5. Cherry Blossom

After this long walk through the abandoned southern territory of Hokydo, the bag slung across her shoulder started to bother her. But not as much as the linen mask that made her want to scratch her nose. “Is this necessary?” Natsu asked Pantu, who seemed comfortable with the mask covering his face except for his eyes.

“Listen. If we are going to follow your wild ideas, then at least, listen to my precautions.” Pantu led the way as they ascended the forested hill facing the Dragon Sea.

“My wild ideas?” Natsu warily repeated. “Are you implying something?”

Her deputy glanced over his shoulder, his forehead wrinkled. “No ill-intentions meant. Doing business with the mages directly is a bold move that might prove beneficial to us. But you can’t deny that we are risking everything with such a move.”

Natsu didn’t stop ascending the hill as she said, “It’s a risk we need for the time being.” Three days had passed, and yet Natsu hadn’t heard from Qianfan since their last meeting. Only a fool wouldn’t see the impending conflict between her and him. “Unless you want to wait for Qianfan to strike first.”

Pantu smiled nervously. “I was the one who advised you to seek allies. But I was talking about other players in our field, not the folks we all fear the most.”

“Having those other players on our side will not guarantee a crucial victory over Qianfan.” Besides, they may turn on us after we are done with our common enemy, Natsu thought, her eyes on the uneven ground she was stepping on lest she slip downhill and crush her bones. “The folks we fear the most will.”

Nobody was at the hilltop when they reached it. Pantu walked across the cherry blossom trees to the opposite edge to see if their mysterious contact was coming from the other side of the hill. He had better show up soon, Natsu thought, gazing at the reddish horizon in the west, where the sun would fall in less than an hour. She would have to spend the night here if darkness fell. Descending this hill under moonlight would be a sure way to die.

The cool breeze at the hilltop kissed her cheeks as she ambled by the western edge, squinting in frustration at the abandoned foot of the hill. “Are you sure we are on the right hill?” she asked Pantu, looking at the other hills in this deserted area.

Pantu produced a map from his pocket. Spreading it with both hands, he kept looking from the hills around them to the map and back. “We are in the right place.” He folded the map and returned it to his pocket. “Let’s get some rest.”

Natsu unstrapped the bag, put it on the ground, and grabbed a waterskin from it. “What is so particular about this hill?” she wondered after she wetted her parched throat. “Why on a hill in the first place? By hells and demons, this is Hokydo! We are not short of locations for secret meetings!”

Pantu sat on his haunches and drank from his waterskin. “My eyes in Oyoto tell me that they are extremely alert these days because of the Third Crossing announcement.”

Natsu needed to digest the last part she heard. The Third Crossing? How did Pantu mention it so casually? Didn’t he understand what he was talking about?

“The Goranians are back?” she muttered, still in shock. “Why would they invade our small islands? Don’t they have enough lands in the continent they have stolen from us ages ago?”

Pantu chuckled. “It’s us who will ‘cross’ the sea this time.”

“You sure about that?” Natsu had never thought she would live that long to witness this moment. “The Third Crossing.” Natsu tittered. “Who came up with this brilliant name? It’s not a good omen.” The Second Crossing was the darkest moment in Koyan history. The moment that had started a new age of suffering for generations of Koyans on these wretched islands. “Our defeat will be even more devastating this time.” The Goranians now were far more advanced than the barbarians who had vanquished the Koyans’ finest mages centuries ago.

“I’m afraid you are right.” Pantu smacked his lips. “There is a rumor that a seer betrayed us and went to the Goranians to reveal our secrets to them.”

“Our secrets,” Natsu scoffed. “If we had any good ones, then we would have attacked the Goranians a long time ago.”

A crack startled both of her and Pantu, the latter jumping to his feet when a small glowing oval appeared between them. The shimmering oval grew until it became big enough to hide Pantu behind it; a sight that urged Natsu to instinctively draw her dagger. “What on earth is this?” she growled.

“I’m damned if I know!” Pantu was holding his sword when he slowly circled the baffling oval until he stood next to Natsu facing the evil thing.

And then, a robed figure came out of it, a crimson mask covering his whole face. Is this a portal? Natsu wondered, because she had never seen one for herself.

“If one of you is Pantu, then there is no need for these blades.” The masked mage pointed at Natsu’s and Pantu’s weapons.

Natsu nodded to her deputy as they both exchanged a quick look and sheathed their weapons. “Did our common friend tell you why I wanted to meet?” Pantu spoke on behalf of Natsu. We rehearsed this conversation a dozen times.

“You had a business deal to discuss, he said,” the mysterious mage said flatly.

“It’s about red mercury.” Pantu’s answer should demand the mage’s attention.

“What about it?”

“I hear it hurts your coffers. And since the nation is going to war soon, I presume your mages will need lots of red mercury in the coming period.”

“You haven’t told me anything I don’t know of yet,” the mage stated in the same cold tone.

“Alright. You want to hear my business proposal, of course.” Pantu smiled nervously, clearing his throat for no reason. Don’t let him intimidate you, you fool. “I’m offering you six months of free red mercury shipments.”

The mage narrowed his eyes, Natsu observed. He is giving it a thought. “How many shipments can you bring us during the said period? How big is your shipment, to begin with?”

“Well,” Pantu tilted his head, “it depends on—”

“How much do you need?” Unable to tolerate her deputy’s hesitance, Natsu interrupted, peering at the robed mage.

Though the mage’s mask only showed his eyes, Natsu could tell he was smiling now. “I can’t name our price before I hear our end of the deal.”

They sent us the right mage to talk business with. “Your friendship.” She grinned.

“What benefits do you expect from our friendship?”

“Exemption from taxes and protection against rivals.” Natsu shrugged. “That’s all.”

“You ask for too much.”

“I’m offering too much, don’t you forget.”

“Taxes are the major, if not the only, source of income for the Empire. Nobody gets a total exemption for any reason. Reduced taxes is something we can discuss, though.”

That’s why lawful trading is not worth it. “What about my second request?”

“It depends on the kind of protection you want us to do.”

The mage’s response to her first request wasn’t promising, but she hadn’t journeyed all that way south for nothing; she would name her demands loud and clear. “The kind of protection that guarantees that my rivals never bother me. I want to conduct my business without worrying about my safety.”

“You want us to guard you or what?” The contempt in his voice could not be mistaken.

“Yes,” Natsu said firmly. “And eliminate those who pose threats to me if necessary.”

The mage stared at her, obviously not amused anymore. “It seems you have contacted the wrong person. We are mages, not mercenaries.”

What was the point of embracing virtue now? Everybody in this great empire was corrupt at a certain level. “Aren’t our righteous mages interested in ridding our nation of some evil folks?”

“You are lucky I’m not. Otherwise, I would start with you two.”

Natsu had to admit that the mage’s rhetorical menace did unsettle her. As for the deal she had come to strike with him; she wasn’t interested any longer. All she wanted right now was to get out of here.

“Don’t worry. We might need the services of the likes of you in the near future.” The mage brushed the fallen cherry blossom flowers off his shoulder, then turned, heading back to the portal which was still open. Shortly after he stepped into it, the shimmering oval shrank until it totally vanished.

Natsu sighed in relief that the intimidating mage was gone. But as she mulled over the whole conversation, she started to feel infuriated. “Those arrogant bastards,” she muttered. “Who do they think they are?”

“Calm down, Natsu.” Pantu gestured to her nervously with both hands, as if afraid that the mage might hear her. “This could have gone worse.”

That lackwit didn’t understand. She hadn’t just failed in forging an alliance with the mages; she had ended up under their thumb. We might need the services of the likes you, she recalled the humiliating promise. For certain, that mage knew what she did for a living. She and her gang would be the mage’s errand boys. And if she refused; well, the ‘righteous mages’ would be interested in ridding the nation of some evil folks.

Maybe she had gone too far with this ‘bold move’—as Pantu politely described it.

Despite her deputy’s warning, Natsu insisted on descending the hill under the dim light of the sunset, even refusing to stop to make a fire and light a torch. “We don’t have time for this,” she said, her eyes on the ground as she went down the hill. “If we hurry up, we might make it to the foot of the hill before it’s pitch black.”

This time, she was the one leading the way, Pantu behind her watching every step he made. Midway downhill, he doubled his pace until he caught up with her.

“So, without the mages on our side,” Pantu began, “what is our alternative plan?”

“Contact the right people this time,” she said, her rage growing by the minute. “We will hire mercenaries.”

Next Chapter: 6. No Wounds to Lick