Getting from Neelos to Gawain meant traveling through a route following the northern border of Doryoku. The path also skimmed along the northern tip of the Bannaanka Weyn and although they couldn’t visit Takeru and the Dagaalyahanno, Serena couldn’t help but wonder how they were doing.
The journey was not long, but as they drew nearer to the Yukishi Mountain, the weather got colder and colder and snow fell from the sky in droves. It was far colder than anything Serena had ever experienced in her entire life. She could tell that Kakane was getting more and more irritable and sluggish with the weather, even going as far as trying to bundle himself as best as he could with the cowl Takeru gave him. Before they knew it, though, they arrived at the small town of Gawain.
The village was built into the shadow of the ominous and snow-covered Yukishi Mountain. Freezing cold winds and frequent blizzards blew down from the peak, causing Serena and Kakane to shiver with every step they took. Serena was envious of Rean, who, as a puppet, had little to no sense of temperature and was doing just fine in the snow. It seemed fascinated by the falling white around it, frequently reaching out to touch it.
While Kakane went to contact his noble allies, Serena and Rean bought new clothes suitable for the weather. Serena chose the warmest-looking garments for Kakane, knowing that the new environment was bothering him more than anyone. The clothes sold in Gawain were covered in fluffy white fur and were very thick; fitting for the cold winds from the Yukishi Mountain.
Kakane seemed grateful for the change of clothing and donned the garments immediately. Using his fire magic, he warmed himself up from the inside before beckoning Serena and Rean to follow him.
“Where are we going?” Serena asked, adjusting her fur collar.
“The pub,” Kakane said. “The third family head just arrived. We’re going to talk there.”
The establishment was empty; the only ones inside the bar were a lonesome man cleaning glasses and a group of three people towards the back. The three people nodded at Kakane, who greeted them and sat at their table.
“Glad to see you’re faring well in this weather, Kakane,” the only woman of the group said. Kakane scowled.
“Oh, shut up,” he retorted.
“You’ve brought new people,” one of the two men noted. “Who are they?”
“My close friends, first and foremost,” Kakane responded immediately. “You can trust them.”
“If you say so.”
“Serena, Rean, meet my Doryokan insider allies: Former Duchess Zhi of the Koriyama family, former Duke Symeon of the Inazuma family, and former Count Bartholomew of the Hibana family.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” Serena said politely. “I am Serena Bly and this is my puppet, Rean.” Not knowing what else to do, Rean sloppily saluted, putting its left hand to its forehead.
“Yes, yes.” Count Bartholomew waved his hand at them, scowling. “Let’s get down to business. Zhi, what’s going on in the empire?”
“Being in the slums, we’ve only ever heard rumors but,” The woman sighed, “apparently, there’s to be an arranged marriage between the crown prince of Balinoir and one of the Doryokan princesses.”
Glass beer mugs clattered onto the wood table as the bar shook with the outraged cries of the former nobles. Rean jumped, scooting away from the angry people and eyeing them warily. Loud noises scared the puppet. Duke Symeon was shaking his head while Count Bartholomew gnashed his teeth together in sheer rage. Kakane seemed stupefied by this sudden turn of events, but by the way he was biting his lip and rubbing his scar, Serena could tell this was not a good thing.
“Kakane,” she whispered to him, “why is this bad?”
“The Holy Kingdom of Balinoir and the Doryokan Empire have been in an alliance for forever, ever since Balinoir split off,” he told her. “In exchange for produce and grown foods, Doryoku provides Balinoir with protection and military services. If the royal families of both kingdoms marry into each other, it provides Doryoku with an opportunity to reconquer Balinoir and take its fertile soil and rich waters for itself. It’ll become even stronger then.”
“I see.” Serena nodded and Rean blinked.
“We cannot allow the royal families of Doryoku and Balinoir to marry,” Bartholomew thundered. “Doing so might provide disastrous for our cause.”
“Is there nothing we can do?” Symeon asked.
“I don’t know.” Zhi shook her head. “I don’t have any connections to the Doryokan royal family, or even the outer circle of nobility. No one wants to associate with a disgusting former duchess like me,” she added bitterly.
“Damn it!” Symeon shook his head. “Bartholomew, what about you? You held a higher position than we did when we were still nobles.”
“No, all of my former friends instantly erased me from their contacts. To them, it is like I am invisible; dead. Unfaithful cretins,” the aging man growled.
“If having a Doryokan princess marry the crown prince of Balinoir is that bad, why not hire an assassin to kill one or both of them?” Serena suggested.
Kakane looked at her, appalled. Even Rean was blinking rapidly, tilting its head and frowning in confusion. Kakane has taught it what the word “kill” meant and hearing it coming from Serena was very odd. How could she say such a thing? Well, it wasn’t a bad idea; it was actually within reason. But Kakane never would have expected it to come from Serena of all people. She did not seem disturbed by her words in the slightest, despite knowing the connotations that must come with them.
She was a lot more steel-minded than Kakane originally thought.
“Could that work?” Symeon turned to his companions. “What do you guys think?”
“Perhaps we could hire the Manjusaka? You know, the infamous assassin that has been terrorizing Doryoku for the past three years with his unpredictability.” Zhi paused, then shook her head. “No, for a job such as this, his fare would be far too high for us to pay.”
“It would risk suspicion too,” Kakane agreed. “Only the Manjusaka would have the gall and skill to kill a princess of Doryoku.” Rean shuddered; all this talk about killing was making it uncomfortable.
“It’s too risky,” Bartholomew sighed. “Even if we could hire the Manjusaka and he managed to pull it off, everyone would suspect him. With a bribe, we could find blades pointed at our throats in a heartbeat. The Manjusaka is known for backstabbing his employers if someone pays him a pretty penny for it.”
“We could send in Rean as an undercover agent,” Serena said. “I doubt anyone would suspect it since it’s a puppet.” Rean looked horrified and began fidgeting with its notebook and hair, glancing at the floor.
“Absolutely not,” Kakane snapped. Rean seemed relieved. “Rean is too precious to you,” he murmured into Serena’s ear. “Only puppets without free will live in Doryoku. If the Doryokans find out Rean doesn’t obey their laws, they’ll destroy it in a heartbeat. Neither you nor I want that happening. As a king, I will not allow it.” Serena nodded.
“Yes… You’re right. Forgive me for my impudence.” Bartholomew waved a hand at her.
“You were trying to help. I appreciate it, girl, but it seems we can do nothing but bide our time for now.”
“Dammit!” Kakane slammed his fist on the table. Rean jumped from the sudden outburst and even Serena flinched. “Ugh, this sucks!”
“We understand how you feel, Kakane,” Zhi said. “Our families have suffered so much because of one man… We will not allow his treachery to continue for as long as we are alive.”
“Remember, you promised me his head. The one to kill Enjo Hononen will be me,” Kakane snarled.
“Yes… I can sense your deep, writhing hatred. I don’t care who does it; just so long as that devilish emperor is slain,” Bartholomew growled. He sat back in his seat and sighed. “This meeting is over; we’ll pick it up after we get some more information.”
Kakane stormed out of the pub, gripping the scarred side of his face and angrily kicking a small stone that was in his way. A blizzard had descended upon Gawain in the time that they were in the bar; snow was hailing from the clouds in a white flurry. This only frustrated Kakane more, who threw punches at the sky, yelled something unintelligible, and spat snow out of his mouth. Serena sighed and Rean blinked as they watched Kakane’s behavior. She had expected him to be angry, but this was something else.
“Rrgh, this is terrible! At this rate, we won’t have a rebellion until ten years from now!” he roared.
“No, there might be hope yet,” Serena told him. Kakane blinked.
“I think I know something that may help us turn the tides.”