The next day was the weekly village gathering. All of the townsfolk stood dutifully in the village square, crowding for space among the cobbled floor.
Miserably, Serena took her place alongside her fellow magicians on the raised wooden stage. The elder and some associates also stepped up. These gatherings were always a bore and to be honest, Serena did not care much for them. The feeling of having everyone stare and ogle at her like she was some sort of freak show was not one Serena enjoyed very much. She sighed as a scribe read aloud the grain profits, astrological movements, and whatnot.
Finally, the elder stepped forward and delivered his speech. Most of his words were lost to Serena, who could care less, but after he was finished he asked for her and Kaito Candra to come forward. Wait, what? Her and Kaito Candra?
“If I may, oh great elder,” Kaito said, “could I ask why you are calling for me and the witch?” Serena frowned, but she had to agree with him.
“Yes, I do believe this is uncalled for, and quite unusual. Any business specifically pertaining to the two of us should be shared among the rest of the magicians, no?” Serena pointed out.
“As much as I hate to agree with the witch, she is absolutely right. Any glory falling upon our shoulders should be equally shared with our comrades, don’t you think?”
“This is not about magic,” the elder said. He placed his hands on their shoulders and steered them to the center of the stage.
Kaito and Serena immediately moved away from each other but the elder grabbed their arms and awkwardly forced them to hold hands. Why? What could the elder be thinking? Kaito seemed just as confused as Serena was. They retained the maximum distance away from each other while barely in each other’s grip. Kaito’s hand felt slimy; could he have been practicing swordsmanship before this? He glared at Serena but she refused to meet his gaze. The elder cleared his throat.
“As you know, the forest surrounding our village has always been full of mysteriousness and the divine. Bandits come from all directions to steal our natural treasures. Because of their treachery, our people have suffered drought, famine, and disease, unable to defend ourselves due to our pitiful lack of magic. But no more!” the elder boomed. “Today is the day our magical legacy will start and be preserved for years to come!”
Serena did not like where this was going at all. Beside her, Kaito shifted uncomfortably, adjusting his collar. Serena had a feeling he knew where the elder was taking this. Serena also had some inkling as to what was going on and it filled her stomach with dread. Kaito was scowling and the eyes of the villagers twinkled with innocent curiosity.
“For the sake of the village, and for the sake of generations to come, I hereby declare the engagement of Serena Bly and Kaito Candra!” A priest poured spring water over their hands and the village let out a cheer.
It was as if Serena’s whole body had turned to lead. This couldn’t be happening. Out of all decisions the elder had made, this had to be the worst. She couldn’t comprehend it. The entire village was keen on having Serena marry Kaito to preserve their magic, but Serena never would have imagined that it would come as a direct order from the elder himself. He had always been self-centered and egotistical, but even he wouldn’t go as far as to try and completely dictate the lives of his proteges, right?
Even Kaito had been stunned into silence, pale eyes boring holes into the wood below him. He was gritting his teeth and wrenched his hand away from Serena’s as soon as the priest was done. Kaito rubbed his hand against the fabric of his tunic, desperately trying to dry it off. He then turned to Serena and hissed, “Don’t think this is over, witch. My heart will never be yours to conquer, but just so I don’t get on the old man’s bad side, I’ll cooperate with you for now.”
How on earth was this “cooperating”? Serena had no desire to marry Kaito and neither did he. Couldn’t they just call off this engagement? Or was Kaito really that afraid of the elder?
Taking a deep breath, Serena glanced at the elder to see if this was all a cruel, nonsensical joke. To her shock, the elder’s watery grey eyes showed no hint of deception. He seemed pleased with himself, stroking his white beard while conversing with the villagers. His smirk and calculating gaze proved that he had been plotting this for a while. The elder, it appeared, wanted Serena to marry Kaito just as much as his mother and everyone else did.
“When will the two officially wed?” a woman asked.
“On the night of the next full moon,” the elder replied. “I expect the entire village to be helping out with preparations. Such an important wedding as this must be accompanied by the grandest of ceremonies, after all.”
The next full moon? But that was at the end of the week! Five days from now was too soon. How could this be happening? Serena felt faint. The congratulations of everyone around her was drowned out by her own loud thoughts, which feebly cried out how truly terrified and disgusted she was. This was not how she expected her life to go.
“Blessings on us all!”
“May you have a fruitful marriage.”
Serena’s family stepped forward. Her mother and father were positively beaming, wide, giddy grins on their faces. Haruka’s expression was neutral, but there was something condescending about her gaze.
“I’m so happy that you’ll be married to a strong, reliable man,” Serena’s mother said. “I was worried for a while since you’re always locked up in that workshop in the mountain.”
“He’s a good man, Kaito,” her father agreed. “He’ll make an excellent son-in-law and an even better husband.”
Of course her parents agreed with the decision. Even if the elder suggested the most radical of decrees, they would still go along with him, and it was not hard to see why. The elder had made them rich beyond their wildest imaginations thanks to Serena’s magic. They praised anything he said, rejoiced at his orders. Even though they never said it out loud, Serena was sure that they had consented to this marriage before it was even announced. Kaito’s family was already high up on the ladder of Zetreum Village’s social structure; this marriage could only turn out fruitful for Serena’s parents.
But her younger sister, Haruka, only gazed upon her with scorn and jealousy. She was the only one who didn’t see Serena’s magic as a blessing. Serena knew her sister despised the attention being a magician gave her, and it was rightfully placed. She actually appreciated Haruka’s honesty and her willingness to display her true feelings. She didn’t ask to be born with these powers, but at least not everyone took them for granted. More than anything, Serena thought of them as a curse. This marriage was proof of that.
“I hope this proves well for us all, Serena,” Haruka spat, hissing out the syllables of Serena’s name as if she had just drunk a canister of snake venom. Seh-ren-ah.
But it was for the good of the village, right? How was Serena to refuse these smiling, overjoyed faces? Everything she had ever done had been for the people of Zetreum Village. She had spent her life working for them. This was much the same, right? She could accept this marriage in due time, right?
So why did Serena despise it so?
She needed time to think.
Batting away all the hands that came to hold hers in their own, Serena ran away quickly to the forest, aiming to get back to her workshop. Perhaps working on REAN010 would help her take her mind off of these crazy events unfolding before her.
When she finally arrived at her study, Kakane had put the finishing touches on REAN010’s body. Despite the exposed joints, lack of hair, and blank stare, it looked perfectly human and was also, hopefully, fully operational once the Pure Soul Puppet Core was complete. Seeing it made all of Serena’s worries temporarily vanish, and she squealed as she admired Kakane’s work.
“What do you think? Pretty good, huh?” Kakane said proudly.
“This is amazing! It’s wonderful! Thank you,” Serena gushed. Kakane smirked.
“Of course. A king accepts nothing less than perfection, after all.” He ran a finger along his scar before flicking back a part of his messy black hair, letting it fall back into place in a regal manner. Serena giggled.
“Whatever you say.”
But when she looked back at her work table, Serena was slightly disheartened. Wires and magic sparks sputtered out of the Pure Soul Puppet Core, and its faint glow turned on and off every few seconds. There was still a lot of work to be done, making Serena doubt whether she would be able to finish it within less than a week. After her marriage, would she have any time for frivolous activities like this…?
Noticing her falter, Kakane crossed his arms and said, “Hey, are we doing this or not? I want to get this over with as soon as possible. You were gone for several days, you know. Be glad that I decided to forgive you for abandoning me here. A king always offers second chances.”
“R-Right. Of course.” Serena sat down at her work table, picking up her tools.
She only had a week of freedom left, so she might as well make the best of it.