Chapter 12 – A Paladin of Judgement

Paperwork was annoying, but Michael did take some satisfaction in placing their mark on the documents that would ensure a number of criminals would be brought to justice. Really, if one looked past the inherent monotony, it was almost enjoyable. The air of the dungeon was pleasant enough, it was brightly lit, and the quiet aside from rhythmic stamping had a sort of soothing sensation to it.

They were almost disappointed when they had to climb the ladder back up and go retrieve Anaya from her bed.

“You met the queen without me!?” Strike that, very disappointed.

“Yes? What’s the problem? We had business and you wanted to sleep.”

“Well, yes, but that’s–I still wanted to meet her! It would’ve been cool!” Why is she pouting? What’s with the pouting??

“Alright, then you can meet her.” Michael walked back to the bedroom door and opened it, glancing out to the hall. “Anaya wants to meet you.”

“Hm?” Molgari walked over and looked in, before raising a hand in greeting as Anaya stared back at her. “Howdy Miss Greenfall. It’s nice to meet you.”

“…” Anaya, still sitting up in her bed, stared at the queen as her face slowly turned a shade of pink, before she pressed both palms over her face. “…yeah I deserve that…h-hello, your majesty.”

“Heh. As I said before, howdy. I hope I’m not botherin’ you.”

“Eh?” She looked up, still looking flustered. “Ah, no, no, it’s fine, um, I just…wanted to look a bit more…presentable.”

“I see. Well, I’ll leave you to get more presentable then. I need to start sendin’ out some papers to be published now anyways.” Molgari glanced at Michael. “If you need anythin’, Paladin Centola, just ask Loukas or Nasos, they’ll be attendin’ to both of you.”

Michael nodded back. “Thank you for that, though I doubt we’ll need them.”

“Ah, Misha–” What’s with the emphasis there? “–maybe don’t reject two potential guides just yet. We do want to see more of the city together, right?”

“Not really. We’ve been to a casino, a castle, and even a sheriff’s office. That’s enough.”

“…that’s three places though. And two of them weren’t even in this city. And this is the capital! There’s gotta be some cool things to see here!”

“We do have more than three types of buildings,” Molgari agreed, treacherously. She was smiling, clearly amused at the new obstacle in Michael’s path.

“What would you recommend then, your majesty?” Michael inquired.

“Dunno, I have work to do. See ya.”

Michael stared at the queen’s back as she left without a further word. This treachery shall not be forgotten…

Regardless, Anaya was, unfortunately, correct about the fact that this journey was, for the most part, a tour. So they needed to tour the city, at least until the druid was satisfied. Though at the thought of going back down the stairs, it seemed she was fine with exploring the castle first. 

“I thought you wanted to go explore the capital,” Michael mentioned as they walked through the palace’s gardens, which stretched all around the perimeter of the building itself.

“Oh, well, it’s not going anywhere, we really don’t need to make it an immediate thing,” she replied, looking at a bed of anemones, “And besides, this castle is historically important too, we should take the time to fully explore it!”

“I see. So that’s why you’re examining these historically significant flowers.”

She paused, shooting a pout back at Michael before huffing and turning towards the castle, muttering something about sarcasm. Michael didn’t smile, but it was…interesting, watching Anaya explore. She certainly took an active interest in the mosaics that Michael didn’t particularly share, asking active questions of the twin walking with her as he tried his best to elaborate on his people and their history.

For instance, apparently historical minotaurs were more bestial, and it was only with the passing of ages–and through relationships with other mortal species, such as humans and satyrs–that their features softened into the more human-esque faces they had now. Truly “fascinating”…maybe I should’ve pushed harder on traveling back to the city. At least then we’d be making some progress.

They glanced at the second twin, following along with them while his brother attended to Anaya. “So, which one are you?”

“Nasos.”

“I see. Your brother seems knowledgeable about history.”

“Yeah, he’s good with it. Always has been.”

Michael nodded.

“…”

“…”

They looked back to Anaya, who was marveling at a mosaic displaying a heroic minotaur battling a massive hydra, a flaming axe held in his– “…Huh. I know that one.”

“Hm?”

“The minotaur with the axe. I remember him. Zaharias…Lazou, I believe.”

“Huh. I didn’t expect a Zemavan to know one of our legends.”

Right. Mortal guise, I can’t say I knew him personally… “I can know things. He was a hero in the past, and Divica has information on the past heroes.”

“Is that so? Then do you know the legend of when he defeated the hydra?” 

You mean when that idiot accidentally let a hydra run loose? “No.”

“Well let me enlighten you,” Nasos continued, smiling with what felt like amusement at their supposed ignorance, “The hero Zaharias was a legendary hero who saved the Light Lands without any companions at his side-” 

Hm. For a kingdom dedicated to Father, it seems recognizing an angel of judgement as a companion of the hero is too much for them…

“-and when a hydra was unleashed upon our lands by a fiendish warlock, he wielded a mighty axe crafted by a master smith that held a burning ore within it to ensure no heads would grow from the seared stumps.”

Except it was just a wood axe he grabbed while running up to the hydra, and it was only burning when I enchanted it with my flames. 

“I see, he certainly sounds quite amazing, according to the legends.” 

“That he is, his tale has become quite well known in Sollamava for his bravery.”

Of course he was. No one ever remembers how much of an idiot any of the heroes were. How hard is it to close a dungeon door behind you?! “Oh we’ll come back to it, it’s fine”, except it wasn’t! To think that idiot was granted a sword blessed by the gods and he didn’t even use it once! 

Michael would never understand the chosen heroes who never used the sword they were gifted with. It was a blessing to be chosen and these idiots basically spat upon it. Not to mention that one heretical “hero” who decided to name the sword after her lover- 

“Of course, I’m sure someone like you should know about other heroes who came from our lands.” Breaking them out of their thoughts, Michael looked over at Nasos, who seemed to have continued speaking while they were having a mental rant.

“I do, to varying extents,” they replied as they attempted to figure a way out of trying to pretend any of those halfwits were in any way deserving of the title “legendary”. Maybe a topic change will work? “But I’d prefer to learn more from you. You do seem to have a breadth of knowledge on the subject.”

“Ah, well, heroes always did interest me more than typical history,” he admitted, his smile turning more fond, “I suppose that comes from…well, to put it simple, from my father’s side. He’s a hero.”

Oh gods no. “…Fascinating.”

“Heh, not especially…haven’t really met the man, so it’s not a big thing. Did meet two of his friends before though, a few years ago. Hell, if the current heroes had stopped by Sollamava, I might’ve tried joinin’ up.”

“Really? You would have left your land to be a hero?”

“Well sure. Plenty of people do the same. Might’ve become an adventurer if my uncle hadn’t scored Loukas and I this nice job.”

Gods, he’s another idiot with wanderlust… “I see. To confirm, that would be an uncle on your mother’s side?”

“Eh? Ah, yeah, Uncle Coridan. He uh…I dunno, it’s probably weird to spill all of this on you.” He shrugged. “It’s personal stuff.”

“I can understand that. As such, if you ask me about my family, I’m ending the conversation here.”

Nasos snorted, chuckling. “Damn, didn’t expect a Zem to have a sense of humor.”

It wasn’t a joke. I shouldn’t say that though, so… “What else can you tell me about your country?”

“…Uh, hm. Well, if you want to hear about heroic legends, I could probably spare some time–” Oh gods no. “–or…well, how about I tell you about the noble families of Sollama? I think Loukas is sharing that info with your friend over there, so we can stay on theme.” He looked at them again as they both followed Anaya and her own guide while she wandered. “Though, uh…pardon me for saying, but you don’t really seem like you’d care all that much. It’s not hard to learn about Sollamava from Zemava, so if you don’t already know…”

He’s right, I don’t particularly care about a group of nobles I’ll never interact with or even need to know exist. They didn’t say that either though. Instead, they said, “That is a fair point. I am on this tour for a reason though–” Which has nothing to do with Sollamava, so really, I shouldn’t be here. “–so I should learn what I can.”

“Yeah, I suppose that’s fair…Right, so…a good starting point would probably be our queen’s family, the Molgari.” And he continued that explanation as Michael listened along, absorbing information that they still felt would have no significance to them while continuing to keep a vigilant watch of their wandering druid.

Everything he said was probably easily found in a book somewhere, given the apparent importance of the families. Nothing they have learned so far would be worth reporting to father, and Michael had a feeling that wouldn’t change despite all the countries they had left to pass through.

At this rate, I won’t have anything to report to Father, Michael groused internally as they watched Anaya asking her guide about the flowers in the northeast garden, which were apparently different from those in the northwest garden, And if that happens, Gabriel’s bound to start suggesting I need “help” or some nonsense like that…

“–and then there’s…the Cotilla.” Hm, there was an odd pause there, might as well check if it could lead to something. 

“Is there something wrong with them?” 

“Oh, no, just… some personal matters.”

“Would this involve the ‘personal stuff’ you mentioned before?” 

“It does, and…ah, whatever. If I’m having this much trouble just talking about the family, I might as well share. My mom is Laria Cotilla, the daughter of Archduke Umberto, the current head of the family, who’s the brother of the previous king. Our family has a tendency to produce twins in every generation, and Umberto didn’t like who our father was, so…yeah, we’re not in the family.”

“What.”

Nasos paused at their harsh tone, looking at Michael. “Uh…yeah. We were disowned, and our mother went with us–”

“He disowned his own daughter.” Michael took a breath, their hands clenching at their sides. “For what? Having children with a man he did not approve of? I thought heroes were meant to be upheld.”

“Ah, well, our dad doesn’t exactly have the best reputation, and apparently didn’t act the best when he was here. Course, I haven’t met the guy, so I can only go off of rumors.” 

“What.” 

“Oh, well, uh, yeah, our father hasn’t been around since he first met our mother. I did say that earlier, I think.” 

“…” Taking in a deep breath, Michael did their best to remain calm. While mortals could never hope to reach the level of bond they had with their Father, Michael always assumed that a parental bond was sacred above all else. So to learn of two parents who forsake that bond- 

“…uh, forgive me if this sounds rude, but you’re nicer than you seem.”

“…” They looked back at Nasos. “Excuse me?” 

“Oh, just meant that what I told you seemed to make you mad. If you get this worked up over someone you barely know, you must be pretty nice.”

“…” They didn’t know how to refute that without sounding like an idiot. “…You…successfully uphold your duties from what I have seen.”

“…Thanks?”

They nodded. The silence stretched. 

“Oh, you’re over here.” Oh thank gods, an interruption.

Michael looked back to the nearby doorway to see– “Your majesty? I thought you had work.”

“Yep. Glad I caught you though, I was thinking I need to send someone out to find you four in the city.” She looked to her servant. “Nasos, I need you and Loukas back at my office, I have orders that need to be sent and proclamations to be published.”

“Understood, your majesty,” Nasos replied, bowing deep to his monarch before he went to retrieve his brother from the…whatever those oddly snowflake-esque flowers were.

“Boreal roses,” Molgari answered the unasked question, “Your face is very easy to read, paladin.”

Michael tried to stop their lips from twitching downward in displeasure, but the blasted mortal flesh wasn’t listening to her… “I normally wear a helmet.”

“I can see how that would help. Regardless, I found another guide for you, since I can’t have Nasos and Loukas leave the city to help you two.” She waited until her two servants had walked back inside before continuing, “And if you’re meant to be a paladin of Judgment, I think it’s only appropriate to have a real one as your guide.”

“Oh. That…is a fair point. Are they aware of who I truly am?”

“No, and for all intents and purposes, you’ll be tellin’ Paladin Vlahos that you’re a paladin of the Light. Or at least you should be, since you clearly don’t practice our faith.”

Michael bristled at the implication that they, an angel of Iudex, were somehow unfaithful to–Wait, Paladin Vlahos? “…Pardon me, but what did you say the paladin’s name was?”

“Huh? What’s that about a paladin?” Michael certainly didn’t jump as Anaya’s voice sounded out behind them. They did…go somewhat still, which she seemed to notice judging by the giggle, but regardless.

“I’ll just let you meet her,” Molgari replied in lieu of an answer as she walked back inside, “Vlahos, have fun escorting these two. I leave their care in your hands.”

Michael tensed. Molgari knows everything, why would she put me with Vlahos of all people!? And since when was that wandering barbarian a paladin–

They took a half-step back and stared as a remarkably large female minotaur stepped out to join them in the gardens. The woman had to be 7ft tall and was wearing full, white plate mail, lined with bronze that cut in a solid line straight down her cuirass and curved around the large pauldrons at her shoulders. Or at least at the visible one, since the one on her left was covered by a brown half cape decorated by the image of a scale in yellow. Her great helm–also decorated with bronze–had two openings for her horns, which were white, long, and very sharp looking…not that Michael was intimidated.

“Well hello there!” Anaya no– “You must be our new guide!”

“…a-ah, um, y-y-yes. H-Hello,” came the shy–what??–voice from inside the helm, before the paladin cleared her throat with a gauntleted fist in front of her covered face, “A-Ahem, ah, m-my greetin’s t-to you, Paladin Centola a-and…um, s-sorry, I, uh, she d-H-Her majesty s-said y-your name, i-it’s j-just, uh–”

“Anaya Greenfall, dear,” Anaya replied, beaming as she held out a hand, “Druid of Chlora, ready to accept your valued guidance! And what would your name be, honored paladin?”

“O-Oh, i-it’s Polina, your, er…” She seemed to search for the correct form of address, and Michael found themself oddly reminded of Uriel.

“You may address her as Lady Anaya or ‘my lady’,” they explained, and, despite the helmet hiding her expression, the paladin radiated gratitude.

“M-My thanks, Paladin Centola. A-Ahem.” She stood straight, then placed a fist over her chest and bowed to them. “I am at your service.”

Anaya giggled, then bowed in turn. “And I thank you for your service to us. Though you can just call me Anaya, if you prefer.”

“Eh? Ah…” She glanced up, still remaining bowed. “…I think I would prefer to still call you Lady Anaya, Lady Anaya.”

“If you want to, I’m good with that.” And both of them were still bowing to each other.

Michael watched the two of them, then sighed. “Can we go now?”

“O-Oh, o-of course!”

“Heh. Right after you, Misha. Let’s go see the city!”

And so they did, much to Michael’s increasing annoyance. 

Sona Komottos was a lovely city. The architecture was solid and made to last, largely composed of marble and bronze. Mosaics were common, just as in the palace, and it was equally common to see large frescos painted along the more solid walls, as was seeing olive trees planted along the roadsides and flower bushes set up in decorative pots. Bronze street lamps stood at corners and outdoor stalls sold both food and trinkets, which Anaya seemed quite drawn to.

And that was the problem for Michael. They were aware that they needed to guide and escort Anaya where she needed to go, but they also despised wasting time.

They didn’t need to know photography had grown in popularity following some idiot’s expedition around the savannahs, nor did they care that cameras were increasingly common in the region due to advancements in the technology and low costs of production. Neither did they care to know where the popular bathhouses were, which restaurants specialized in which dishes, and where one could watch physical bouts between “skilled” fighters, and yet, somehow, they found themself being dragged to all of those places by Anaya at the suggestions of Paladin Polina.

The shy minotaur seemed to think her appointment as their guide meant she actually had to show off as much of the city as possible. Which was why Michael wound up waiting outside of The Grand Seidonis Bathhouse–a massive marble building with statues of merrows on either side of its open entrance; the merrows, one male and one female, both held pots of water over their shoulders, letting it flow over their bodies into the basins beneath them–for Anaya and Polina to finish bathing.

“You know you could come inside with us,” Anaya stated erroneously.

“No.”

“Aw, c’mon, it’ll be nice! A hot bath is relaxing–”

“No.”

“Are you really sure? If it’s a thing about public bathing, I think they provide towels.”

“They do provide towels,” Polina chimed in, unnecessarily.

Michael crossed their arms over their chest and sat firmly on the ground, right beneath another statue of a mermaid advertising the bathhouse. “I refuse.”

“Fiiiine. But don’t blame us if we take a while.”

Michael did blame them, particularly as the afternoon dragged on. Regardless, Polina’s insistence on guiding led them further around the city, and was why they had to eat at The Roasted Chrysaor, which introduced them to Sollamavan barbecue–which was admittedly delicious–and the intricacies of fried potatoes.

“Actually, potatoes as a crop nearly upended the entire feudal system over here,” Polina explained as they sat and ate. She and Anaya had changed clothes following their baths, and the minotaur–whose skin was a brownish shade and whose hair was black and cut short, letting her horns stand out–had elected to wear a short-sleeved maroon vest–baring muscular arms–and brown shorts. She also had a bronze nose ring, apparently a signifier of her faith and position, a steel band around her right wrist, and a surprisingly rough face for someone so nervous. Her right eye even appeared to be made of glass, judging by its cloudy, solid gray color.

“Oh? How did that happen?” Anaya asked, in between munching on potato wedges. Her own attire was a rather…cute, tawny sundress, along with a sunhat with holes for her antlers. 

“Well, before potatoes were introduced, wheat was the main crop people would use for food, right? But it takes a long time to grow wheat proper, and it’s a temperamental crop at the best’a times. Y’need to keep it from gettin’ wet or it molds quick, but it lasts longer so long as you keep it steady and it’s got plenty of uses, so it was the major crop for a lot of kingdoms, Luceneva especially. Rice was a close second, especially since it took less time to grow, but it didn’t do so good in arid places like Sollama. But then potatoes were brought from the North, and suddenly you have a crop that takes way less time and space to grow and even less time to cook, so a lotta people had a lot less reason to stay in one place.

“If it takes ages to grow your food, you gotta stick with it as an investment, and that makes it real valuable, enough that plenty of lords collected grain for taxes. But if that falters, suddenly people are gonna wanna move around since they don’t have that timesink. And if they don’t wanna stay in one place, what’s that mean for the lord of their land?”

“Huh. I didn’t realize it would be such an issue…we’ve always had…well, I guess it would be more accurate to say we’ve been blessed with lots of fruit and vegetables in Naloriva. Easily grown with plant magic and all. We only really formed villages together for communal defense, and the largest of those became our kingdoms. Well, when we had those…” She munched on a wedge thoughtfully, then shook her head. “Ah, sorry, I let myself get away there. So if potatoes nearly destabilized the systems, how did they fix things?”

“Well, for us, we just started emphasizin’ exploration and adventure more. Set up guilds, let people move around, prove their strength, get some prestige, all that. I think it’s worked fairly well so far.”

Michael gave the naive minotaur a side glance, but said little, instead still savoring the barbecued pork provided to them. It’s no wonder gluttony is such a prevalent sin…

And after their meal, Michael found themself dragged along–though not literally because they were perfectly capable of walking on their own and did not need Anaya to hold their hand, despite what the druid seemed to think–to what they had hoped would be the last location on their journey. 

They were wrong, because it turned out Sona Komottos being a very large city meant there were many places to go to, but visiting the Enyari Amphitheatre had been quite the experience. It was easy to assume the capital of Sollamava would be as small as Divica–and it was odd to think of such a grand city as small in comparison to Sona Komottos–but the massive coliseum truly did put things into perspective.

It wasn’t as tall as Sona Palati’s hill, but it was a broad structure, an oval stadium that could host large events ranging from dramatic productions and reenactments to bouts between drastically underdressed warriors in immensely impractical “armor”. Some were chaotic melees where all fought for only themselves, while others had teams and, bizarrely, ongoing stories among them. There were designations for rivals, histories of champions who distinguished themselves and underhanded traitors who betrayed their previous teams, and shocking amounts of booths actively selling merchandise of those teams.

The entire phenomenon was rather baffling, and that was before getting into the “Theater District” as a whole, which hosted fields and stages outdoors and theaters and rings indoors for sporting events, boxing and wrestling matches, and dramatic performances, and information on those places and their histories was readily available. Apparently satyrs, who made up the second most populous demographic in Sollamava, were well known for participating in theater, music, and the arts in general, as they had little chance of competing physically with minotaurs in fields like adventuring, and there was an entire other district dedicated to that particular profession filled with guild houses, armorsmiths and weaponsmiths, and even an airfield for skyships to land at.

It was almost overwhelming, and yet, Michael tamped down on that feeling because none of it mattered. Knowing what the Sollamavan people did for amusement did not matter in the slightest to their mission, and yet they were taken to one such bout between the Scorpions and the Rams–who were apparently bitter rivals from different provinces, taking their names from the heraldry of their liege lords–and now Michael had a booklet explaining those connections taking up space in their robes.

They also had a vaquero hat now. A red one. Apparently, it was a style of rancher hat.

Sona Komottos was oddly beautiful at night. The light stones in those lampposts they’d seen bathed the streets in a warm amber shade, which was shockingly cozy. 

Anaya needed to sleep, as did Polina, and so they retired to an inn for the night. And for once, Michael chose to lay in a bed. They did not need to sleep, but it felt…oddly comfortable. The bed was comfortable, that was natural. The blankets were warm. They could hear Anaya sleep, listen to her soft breathing. Polina had stated the two should share a room while she rested on her own. Michael wasn’t sure why she suggested that.

At least the room they were provided had two beds, so they didn’t have to deal with Anaya pressing up against them. That would have been uncomfortable. As it was, they just sort of…laid there and stared at the ceiling. That was all they really needed to do for “rest”, and when the morning came and Anaya began to stir, they got up and promptly left the room to wait for her in the hallway. Druids were known to be…immodest, and Anaya’s sense of propriety was quite different from the standard Michael was used to. 

And sadly, it seemed that Anaya would only make things more difficult as they sat down for breakfast. 

“So…not to be rude, but are you related to Tisma Vlahos?” 

Now Michael would never admit to gagging on food, but they would admit to being annoyed at the two at the table for staring at them as they cleared their throat. 

“Uh…Y-Yeah, she’s my older sis. Oh, speaking of, I heard she caused some trouble up in Divica, and while I don’t know what happened, I hope you accept my apologies on her behalf, Paladin Centola.” 

She would, however, admit to liking Polina more than her treasonous sister. 

“Oh, I hadn’t heard about that,” Anaya said, looking at Michael, “Did something happen?”

“…Things did happen, yes. The pontiff–the previous pontiff was abducted by…” They tried very hard not to sigh. “…individuals from the Sky Lands. Or so I’ve been told.”

She snickered, apparently amused by something. “Heh, not that part, I did hear about that happening. I meant what Tisma herself did.”

“…I wasn’t there when whatever occurred…occurred, and I doubt I can ask her anytime soon.”

“U-Um, actually, you probably could?” Polina contradicted, sounding unsure, “Ah, it’s just, she should be comin’ home soon? Er, we–my family decided to have a big get-together, catch-up with everyone ‘n all. So…” She seemed to want to fidget, her shoulders tense. “…if you’d like, I c-could invite you along?”

“We would hate to impose–” 

“You could?!” 

Blinking, Michael turned to Anaya, who looked strangely eager to go to the reunion. 

“…It would be rude to intrude.” 

Anaya waved off their perfectly reasonable argument. “It would if we weren’t invited! Besides, it’s not every day we get to meet a hero, right? You could probably learn a lot!”

Michael had met far too many heroes in their lifetime already and learned more than enough about how terrible mortals could be as a result. They didn’t say anything of the sort though, but Anaya was smiling a great deal and the idea of ruining that was…oddly unpleasant. “…If that is what you want, sure.”

They felt their face warm for a moment as Anaya turned that bright smile towards them, before the druid began excitedly asking Polina about what her home was like. Which was…something.

Regardless, this detour was probably fine. Their group was still heading southward, so it wasn’t diverting their journey too much, and visiting a paladin’s family would likely be a…not unpleasant experience. Polina seemed to be a decent mortal, so it was entirely possible Tisma Vlahos was the only irritating reprobate of the family.

Being around one of those false heroes will be a true test of patience, though I doubt she’ll ever realize who I am, Michael mused as they watched Anaya ask a flustered Polina all about her home and what it was like. 

Apparently, her family owned a farm.

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