Although they peppered Kahina with questions, she didn't have much she could tell them beyond what little Guujin had outlined. In the end, though, there was really only one choice: Xavier accepted the provisional first mission from Guujin. He hadn't been sure if Sumiko would do so, as well, but she ended up following his lead, and of course Yukio was up for an adventure no matter how dubious and lacking in concrete details.
As a result, the next morning he found himself once more on a train, though admittedly this time heading along a much different set of tracks. And of course their party had grown by one. Guujin tucked himself into the corner of the train car as soon as they got on it, and was all but completely lost in the voluminous cloak that he was wearing. Xavier presumed he wore it to reduce the likelihood of attracting attention, although in the current heat the cloak attracted attention of a different sort. Xavier declined to ask him about it directly. He and Princess were still feeling pretty distrustful toward the robot.
One positive aspect of Guujin accompanying them was that Orion had evidently decided that he was part of the judging group with Guujin, and had left Xavier alone so far. Without Orion monopolizing his time, that meant Xavier was actually able to spend time with Yukio and Sumiko. Yukio, in particular, had avoided Orion like a cat avoids water on their previous train trip.
Another positive aspect of being officially funded by the Society—and heading east along a larger rail line—was that the train car was much more comfortable than most of their accommodations on their initial trip to Takaharu. Where those trains were mostly intended for freight, with passengers largely an afterthought, this line was intended solely for passengers. It wasn't exactly a sleeper car from his old world, but at least sleeping in these seats was unlikely to give him splinters.
Xavier settled in for the long haul.
Three days later, Xavier and everyone except for possibly Guujin was going completely stir crazy and they boiled out of the train doors like—well, honestly, what came to mind were those horrible centipedes, but Xavier wasn't going there. No way, no how.
Guujin walked off rather more casually and leaned against a nearby pillar while Yukio chased Xavier around in a circle and Kahina did something to her back that made a sound like a rapid-fire gunshot. Even Orion was walking briskly about the platform, luggage abandoned near the station wall.
At long last everyone got over their burst of hyperactivity, and the six headed out of town. Through some mysterious means, Guujin had managed to get word ahead of them and there was a wagon with a driver waiting. Xavier was not looking forward to a conveyance even more uncomfortable than a train, and the creature pulling the thing appeared to be a bog-standard horse, to boot, instead of something fancy like a giant lizard or miniature dragon. He supposed it beat having to haul his gear, though, and since the interior of the wagon was partially covered, Princess was able to finally stretch her roots without needing to worry about the driver spotting her. That certainly made her happy; although Xavier had been able to track down a bag that hung off his shoulder and provide her a bit more room, she still hated being cooped up inside "dead animal hide."
While Princess had her own little romping session, Xavier focused on his companions. «So, Guujin-san, what will we be doing once we reach this Sundlin encampment?»
«That will be for you to plan and execute, and me to observe.»
Lovely. Xavier had been holding out some small hope that Guujin would finally break his days-long silence about the exact nature of their mission, but evidently not. «Can you at least tell us a little more about what we're looking for?»
«I have already outlined this for you. Your goal is to determine the purpose of the Sundlin encampment past Sanzumachi. How you go about doing so is up to you.»
So much for help from on high. Xavier looked around at his other companions. «Any ideas?»
«We should find a wayhouse as soon as we can in Sanzumachi,» said Sumiko. «That will get us off the streets, although not ahead of the gossip. Yukio and I are best suited to digging up the rumors about the purpose of the encampment. It is impossible that a large presence of Sundas nearby will not have made itself known in Sanzumachi in some way or another.»
«I could feel out who is hiring mercenaries, and why,» rumbled Kahina. «You would probably be most useful with me, Zabi-san. A human tagging along with the bakuhito is likely to make it more difficult for them to get straight answers. Though at least one of them is unlikely to get any straight answers either way.» She gave Yukio a nod.
Yukio shrugged. «Not a problem. As long as I don't run into any other cats, I'll be fine. And people will tell me different things than they would Sumiko, anyway.»
Xavier wanted to ask what would happen if he did run into any other cats, but supposed this was not the time. «So once we've gathered a bit of intelligence?»
Yukio grinned. «We meet back at the wayhouse and figure out if we need to flee into the desert or not! And then we can make actual plans for infiltrating or observing the encampment.»
«Flee into the desert?»
Sumiko nodded. «An army that close is going to put a lot of pressure on the town. It's very likely that there will be some who would inform the Sundas about any strangers poking around after them. Given Sanzumachi's close ties with the Confederacy, that's not a huge risk, but if there are people who are too interested in us, we may need to be careful about staying in one place for too long. For that reason, Guujin-san, I would like to request you remain in the Wayhouse. You would be a dangerous sort of novelty for a bakuhito town under threat from the Sundas.»
Guujin nodded. «Of course. Orion and I will ensure the safety of your belongings and lodgings while you are out.»
Sumiko bowed slightly.
"Well!" remarked Princess, who had finally quit scurrying around and curled around Xavier's ankle—he barely noticed the vine she kept in contact with is head snaking up and around his side anymore. "This certainly sounds like loads of fun! And I expect I'll be trapped in that damn cow sack, hm? Just wonderful."