I sat up from the bed, and threw my voice towards the shadows peeking through the door and the flickering light of the lantern.
At the sound of my waking voice, the little glow and its master quickly entered the room and quietly closed the door behind them.
“You were up – can’t sleep?”
I knew who it was from the sound of the footsteps, but Roony’s tall figure and gentle, deep voice reassured me once again. I sit up and rest my back against the pillow. Feeling the chilly night air, I pulled the blanket up to my chest.
“I don’t know. I’m not sleepy. Are you making rounds, Roony?”
Roony smiles and nods as she walks over to me and places the lantern on my desk, behind a stack of books. The glow of the fire, which did not reach my eyes directly, flickers warmly on the ceiling, creating a surface of light.
“Do you make the rounds all the time?”
I asked, then Roony nodded and pulled the chair close to my bed.
“That’s right, I always go around and look at everyone before going to sleep. I look to see if there’s anyone crying alone, or if there’s anyone who’s been drawn to the city at night and has slipped away.”
Roony sits back in his chair as she speaks, counting the memories on her fingers.
“――Is there anyone who can’t sleep even if there is no reason in particular?”
She said, and gave a soft smile. It was her usual gentle smile, but I wanted to annoy Roony for making fun of me, so I sharpened my tone.
“It’s not like nothing happened at all. I was thinking about the future, about my future. And I didn’t feel sleepy.”
I intended to sound mean, but Rooney laughed a little, as if she was tickled. Afterwards, she looks straight into my eyes and speaks with a serious tone, as if to straighten her posture.
“The future, the future, that’s very important. Well, is there something ―― anything you want to be?”
I thought I would think it over when she asked me that. I didn’t think there was such a certainty in me yet.
But the words flowed out of my mouth easier than I expected.
“Yes, hey, Roony. I — I, I also, want to be Roony.“
After saying that, I covered my mouth with a blanket. I don’t think I said anything embarrassing, but I still felt ashamed – someone’s reaction to those words. Someone’s heart is trying to weigh me and that dream.
“…… Can I?”
I continued, nervously. I just looked up and wondered about Roony’s complexion.
I felt uneasy as Roony’s gaze turned away from me. As I followed her gaze, Roony’s expression soon returned to my eyes.
“Well, then, you might want to know something about the origins of our country.”
Roony turned back towards me, but there she suddenly looked at something and stopped talking.
Roony stuck her finger under the chest of my blanket, and removed the little wooden tag I had been mouthing at the end of in the shadow of the blanket.
This is a good luck charm that I always carry around my neck on a string, even when I sleep. I had a habit of chewing on it when I was feeling restless.
“This is something your parents gave you when you were born, don’t treat it that way.”
Looking at the teeth mark on the tag, Roony gently scolds me. But… not exactly.
It’s not when I was born.
“–it’s when I was abandoned.”
When I said that, Roony became silent. For my sake. And, quietly, she opens her mouth again.
“Yes ―― yes. I will tell you the story of our King and Father, King of the Golden Wheel , who welcomed you to this country when you were a helpless child.”
King of the Golden Ring.
He is the king of this country, the country that picked up and raised me.
An invincible hero who has lived to tell the tale with many legends.
“To talk about the Golden Wheel King, we need to start with the story of a certain dragon.”
When she began to speak, Roony’s eyes turned slightly upward as if looking into the distance.
I join her and look up at the ceiling where the light from the lantern dances. The ever-changing patterns of light and shadow seem to be like music that colors Roony’s gentle voice.
“Once ―― there was a dragon. A fiery, red-haired dragon, stronger than any other.”
The night was quiet in the dormitory, and there was no sign that anyone was awake.
At this intimate moment, at the sudden rendezvous with just the two of us, my heart was pounding and I was immediately taken in by Roony’s story.
On the mountain range named after the mythical giant, which separated great powers from the great powers ―― at the very end was a rich forest, high enough to break through the clouds, there lived a great dragon.
The dragon was red all over. And it boasted glowing red eyes and a burning red mane that resembled the feathers of a bird.
Sometimes, the dragon went down to the lowlands to drink from waterfalls, hunt deer many times larger than cows and great eagles whose wings cast tree-like shadows over the land.
The feeble humans who only crawled on the ground hid their tiny selves in houses and rocks in fear, even when the majesty of the dragon dancing in the sky was far away and small. However, the dragon did not bother to look upon the humans, whose bulk was no more than a beanstalk to its huge body, and could not add to its stomach.
However, those who would foolishly challenge the dragon appeared from among the humans every so often.
Do not approach that red dragon. That is far beyond the reach of humans. Its breath scorches the forest, its claws cut through the rock skin of the giant, and its fangs devour great beasts from the depths of the earth――
It has been handed down so frighteningly, but no, there were humans, who wielded swords and bravery, that threw themselves into an adventure, hoping to defeat the legend and decorate their short life with honor and glory. There have always been those who, in the depths of rugged mountains far from human settlements, where it is difficult even to climb, have finally arrived and lost their young lives to the claws and fangs of its ruthlessness and savagery.
Also, sometimes such recklessness though not bravery ―― weary, vanishingly powerless figures would crowd onto the mountain.
――These were shadows of what were once human beings, walking as ghosts, the spirits of men who had already died.
The ghosts were all marching north, away from the lands where they were born and where they died. The only thing they could see with their empty eyes, after losing their bodies and light, was the glimmer of the gate to paradise in the far north, which would open at the end of the world and lead to God. Without hearts, these shadows walked to the mountains, rivers, and the wilderness in packs, in search of it.
Except for beings that don’t need gods, like dragons, humans are the pinnacle of living beings. Even if they were born human, they would fall into such severe circumstances if they lost their living bodies. Unless in a position in life, like royalty, where the body may be kept as a mummyafter death, to await the opening of the kingdom of God in a large tomb, the end of the soul is not much different from that of a beast living in the fields.
For these pitiful ghosts, this mountain range was a huge barrier before they could reach the northern land.
And even with no flesh and bones, there is still much that can mercilessly be stripped from them. That is, the person’s very form, their very existence.
They have become so fleeting that even a breeze or a rustling leaf can disrupt their contours and cause them to lose their form.
There were times when they were worn out by the deep thicket that lined their path and the rough ground, and their existence was gradually cut down. Or, in the night, beasts would run through and stir their shadows, or demons they encountered would playfully gnaw on them, and gradually their figures would become more and more distant from those of people. They, who had no heart at all, did not know to avoid any peril, even if there was a cliff or waterfall on their path, and so would fall and crumble every moment.
These scattered fragments of the soul are soon reborn as tiny insects, weak birds or small animals. And then they fall into a cycle of inexhaustible suffering, being eaten and devoured incessantly.
The dragon was accustomed to seeing such life repeated in the mountains where it lived, hazed in the light of day, melted into darkness at night, these phantom figures weighed on its mind as much as a pebble on the ground did.
―― until that day, when it met that one little soul.
One morning, the dragon woke up and on the ground buried in its flowing red mane, curled up as if asleep ―― it noticed a little shadow.
The shadow, when the dragon’s eyes were strained enough, was still dim.
――It was a ghost of a young child.
It was one of those ordinary, pitiful ghosts that wandered the mountain roads all night and crouched there, unable to get over the huge body of a dragon it had come across.
But then, the dragon was looking at this small shadow. He watched as tears trickled down its translucent cheeks and its thin shoulders shook with sobs.
It was tired of seeing people’s tears. On occasion, they would swarm noisily and stab at it with annoying blades. When they are hit, they are almost always swatted away by reflex, and die on the ground in blood and tears, their actions incomprehensible.
It has had enough of human wailing. In the silence of the night, many were the times when ghosts sobbed, or wailed in vain, and their wailing voices disturbed the dragon’s slumber.
However, that was the first time it saw a ghost that shed tears. It thought that a ghost without a body could not shed tears.
Not only that, but the ghost of the weeping child seemed to have an expression on its face, a heart that should not be there. ―― though it was pitiful, with eyebrows twisted in sorrow.
Nevertheless, the Dragon curled up and wrapped the ghost of the child protectively with its own limbs so as not to crush it, and both fell asleep again.
From that day on, the ghost would not move forward or north, but would cling to the dragon, even when the dragon was no longer blocking its path.
Ghosts are usually obscured by the light of day, but this ghost child had beautiful chestnut curly hair, which faded in the light but still glittered in the dragon’s eyes, a comfort to its solitude in the high mountains.
So, since the appearance of this child, the dragon realized that it had been feeling lonely.
Because it was stronger than any other, no one has ever come close to it. Not even any of the beasts of the mountain would open their hearts to the dragon, and the only ones that would come close to it were ghosts that had lost their minds. Even then, only close enough to walk by without looking at the dragon’s back.
But this child, who was also a ghost, somehow never left the dragon’s side. At first, the dragon feared that its scorching body heat would harm the weakling, but instead, it seemed to benefit from the overflowing vitality, and the shadowy form seemed to take on a more definite form every day.
From time to time, the dragon would lean its massive head back and look into the eyes of the small child standing on the ground.
The ghost of a child, whose outline was now so clear that even the individual lashes could be discerned, had eyes as beautiful as its chestnut brown hair. The dragon peered into the deep, lake-colored eyes with an uncharacteristically simple expression and let out a low, whimpering groan as if he had been struck from behind.
Behind those eyes, the child’s heart was broken.
The dragon had assumed that the fact that the ghost of the child still had some semblance of a soul was some kind of miracle or due to the strength of the soul itself, but it was not. It was a result of a cruel chance that the heart broken enough to destroy the humanity from the time of life was not able to die even after losing the body, and only the devils at the bottom of the earth, which were joyfully singing like a monster at the wreckage of the soul, seemed to be pleased.
The dragon saw in the shattered heart the scene of its destruction. It was the child’s parents and family that broke the child’s heart and eventually led to the child’s physical death. Because the child was born too late, or because the child had no role to play in the family, or because of some other trivial reason that had no relevance to the dragon living in the wilderness, the child was beaten daily by their arms and words until its heart and life were destroyed.
The dragon howled long and thin, its throat quivering with an unidentifiable pain in its chest. However, no power could be exerted on the time that had passed.
From that time on, the dragon has become more affectionate towards the ghost. Not only did it snuggle up to the child and buryhim in its feathers, but it also talked to it night and day, purring, sniffing, rubbing its head, and looking into its eyes.
In the meantime, the child’s shadow grew denser and darker, until he could be mistaken for a living being. The child’s behavior was not like that of a ghost, and it walked around the dragon as if it were playing, and even climbed up and jumped off its body.
Therefore, the dragon made a misconception. It thought that it was becoming a helpful existence to the child, that the soul was being saved. It thought that if kept by its side, this ghost would one day be welcomed into salvation.
As if to ridicule the arrogance, the mountain where the dragon lives was filled with a strong presence of devils.
These disgusting devils, who have neither life nor soul and are driven only by their desires, have come to smell the presence of the child from somewhere and have gathered there.
A bare, living soul with a heart without a physical container is wandering these mountains. By tearing the flesh and trying to sip it, it would crumble and die without a second thought, and they would then be able to taste it.
When the devils saw a dragon near the child, they did not attack immediately, but they did not give up and leave the mountain, and they kept the child and the dragon at a distance, hiding here and there in the forest and on the rocks. And at night, they would hide in the darkness and watch the dragon lying down and the child sleeping in its mane in a circle.
Knowing the presence of the child, the dragon regretted that it simply kept the child at hand.
However, it knew that it was wrong to send the child north. The gates of Paradise leading to the kingdom of God will not open until the end of the world. It knew that the land where the gates were would be like the hell of this world, due to the sea of ghosts attracted by its light.
It did not seem right to send the soul of the child back to a land of humans. This sad existence is not yet healed enough to be reborn in a human vessel. Besides, even if it were to carry this ghost on its back now and hurry to the human village, the fragile soul will be scattered in the air and disappear in the wind.
One day, the devils began to throw stones and branches at the child. Each time, the dragon roared and threatened and chased them away, but finally one of them passed through the eyes of the dragon, who was dozing slightly in the late evening, and hit the child, disturbing its outline.
The dragon was resentful and howled furiously.
The dragons, who used their power only to hunt for food and battle for protection, went around kicking rocks and knocking down trees. So many devils died at one time or another, but the devils that had crowded the mountain like a haze of clouds, never ceased to appear, and those who were originally lifeless were not frightenedby the angry dragon, but laughed at the pile of corpses of their own kind with soulless expressions.
The night mountain is filled with the laughter of the demons and their empty, evil charming voice. The ghost of the child, its weak and fragile soul, shook its bodies as if in resonance with the horrible devilish rhythms of the voices, and when it stood up, it began to shake its heads like a doll.
“Stop. Do not listen! They will claim your soul!”
The dragon coaxed the child’s ghost with human words, studied from the scene behind the child’s eyes, but it did not reach the enthralled soul, and the child only shook its head like a spinning top at the end of the day.
The dragon finally breathed out scorching heat in all directions and swept away the land.
In the blink of an eye, all life was extinguished along with the devils. The trees, the birds, and the beasts were turned into black charcoal and piled up flat on the ground.
The devils were gone, and the child resigned to laughter in response, but began to cry in horror at the sight of the landscape where everything had been burned down. The dragon, perplexed by the tears of a child, heard a voice from heaven.
It was the voice of the God of the world, trying to ascertain the reason such great power had been wielded without warning.
“Why have you done such a thing? Was it not your duty to oppress the weak?”
The dragon, however, bared its fangs in awe of the majestic voice that poured down on it.
“Is that all you ask? Are you not the one who created a world where the strong prey on the weak?”
But God only dismissed those words out of hand.
“‘O foolish one. Without providence, there is no world.”
Hearing that, flames swirled in the gaps between the dragon’s fangs.
“Then with this power, I will burn this world to cinders,” said the dragon, as it spread its wings. “If the world cannot save a single weak soul, let it perish.”
But at the next words of God, the dragon stopped in its tracks.
“If it’s to do with the dead, I can be of help.
The dragon opened his eyes and looked back at the sky. However…
“You may offer your dragon body to this soul, and the weak soul will eternally be protected by the strongest flesh in the world.”
The dragon faltered at the words that followed.
“I will do it.”
A great light split the sky, and the hand of God was revealed.
The dragon involuntarily fell to the ground with his head in his hands. It was deeply frightened about offering up its unparalleled strong body.
Seeing this, the God laughed. Unlike weak humans, this dragon, which never seeks God, fears God’s power and God’s will. God was pleased by the testimony that without its body, the dragon would be nothing more than a little mouse in the forest, nothing more than a pitiful creature trembling in the palm of his hand.
“O Great One ―― the One and Only, the Supreme Being.”
The voice resounded so heavily that God stopped laughing and looked down at the dragon.
The dragon, which had been bending down to lick the earth, raised its face and glared at God.
“Save it without fail. Do not go back on your word.”
The dragon’s red eyes gleamed with piercing light.
“――What happened to the dragon?”
The tranquility of the night arouses a strange sense of unease.
“Did it die?”
My voice resonates in my ears like someone else’s. The mere inquiry of the fate of a non-human being, from an old story that could only be a fairy tale, seemed terrifying.
“By the hand of God, the soul was separated from the body; the soul did not die, but it lost its body and had nowhere to go, but to the far north with its eyes fixed on the only light it can see.”
Roony speaks. Her gaze is now low.
I stretched out my arms and put my hands on Roony’s hand. It was very cold, so I squeezed it a little harder.
“But that soul, in the freezing north, found a vessel that could accept it, and entered it.”
The child was born to a very small tribe in poor lands in the far northern regions.
While everyone there had gray eyes and gray hair, the child was born with glowing red eyes and red hair that curled like it was on fire.
The child was stronger than anyone else. From a very young age, he would often challenge other children, many years older and many times larger, without fear, and make them cry with his unyielding spirit. After the child’s body was large enough, he went toe-to-toe with the tribe’s most powerful fighters, and when he was allowed to carry a sword, there was no one left to challenge him, so he went south and joined the army as a soldier.
Thereupon, like a streak of lightning, he accumulated meritorious war achievements. With the handful of platoons that he was given, he was able to strike at the key points of a large army they had no chance of defeating and scattered them like ravens.
Although he was praised as a hero at a young age, he was only a captain due to his frontier origins, but he finally experienced the war that would define the warfare of that era.
The empire, which had grown so large through repeated invasions, began to overwhelm the still unfriendly nations with extermination.
In his latest conquest, the brutal emperor had killed all the children of his enemies and enslaved the adults.
The country where the red-haired hero resided was never great. In addition, due to the ongoing war, the military had risen in the government, and the great general who practically ruled the regime had issued a decree that the empire would be destroyed by the sword rather than seeking a way of survival through negotiation.
The battlefield was filled with despair, death, and the agony of slaughter.
When the red-haired man finally lowered his sword and prepared himself for battle, a roar that resembled a deafening thunderclap shook the atmosphere.
A dragon with a chestnut-colored mane of curly hair fluttering around its neck was flying from the sky.
With a blast of its scorching breath from high in the sky, the main wing of the Imperial Army’s central unit was obliterated, after which the entire army collapsed. In addition, the dragon that fell upon the earth welcomed the red-haired hero onto its back, and began to fight with him.
In a single day, the long-lasting warfare and its trends had changed forever.
The empire that was supposed to be the lone victor in the war was completely powerless as its entire army and capital were burned to the ground.
Then came the day when the leaders of each country assembled for a conference to put an end to the Great War.
In the conference, there was a figure of a young man with red hair who had flown across the battlefield on a dragon.
As a hero of the Salvation, he could even hope for the position of great general, but he declined it. Then, the king, who had been a puppet for a long time and had no real authority, had his daughter, the princess, wed to the hero, and sent her to this conference as the king’s representative and the authority of the country.
At that conference, he obtained a portion of the divided empire’s territory and a peace treaty with other countries, on the condition that the power of that Chestnut Dragon would not be wielded against other nations and he became known to the world as the person who should be the next king of the country, both in name and in fact ―― having taken the fate of the country upon himself.
This was the birth of the future King of the Golden Wheel, who would be honoured as the one who was born with the power of the Golden Wheel, the supreme treasure that lies far beneath the earth and supports the world.
When I had finished, the boy sighed deeply.
Outside the window, from somewhere far away in the dark, I can hear the early morning prayer that begins while it is still dawn.
This summer, there will be a great festival to celebrate the bicentennial of the birth of the Golden Wheel King. I am looking forward to the day when we can give thanks to the king.
The child looks at me with his dreaming eyes.
“Hey Roony, is that dragon on the wooden tag the dragon in the story?”
The child was pointing at the tag I was fiddling with around my neck.
The surface of the tag was branded with a decorative picture of a dragon. The pattern matches that of a good-luck charm for good health that a certain temple sold in the year I was abandoned.
In other words, although I was abandoned in a corner of the city, they hoped for me to grow up healthy, at least that much.
“Yes, this is the dragon. It has curly hair, so it’s a chestnut-haired dragon.”
The small teeth marks on the dragon’s body were fading and becoming less visible every day. I loved the innocently shining eyes that stared at the dragon’s crest.
“――Do you want it?”
Such words suddenly came out of my mouth.
The boy’s eyes fluttered this time, and he stumbled over his words. But for a moment the child shyly put his fingers together and said timidly.
“You know – I want to be Roony.”
This time I was surprised. The child continues as if he had taken the plunge.
“I’m sure I’ll be a Roony someday. I’ll work hard and become one. Then I’ll definitely come see Roony. And when I do, please give me that.”
A gasp of laughter escaped my mouth.
“Yeah, I’m looking forward to it, I’ll be waiting for you.”
I reached out and stroked the child’s head.
This child also came to this lodging for reasons which could never be described as happy.
This country does not reject any of these children. It accepts them all, and protects them until they reach adulthood with a good life and education.
A country where no child will cry, which King of the Golden Wheel tried to realize. Even children with parents are allowed to knock on the door of the dormitory of their own free will.
And, in order to embody the Golden Wheel King’s dreamed reign, and help its continuation, there was an extremely important and noble occupation that involved dealing with the children that the country had received and sending them out into the world.
It is we, the teachers, who teach and guide the children.
“Don’t forget, it’s a promise.”
The teacher, the guardian of the children, was respectfully called by his pupils.
“I’m sure, I’m sure I will. teacher――”