever-it-was had shoved the blaze and the smoke away. She was now surrounded by a circular firebreak of scorched grass.
She saw somebody in the distance point up at the sky. So I'm not the only one seeing it. What is that thing up there? She wasn't prepared to chalk this up to a flying saucer. It looked like some manner of street light. Perhaps a thunder-clap, heat lightning? Now some atmospheric trick's reflecting a street light back down at me? She'd read about mirages actually creating the illusion of entire recognizable cities, far away.
She'd have thought actually seeing a flying saucer would be exciting. Lying there, staring up at this tiny, silent apparition as it slowly hovered about was surprisingly boring. At least she had something to look at until she dared to move again. She smiled despite the burning in her lungs.
Somehow, some way, I'm still alive!
"Chronofracture complete," Yeirumis complimented Ashita. His young charge shook his head and detached the contact from the pore atop his skull.
"Safe, as of now?" Ashita asked. "Endpoint where and when?"
"Familiar time and place," Yeirumis answered reassuringly. "Ashita optimally prepare for second chronofracture to return Yeirumis plus Ashita to proper chronal context."
"Understood. Urgent? Rest needed. Significant exertion."
"Urgent however, not imperative," Yeirumis answered. "Rest." His engines gently moved them away from the surface. The pithy, quaint word "up" briefly amused him.
He focused his optics to the surface. There lay Kino, sprawled in the dirt, staring right back at him. Seeing her again, even sooty and distressed as she was, made him feel so nostalgic. A quick scan confirmed she'd suffered no terminal wounds. He was alarmed at first to detect the broken arm, until he recalled with some surprise that, yes, that had been the problem in the first place, hadn't it?
Yeirumis felt an irrational urge to scoop her up and carry her away. How wonderful, having someone to speak the old languages with again, and wouldn't Kino have fun in such a new world? Imagine Kino the Traveler having a whole Dyson Sphere to explore!
But no, the language, the interfaces, the genetics, nothing in Ashita's world was that backwards-compatible. Kino would seem a primitive dunce, a throwback, and Ashita was right when he said baseline humanity looked unfinished. No, Kino belonged back here, though it was a lovely fantasy, and he longed to at least say "hello."
Still, he'd managed something more important. The fortuitous earlier-subjective discussion of Kino in conjunction with the upcoming chronofracture had led him to this wonderful improvisation. A sad and unfortunate timeline had been altered, hopefully totally averted. Rather than dying a noble death, Kino would continue her journey with Hermes. Yeirumis looked forward to reviewing his memories upon their return. What pleasant new adventures alongside her would he recall?
Of course, Kino's temporal and dimensional anchors would be unstable for some while, as timelines reset themselves all about her. That would certainly lead to some... entertaining phenomena as she experienced parallel possibilities. But it would pass.
Yeirumis felt thoroughly cheerful and pleased with himself. "While rest, Ashita conditional appreciate additional examples of 'poetry?'"
Yeirumis odd superlative!
— Yeirumis informed so frequently.
The smoke obscured the mysterious pin wheel, until Kino was staring up at an empty patch of sky. Okay, the fire has moved on. And so has the "space ship." I better get out of here before anything else happens. She sat up.
It felt, she would later remember, that by sitting up as if rising from the dead, she had somehow plucked the thread of her entire world, and rode upon it like a gnat upon a guitar string.
Wha-wha-wha-what-at is-at is-is th-is th-is this?
"...around my garden again, Kemuri?" the cracked voice rumbled down to her.
"Kemuri?" Wait, is that my name? Somehow she knew the box in the Washi's hand contained her name. As the masked man stared down at her, frozen in confusion, Kemuri reached out and snatched it from him.
Kino hugged her console, trembling. "Doctor? What's happening?"
The Doctor recovered from the lurch, and his eyes widened in surprise. "Why, this is a chronal reset of some sort – focused upon you! How marvelously unexpected. We must investigate, provided you're still here when it's over, of course."
"No," the young man answered irritably. "We are merely the S.O.S. brigade leader, and subordinate. No need for you to bother us."
"Wait!" the haughty girl beside him ordered. "Wait a second, what are you?!"
"I'm a traveler..." Kino began to answer, but she was interrupted by a—
"Y'okay sugar cube?"
"Wheee, everything's shaking like a jelly donut!" A high-pitched voice sing-songed. "Hey, who wants a jelly donut? I brought plenty!"
"Somethin' weird's going on. Get Twi!"
She saw her companions pronking about in agitation, and fought with all four hooves to keep her balance.
Wha — ?!
She lay in a field, the silence of the place deafening, acrid smoke all around her.
What... the... HAY?! She looked down, startled to find strange curled tentacles at the ends of her limbs. Fingers, just your fingers. Ghaah, hallucinating! Something in all this smoke I'm breathing?
She tried to jump up and start running, only to discover that her forelimb was dangling limply at her side, She landed in a confused heap. How can I run with a broken leg? No, wait! You do not run on all fours. Get up on your feet.
She reared up onto her hind legs, and found they easily supported her. She looked down at her boots, blinking as if she'd never seen them before.
"My name... I'm... Kino. I'm a traveler. And I must have a concussion, or something!" She looked about at the place that had so nearly killed her. "I need to get out of here." She tucked her useless hand back into her shirt collar and started running. This time, her two legs balanced her upright and carried her away.
"Wow, that... puts the high school dreams in the shade," Kino muttered to herself.
I have funny recurring dreams...
...like there's another me out there somewhere...
The pain in her eyes grew worse, and Kino found she could only force them open for a second at a time before it became unbearable. She knew she'd joined a walking, moaning, hacking column of humanity, each smelling like barbeque. She knew she was surrounded by a crowd of strangers, another experience so foreign to her that it bordered on a phobia.
If the Renewah attack, we'll be defenseless, Kino warned herself.
I know. But I can't make it on my own. I'm blind, and dizzy.
So Kino trudged along, her good arm grasping the belt of a man in front of her. The smoke had long ago cleared, and they were moving downhill, at least. Someone at the front of the line must be able to see.
She faded into a trance. Helpless and hating it, just another refugee. Just keep the legs moving. C'mon! Until a forever later she felt a cool, humid breeze and heard sighs of relief ahead, and knew they were near a river, or some sort of water. She forced her eyes open, but only saw a wall of fellow refugees ahead.
It's odd, how a voice can leap out from the murmur of a throng. Odder still, that however much a person might change, from pubescence to venerable age, the unique cadence and timber of a voice never alters. Kino heard such a voice, and relief almost sank her to her knees. She let go of the stranger's belt and tried to follow the sound, a miserable game of Blind Man's Bluff, until the calmly uttered, sensible orders came near, and she propped her stinging eyes open long enough to find the man.
He wore a blue uniform, usually pristine, now smudged with soot. His lightly frosted brown hair was neatly parted, and spectacles perched on his nose. Such a common, no-nonsense face, exactly the sort of stolid, reliable, lacking-in-imagination face that felt as reassuring in hard times as comfort food.
"Captain Forester," she tried to call out, but her throat was clogged and swollen. She pulled air inside her aching ribs and gathered her strength to say the name again, frightened to hear how weak her best effort sounded now. But then she felt hands on her shoulders, and managed to open her eyes again, just long enough to confirm who she faced.
"Young lady, do I know you?" The man asked.
"You still have a weakness for couscous, Cap'n?" Eyes closed and watering, she pulled her mouth into a wan smile. That was indeed the meal she could prepare that pleased the captain of the Moirae the most.
"Miss Kino," Captain Forester answered sternly. "I'd promised myself to lecture you about signing contracts under false pretences."
She answered with a sudden, ugly fit of coughing. "Maybe you could keelhaul me later?" Kino finally whispered back.
"I'll consider it." She felt an arm under her knees, and allowed the man to sweep her up and carry her. She relaxed. If her lungs were shot or her arm a loss, nothing could be done about that now. But for the moment, she was in the care of someone trustworthy, and it was finally okay to lose consciousness.
She was insensible and limp as laundry by the time the man put her down.
I like a young man who doesn't try to sail away from his debts.
A long, black time later, Kino opened her eyes and saw nothing. Blind. Oh damn! Her right arm felt stiffly pinned, so she reached with her good arm and bumped something lumpy over her mouth.
"Whoa! Leave all that alone, Kino."
Hermes! Oh hurrah! Everything's going to be alright.
She felt the thing over her mouth. Medical ventilator. Smoke inhalation, got it. Then upward, to bandages over her eyes. Yeah, makes sense.
"Heeeey, Hermes!" Kino drawled happily. "I am sooo happy to hear you! You have no idea."
"Same, You've looked better, though. I told you to leave that be."
Kino obediently dropped her hand. "So, tell me the bad news," she said breezily. "Oooh, I'm stoned, aren't I?"
"Thoroughly, sounds like," he answered. "Medicine in the inhaler. Oxygen, and stuff I can't pronounce. Enjoy it, the next few days aren't gonna be fun. But you'll make a full recovery, so just rest."
"Nooow you wouldn't lie to me just to make me feel better, would you?"
"I would. But I mean it. Your eyes will be dandy in a few days, when the outer cornea finishes healing. And you're not coughing up any blood, so it looks like your alveoli are... your lungs aren't damaged."
"I know what 'alveoli' are, silly." Kino giggled. "Whoo, this stuff is strong! I'm nowhere near so miserable now. Don't think I'd try it recreationally, mind you. Cheap fun. But right now, I'm so very grateful."
"You're babbling, and you should give your throat a rest."
Her good hand was exploring the plaster cast over her right arm. "Uhm, I know. You're right. You take such good care of me, Hermes. Thank you. I don't say 'thank you' enough, y'know that?"
"I dunno when I last heard you laugh, either. S'nice, you should laugh more often."
"Hearing –you– so out of control is hilarious," he admitted, "even if it took something like this to manage it."
"Hee hee! Izzokay if you laugh at me, Hermes. I'm just glad you're here," she burbled back. Kino listened for a moment, then said, "it's raining. Thazza pretty sound."
"You're safe in your tent. I'm here to watch, so they set us up a little way from the others. Let me know if any water comes in. You warm enough?"
"Juuuust fine. Fine fine fine, stoooned outta my gourd. I still smell like a cookout, though."
"Yeah, they've been too busy to really clean anybody up."
"Oh...! Tegra! Yasumi? They're okay?"
"Safe with their mom, who sends you her eternal gratitude. And you're now a minor hero with the local resistance."
"That's nice. You're gooood, Hermes. Knew you'd take care of 'em, just like you always do with me. We're safe too? Where are we?"
"In a refugee camp, on the opposite riverbank from the triage setup you walked into. Out of the Renewahs' reach, at least for the moment. And I'm getting you far away from them soon as you can see and twist a throttle."
"Sooner! I wouldn't put it past 'em to lob a shell or two our way. They're awwwwful! I hope Tif-fi-fifony eats every one of 'em, om nom nom."
Hermes laughed again, and Kino concluded she really liked how it sounded. She felt a painful twinge though, one that no analgesic could tame. How many times did you almost abandon those kids? Just like you, Kino. Never thinking of anybody but yourself — that's something you'll never change, no matter how hard you try.
"Hermes? You oughta set the record straight: I'm no hero. I was just running for my life, like everybody else. War sucks!" Even she could hear the absurd tone in her voice, as if she was discussing a bad movie rather than one of humankind's gravest scourges.
She listened quietly to the rain for a while. Then Hermes asked, "Have you ever thought about what makes a hero? What does that mean, anyway? It certainly doesn't mean putting on a cape and playing to the crowds. Kino...?"
The world went away for a moment, and the sound of rain with it... then she said, "I suuuck at being a hero! Look at the state I'm in."
"Oh, you're awake again! You just restarted a conversation we had hours ago."
"If Mr. Flores comes calling, the answer is 'no.'"
"He's already stopped by to check on you. Brought your pack, too."
"Thoughtful of him. He's very thorough."
"You'd better go back to sleep."
"Not sleepy now. Whoo, this stuff's dynamite! I feel like dancing."
"No you don't! You try, I'm gonna call a nurse to put you right back down again. And you do not suck at being a hero. I know a couple kids who'd say so. ...You're not going to sleep, are you?"
"Noooot sleepy now. Nnnnope!"
"Huh. How 'bout I read you a bedtime story?"
It didn't even occur to her to wonder how Hermes could read from a book stuck in her bags; he just could.
"Okey-dokey-lokey," Kino answered gleefully, provoking another guffaw from Hermes. The strange, uncharacteristic phrase evoked a fragment of a memory, as fleeting as dreamstuff, but Hermes' voice interrupted her efforts to catch the misty phantasm.
"They seek her here, they seek her there," he began, "the Renehwa seek her everywhere."
"Ohhh, read it right, Hermes!" she chided.
Is she in heaven, or is she in hell,
or in league with the Pimpernel?