The walls of Divica were tall and mighty, composed of a solid stone supported by orichalcum girders and inscribed with ancient runes in the language of divine light, designed to ward away all evil that may seek to break past the massive, orihalcum gates. For thousands of years, the walls stood as stalwart protectors of the holy city, keeping the inhabitants safe from all manner of invaders and monsters.
And they were also really good perches for nosy angels.
“What are you two doing?” Gabriel asked her younger siblings, both of whom stiffened as they heard her voice.
“Oh, hello Gabriel! We were spying on Michael!” Uriel promptly replied as they turned, beaming down at her. Sariel seemed a tad surprised by the frank admission, but they nodded quickly too, backing up their assertion.
“I see.” It did explain why her two youngest siblings were perching on the battlements of Divica’s wall instead of patrolling the skies. “You shouldn’t be spying on our elder sibling.”
“No we should! When an individual is interacting with a potential romantic partner, it’s the duty of their family to keep a close eye on matters!”
“…Where did you hear that?”
“Sariel told me!”
Gabriel looked at Sariel. Sariel fidgeted. “…I-I read about it. Um, Selaphiel brought me some books from the mortal plane to read while I worked, a-and a few narratives had such things occur, so-”
Gabriel made a mental note to check in with that particular angel of light and ask why, exactly, they were bringing such material to the youngest angel of judgment, but then they spotted what was clearly Michael’s carriage leaving the city and, well, prudence demanded a good understanding of any given situation, so up she went next to her siblings, peering down at the red-roofed carriage as it drove from the city. “…Hm. You said ‘romantic partner’ earlier?”
“Yes! Michael has displayed surprising interest in this new individual!” Uriel said, beaming.
Gabriel raised an eyebrow. “The druid is intended to be under Michael’s protection for a mission that will, owing for travel times, probably last several months. Displaying interest in her is not an indication of romantic interest.”
“But Michael also took her to a restaurant like a date!”
“Mortals need to eat food to survive, and it would be improper for Michael to just send her off to find food for herself.”
“What about how they’re so different? Stuff like that always happens in those books Sariel has, right?”
“Ah, yeah!” Sariel chimed in, “Th-There’s always-well, not always, I guess, but usually, um, mostly…u-um, the idea of opposites attracting is a really common one! S-So…y-y-yeah, there’s basis!”
Gabriel sighed. “Opposites do not attract. That is a convention of fiction. Angels and demons do not have any attraction to one another in spite of being literal opposites. The same is true for our gods, the Rakuli and the Ouza. The trope is a flight of fantasy, concocted out of curiosity towards the impossible. To assume it must be true in all circumstances does a disfavor to both Michael and this druid. In addition, how are they even opposites? The druid is an elf. That is nowhere close to the opposite of an angel.”
“Ah…m-meant more l-like…p-personality wise.”
“And how much do you know of her personality?”
“…She, um…w-well, she…dresses very differently? I-It’s immodest, and she seemed to be very friendly with Michael.”
“She would be friendly with Michael for the same reason Michael would be friendly with her, albeit inverted. Michael is intended to be her protector, so the druid would do best to establish a rapport with them. As to her dress, the followers of Chlora are none to have a very different view of modesty when compared to those of the Light Faith. In all honesty, we’re lucky the druid didn’t decide to just show up wearing leaves.”
Sariel flushed at the implication while Uriel cocked their head, likely considering matters- “Are you sure her dress isn’t made of leaves?”
“…” Or they were just being Uriel. Regardless. “Are your concerns satisfied, Sariel?”
“…U-Um, I think? So…we don’t need to worry?”
“Oh of course you don’t~!” All three of the Cardinals went rigid at the unfortunately familiar voice, then turned as one to look at their cousin.
Standing nearby was a masked angel, clad in bright pink robes and wearing a spiral helm. The mask displayed a cheerily smiling face with a heart under its single right eye, and the angel’s pink wings were out and adjusted against their back so it appeared like the top half of a heart was peeking over their shoulders.
“…Greetings, Sandalphon,” Gabriel said, “Was there something you needed?”
“Only to inform you that as the Ordinal of Love, there’s nothing you need to worry about~! There was not even the slightest tinge of love within their meeting! After all, love for someone like Michael is impossible~!”
“…Is that so?”
“Of course! And even if they were to do something as foolish as to fall in love with some random, inconsequential mortal, it would only last a hundred years or so! A love fated to end~!”
“Thank you for your input, Sandalphon.”
“Uh, excuse me, what did you mean by Ordinal?” Uriel asked the pure angel, which was a fair question, even if Gabriel wished Uriel hadn’t asked it so Sandalphon would leave faster.
“Oh, that’s simple! I wish to offer my services as Michael’s replacement~! However, since I am not an angel of Iudex, it would be improper to call me a cardinal, so I came up with Ordinal~! Isn’t it such a cute name~? Fitting too, don’t you think~?”
Gabriel didn’t think so at all. “Thank you for the offer, but we do not require your assistance.”
“Oh? Why not? I mean, you are down to only two, and oh, I can even asked Metatron if they want to help as well~!”
“I believe you are incorrect there Sandalphon. Even if two of us are busy elsewhere, there are still three cardinals here.” Sariel perked up then, proud at being acknowledged.
“Hm~ But are you sure Sariel is up for the task~? I mean, they do have a very important support role they should fill~” And then they slumped, disappointed.
“If you are so eager to help, then why don’t you or Metatron perform that support instead?”
“But Sariel has been doing it for so long, I’m sure no one else can do it like them~! And since that’s all they have been doing, they might not be able to fill their siblings’ roles while they’re gone for soooo very long~”
“If that is the case, then someone like you, who isn’t even a cardinal, will certainly be unable to fill that role.” It was a bit blunter than Gabriel normally stated matters, but Sandalphon was annoyingly stubborn.
“Aw~ How kind of you to think of me! But I’m sure it would be a simple job~! For example, guiding the pontiff would be simple for any angel~”
“Simple or not, the elder goddess Lucere is the one who entrusted the task to us cardinals to guide her pontiff. For us to just give the duty away would be blasphemy.”
“And what if she gave her permission~? I mean, there is that exchange going on, so who knows, she might agree to a different point of view guiding him~ and besides-” Gabriel could feel Sandalphon’ empty eye bore into her as they tilted their head. “-under whose guidance was it that he committed treason~?”
Oh, so they were going there. “Interesting that you mention that, as I seem to remember a different pontiff who led a failed crusade. Who was it that guided him then? Ah yes, an ordinal, as you put it.”
“In that case, would it not be best that we work together to learn from each others’ mistakes~?”
Silence stretched out as the two stared at one another, refusing to back down and ready to strike the other the moment a sign of weakness showed. Verbally, not physically, or at least Gabriel didn’t think things had devolved that badly just yet.
“U-Um…” And Gabriel had to bite back a sigh as Sariel spoke up. “I-I w-wouldn’t mind going back to my original job…i-if that would help more.”
“Aw, you know it would, dear~” Sandalphon cooed, looking straight to Sariel and openly disregarding Gabriel, “Why, you know all about whatever it is you do, so clearly you’re the best one to do it~! It’s the only thing you’re good for, so you need to stick with it~! You don’t want to let anyone down, right~?”
“Oh, I know!” Uriel suddenly chimed in, smiling wide, “I’ll just flip a coin for it! Leave it up to a fair chance!”
Sandalphon went rigid, then slowly turned towards Uriel, their “smile” looking frozen on their mask. “…that really isn’t necessary-”
“No, Uriel has a point,” Gabriel interrupted, letting herself smile as Sariel relaxed, “It’s best we be fair about this. Feel free to call, dear cousin.”
Sandalphon tilted their head with an audible crick. “…So be it. Heads, then.”
“Kay!” So the coin was flipped, and Gabriel grinned as Uriel held out the coin, tails up. “Heh, sorry! Looks like Sari’s on cardinal duty and Meta’s on support!”
“…Hee hee hee~ Oh, how fun~” Sandalphon clapped their hands together. “I’ll make sure to inform them then. For now, don’t you all have duties to attend to?”
Gabriel smirked. “Don’t you?”
“I do~! So I bid you all a fond and short farewell~” Their cousin abruptly vanished in a flash of pink light, and Gabriel glanced at her siblings, letting her smile drop into a frown.
“Uriel, good work there. Be careful around Sandalphon and Metatron though. I imagine we won’t be hearing the last of this ‘ordinal’ issue. Sariel, you capitulated to Sandalphon too easily. You’re a Cardinal now, and you need to uphold the standards of our position.”
“O-Oh, um, s-sorry-”
“You don’t need to apologize. Kindness has its place, and you did prevent potential conflict between Sandalphon and myself, so you have my thanks for that. Just don’t let them bully you, and stick with Uriel at all times. Understood?”
Sariel nodded rapidly. “Y-Yes, I understand!” Then squeaked as Uriel wrapped an arm over their shoulders and pulled them in close.
“Yep, Sariel’s got it! And so do I! So you go do whatever leadership things you need to do and let us handle guarding the city for now!”
Gabriel’s lips twitched. “Yes, I’ll do that. Thank you both for being so reliable.” And with that, she spread her wings and took off to the sky overhead.
For a moment, she glanced out past the walls, to where Michael’s carriage was still traveling. There didn’t seem to be any problems yet, though…no, she could afford to trust her older sibling. Michael was reckless, short-tempered, and prone to escalating conflicts, but…well, they were usually good about accomplishing their tasks.
She still had one sibling to check up on though, and it was a short flight to reach the Acilius, a first-class passenger ship leaving the central port. It was with a casual ease that she descended into its cabins, phasing straight through the solid white wood of the ship as though it were nothing but air, and settled in a room where a young, brown-skinned woman with short green hair cut into a bob sat, reading from an adventure book. “Oh, so you did go with the ‘Rayfa’ idea.”
“That I did,” Raphael replied, grinning back at her as they–or perhaps “she” was more fitting–stood and curtsied in her dark blue gown. A slight change from her typical greens which should at least help somewhat in preventing any possible connection between the green-winged angel of Zemava and this young woman. Granted, there were probably thousands of green-eyed verdettes in Naloriva alone, so it wasn’t as though she would be easy to uncover. “In fact, I’m thinking of calling myself Rayfa Justborn~”
She pouted, then shrugged. “Well it was worth a try. Hm…what’s a decent, common name?”
“A generic lightlander, I suppose.”
“Come now, you need a better story than that. Who are you, why are you in the Dark Lands, where are you from originally, how did you get there, so on and so forth.”
“Fine, fine. I’m Rayfa Viswan, from Naloriva, the country with the least amount of stable government and possible records I could be tracked from. My parents died when I was young because of the Demon Lord Irsacagan-”
“One moment. How old is your character intended to be?”
“I was thinking twenty-three? That seems a decent number for a young woman exploring the world.”
Gabriel shook her head. “It would be, but Irascagan was around twenty-five years ago. Your parents would have died two years before you were born.”
“Ah, blast…I could move it up to twenty-eight? Though…one moment.” Rayfa lifted her hair and her ears extended upward, forming into points like an elf. “There, my youthful appearance is explained by me being half-elf, and my age can be…hm, maybe thirty-three? I would be eight then when the parents die, and eight is a decent number for that. Old enough that I can be devastated by their deaths and still remember them, but young enough that I still require a parental figure to take me in and raise me properly.”
“Better. So who raised you then?”
“Hm…My maternal grandfather. He’s human though, so we didn’t move to an elvish village. Instead, he took me west and we settled in Tramontava, which is how I’m so good at wind magic.”
“Do you have formal training?”
“No, because then there would be questions of who I trained under and such. I’m self-taught and fiercely independent, but I love my grandfather and so I’m looking for a good opportunity in order to send money back to him.”
“Which could be used to explain why you send messages to the Light Lands, assuming you send physical messages.”
Rayfa grinned. “Precisely. Do you think it will hold up?”
“For the most part. Your main goal is to insert yourself into the service of the Demon Lord, so keeping at least something of a story straight will be beneficial.”
“It’s a good thing I’m traveling by boat then, gives me time to work out further details.” She tilted her head, thinking for a moment. “Maybe I should falsify a journal to keep track? I could show a penchant for note-taking.”
“That’s a decent idea, though try not to take too many ideas from tawdry adventure novels.”
“Hey, that was an original idea! I didn’t get it from-And don’t talk bad about what I liked to read! A little campy schlock never hurt anybody!”
Gabriel smirked, well-used to this “argument”. “That’s quite the position for the angel of ‘Temperance’ to take.”
“Temperance! Not abstinence! There’s a strong difference there, and a good deal of wiggle room Miss ‘Prudence’.”
“Heh. Best of luck, Rafi.” Her smile turned to a serious frown. “You’re going deep into enemy territory here, so-called treaty or no. Be careful.”
“Don’t worry, I will be. Honestly, I’m more worried Mikey’s going to lose their temper the instant one of us isn’t acting as their minder.” She grimaced. “It’s more like an inevitability than a probability there…”
“Who knows? They might surprise us.”
Rayfa huffed. “Yeah, that’ll be the day.” She stepped forward then and gave Gabriel a quick hug, grinning wide. “Just try to keep the city intact while I’m gone, okay?”
Gabriel returned the hug, squeezing tight. “I’ll try my best. Stay safe.” And she also took the opportunity to glance at the book Raphael was reading. “…Prosperity Schotts, really?”
“What?? Outland fiction is fun! They have things like robots and rifles!”
“We have golems and cannons.”
“Hmph. You just don’t respect the literary tradition…”
Gabriel rolled her eyes and gave her sister one more fond smile. “Certainly, and maybe your time in the Dark Lands will actually give you taste in books.”
And with that, Gabriel took off once more, phasing through the ship as she took the air. She watched it travel out of the bay, heading out and along the shoreline, then finally returned to her proper duties. There was a great deal to do, after all, and the first thing on that list was finally delivering the necessary orientation to the Pontiff of Light.
So she was a little miffed when she got there and found Sandalphon giving it instead.
“-and chief among your duties will be in directing the policies of your-Oh, hello Gabriel,” they greeted her, their mask smiling as though they didn’t have a hand on Popola’s shoulder, nor as though they weren’t leaning inappropriately close to the pontiff.
“Ah, there you are, Cardinal Gabriel,” Popola spoke, seeming unbothered, “You’re late to the orientation. I was under the impression that you would be giving it, but then Ordinal Sandalphon informed me otherwise. If I may ask, why were you absent?” Or he was very bothered, but not by Sandalphon. Hm.
“I was attending to my other duties, your holiness-”
“And those other duties take precedence over aiding the mortal voice of Lucene, I see.”
They did, but discretion was required when dealing with a man of ill temper, so Gabriel simply bowed deep and affected sincerity as she apologized, “I am sincerely sorry, your holiness. My siblings were leaving for their mission, and I admit to allowing my own sentiments to override my sense of responsibility towards your esteemed person.”
“…Hmph. Well, I suppose your type can’t help that sort of thing.” The phrase “your type” gave Gabriel a rather strong impression of what, exactly, Popola’s “type” was. “Just don’t let it happen again. And do thank Ordinal Sandalphon for taking over for you.”
Sandalphon giggled, waving a hand. “Oh no, I don’t need any such thanks. I’m sure my dear colleague appreciates everything I’ve done for her~. And I believe we were right in the middle of deciding which direction you want to take your foreign policies, your holiness~! Particularly in reference to that treaty between the Lands of Light and Dark~.”
“Hmph. That tripe my predecessor forced on me, you mean. No, we’ll have to do something about that.”
Gabriel straightened. “Your holiness, it pains me to say this, but we keep this ‘treaty’ not out of obligation to Vocula, but due to the other Light Land nations agreeing to it. We would lack support if we sought to break it.”
“And do we need support?”
Gabriel blinked behind her helm, because Popola had single-handedly proven there were indeed such a thing as stupid questions.
And yet, the Pontiff continued. “We are the holy nation of Light, the pinnacle of the Light Lands. What we have as an issue here isn’t a meaningless treaty, but the fact that our lessers seem to think they can order us around. Our paladin forces number in the hundreds of thousands, and as such, we are the ones who shape the course of this continent. Why shouldn’t I simply order the death of the Demon Lord, this so-called Empress, hm?”
Largely because the paladin orders altogether actually numbered less than one hundred thousand, but there were other reasons. “Geographically, we are the furthest nation from her. Politically, we lack ties with the more eastward nations. Naloriva is run by Ebkai now, and the Dragon Lord Arancoda is fond of the Demon Lord Valondrac, or at least she is fond of Valondrac’s consort; Rosiava hates our nation about as much as they despise the Dark Lands, perhaps even more so now that they’re actually trading with the East; and neither Tramontava nor Luceneva especially like us.”
“A vassal needs not like their liege, merely obey their commands,” Sandalphon simpered, earning a firm nod from Popola.
Gabriel tried not to frown, scowl, or grimace, despite wanting to. “Your holiness, while you are the mortal voice of Lucere, you are not the liege of any other nations’ rulers-”
“Which is why we have to take Tramontava first!”
“…” Sandalphon turned to stare blankly at the back of the Pontiff’s head, blatantly baffled at the stupidity they just heard. For the briefest moment, Gabriel felt a genuine kinship with her cousin. “…No, your holiness. No war with Tramontava.”
“What? No, no, it can work! I had this discussion with Vocula for many a time but the blasted fool never listened to me!”
“Tramontava is the largest nation in the Light Lands, your holiness.”
“Yes! Exactly, and all that land and territory could be ours-”
“Their army is bigger.”
“But ours is more skilled! And we have resources like Orichalcum that they lack-”
“They have skyships.”
“Bah, stupid toys built by some idiot human dreaming of flight! If humans were meant to fly, they would be born with wings! Like angels!”
“Or harpies, which make up a majority of the Tramontan population,” Gabriel helpfully pointed out.
“Well, yes, but angels outclass-”
“There are twelve light angels, three pure angels, and five judgement angels, your holiness. In contrast, there are sixty wind seraphs.”
“But Kataba wouldn’t stand against his mother, and thus we can-!”
“No,” Sandalphon interrupted.
“But if we just-!”
“But we can-!”
“You’re not listening! I have entire strategic campaigns written up! In fact, I can show you, here, I put them in my desk-”
Gabriel simply placed her hands behind her back and watched as the muttering Pontiff dug through his desk drawers, pulling out sheets, maps, and even miniatures, all while Sandalphon continued their blank staring. The pink angel’s mask was entirely expressionless, but Gabriel was getting the distinct impression of dawning horror behind it.
<He’s not even the worst one,> she said in Celestial, catching her cousin’s attention, <Pontiff Aurelius Actinosus wrote an entire stage production about how he, personally, was going to lead the Light Lands into a golden age by burning every last ‘heretic’ at the stake.>
<…Was it good?>
<It was not.>
<Unfortunate. That sounds like something I would enjoy.>
<He included angels as heretics.>
<Every flying thing, to him, was inherently heretical, because the Ancient Tempest was a sky god. As such, anything that entered the sky was evil. He absolutely hated birds.>
<…How did he->
<Become Pontiff? His predecessor was of his order and, due to the laws at the time, her sudden death in office due to unforeseen circumstances, he gained the position automatically. The law was struck down after his remarkably short term in office.>
<I have many questions.>
<We weren’t the guardians of Divica at the time and I’m given to understand Pontiff Livaria Castitas had been eating while walking, an unfortunate habit that resulted in a grape being lodged in her windpipe. This would be less of an issue if she hadn’t also had a habit of swallowing grapes whole and also hadn’t been walking down the main stairs. As for Aurelius, Jophiel quite literally threw him out of office after he commissioned a statue of Elder Lucere to be constructed for his office. The physical office, not the position.>
<I still have questions.>
<The grapes were, apparently, ‘practice’, and the statue was intended to be nude. Jophiel was requested to leave the office of guardian afterward, due to future Pontiffs being rightfully fearful of further defenestrations.>
<I have no further questions->
“Alright, now, see, here! Here are our forces, of which there are many-” Well, at least Popola was proving to be an enthusiastic pontiff. Such a thing could be nice, when it didn’t go horribly wrong.
<…Did he paint these models himself?>
<I would be impressed if so. They are rather well done. Oh, and Sanda?> Sandalphon glanced up at Gabriel, who smiled back. <Welcome to the job, dear cousin.>