The Takaharu chapter house for the Society of Progress was a three- or four-story brick building taking up the entirety of a city block a few streets beyond the apex of the large hill that Xavier had seen as they entered the trainyard. Approaching it from upslope, as they were, it was obvious that the main building spanned the northern downhill edge and partway up the east and west sides of the hill, while the rest of the enclosed area was some sort of compound with multiple buildings surrounded by a brick wall that was itself at least 20 feet tall. Though there appeared to be a gate in the southern wall, it was partially overgrown with a trailing plant that ran rampant over much of the upper brickwork. It looked somewhat like ivy, except when they drew even with the walls the leaves were the wrong shape; more of a fan, like a ginkgo leaf, than the wedges that Xavier was expecting.
Kahina completely ignored the southern gate, leading them down the hill along the east side of the building. At the corner where the street on intersected with the street at the northern edge of the compound, there was a large staircase leading up to a pair of double doors underneath a tasteful sign covered in several symbols that Xavier found impossible to parse. Wonderful. Looked like the written language used pictographs similar to Japanese kanji characters, except these didn't look like any kanji that Xavier had ever learned; the lines were all wrong, for one thing. Kanji were often built from common smaller shapes, but this admittedly small sample had nothing in it that Xavier recognized. They almost looked more like overly-complicated Arabic characters than Japanese kanji.
"I don't suppose you can read?" he wondered under his breath to Princess.
"You know many plants that bother with writing stuff down?"
Yeah, that was about what he'd figured.
Kahina led the group up the stairs and into a small lobby. A young man stood behind a three-sided wraparound desk near the center of the room, with two doorways behind him; presumably entries into the hallways that stretched to the south and west from here. The walls were mostly obscured by drapes so deeply maroon they were almost black, although here and there were nooks with chairs or small benches. Two large windows filled with partially opaque decorative glass flanked the doors they entered; Xavier wasn't able to detect any images, though the leading and glass was arranged sort of like a stained-glass window without any stain.
«Kahina-san!» said the young man with evident warmth. «Welcome home.» His smile faded slightly as he took in her left arm, still lightly holding Xavier's hand. «I see your search was not entirely successful.»
«Not entirely,» agreed Kahina. «Though not a waste of time, either. Everyone, this is Hinata-san.»
«It is good to meet all of you,» said Hinata, bowing slightly to each of them. «Orion-san gave me a brief description. Zabi-san, Yukio-san, and Sumiko-san, correct? Wonderful. I know you just arrived, but Guujin-sama wishes to see you as soon as possible. If Yukio-san and Sumiko-san would please have a seat here, I will take Zabi-san to see Guujin-sama now. Kahina-san, would you be willing to wait here for a short while? I will fetch Chikao to help me when I return, but Guujin-sama was very insistent that we begin the interview process at once after he'd talked to Orion-san and I'm sure our bakuhito friends would prefer not to wait alone. Thank you. Now, Zabi-san, right this way.»
Xavier shot a panicked look at Yukio and Sumiko as Kahina let go of his hand and gave him a gentle push toward Hinata.
«Go on, Zabi-san,» she said. «You'll be fine.»
Right. Of course he would. Xavier tried desperately to work through his feelings of panic. Even though she'd warned them, he still was surprised by how fast things were moving now they'd finally arrived in Takaharu.
As he followed Hinata through the right-most door and down the hall, Xavier took a deep breath and forced himself to think about what Kahina had said. She'd all but flat-out told him this interview would involve combat, but he'd never gained any real proficiency with a weapon. Then again, Kahina knew that but was still oddly confident in him.
Hmm. Given the amount of artifact use he'd seen in the Confederacy so far, it was a good bet that most combat revolved around artifacts, similar to the way the Sundlin soldiers had almost exclusively attacked from range. And if that were the case, then he had a big advantage, which could explain why Kahina wasn't stressed about putting him in harm's way.
If that were indeed the case…Xavier slid one arm out and pulled his pack partway around to his front, then worked open the side pocket that Princess was currently crammed into. "Come on out, Princess. I think we're going to both need to be a bit more agile than we can manage with you in that pack."
The mononoke wasted no time, scurrying up Xavier's arm to his shoulder and luxuriantly stretching across the entirety of his upper back. "Aaaaaah, finally! Freedom!"
«Here we—» began Hinata, before cutting himself short as he did a double-take at the sight of Princess. «Ah…that is to say, we've arrived. If you'll just go through this door, I will await your results here. You may leave your pack with me, if you wish.»
«Thank you, I will.» Xavier handed the pack across and rolled his shoulders, making Princess clamp down more tightly. "Shall we, Princess?"
"Let's rock this thing."
He shook his head. He still hadn't figured out whether she really was using turns of phrase specific to his world, or if there was just some weird translation going on since she was technically communicating directly into his brain.
Before he had a chance to work himself back up into a panic, Xavier pulled the door open and walked in.
Inside was a plain room without the draperies on the walls that he'd become accustomed to in the foyer and hallway. The only furniture, such as it were, was a row of shelves and hooks along one wall from which dangled a number of melee weapons. Xavier noticed at least two swords, a medium-sized axe, and what he thought was a coiled whip on his quick inspection of the room. He didn't notice much beyond that however, because he was distracted by the robot.
Xavier stopped dead, the door behind him almost hitting him in the back as it swung closed. "That's a robot."
"A what?" asked Princess.
It was a robot. There was no question about it. It was humanoid, and slightly shorter than Xavier, with a body made out of some sort of matte, off-white, plastic-looking substance. Its limbs were slim, the joints showing exposed balls like an artist's manikin. In fact, the whole thing was vaguely reminiscent of the little manikins that Xavier had used in the one art class he took in middle school, although the proportions and sizes were off.
Its head was completely different, as well. While the shape was again reminiscent of a manikin, the robot had what appeared to be a working mouth and eyes, although no actual nose; just a protrusion that gave it a more human look without any actual holes in it. Its eyes were dark holes surrounded by interlocking plates like a camera shutter.
Xavier didn't have any more time to study the thing, however. Almost as soon as the door was shut, its head swiveled his way, the plates around its eyes tightening in focus, and then it was springing toward him with hands held out from its sides and fingers in a wedge shape that looked downright knife-like.