Unfortunately, it happened to rain the next day.
It hardly rained in Ortus, and when it did, it usually occurred in early spring and autumn, without much precipitation, just enough to slightly wet the ground.
Despite this small amount of rain, the mummified bodies of the Dead had it rough too. The rain would attract mold and maggots, and the excess moisture would exacerbate decay.
So on such days, they would spend their time in a zero-humidity sauna called a ‘hot air bath’ that was completely off limits to Living.
So it was said.
That was written in the special edition of ‘Life After Death ~Spring~’ that I have. The back of the report also stated, ‘It’s all the more important to be comfortable in this gloomy rainy season! We have 12 kinds of indoor amusement facilities! Welcome to Yumoke Hyper Health Park with your family and friends! (※If you are not mummified, you will be denied admission as appropriate)”
And thus the streets were empty.
Ai suddenly realized.
“I’m so bored~~!”
The foggy rain rustled on the windows of the room where Ai and Scar were in.
The next day, Ai was so energetic that she did not remain cooped in bed, and once she obediently had her breakfast, she tried to sneak off to Mask Street again. Ai was not a child who would be obedient just from a few knocks on the head or an hour or two worth of lectures.
Naturally, the adults tried to keep a closer watch, but she still slipped out in the morning and headed for the street. It was drizzling lightly when she got to Mask Street, and the vendors and customers that had been so busy yesterday had disappeared.
The place where the lion had set up his stall yesterday was also empty.
It was as if the whole street had closed, making Ortus a real ghost town.
Ai returned to the dormitory with heavy feet, unable to find anything to do, leaving her to fret by the window.
At that moment, a voice just woke up from the bed.
“Ah, Miss Scar, you’re awake?”
Ai was glad to finally have someone to talk to, and immediately left the window.
Scar slowly propped herself up and looked around the room in confusion.
“It’s… noon? I’ve been sleeping until now?”
“Yeah, we’re the opposite of yesterday. Do you want to eat?”
Scar’s bed had been replaced with a hospital bed. There was an enamel basin and kettle on the side table, an iron stove with ash-covered coals, and a pot with a lid on top of it.
They were prepared by Keyla, with some help from Ai.
Ai put on some gloves to avoid getting scalded, and opened the lid of the pot, which contained a sweet cereal with ginger and honey.
“…I do not have much appetite…”
“It’s good to eat a little.”
“…Is that an order?”
Ai was not happy with this statement.
“It’s not an order, but … I want you to eat.”
“…I shall eat it.”
Ai fed Scar a bite, and the latter unexpectedly ate a lot. In this case, Ai made a deliberate effort to fill the first bowl more, but Scar still finished it.
Ai took the empty bowl and uttered.
“…I didn’t order you though?”
“No… I did not expect to have such an appetite after the first bite.”
Ai heard so, and gave a vague smile.
Diva said, pulling the hem of the white robe, bowed, and waved the stethoscope hanging around her neck.
“As you can see, I’m a doctor♪”
Well, she certainly was dressed like one.
“…Are you here to see Miss Scar?”
“Yes, I’m little Diva, Ortus’ doctor♪ Well! Since I’m here, no matter what the illness is, the medicine will cure it! You don’t have to worry♪”
The more Ai thought about it, the more worried she became.
She silently pointed to the right half of the person in front of her and shook her head repeatedly.
“…I can understand how you feel. She’s bad at everything but medical skills. Do you want her to take a look?”
“…Since Mr. Kiriko said so, I will let her in …”
Ai reluctantly let the duo in.
“Then I’ll wait in this room.”
Kiriko waved to Scar, put down the medical bag he was carrying in his right hand and closed the door.
“Well, let’s get to work♪ Gosh, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a living patient, so I guess it’s time to go back to the basics once in a while♪”
“…You’re a doctor who specializes in the Dead?”
“And such a person is helping the Living?”
Ai herself found these sarcastic words inexplicable, but said them anyway.
“I’m the messenger of health~ Whether the patient is alive or dead, it’s all the same to me♪”
“…Is there anything healthy or unhealthy after death…?”
“Of course there is~”
Diva said with a downhearted voice. Her reactions were always exaggerated.
“A Living’s ailment or injury is almost always physically visible, while a Dead’s ailment is visible psychologically~ As people would say, they ‘become temperamental’. For example, the three Great desires go awry, or the concept of life and death disappeared—these are well controlled through brain surgery, drug prescriptions and psychological counselling methods, but a Dead’s mental state is always unstable~”
Ai listened with wide eyes.
“Well, it is a sore point you are talking about, little Ai. I’ve been doing psychotherapy lately and haven’t touched surgery at all, so now psychology has become my specialty~”
“Ara, what do you mean by that?”
“Nothing in particular.”
Ai walked ahead with big strides.
“Fufufu, you’re really cute♪ … and so weird♪‘
“…Say, if you can change that weird tone…”
‘She’s really weird though~. And don’t worry, even if I say something I shouldn’t, Pox and Wreck will take care of it for me~’
”We’re not sharing your body to help you clean up after your mess…”
The two of them continued with their strange interaction as they walked across the room and sat down in front of the hospital bed.
”Well, good afternoon, Miss Scar. where are you not feeling well?”
“…I have a headache and a slight urge to vomit. And my chest hurts.”
“When did it start?”
“The day before yesterday, I had been feeling sick since I entered the country, and it seems to be the worst yesterday…”
Is that so? Ai asked in surprise.
‘Well, let me take your temperature… put this under your armpit… what about your period?
Scar suddenly closed her mouth and said something vague. There were no more children born in this world, the phenomenon of wet dreams and menstruation still existed. Gravekeepers however did not have such physical phenomena.
Ai was in a cold sweat, and began to think that it was a big mistake to let them meet.
“No, I do not have a period.”
“Oh, I see—chronic illness?”
Diva, being a doctor, did not press further pertaining to such delicate issues.
Diva asked a few more questions.
Have you changed your hobbies recently? Do you feel emotionally unstable? Have people ever said that you are unstable? Are you worried about the future?
“Well, thank you for your cooperation—you have a slight fever, so pull your shirt off your chest and let me see—”
Scar unbuttoned the front of her blouse to reveal her slightly red skin and white cleavage.
“…Is something wrong?”
“Ah, no, no~♪ it’s nothing~”
Diva instantly showed a surprised expression, then took the stethoscope and placed it on Scar, asking her to breathe in, breathe out, breathe in again, and then repeat the whole procedure from the back.
“Excuse me, is there something you see…?”
Diva’s attitude became quite serious since the beginning of the consultation. It should have been a blessing, but in this instance, it gave a sense of foreboding.
“Did she have a serious illness…?”
“Huh? No, it’s not that. It’s just,”
Diva stretched out her index finger and pointed.
‘You are gravekeepers, no?’
The air immediately turned. Scar and Pox were tense.
“Ah, yes, of course. Miss Scar is a gravekeeper.”
“Ara, you’re pretty honest. And Ai, can you open your mouth and let me see?”
Ai opened her mouth wide.
”Hmm~~?” Diva took a closer look.
“As expected♪ I’m sure you still have your third molar, not to mention your fourth. Ai, you’re not under 15, are you? About 12?”
Scar was emitting tremendous murderous intent as she started to ponder how to turn this room into a battlefield, and Pox in turn was trying to prevent it from happening. Scar immediately thought of three possible ways to get the shovel under the bed, but two of which are probably traps; Pox in turn weighed the downside of letting Scar get her weapon against taking Ai as a hostage. The value is probably zero. Being in a room with gravekeepers in close proximity was overwhelmingly unfavorable.
In a situation where sparks were flying from the murderous intents, Diva added fuel to the fire.
‘You want to ask me how I can tell? It’s very simple ~ because her body is so perfect. There is no flaw in her skin, and her internal organs are almost perfectly symmetrical. How in the world could there be such a person?’
Diva was good as a healer, but she was bad as a fighter, and Pox just wanted to beat her up.
“Ah, huh? That’s weird, Miss Diva, you figured it out by yourself?”
Ai’s airheaded reply was completely inappropriate for the situation, and Scar desperately hoped that the former would be more concerned about the deathmatch beside her.
“That’s for sure♪ How else would I have known?”
Pox made up her mind that she was going to shoot Scar when she moved.
“I thought Mr. Kiriko told you that.”
Scar made up her mind, and when Pox moved she was going to act.
“Huh? Little Kiri told me…what this is… wait, does he know about this? He knows who you are? He knew and didn’t tell us? Well, that means…”
Then everything moved.
“It’s amazing, Pox! Little Kiri is hiding something from us! And he just heard it from little Ai who only met him days ago!”
Diva reached out and hugged Ai. Pox could not keep up with the unexpected movement and fell forward; Ai tried to stand on her own, trying to hold on to the weight of an adult; Scar pulled Ai’s collar, trying to ensure the latter would not be taken hostage.
As a result, everyone felt under the bed in unison.
The first to act in the chaos was Diva.
“Thank you, thank you, little Ai♪ The boy is really shy, and only two or three friends can talk to him in such depth. So I’m asking you, please be good friends with him. I’m so touched I want to cry ♪ Is this what motherhood is all about—ah but! He’s hiding something from us! Is this the so-called rebellious phase!? Wait a minute Pox! What am I supposed to do as a mother? Little Kiri has made a friend! And he’s in his rebellious phase! He’s about to enter the second stage of his life!”
“E-erm! What are friends!? Th-that sounds very terrifying~~!”
In the moment Scar and Pox drew the shovel and knuckle at each other, they immediately realized it was stupid, and put down the weapons.
The four people got up in a hurry, and the two people at the bottom never noticed the deadly fight going on above, and chatted excitedly as if they were talking about the most important thing in the world.
“What are you talking about! If you’re not his friend, how can he talk to you with so much depth♪”
Ai took Diva’s unexpected words.
“Mr. Kiriko and I, are we friends?”
‘Of course, of course♪”
Pox did not think so, but she could read the mood, and did not say anything.
“’Oops, what’s wrong♪”
Ai said with a flushed look on her face.
“This is the first time…I’ve … made a friend.”
Ehehe, she giggled coyly.
Diva was overwhelmed with cuteness.
“So cute! This kid’s too good for me! This miracle is too miraculous! Little Ai! Do you want to change to a more neutral first person pronoun?”
“Diva, calm down, don’t force people to fit your checkbox.”
“Little Ai! Don’t pay attention to perverted demands!”
It was too late.
“Fuaaaaaaa!!I can’t take it anymore! I can’t stop this! I can’t endure anymore! Ohhhhhhhh, Diva! Launching (Coming)!”
”I told you to calm down; no one knows what you’re talking about.”
The left half yanked at the right half. Diva inhaled, and calmed down a little. Pox in turn looked at the other two with a look of regret, shame, shame and regret. ♪
“…I do have to apologize to both of you, in many ways.”
“…No, we don’t mind.”
“That’s right♪ Don’t mind♪”
“I don’t want her to come back to life!”
“I’m a Dead after all♪”
So they said as they worked together to pick up the medical records scattered on the ground.
“…So anyway, what are you doing…”
“Uh oh, time to diagnose now♪ Otherwise my value to society is gone.”
”well…Even though we found out about this, there’s no need to say anything, right? After all, they want to keep it a secret too…let’s just play dumb, shall we?”
”Oh, I can’t do that♪ ~ After all, I’m a doctor—I have to prioritize the patient♪”
Diva said and reverted back to her serious expression.
“So I have to tell you – I wonder if you would like to hear my diagnosis of the gravekeeper?”
“Please tell me.”
“What exactly do you think I have?”
False pregnancy is a disorder of the mind and body in which the body reacts as if it is pregnant, even though it is not. Such cases became more frequent fifteen years ago, and has become one of the three most common physical and mental disorders in women. It can also occur in deceased people and may result in a case of psychosis, so such instances should be diagnosed by a doctor as soon as possible (this does rarely happen to men).
Such was written on a copy of the ‘Health After Death! A Simple Health Handbook for Families~’.
“Chronic nausea, slight fever, change in hobbies, colostrum secretion, and the answers to the consultation just now, they all point to this as the result. So I have a question for you.”
Diva glanced at Ai, then whispered in Scar’s ear.
“No, I have no experience.”
“Really? … I’ll just ask. Did you ever want to have children?”
“I do not think so.”
“Hm. What a contradiction. The symptoms fit perfectly… but the premise is completely wrong. I have never heard of a case where someone had a fake pregnancy without wanting a child…hmm, is there any other reason that might be related?”
Scar obviously did not know how to answer either.
“As for relevance, I suppose, I heard a voice…”
Ai recalled that Scar once mentioned so, and nodded repeatedly.
“…What kind of sound? When did you hear it?”
“When I first entered the city, and also when I just fell asleep, I would hear … the voice is very small, calling out to me, ‘help me’ …”
Three people whispered in a circle of two.
“Did you figure out anything?”
“Uh-huh, ‘little voice’ and ‘help me’, I think that can be interpreted as a child, right?’
‘Pox just likes to get carried away—but from a physician’s point of view, I’d like to refute that argument.”
The final verdict was “I don’t know”.
“But in the meantime, take care of your nutrition and get some rest. If you can get up and move around, try to move as much as possible. You don’t need to force yourself to rest, and on the contrary, I’d rather you move around♪ Have a little change of mood♪”
“Is this fine?”
“This is a very rare case, but the treatment should be the same. It’s just an incredulous situation however, so if there are any changes in her condition, be sure to let me know immediately. Don’t forget to write to me when you leave, too♪”
Diva said and started to put the equipment into her bag.
“I’ll ask Miss Keyla to adjust the food, but I won’t be able to prescribe medicination.”
Diva/Pox finished packing up, Ai called out to them with trepidation.
“Is this really okay? We lied when we entered the country, that …”
“As long as you don’t say anything, no one will find out♪”
“But Miss Diva found out.”
“……Goodness, do you want to see me turn into a crazy doctor that much?”
Ai’s words caused Diva’s expression to change. Her face showed an extremely lecherous smile and a scholarly look that threatened the lives of everything she saw.
“Frankly speaking, we have two interesting subjects in the form of ‘a girl under 15’ and ‘a gravekeeper with false pregnancy’♪ Either of them is a wonderful specimen to discuss about our ‘next generation issues’♪I would like to dissect you and see you from the inside out♪ And stand on a line nobody had been yet♪’
Diva touched Ai’s chin with her cold right hand, and her gray eye looked at the green ones with great anticipation.
Her right hand suddenly withdrew, and her eye was turned away.
”I won’t do that. Of course I’m very interested, but I still won’t do it.”
“…May I ask, why?”
“Because I’m not strong enough.”
The right arm gently hugged the left half of her body, and the left half gently hugged back.
‘I’m not strong enough to face such a huge problem. I know what I will become once I start to take on this ‘research to save the world’—my whole life will be swallowed up by this dream and I will become ‘spontaneous’. I will leave my friends and family behind, give up all the things I cherished that were ambiguous to begin with, and never come back. I will never do anything to you, because I know I will do this.”
“…I don’t really understand.”
“Dreams require sacrifices, that’s all♪—I’m a doctor, and I want to continue as one…”
Ai wanted to ask more about the dream, but it seemed Diva did not want to talk about it anymore.
“Well then♪ We’re going back to the Palace.”
Diva/Pox stood up and walked all the way to the door, Ai took the initiative to pick up the bag and follow them with.
“’Ah, yes, yes♪ Little Ai, do you…”
Diva opened the door, handed the bag to Kiriko, and then asked,
“Do you want to make friends with Princess?”
Kiriko showed a disgusted expression so obvious that it was a bemusing sight.
Ai gave a big yawn.
She blinked her eyes, trying to shake aside her sleepiness.
They were at the Ortus Palace Visitation Hall.
While the whole of Ortus was white in color, this castle alone was made of black stone. The hall where Ai was led by the guards was also made of lustrous black marble, and from the floor to the ceiling, there were stars shining in the darkness on all sides.
At first Ai was very moved by the sight, but after waiting for so long, the stars and the darkness only had a hypnotic effect.
At the invitation of Diva/Pox, Ai went out with great care and preparation. It was the people in the Palace who invited her, but Ai ended up waiting and waiting and waiting.
She waited in the dormitory till the afternoon, and when she arrived at the Palace, her identity was checked, and then she was led to the waiting room. She waited so long that she worried if they had forgotten about her. She was almost worried that they had forgotten she was there, and when she finally arrived at the visiting room, she still had to wait.
Ai rubbed her eyes, yawned again, and nodded off to sleep.
At that moment, the stars flashed.
A group of Dead in suits appeared in a corner of the room without making a sound, pulling a veil before the throne. Then men and women dressed in the same way appeared in the corners of the room, standing straight in place.
Before she knew it, there were three more figures at the edge of the room, and Kiriko was among them.
“Her Highness Ulla is here.”
With a gruff shout, the innermost door opened, and a small shadow came silently to the center, into the shadow of the throne.
“Lord of Ortus, Her Highness Ulla Hecmatika is here.”
The head priest frowned, for Ai did not get up to salute. Kiriko felt some sympathy from the sidelines— after all, it was no wonder Ai was overwhelmed by the suddenness of her visit.
“Guest, state your name.”
The Dead barked.
Ai did not give her name.
“Guest, state your name.”
Kiriko was a little surprised and looked towards the lower seat to find Ai sitting deeply in her chair with her head down and not saying anything.
Kiriko immediately stepped forward and walked three steps in front of Ai. The chief priest’s piercing eyes shot at his back, but he ignored them.
“Guest, state your name!”
Ai couldn’t even seem to lift his head.
“Ai, I know you might be nervous, don’t be too serious, just stand up and state your name …”
“Guest, state, your, name!”
“……zzz, uhhhh, I can’t eat anymore …”
It was the worst scenario.
Thus echoed the sleep talk even God Himself could not defend.
The head priest gritted his teeth and glared at Kiriko with a murderous look, and even the experienced guard had shivering shoulders, trying to resist the urge to laugh.
“You brat! What do you take a visit for—”
“You idiot! Wake up!”
“Huh? Ah, no, I didn’t sleep, I just had a little dream, after all, it’s common for me to dream at this age.”
“Wake up and stop sleeptalking! Ritual Chief!”
Kiriko pre-emptively looked at the old man who was trembling with indignation.
“As you can see! A child this young can’t pay a courtesy visit! Please leave it to us, the ‘Defective Pentagram’!”
Kiriko trotted over and whispered in the ear of the head priest.
“You are the ones who insisted on following the full set of rituals. That’s why she’s like this.”
The Ritual Chief still refused to give up.
“…Are you implying that our kingdom shall be responsible?”
“No, the responsibility is still mine.”
The old man then greedily asked for a guarantee, and Kiriko held back as he responded very calmly.
The old man exhaled through his nose in displeasure, stopped acting pretentiously, and clicked his tongue.
“Ai, I’m sorry… it should have been simpler, and we didn’t need to make it so formal, but the Ritual Chief insisted…goodness. What kind of attitude is that old geezer putting on in front of Princess …”
“H-huh? Where is this place? Th-the same place as before? But what’s this curtain for? Is there something behind it? Actually, when I heard we were going to the Palace, I imagined it would be like a party, so I only ate a little bit for lunch. And I was obedient in my dream not to eat the whole roast chicken.”
“—! You super-duper idiot!”
Ai lifted the curtain without hesitation. Kiriko reached for her collar, but was a step too slow.
The curtain lifted gently.
Behind it sat a young girl.
The girl’s hair was darker than any black stone in the hall, and her skin was whiter than any white stone in the country. The contrast between black and white was like a light that shone all around. The throne alone looked rigid, but it became more majestic and magnificent when the maiden sat on it. The light pink dress on the girl resembled a vase with flowers adorned on it, and looked mesmerizing.
A Princess so perfect, she seemed to be directly derived from a fairy tale.
But there was a catch…
She could not see the Princess’ bridle and eye patch.
The girl’s mouth was wrapped in several layers of thin leather straps, all the way down to her nose, and her eyes were also covered by a belt.
There were no words in Ai’s mind, just pure emotion, a feeling of seeing something extraordinary. Her emotion was so strong that it did not cause ripples in her heart. She simply greeted the girl like a child reaching for the light.
“Nice to meet you, I’m Ai—Ai Astin.”
The young woman did not answer, but only tilted her head slightly.
“You’re so rude! How dare you talk directly to Princess …”
Kiriko recovered, immediately stood in front of the girl and shouted at Ai, but someone immediately stopped him from continuing.
The young girl unhappily pushed away the back before her, opened the notebook she had secretly brought with her and held it up in front of her.
“Ulla Eulesse Hecmatika.”
These words were written on the paper.
“This is my name.”
The notebook flipped smoothly, revealing the words of her introduction. The words she had prepared beforehand were particularly kind, full of warm welcome.
“Please take care of me.”
Ulla flipped the notebook and showed a smile with her cheeks.
Ai smiled back.
But then she realized the girl could not see her smile, and felt a little sad.
Ai was taken to a tea room of cold stone walls filled with warm air. There was a haphazard assortment of artwork, an ancient dragon bone lined up next to a globe, and a black cat yawning on the back of a ceramic tiger.
Ai and Ulla sat face to face in the sand, while Kiriko sat next to them in an arch.
“Where did you come from?”
Ai was so focused on the décor that she didn’t hear the words.
“Princess is asking you.”
Looking back, Kiriko put her right hand on the arm of the chair, and Ulla extended her index finger to write on his hand.
“Uh, uh! There are mountains to the east of this city, and I came from the village on that mountain.”
“You grew up in that village?”
“Why did you come out to travel?”
“Because the village is gone…”
“I forgot …better not ask about this any further …”
Kiriko had cold sweat trickling down. Why? This word lingered on the back of his right hand. He was terrified of both the Princess who wanted to ask about this, and also Ai, who would probably answer bluntly.
“Excuse me, does Princess not speak out loud? And her eyes are also …”
However, Ai also asked a question that a normal person would feel uncomfortable asking …
Kiriko sighed discreetly.
“How dare you look down Princess? How can a commoner have the honor of hearing Princess speak in her own voice and having Her Highness look at her with her own eyes?”
“Kiriko is so obstinate.”
“You should learn more manners, no, maybe some common sense before you do that.”
“I keep asking him to just call me Ulla, but he’ll only do it when we’re alone.”
“Do you get it? You’re too casual in every aspect of your life and your table manners are not up to snuff. Okay, starting with dinner today, I’ll be watching you from start to finish.”
“Ai—ah, can I call you Ai?”
“Oh? You’re a good listener, aren’t you? Thank goodness.”
“You can call me Ulla too.”
“Why are you suddenly calling by her first name?…Wait, Princess!”!
The two tried to hold their secret conversation with the right hand and the notebook, but they were immediately broken up.
“Ah, I’m sorry, I should have elaborated that we should call each other so when we’re alone.’
“It isn’t a question of whether I knew it earlier or not! Please don’t mess around! Rules are rules, Your Highness, you must abide by it!”
“I have obeyed. I didn’t speak out loud.”
“Don’t take it out of context!”
“You see, Kiriko is very obstinate, right?”
“That’s right, so stubborn.”
The two girls bonded in a few moments.
“By the way, when Kiriko first met me, she mistook me for ‘Princess’—for Ulla.”
Kiriko did not remember that at all.
“Yes, that’s why I was looking forward to this visit, thinking if we looked a bit alike …”
Ai has blonde hair, Ulla has black hair, and her face did not look alike in any way.
“If there’s any similarity in features, it’s the fact that we’re alive, I guess.”
“Why did Kiriko get it wrong?”
“Ah, no, that…I was a little dizzy…”
“? You met in a daze?”
Right, the situation was dire.
Kiriko decided to shut up Ai who was about to explain first.
(Uh-huh, what are you doing?!)
The two took advantage of the fact that Ulla could not see as they tugged at each other’s cheeks and whispered to each other.
(Ai! I’m begging you! Play along with me!)
(I didn’t tell her I was in danger!)
(…You’re hiding something from her?)
Ai’s eyes became serious.
(Please, I don’t want her to worry!)
(…Forget it, it’s fine …)
“—Yeah, it was nighttime, and Kiriko was sleeping, using the moonlight as stage lighting, and dancing in a grass skirt…looking back now, I was too stupid, I shouldn’t have bothered.”
“I-I see. I’m sorry that you had to witness such an embarrassing scene.”
“No no no, you don’t need to apologize. That’s okay compared to the parodies later on, like, what’s with that ‘’water-cooled twin-cylinder engine’ imitation?”
“Wow, that sounds like fun. Kiriko wouldn’t even perform that in front of me.”
She immediately became interested when she heard this kind of topic …
Kiriko just wanted to run away on the spot.
Ai gave a fiendish smile and attacked.
“—But what relationship do you two have?”
“Our relationship is…”
“Ahhhh enough! I’m a classmate of Princess! And also a teacher!”
“???? Can these two relationships co-exist?”
“…I’m individually connected to the other five, so I can draw knowledge from their memories.”
“It’s not my fault!”
“Say, you two…”
Kiriko hung his head helplessly.
“… I’ll say it up front, there’s nothing to envious about this … This kind of connection has really worn out ego. Before I met Princess, I really didn’t know the difference between the five of them and myself …”
Once she heard that, even Ai felt a little sorry for him.
“…Ah, I was rude.”
“…I didn’t even know that was the case before.”
Ulla spread out her notebook unhappily, and then used the pen to express a strong emotion in her heart.
“I told you Kiriko was sleazy, no?”
No response today either.
Julie went to the repair shop, and then walked all the way to the first place, where she met Gokoku. In the afternoon, I went to the grocery store and the store, and then went to the telecommunication office. He didn’t get the response he was expecting, so he made four telegrams and returned to the dorm.
Julie had recently learned how to distinguish Scar’s expressions, which were all smiles, but with traces of other emotions mixed in. From the way he had learned to tell, Scar seemed to be very happy with her meal.
Ai was so excited that she didn’t listen to anyone during dinner, happily talking about the events of the day.
Ai came back to the room and kept talking, and Julie was familiar enough to picture the young girl named Ulla in her mind.
Again there was no response on this day.
Julie went to the repair shop, and then walked all the way to the Main Street, where he met Orias. In the afternoon, he went to the grocery store and others, and then to the telecommunication office. He did not get the response he was expecting, so he made four telegrams and returned to the dormitory.
Scar’s ailment had improved greatly, for her face was red, and she had some appetite. Julie handed her some free raisins to eat, and she silently took them and consumed them. Julie had recently learned how to distinguish Scar’s expressions, which were all smiles, but with traces of other emotions mixed in. From the way he had learned to tell, Scar seemed to be very happy with her meal.
He drafted a letter at the desk for a little while, and Ai returned, a tad earlier than the previous day. Ai was so excited that she did not listen to anyone during dinner, happily talking about the events of the day.
Ai was still talking when she got back to her room, and Julie was familiar enough to picture the young girl named Ulla in her mind.
That was pretty much all Julie said in return, but Ai did care about it at all and was having a great time talking about it.
They were chatting in Julie’s room, so as not to disturb Scar’s rest. Julie was at her desk looking at papers and Ai was sitting on the edge of the bed with her feet wobbling around and a shovel in her hand that she had not held in a long time.
Ai could not say enough, and later faced the shovel as she said slowly,
She acted like she was reporting to the person on the shovel.
“Maybe I’ve made two friends at once…”
The shovel did not answer, so Julie stood up and touched Ai’s head hard with his rough hand.
Ai finally stopped talking.
Julie sensed this and sat down next to her. The mattress sank deeper in his direction, causing Ai to almost roll onto the bed.
“Instead, Ai, I need to talk to you about something…can I?”
Ai heard his serious tone of voice, and then sat upright.
“…I heard that someone in town knows who you are.”
Ai answered boldly.
“Is that not allowed?”
“No, there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Julie’s voice did not contain any anger.
“… I thought that you would scold me …”
“I’m not going to scold you. … Didn’t I say ‘I’ll help you’ on that hill? Honestly I don’t know any way to fulfill your wish, so I can only help you out, just do what you want. Of course, I will complain, after all, I also have to take care of my own sanity.”
“…Thank you very much.”
“But it’s still too close. If the person found wasn’t one of the ‘defective pentagram’, I really wouldn’t know how big things will escalate. Best case scenario, we get deported, or worse, we’ll lose our lives, or worse, we’ll be buried after death, or even worse, we’ll be taken for experimentation. Do you know how serious that is?”
“No, I don’t know.”
Her answer seemed stupid, but her voice was calm.
“I just thought that we’d be fine since you weren’t so insistent, Mr Julie.”
Good grief, this kid, so Julie clicked his tongue.
“You really think highly of me…but is that really the only reason?”
“There are also things like Kiriko’s personality, the atmosphere on the street, and our strength, all of which are more or less taken into account. But I guess in the end, it’s all about intuition.”
“There is also a blind guess.”
“Blind guess, huh.”
Julie wanted to sigh, but since everything went so well, he could not say anything more. This child, in spite of her innocence, could sometimes make everything look so seamless that one wonders if her innocence was an act.
“…You really can grasp such things so naively, huh…how shall I put it? Like, you know how to read the mood, but you don’t really know how to use it…you’re very polite, but so disoriented…and openly trying to cheat your way out of things…”
“Excuse me, are you complimenting me or undermining me?”
I don’t know either, Julie replied.
“Mr Julie, you know this city very well, right? About Mr. Kiriko and the others too.”
She’s very perceptive about such things, so Julie thought.
After losing his wife, Julie traveled around to find a place where the family could live together. But the world was not as open to the Dead as it was at this point, and the whole family was stranded at the border.
“At that time I also came to the city…but I couldn’t compromise after all, so I didn’t stay here. Later, I also went to see the ‘witch’ and asked her to help embalm my wife, but she refused me and instead helped us solve the housing and other problems, large and small.”
“? She refused and still helped you prepare?”
“… She said ‘Your mortal happiness is boring, but your misfortune is great. If I can help your misfortune, a signature is nothing. You know what happened after that, right?”
The Dead was destroyed by Hampnie Hambart, and his daughter died, Julie followed and tried to die but could not, and finally arrived here.
“At that time I made friends with one of the ‘defective pentagram’. I was just a friend to one of them though, so it seems Kiriko didn’t realize. I so happened to meet this friend, Orias.”
“Another person that’s half left and half right?”
“Yes, just not quite the same as the other three.”
Julie said as he caught his breath, and looked at Ai.
“…According to him, he wants us to leave the country and never enter again.”
Ai’s wavering feet suddenly stopped.
“I did say we’ll be deported at least, right…his offer is way better than that. After all, he only wants us not to come back, not permanently banished.”
Her feet stopped still.
“Will I not be able to meet Ulla and Mr Kiriko, the friends I met here, again?”
Julie replied, as if in self-defense.
“…You can write to them.”
“…You’re right. Ulla and I are like pen pals…hahaha … haha …”
Ai said and hung her head in frustration.
“…Today Ulla asked me in the Palace: ‘You’re not staying at Ortus?'”
Julie turned her head in a very exaggerated manner.
“Of course I understand, Mr Julie.”
But Ai was very calm.
“I refused her.”
“…You already found out?”
Found out what? So Ai asked. Her eyes looked hollow and distant, as if she was looking at the end of the wilderness.
“I just want to ask, Mr Julie, did you think that I never found out? Do I look that foolish?”
Ai looked into the distance with an unemotional expression and continued talking to herself.
“Mr. Lion is also really simple, saying something like ‘you do not understand the dark side of Ortus at all’, and he so happened to say that to me…I can’t blame him, after all, he does not know what kind of deception I was in which I grew up.”
“I have the best nose for this kind of scent.”
Ai laughed, only this time, she said it with great glee. Julie was heartbroken and wanted to stop her from going on, but he could not.
“I say Mr Julie, why didn’t you live in this city with your dead wife and your still alive daughter then?”
Julie did not answer. Ai casually revealed the secret.
“I know. Because Ortus is the Dead’s city, and this city only allows the Dead to exist, not Living—so if Living still wants to live in Ortus, what should we do?”
Julie still did not answer.
“The answer is simple, just die.”
Ai slowly turned her head.
“When did you find…?”
“…I just imagine a little bit, felt there were some things I was doubtful about. When you have doubts, you can find hints everywhere. Like this school…and the words of Mr. Lion…don’t you think?”
While saying these words, Ai’s eyes too regained life.
She was furious.
“… Why didn’t everyone tell me about this? Whether it’s Mr Julie, Kiriko, Pox, Wreck, Diva, or Mr Lion …”
The green eyes burned with anger, and the searing sun-like heat hit Julie.
“… I’m not hiding it from you, and Ortus is open about it.”
“But you are hiding it from me, aren’t you?”
The child’s eyes burned with anger, and the adult then looked away.
“…I’m not blaming you, because I can understand how everyone feels…but… …”
Ai sat on the bed, hands clenched so tightly that the bones almost cracked. Her muscles were tense, her body temperature rose, and the anger burning in her eyes was almost murderous. She desperately pressed her body, enduring the anger that should not be vented towards anyone.
“I really hate this. I don’t want anyone making decisions for me behind my back anymore, and letting me know when it’s already too late.”
The villagers used to hide everything thoughtfully, and she too pretended to be kept in the dark, maintaining a façade and a false world.
To say goodbye to all this, Ai said,
“I’m determined not to live in the dark anymore—I decided that I’m not going to close my eyes, cover my ears, and live like the walking Dead.”
“Yes, so Mr Julie, please tell me all about it in the future. Don’t worry about me getting hurt or unhappy, because it’s all up to me to decide what happens to me.”
“… I understand.”
Julie raised his hands to surrender. Ai assumed that Julie would never hesitate to lie or hide once he felt the need to do so.
“I believe you.”
But Ai lied too. The two made a pact to lie to each other.
“…But what are you going to do when you know this?”
“You should have told me first what Ortus’s attitude is towards immigrants, and the reasons for doing so.”
Julie spoke up.
Ortus’ immigration policy had always been ‘they would never refuse those who come, nor pursue those who leaves’, and in principle, it would accept all Dead who had come to seek asylum, and refuse the Living. As for those who had arrived accidentally, they will be sent to a nearby colony for free, and will be given a place to stay for the duration. Only the Living who had nowhere else to go will they be asked to die before settling in.
“But why do they have to die, when Living can live together with Dead?”
Julie shook his head firmly.
“It’s not possible, for several reasons. First of all, the infrastructure of Ortus was built with Dead’s needs in mind, and only a small part of the area has running water and sewerage. The hospital here only has psychiatry treatment, and most importantly, there is no way to supply food, because the land is a barren place where no one can live. There is always a way to deal with tourists like us, who only appear once in a long while, or people who do business outside the city gates, but it is impossible to supply a large amount of food forever.”
“… But, if that’s the only problem …”
“Well, yes, if these are the only problems, it’s not a big deal. It’s going to be hard, but it’s not impossible…But, Ai, Ortus has a far greater force than these problems that is rejecting the Living …”
“What is it…?”
“It’s the feelings of the inhabitants.”
Ortus residents are all Dead, of course, no one was born here. Most were shunned by the Living, exiled to the wilderness and rendezvous together. The persecution by the Living was so great, most of the wanderers were buried by the gravekeepers. Groups like Ortus were the same, mostly nomadic in nature, discriminated in all aspects, and often on the verge of extinction.
Thus, such a place was a haven to those. They did not have to be discriminated against by the Living, they did not have to fear gravekeepers, and they were guaranteed a place in the international community. In a place like this…
“Can you blame them for refusing to live with Living?”
“There’s going to be friction between the early Dead and the current Dead—the same guys who up until yesterday were discriminating against the Dead—if the Living is allowed to live here, Ortus would have been divided into two factions and would have fallen into great chaos.”
“Ai, it will take you a lifetime to solve this kind of problem. The job may take more than a year, ten years, or even a hundred years.”
“If it takes that much time …”
“By that time there will be no one left alive. Yes, that’s the biggest claim of the opposition. No matter how hard they try, in another hundred years, all Living will be dead … they are waiting for that time.”
Ai was so shocked that she said dejectedly,
“I can’t believe this idea …”
“But it makes sense.”
“Does it …? I don’t think it makes sense. I just think it’s a dead end …”
Ai said, resting her hand on her cheek and closing her eyes. When Julie felt that he should say something to comfort her, and started to think of what to say…
Ai shouted as she got up.
“Let’s put this on hold!”
“Y-you’re so energetic about this, and you’re saying to put this aside first?”
“Don’t worry! I’m just pretending to be energetic!”
Ai was right. She swung the shovel and dismantled the air, bouncing around meaninglessly.
“Indeed…I think you can put it aside first. You should see more of the world and develop your ego.”
“Yes, I’m going to put it on hold with all my might.”
“Putting it on hold? That’s a good one. … Let’s start with what we can do.”
Ai replied with a very fine God, and then finally got to the point.
“Then I have one thing to ask Mr Julie.”
“What is it?”
“Please look up Ulla Hecmatika.”
Ai said this to Julie from a distance where no one else could hear her.
“I’ll look for opportunities to try too, but I just think something’s wrong.”
Julie sighed at the tricky request.
“Why is she still alive?”
The third night came equally to everyone.
But thanks to the game, neither of them had the time to discuss about sensitive issues, which was the only point he was really thankful for—
“It’s my turn—five steps. One, two, three, four, five—ah.”
Ai stopped on a grid.
“‘Age increases by five years.’ Well, that makes me ninety-six years old now, and I need to check for dementia. Roll Roll three dice…for twelve points. Where’s the equation sheet?”
Ai then calculated the average life expectancy, made a health checkup, and then calculated the insurance amount. After all that, she finally said.
“I am dead at the age of ninety-six. Surrounded by two husbands, six grandchildren, twelve great-grandchildren and six great-great-grandchildren.”
“………………Heh……………… Huh? What about the game?”
“Wait, it’s over!?”
“Yes, the game’s tagline is ‘Reenact your life rigorously! Experience a different life in a game!’”
“It’s really fun.”
“… Well, that’s right. I don’t mind since you two had fun.”
“Oh my, I won a lot.”
“Ahhh, so that’s a win.”
“Yes, it says ‘Everything is good if the result is good! Let’s welcome the happy ending together! That’s a pretty good line.”
“……Hmm,’Happy ending’, huh?”
Kiriko tried to sound as flat as possible, but Ai immediately assumed the worst and averted her eyes blatantly.
“This game…was from a long time ago… more than fifteen years …”
“That’s right… well, let’s pack up. It’s late.”
Ai did not say anything more, and helped to pack the game. Cold sweat quietly trickled down Kiriko, since it had been a thrilling day. He had been on tenterhooks since the previous day.
“Is it over already?”
“Well, it’s late, I have to get back before dinner time.”
“Ai, will you come back tomorrow?”
Of course! Ai replied energetically. To be honest, Kiriko did not want the two of them to meet again, but he had no authority to stop it.
“What about the day after tomorrow?”
‘What about the day after tomorrow?’
That would be the day when Ai had to leave Ortus and could not visit her at the Palace. It seemed Ulla too knew about this.
“I don’t think…I’ll be able to come.”
There was an awkward silence.
“If only you’ll stay in Ortus, Ai.”
“I’m sorry, as I said yesterday, I can’t agree to this in any way.”
Ai decisively refused. Kiriko was uncomfortable with her attitude since yesterday. There was an unshakeable firmness in those words, a far cry from Ai’s usual sloppy and soft attitude.
He had seen Ai speak with such firmness before.
A creepy feeling suddenly raced down ran down Kiriko’s back.
At this point, Ai looked exactly the same as she did when they returned to the dormitory to days ago. Back then, she revealed to Kiriko of her identity as a gravekeeper.
“… Why? For your dream?”
“Yes. That’s why I…”
I can’t die yet.
The second half of the sentence, which should have been followed by this, did not vibrate in the air.
Kiriko stood up without a sound and covered Ai’s mouth.
So you knew. He looked at her with such a shocked expression. His heart was pounding, while Ai looked calm, as if she had already seen this coming.
Ai frowned, wondering why Kiriko had to stop her from saying it.
“?That’s why you…?”
A few seconds of silence struck Ulla as these words were written on the open notebook.
‘Please, just don’t say it!’ Kiriko pleaded with Ai. ‘You better explain this later.” So Ai shot back with such a look, and her eyes relaxed.
“…I still need to keep traveling.”
Ai’s vague words restored the atmosphere to normal.
Ulla’s blindfold covered everything, and she did not notice anything.
Ai was waiting on the bus home.
“Okay, please tell me … why did you stop me just now?”
They were riding the bus down Ortus City Street, sitting next to each other, with no one around to hear them.
“…I can’t talk about it now.”
“Then when can you tell me?”
“…I’ll tell you when you leave the city.”
Ai frowned unhappily.
“What’s the use of delaying like this? Even if you don’t answer, I’ll just go ask Ulla tomorrow.”
“No, you can’t do that.”
“? Why …?”
“I just got contacted by Pox/Wreck.”
“So what about…”
“Wasn’t there a town last time?”
“You mean the town that was hit by a tornado? And what about …”
“One hundred and five residents have applied to immigrate to Ortus.”
Ai looked back in shock.
“Well, you probably assumed correctly—- they’ll die and become residents of this City of Death.”
Kiriko’s expression was tinged with grim determination.
“They had no place to go. Even if they kidnap me or the whole town becomes bandits, it’s only a matter of time until they die out. Since they’re already at this point, they might as well die right from the beginning.”
At that moment, an alarm sounded throughout the city. The ominous sound was like the call of a strange bird beckoning the end times, echoing through the evening sunlit Ortus and causing Ai’s inner eardrums to wail
“Ortus is under martial law. From now on, all gates shall be closed, and the commercial area at the South Gate will be cordoned off. All passing, and all incoming passengers will be required to stay in the quarters registered on their entry cards—do you hear me?”
“Then Kiriko Zubreska has informed Ai Astin—and vetted through the others. You are to return to your dormitory immediately in the shortest possible time, and never leave my side. I’ve just been informed by the soldiers that if you wander outside alone, you will be arrested without warning.”
“Please, please wait! How can you be so rude!”
“Shut up, I know it’s rude without you saying it! This whole thing was already brutal and cruel!”
The uneasiness that had existed before had disappeared from Kiriko’s expression, leaving only a relieved expression of relief and a stubbornness that pretended to be determination.
“The massacre of one hundred and five residents will take place tomorrow morning, so if you don’t want to die ‘as collateral’, don’t ever leave the house.”
Kiriko escorted Ai back to her room, and ensured that she, Julie and Scar were all there before leaving.
Ai was escorted into the room, and paced around the room like a raccoon trapped in a cage. Starting from Scar’s pillowside, she walked past the dresser, around the two beds, behind the desk where Julie was sitting, and then to the window to look outside. It was dark outside, the usual festive lights had disappeared, and there was nary a whistle in the night breeze.
“…Ai, do you want to calm down?”
Scar said as she lay helplessly on the bed, Ai then regained her senses and stopped in her tracks.
“I’m sorry, Miss Scar… are you feeling okay?”
Scar remained unwell even after her diagnosis, and her condition remained poor. She was not physically ill in any way, but psychologically, she remained weak and feeble.
“It is really noisy…”
“Ah, sorry, did I wake you up …”
“I am not talking about you…the cry for help…how am I supposed to save her?”
It seemed that what bothered Scar most was the auditory hallucination she had mentioned before. She still spoke calmly, but she did not seem sane.
“… Please go to sleep. You’ll be fine once you sleep.”
Ai sat on the edge of the bed and helped Scar to brush away the bangs that fell on her face, stroked her head, and kept going for a while. Ai found herself doing exactly the same thing as the adults who took care of her did when she was sick as a child, and after a while, her mood slowly calmed down.
“Is she asleep?”
“Yes, she’s sleeping soundly.”
“… Let’s go next door and talk.”
Julie said, walked to the next room and sat down at the desk that had become his assigned seat. The door was unlocked, and the only thing visible outside was darkness, so it did not seem like someone was watching.
He closed the door and sat down on the edge of the bed.
“Do you know what the situation is?”
“More or less. What about you?”
Naturally, the two exchanged whispers and information.
Julie did not have any new information about the current situation.
“So, what are you going to do?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you want to save them?”
Julie sighed deeply.
“…You definitely haven’t thought about how to save them, and what to do after that …”
“I guessed so…”
Julie sighed again, having a big headache about it.
“… Anyway, let’s exchange all known information. I’ve checked on Ulla.”
“Did you find out anything?”
“I asked around every chance I got…but it was only for one day and I couldn’t really ask much…everyone’s really protective of her, adored her, and really put their trust in her…it’s just…”
“How should I put it? Some people didn’t react the same way. It’s not like respect, but like, reverence? No, it’s closer to fear, I think.”
“…Hmm, I can’t really figure it out.”
“Yeah, I couldn’t figure it out either. So I was going to go to someone who should know, but…”
Martial law had been issued.
“… But maybe, this person will come to us instead.”
“? What kind of person?”
“You should be more familiar than me. I asked to deliver a message, so he should right about …”
At that moment,
There was a knock. It did not come from the door, but from the window.
“? What is it?”
Ai went to the window and opened the curtain.
(It’s me, open the window.)
Somehow, the lion mask appeared outside the window, and Ai hurriedly opened the window.
“What are you thinking!? This is the third floor!”
“I’m used to it. No big deal…get out of the way.”
The lion showed excellent athleticism, and deftly entered the room. Then he looked around without letting his guard down, and when he saw Julie, a wary look appeared on his mask.
“… Hey, fox, what’s the point of writing this letter to me?”
“Ah, I wrote that.”
The lion made a feline intimidating sound and glared at Julie.
“… Mr Julie, what kind of letter did you write?”
The lion took a piece of paper out of his pocket and it read.
“To Mr. Shad Wahls, please help me. ~Ai Astin~”
“I thought it was strange, not only is the wording wrong, but that brat Rico also said that the person who sent this letter is a strong man, and you wouldn’t have known my full name …”
“Huh? So you don’t know?”
“That’s right! Mr. Lion is Mr. Lion, because at that time I was just a small fox …”
“I see, I really don’t get it…well, I don’t, but you came for her, thank you.”
Julie said, bowed to the lion, who looked back at the top of Julie’s head.
Ai really did not expect that the lion would risk scaling the walls and arrive here just because of a mere piece of paper. She did not think he would do such a thing.
“Mr. Lion, are you here to save me?”
He probably would answer ‘How could I’ or ‘Don’t be silly.
But that was not the lion’s answer.
“I’m here to save you.”
The lion mask was always expressionless, but the lion controlled the subtle light and shadow etched on the mask, showing a myriad of expressions. Ai herself assumed she could distinguish between them.
And based on the method she learned, the expression on the lion’s mask was ‘anxious’.
“I heard that you met Princess?”
“Listen to me, don’t meet with her again.”
“…Are you saying the same thing as Mr. Kiriko?”
The lion mask showed a ‘relieved’ expression.
“So he’s against it too…It seems he finally has a little conscience…”
Ai was confused by this statement. Just moments ago, when they heard the ominous siren on the bus Kiriko said that he would not let Ai meet Ulla again, and there was no conscience to be seen on his face. His face was … metaphorically speaking, like the look of a parent determined to protect a child, no matter what bad things they would do.
But the lion did not see that look on Kiriko’s face.
“Why are you separating me from Ulla? Is this helping me?”
“…You should stop running into the street and stay here until the day you leave the country.”
“Please answer me.”
“I beg you, just listen to me!”
“Then please tell me why.”
“Shut up, you little brat! The world is full of things you shouldn’t know! Behave yourself!”
“That’s the reason again! Everyone is making decisions for me, telling me how I’ll be unhappy and unfortunate! Who do you think all of you are! I’m the one who should decide all this! It’s up to me to decide whether I’m happy or unhappy! You’re not telling me anything! You lie and deceive me! What’s the point! Have you ever thought about what it would be like for someone who didn’t even know it was happening until everything is in a mess!?!”
“! You brat!”
The lion grabbed her by the collar and raised his right hand.
“If you want to hit me, sure! If you want to kick, sure! If you want to beat me to spit blood and beg for mercy, try if you want!”
“I-I won’t go that far!”
“Then please let go!”
The lion was stabbed by words, and his trembling hands put her down. Ai’s feet hit the ground heavily, and her head was lowered due to the downforce.
And then, Ai,
“O-oy fox? What’s wrong with you?”
“Uu, hic, uu, uu~~ …”
“O-oy! Why are you crying at a time like this! This is ridiculous!”
Ai cried, and only she knew why she was crying.
The two hazy core thoughts of the past collided in an explosion, and one of them shattered. The desire of ‘hoping for the Dead to die happily’ was shattered by the conviction that ‘the happiness is determined by the person himself’’.
Two days ago, on the way back, Kiriko said, “What do you mean by ‘happy ending’, when in the end it’s just a happy ending ‘in your opinion’?” Those words pierced her heart, and they were further convicted by so.
Ai cried because her dream had been shattered. But the reason she cried was not understood by anyone, and only confused Julie and the lion.
The lion stood frozen in place watching her tears. Her tears would not stop.
The Dead could not cry, or at the very least, not to the extent of a fountain of tears.
The lion’s mask did not show any more expression. The light merely illuminated the mask, and the shadows merely formed on the mask. There is no subtlety, and the mask was as silent as the face of a Dead.
The lion’s words sounded as if someone from afar had played a tune that drifted with the wind.
“With the crying … too thief la … I tell you just … do not cry.”
By no means did they understand each other. The lion did not understand why Ai was crying, and Ai did not understand why the lion had changed his mind.
But despite that, they decided to.
The Lion began to speak.
“A year or so ago, there were a few Living in Ortus.”
Ai nodded and asked,
“That’s you guys, right?”
The lion mask, still expressionless, turned a pair of dark holes toward Ai.
“So you already knew?”
“Well…I knew by looking at this dormitory.”
Ai looked around.
From the moment she heard that this was a school, Ai had always had questions. Why was there such a well-equipped dining room in the dormitory? Why was the water and sewerage so well-equipped? The whole building had signs of years of use, and it did not look like a temporary addition. Ai then saw from the students’ unhealthy graffiti in the toilets that this was originally a school for Living.
Then she imagined where the students had gone, and felt a chill in her heart.
“Wait, don’t jump to conclusions…I may not be the right person to say this, but things aren’t as bad as you think.”
Lion stopped Ai from assuming the worst.
The students who attended this school before were living children brought in by immigrants.
Since Ortus was established here nine years ago, people have been trying to immigrate, Dead or Living. They had nowhere to go, no home to return to. Neither Living, nor Dead, who simply want to avoid the gravekeepers, have any attachment to life.
Ortus, of course, accepted these people after they died, but the only exceptions were the children who were still alive. Even the most radical opposition did not oppose this measure.
No one wants to take children into eternity at a young age.
Ortus left them a period of time for their self-awareness to awaken.
The children would live until they were fifteen years old, when they choose one of two paths.
That is, to live or to die.
If they wanted to live, they had to leave Ortus, and if they want to die, they could stay.
“The ratio is about eight to two. 80 percent chose to live and 20 percent chose to die.”
“…That many people chose to leave?”
“Well, then 70% of them came back soon after. It’s just a trip, to put it bluntly. What is said is to broaden their horizons and go out for a year or two…this is especially true for the last batch.”
Most children ultimately wanted to stay in Ortus. Their parents were banished from their homeland because they died, and the children were forced to leave their homeland because they were alive, as though they were a contrast formed through a distorted mirror. But the difference was that they are not rejected by their homeland, they could return at any time if they gave up one thing.
These children, who grew up surrounded by death, really did not feel that life was something so sacred that it had to be protected.
“I came to Ortus nine years ago and died a year ago. I was fifteen years old.”
There was still no expression on the lion’s mask.
“Most of the people who come to Ortus do not come alone. Some with their families, some with their friends. But I was, on the contrary, abandoned by my parents in this city.”
No, it might be impossible to say. He was fifteen a year ago, which meant that the lion was seven when he was abandoned. Everyone knew how valuable children were at that time, and the favorite commodity of the body snatchers was children. Obviously there would be a high demand for them in the black market, and clearly no one would abandon these children that easily. He believed that his parents had the hardship of not being able to raise him themselves, so they placed him here.
But the lion threw away that hope. He did not allow himself to be comforted by the excuse that ‘my parents just had a hard time raising me, not abandoning me’, nor did he allow others to see him that way. As a matter of course, he became a delinquent, and a serial offender who often sneaked out of the dormitory.
The lion did not live his life with hatred.
However, he refused to be indoctrinated in school with Ortus’ favorite subjects—scented morals or glorified history—until he was old enough to die. To the lion, school was akin to a place for chickens or pigs, and he was not allowed to stay there.
He preferred masks.
The lion has loved Mask Street since he was seven years old. At that time he put on the little lion mask and ran around in it just like Ai did over the past few days. He always hung out with the Dead, occasionally returning to school, and ran away once he scented upon the foul stench of the Living.
“I died without longing, without regret.”
So said the lion.
“In terms of masks, there is no place in the world more advanced than Ortus. I decided at once to die on the night I turned fifteen.”
The adults were against it. At that time, the rule of choosing life and death at the age of fifteen was already formalized, and it was also generally believed that death at the age of seventeen and above was the best way to form a personality. Moreover, the lion was a problematic child at that time, and the teachers thought that more time should be spent on his personality development.
But the lion had already made up his mind that if the adults did not allow it, he would kill himself, so the teachers had to compromise.
So he died on the night of a new moon.
“The only people who died that night were me and Belibella. They made us both dress like we were in the hospital, had grain for a week, and then fast for a day or two, and then they took us to the Palace. We were pretty nervous because although we knew what would happen if we died, we didn’t know how we would die. And those who had died before kept it a secret to the end.”
—-That was a long wait.
The adults told them to stand in a ceremonial room in the corner of the Palace. It was a hut built for the cleansing ritual, and it was torn down every other day.
In other words, the two of them should die in this hut.
“But no matter how you look, I just couldn’t see the murder weapon. And then there wasn’t even anyone in the house, except for Diva/Pox and a few guards. Even when we asked them where the embalming was to be done, they wouldn’t answer.”
Then some time later, when the moon that could not be seen was up in the sky, the adults called them both to present themselves before the Princess.
“I was so surprised, I didn’t know why Princess had come to such a place. But everyone else was kneeling, so I had to follow suit.”
Then Ulla appeared, led by Kiriko.
“At that moment, I wanted to ask why that guy was there, but I didn’t care about such things right away.”
Whenever Ulla appeared in front of people, she always wore a blindfold and a mouthpiece. It was the same then.
“And then the kid took those off.”
The straps covering her eyes and mouth came off before the confused pair’s eyes.
Then Ulla opened her eyes and mouth and let out a little yawn.
“Princess was so sleepy that she seemed to have been taken there while she was asleep. It was an honor that after she murmured a few words, she noticed the two of us staying in front of her. I still remember Princess’s first words were: ‘Who are you? The others didn’t say anything, so I had to cheekily teach her manners by saying, ‘Before you ask someone’s name, you should say yours.'”
Belibella immediately slapped the lion down, kowtowed and begged for forgiveness.
Ulla was startled by the situation, then smiled quietly and said, “This is the first time I’ve met someone who doesn’t know my name.” And that’s how Ulla learned to give her name.
“And that’s how we got to know each other very quickly.”
Amazingly, none of the attendants stopped it. But it wasn’t long before Ulla yawned again, made a promise to “see you later” and left.
“At that moment, our hearts had stopped.”
Kiriko climbed up the dimly lit dormitory stairs with a long sigh. It was the fourth day since those people entered Ortus. The curfew would not be lifted all day tomorrow, so they could not do anything on the fifth day. He believed the same would happen again on the sixth day. At this rate, the Princess and Ai would not see each other again, even on the seventh day.
Everything seems to be going well, but Kiriko was feeling gloomy.
(Pox to Vela—it’s past the scheduled time, what’s going on?)
Kiriko would temporarily pause his thoughts whenever someone else’s thoughts poured into his head, and he had to pause for a moment and relay Pox’s message to Vela.
…Recently, he felt particularly tired when doing so, especially with all five people connected. The fatigue will feel like a lingering bad chill. In the past, he could handle a day’s worth of connection as easily as breathing.
There had been frequent requests to connect the entire time, and it is clear that all five people were active.
But Kiriko was just blindly fishing.
“…What can I do? No matter how good the other five people are, I’m just a kid after all …”
The chief priest naturally could not ignore a massive ritual of a hundred and five immigrants. Kiriko was kicked out in a matter of seconds, so he came here to see if the three of them were staying in line.
When he arrived to the top floor, he walked step by step through the corridor he had been accustomed to as a student, thinking that he had forgotten which room they were in, and before he could search her memory, he saw light leaking from behind a door.
I’ll be more than happy to take her spite or scolding—just as Kiriko raised his hand with that thought in mind, he heard voices talking from the room.
(At that moment, our hearts had stopped. )
It was Shad’s voice.
Is that a metaphor? Ai first asked.
The literal meaning, Shad replied.
“Fox, have you ever heard of the Idol of Murder?”
“Those eyes were the eyes of death. Those words were the words of death. That body was brimming with death. No living thing could escape. None shall escape the Idol of Murder. ’.’ What it says is the truth, a legend created to hide Ulla.”
Ai and Julie both listened with great confusion.
“All Living who were seen by Princess, or heard her speak, or touched by her, would die on the spot.”
“T-that’s so outrageous!”
“There is such an outrageous thing.”
The lion looked like he was vomiting blood when he said this.
“Ortus is a group originally created by Princess. From the moment she was born, a single local tribe of Living became Dead on the spot. There’s lots of evidence, like unusual war stories, unusual betrayals. Do you want me to tell you she’s killed tens of thousands of people over the years?”
The lion’s impassioned emotions spread to every corner of the room, even the windows were shaken.
Hearing these words, Kiriko decided to show himself.
“Shad, you’re causing me trouble. How can such things be leaked to outsiders?”
He opened the door with a big, hearty smile on his face.
—It doesn’t matter, it’s only a little secret, there’s plenty of ways to fix it.
“…Kiriko, is what he said true?”
Julie preemptively asked the question, and Kiriko pretended to think about it.
“It is true…this matter is indeed a secret, but the heads of the neighboring countries and some of the more perceptive people have long been aware of this.”
Julie murmured “I see”, and then slowly got up.
“You know the danger, and you let Ai into the Palace to meet Princess?”
—Ah, he has a problem with that? But it’s better this way.
“Mr Julie may not know, but Ai should know I’m not lying when she saw Princess like that.”
“… So that’s really a seal…”
Ai said this in devastated. Kiriko maintained a smile on his face as he turned around to face her and say,
“Yes, after all, you are Living, of course I would have taken care of that.”
“Even so, you still let Ai risk her life!”
“So I must be present when they meet.”
“And what does that guarantee?”
“Mr Julie, please wait, it’s not important.”
“How can it be unimportant!”
The thunderous roar added to the chaos of the scene. Kiriko was quietly pleased as his smile intensified. None in the room had discovered the deeper secret.
Kiriko continued to speak, trying to expand the chaos.
“Why did you do such a thing? It’s not like you to do that.”
“Don’t give me any more of that nonsense, you pretender, my reasons are the same as that angry uncle’s.”
“Is that so? But I think you want to say something else?”
Shad whispered “damn brat”, and then he hunched down build up his strength, as if he was a carnivorous beast ready to pounce on the prey.
“… Since you have said so, I will tell you. I can’t stand Princess’ current situation anymore, every time she goes out, she has to wear a blindfold and a mask on her face.”
“What can be done about it? Her power must be kept secret.”
“There is nothing to keep secret, you said yourself that it is no longer a secret!”
He said with a low, beastly growl from his throat.
“Even if everyone already knows, secrecy is still important. If we don’t leave Ortus, even if we disclose the secret and unseal her, we probably won’t have a problem, even if we have to live on the street. But we want to keep this secret relatively vague to the neighboring countries. You understand that, don’t you!?”
Shad was speechless for the first time.
—-Shad really only thought of this, and did not think of the more important things.
Kiriko secretly showed an impish face.
Julie tried to interject, but Shad pestered, “We’re not done yet.” The confusion was just right, and it was about to descend to the level of an old argument.
—-It worked, that’s good. If that’s all, there’s no need to show up in a hurry, I was too worried. Neither Shad nor these guys even found out about it.
“Does Ulla know about herself?”
The words brought silence into the room. The words themselves were so inexplicable that both Julie and Shad were confused.
If not for Kiriko’s expression, they probably would have ignored it and continued to assert themselves.
Kiriko looked at Ai with an expression as if he was staring at death itself.
The lion asked Ai in confusion.
“Hey, fox, what did you just say? What do you mean when you ask Princess about not knowing herself?”
“The literal meaning.”
Ai repeated calmly.
“Does Miss Ulla not know her own abilities?”
Kiriko’s legs were shaking and he could speak, and a cold nausea ran through the bottom of his stomach. The day he had feared had finally come.
Shad retorted as if he were speaking for Kiriko, who said nothing.
“What the hell are you talking about? How can you not know what you’re capable of? From what I’ve heard, it’s a power she had from birth, how could she not have noticed it?”
“If she was born like this, it’s more likely that she didn’t find out. … If she became like this later, she would know that the situation is different; but if she was like this from the beginning, then it would be common knowledge to her.”
Kiriko could say anything. Ai’s argument was too solid to find any weaknesses.
“If only the Dead will appear before her eyes, it is possible to instill the wrong concept of Mankind’s world into her. For example, tell her that these Dead are Living, right…”
“Of course you can. Mr. Kiriko, am I right?”
—No, no, no, no. Don’t give a reaction!
Kiriko grabbed his chin with his trembling right hand, his left hand grabbed his right elbow, and his whole body stiffened. He could refute what Ai said, because Ai was just sorting out the facts in her own head, and he could not argue back. On the contrary, he was the one being confused, and might accidentally reveal the fatal flaw.
It was useless to say anything.
It was also useless to not say anything.
The silence lasted long enough to create a force that would prove Ai’s words right.
“No, no! How can this happen!”
When he realized that he could not acquiesce and spit out these words, it was too late and no one believed them anymore.
The comprehension soon spread to everyone’s expression.
Kiriko’s knees went weak.
“Wait a minute, what is this? So we’ve unwittingly become your accomplices?”
To lie to someone, the bigger the circle of lies, the better. From this point of view, the entire city of Ortus was being used, used to lie to Ulla.
The lion grabbed Kiriko by the collar of his shirt and clenched his right fist to hit him.
“Mr. Lion, please don’t do this, what’s the use of hitting him?”
Ai, who had been very calm, spoke up.
The lion immediately dropped his fist.
The whole scene was already in Ai’s hands.
“But fox, you think of such things that I did not think of.”
“My nose is very good at picking up such things. I’m used to it after all.”
Ai said and stood up.
She disappeared without a trace.
“Mr Julie, please let go of me.”
A gust of wind hit Kiriko and the lion, and they both noticed Ai had moved. They looked in the direction the wind was blowing and saw that Julie, the only one who was ready, had grabbed Ai’s left hand.
“Ai, calm down, where do you want to go?”
“To find Ulla.”
Ai seemed calm. At least she was calm at the moment.
“Why…you don’t understand?”
“Yes, I don’t understand.”
The green eyes were laced with madness.
“Because she is me!”
Blue reason retorted.
“No, Ulla is not you.”
Madness seeped deep into the green eyes, refusing any intrusion of sanity.
“No! She is me! She’s who I used to be! I was the same until a few days ago! She was the same as I was when I let people lie to me in the village, and let them be nice to me! She’s waiting for someone to save her! I know!”
“Really? Did she ever say that?”
“I know without her saying it! Why don’t you understand? Mr Julie, you should understand!”
“No, I don’t understand, I just don’t understand.”
The blue and green eyes collided violently, madness and sanity fought each other.
“I’ll say it again! Ulla Hekmatika isn’t Ai Astin!”
Julie twisted Ai’s hand. No matter how strong a gravekeeper was, there was still a difference in weight. Julie continued to shoot verbal arrows from a distance where Ai had no way to escape and no place to hide,
“What do you want to do when you get to meet her? Even though they lied to her, they loved her. Even if you want to change this fact, who is going to be happy?”
Ai could answer. Even so, her mind and body, driven by madness, could no longer stop. Finding out that Ai saw an opportunity that she might be able to save herself from the past right within her grasp, and just could not resist. She knew there was a chance to save what Hampnie Hambart had given up for his justice, and could not let go.
The small body kicked Julie’s knee and shoulder, and then went around to his back. His right hand was twisted and dislocated without resistance.
Ai crashed through the window and disappeared into the darkness of the third floor.