Chapter 17 – The Immortal Capital

Explaining the entirety of the leviathan debacle–carefully edited so as not to imply that Misha the perfectly normal paladin was actually Michael the cardinal angel–took the better part of a morning and an afternoon to get through. Largely because Michael had to keep thinking of ways to explain why Misha Centola would know things that she probably shouldn’t if she wasn’t a powerful angel who faced the leviathan Borzla in direct combat.

It was annoying. Lying was annoying. Which was why lying was a sin and why only demons did it. Well, really did it. In a bad way. Like it was a way of life.

The fact that there are demons literally born of lies is all you need to know about them, Michael mused to themself as they finished paying another stablehand to keep their carriage secure while the group traveled into town. Or city, in this case. Though, hm. Why don’t we have any Truth angels if our races are meant to be opposites? I suppose that does necessitate a god of truth to exist first, and to actually be a God of Life instead of a God of Death or a God of…whatever it is the Laut are. Contradiction? And they don’t even angels or demons, they have those–

“Misha, don’t get distracted,” Polina called out, unnecessarily because they weren’t getting distracted at all, “We gotta move or we’ll miss the gondola.”

“Fine, I’ll hurry!” they called back, before glancing to the closest of the two unicorns. I really should try to remember their names better–No, I can just ask Anaya, it’s fine. “You’re in charge while I’m gone. Keep your subordinates safe, and keep a close eye on Charlie, I still don’t trust him. You also have my permission to stab any attempted thieves, so be vigilant.”

The unicorn whinnied its acceptance of their declaration, whereupon the stablehand sighed. “Miss, please don’t encourage your horse to stab people.”

“Too late. Keep thieves away if you don’t want them to be stabbed.”

The city of Fujimi was a large one, as befitting the capital–well, secondary capital–of Gorokiva. It was also a tall one, due to it being on a mountaintop in the center of a valley, which was why there were gondola lifts leading up to its vast peak.

Though, realistically speaking, the peak wasn’t actually that much higher than the cliffs surrounding its valley. Mortals had a tendency to make things sound much bigger than they actually were, though the palace city situated at the top of the flat peak was fairly impressive, and the massive red forest down at the valley’s floor did lend a mystical air to the whole place.

“Ooo! Oh, I wonder if we’re allowed to visit down there,” Anaya wondered, far more focused on the crimson leaves below than the sloped, royal blue roofs of the Shogun’s palace.

“Considerin’ those forests’re said to be full of monsters, I’d doubt it,” Polina replied as she relaxed on one gondola’s bench. It was better that she sat, otherwise her horns would have scraped the ceiling.

“Aw, monsters are no reason to avoid a place! Besides we can take care of ourselves!”

“Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.” 

Anaya pouted, then seemed thoughtful. “…but would it not make sense to check it? I mean, it seems like the perfect place for demonic forces to hide.”

Michael paused. “…hm.”

“Anaya, stop messing with Misha. Even if there’re demons down there, I don’t think anyone would be happy if we made a mess of the forest.” 

“I would never damage a forest!”

“You might not, but well…”

Hm? Why are they both staring at me? 

“…Don’t worry Polina, you have my word that Anaya will not harm the forest.”

Polina’s lips twitched oddly. “I’m sure you’ll do your best, Mish.” 

“Misha. There’s an a at the end.”

Why that earned a sigh, Michael wasn’t sure, but they had better things to focus on because the gondola had reached its destination. Now, what those better things were, they weren’t entirely sure. They were mostly coming to this place to check it off the list…

“So, where do you think they would keep those records you were thinking of?” Anaya asked as she stepped off with them.

“…Records, yes, we are here for those.” Michael nodded, because they didn’t forget. “Those would be…at…”

“If they’re part of an ongoin’ case, they might not be in the public records,” Polina spoke up, “Generally speakin’, back home it’s only officials and scholars that get access to the record halls and you need to prove your credentials.”

“Oh, easy then. We’re both paladins, and you can manifest your armor. Easy proof.”

“…Misha we’re in Gorokiva.”

“I am aware of that, yes.”

“…So we can’t just gain access to their record halls without their approval. And bein’ a paladin doesn’t mean we’ll get it.”

“Yes it does. Watch.” Michael walked over to the front desk, where an official wearing blue and gold robes and a black, linen hat–an eboshi, if their extremely vague memory was correct–was waiting, reading a book while a guard in full samurai armor stood nearby, wielding a glaive. “We would like to access the official record hall.”

“…” The official, a drake with the green scales common to their people and a thin, feathery mustache, stared at them. “…” He glanced at the samurai by his desk, who did not respond. “…Right. Greetings. May this officer ask your business?”

“I am Misha Centola, a paladin of light,” they lied flawlessly, “I am here to examine your official records.”

“…” He glanced at the samurai again. The samurai did nothing. “…This officer understands your request. Denied.”

“Did you not hear me? I am a paladin of light.”

He glanced downwards. Michael looked where he was looking. “…is my garb not acceptable?”

“No no, it’s not that, it’s very cute, young lady.”

“I am not young. You are correct that the garment is cute.” Michael handed him one of Matsuzaki’s cards. “This is the business I procured it from.” They handed another card to the guard, who took it with a gracious nod. “You may have one as well. The business is acceptable, though I take issue with the proprietor’s life choices. Nevertheless, she does good work and is deserving of further patronage.”

“…” Michael wasn’t sure why the official kept glancing at the samurai. “…This official appreciates your gift, young-” They glared. “-noble lady.” He looked behind them. “Is she…yours?”

What? Michael glanced back at Polina, who looked exasperated for some reason, and Anaya, who seemed like she was holding back laughter again. They shrugged, looking back to the official. “In a sense, somewhat? Polina is my traveling companion. Unless you refer to Anaya, who is moreso the druid I am escorting.”

“…This official feels that he understands the situation…less so than previously.”

“Misha wants to investigate the curse shop rumors,” Polina explained, “She thinks she’ll get better results goin’ to a record hall and readin’ about previous cases. In case it helps, Anaya’s one of the pilgrims goin’ around, tourin’ the Light Lands.”

The official straightened. “It does help, actually. The standing orders regarding the traveling emissaries of the gods are to treat them as foreign dignitaries and allow them the freedom to tour the grounds of the palace.” He glanced at Michael. “This official apologizes, as he did not understand your purpose here. He does now recall that the companion of the druid of Chlora was stated to be a paladin of light instead of an angel, so he apologizes for the confusion.”

“Your apology is accepted,” Michael granted graciously, nodding officially to the official.

He gave a formal nod in return, though his lips twitched oddly. “This official also appreciates your gift. He does have a daughter who might like…whatever that style is. Now then, the samurai here will do his job properly and guide you three through the palace grounds while this official has proper identification printed for you.” The samurai made a noise like a sigh and the official smiled, looking more cheerful. “Do enjoy your time at the palace, noble lady.”

“I am here for business, not enjoyment.” Polina nudged them. “I thank you for the courtesy, however. May your day be fruitful.”

With a final nod to her, their conversation was finished, and the samurai with the glaive led Michael and their group through the entry station and into the grounds of Fujimi. Which were decent enough.

In all honesty, Michael had gotten used to seeing some more extravagance when it came to palaces. The Temple of Light–which was a temple and technically not a palace, but still–had its enormous statues and stained glass windows and Sona Palati had sprawling mosaics and a vibrant garden. Fujimi, in comparison, had hallways. And some courtyards. All mostly painted white or blue.

The castle would be decent at keeping intruders from any important inner sanctums, if just through the monotony of perfectly identical corridors and completely empty areas, aside from the occasional poster. Most of which portrayed a blue-scaled drake in traditional daimyo clothing with a motivational phrase added in. Odd, but probably intended to raise morale, and that could be appreciated. Still, they could afford to decorate even a little–Oh, no, wait, there’s a potted plant. How quaint.

Things did change once they reached one very large room filled with desks, however. Mostly because there were several dozen scribes working at said desks, or at the printing presses nearby. Some had typewriters while others were using calligraphy brushes for more complicated work, and all of them were keeping their focus on their work. Not even one head raised to look at Michael’s group, which was somewhat rude.

“Good day to you, noble ladies!” Though another official did come up to them soon enough. A smiling human this time, clean-shaven and somewhat younger looking. “This official has been briefed on your arrival. He will assist in your investigation as needed!”

“Good, someone helpful. We’re looking into the Mystery Shop. What do you know?” Michael asked without hesitation. It was better to be direct, especially after all that walking.

“This official is aware of the matter. However, he has also been given further instructions. If the noble lady and the noble druid would be so kind, he would act as their escort at this point!” He looked up at Polina with a polite smile. “Paladin Vlahos, this official apologizes, but he has been instructed to escort your charges at this moment. In the meantime, the samurai here will aid you in investigating whatever matters you seek.”

“Oh, uh, kay?” Polina said, probably confused by the formality. Or put off by the samurai’s very audible sigh through his iron mask. “I guess I appreciate the help?”

Michael, meanwhile, was wondering just why they were included as one of Polina’s “charges”, but that trail of thought was thrown off by the official bowing again. “You are too kind, noble paladin. Now, please, do follow this official, most noble ladies–”

“What? No,” Michael denied, “How does following you help my investigation?”

“…Ah, well, while your aide is–”

“Companion, not aide.” Michael paused and glanced at Polina. “Do you count as my aide?”

“I’m pretty sure I don’t.”

“See? Not my aide.”

“Er…this man–this official apologizes for his presumption–”

“Yes whatever, where do I look for the ‘mystery shop’ case?”

“That–The case is–A-Ahem, this official apologizes–”

“Stop apologizing. I’ll just look on my own then–”

“Ah, no, please, do not, that–The shogun would like to speak with you and this man has been instructed to bring you to him, so please do not wander off and disturb the scribes, please!”

Michael raised an eyebrow and crossed their arms, letting the silence drag as they weighed their options. Solving the issue of the Mystery Shop is a priority because it is an active danger to the mortals of this region. However, the Shogun is one of the rulers of this nation, and as a representative of Zemava, I should avoid offending him. Yet the danger of the leviathan invasion is of an even higher priority, and if the Mystery Shop is indeed connected to them, that gives me further reason to destroy it before it does too much damage. But my highest priorities are going to the temples of the Light Lands and finishing this “tour”, so I shouldn’t allow distractions to slow my pace–

“Yeah alright, let’s go meet him!” Or Anaya would make the decision for them. 

“Anaya–”

“What? You can trust Polly to check out the curse shop case and I can get an autograph from a country’s leader. Everyone wins! Besides, you don’t really want to pour through however many records they’d have around here just to maybe find a pattern, right?”

…Gods that sounds boring– “Responsibility requires resolve–”

“And now I’m saying your responsibility is to hang out with me while we meet the Shogun. You’re my partner, remember? So stick close.” She smiled brightly as she looped her arm through Michael’s.

“…” They glanced back at Polina, ignoring that far too familiar heat at their face. “Can I trust you to look into the-”

“Misha, I promise I’ll look into the case and see what I can do,” Polina stated solemnly, though her serious tone was ruined by the smile that cut through it. “Just enjoy your date, you hear?”

Somehow, they didn’t quite manage to formulate a response to her words by the time Anaya led them away. It didn’t help that they were fairly certain some of the scribes did pause in their work in favor of sending them amused glances and grins. One scribe even made a comment about something being cute, so Michael threw a card at him so he could get a dress for himself if he liked it that much…

Regardless, the palace finally started looking like a palace the further they went in. The blue and white walls were replaced by warmer reds and even greens, lined with gold filigree, which lead into a far larger hall where jade statues sat in places of honor on pedestals and in alcoves. The statues were mostly of dragons, if particularly serpentine ones, and some of the larger ones were even carved from red jade instead of the standard green. Michael wasn’t sure on the meaning behind them, but it was rather lovely.

“What’s the meaning behind all the big statues?” Anaya asked, somewhat ruining the mystique.

“Ah, they are to honor the previous shoguns of Gorokiva,” their guide, whose name was Eto, explained, definitely ruining the mystique, “Each one is shaped to represent the noble house from which they originated, taking on the form of their family’s patron animal to honor the life they led.”

“Why so many dragons then?” Michael asked, because at that point they might as well satiate their curiosity.

“Because, traditionally speaking, the Rokuhara Clan of Fuwa have been the guardians of Gorokiva, guiding our people along the righteous path and defending us from those who would seek to subvert us.” Eto smiled, looking proud to be walking among the dragons along their path. 

Something tickled at Michael’s memory though. “But that isn’t the name of the current Shogun. Isn’t it Kawajiri?”

And that smile abruptly fell, before returning with far less ease. “Yes, the good Shogun Kawajiri is our…current shogun.”

“And he isn’t a dragon.”

“No, he is a snake. An honorable animal, to be sure! Lovely, even!” He kept the smile up, even as his voice turned bitter. “Not a dragon though, by any measure…”

They walked in silence after that, until Eto led them to a large, square room with pillars in each corner and a parade of animals proceeding through paintings along the brown and gold walls. There were twelve paintings total, loosely corresponding to the twelve chairs set around a twelve-sided table. A round one would’ve been more practical, but apparently twelve was a very important number to the Gorokivans.

It took Michael a moment to notice the man standing in front of one of the paintings. It took another moment for them to realize he was the drake from the posters, though his scales were more of a pale cyan than the sapphire blue his posters portrayed. Silver snakes were embroidered into his black robes, and he was holding his hands behind his back as he stared up at the paintings, portraying a stylized red snake following behind and below a flying red dragon, both surrounded by golden clouds.

“Presenting the noble Paladin Centola and the noble Druid Greenfall,” Eto announced, his tone entirely professional as he bowed deeply.

The drake didn’t spare him a glance. “You are dismissed, retainer. Return to your duties.”

Eto bowed once more, then turned and left, his expression carefully neutral even if the rest of him looked tense.

“This nation has taken many forms over the centuries,” Shogun Kawajiri began, “Once, our people were nothing more than islanders, living simple lives as fishers and sailors. We were blessed with the favor of the thunder god, though we sat at a point between the Light and the Sun. Then, when the elder sun vanished from the heavens, a new people arrived from another world. And they granted us an enlightenment, so we may settle the mainland and take a rightful place as a true power.

“These people, the outworlders, brought forth great knowledge and ideas, a culture that our people have remained enamored with for all this time. It is through their spirit that we did reach out to the dragons of these mountainous lands and gain their favor, and in turn those dragons have supported us since. Indeed, this lord’s own mentor was such a person, descended from those hotblooded beings, and it is through her teachings that this lord before you now stands as Shogun. A serpent, in the place of dragons.

He turned, still keeping that lofty, dramatic tone. “And through his own efforts, no matter what others have said, this lord has ensured his nation’s growth and pros–…”

“…”

“…” Is he waiting for something? He was just standing there, staring at Michael.

“…Your posters are nice,” they replied, in case that was what he was looking for, “Very motivational.”

“…Yes, that is what this lord was going for. Why are…Er…” He looked at Anaya, who just raised an eyebrow. “…You…have a very lovely dress?”

Michael wasn’t sure why that was a question, but they nodded and handed him a card. “Here’s where I obtained it from, if you desire one for yourself.” Matsuzaki’s clothing style must be very popular if this many people are asking after it-Oh, right. “It’s an outworlder clothing store, if you’re curious.”

“…He wasn’t, but sure.” Kawajiri folded the card into his robe then cleared his throat. “Now, where was he…”

“Something about prosperity?” Anaya offered.

“Yes, prosperity, of course, that is…This lord won’t get the rhythm back, pivot,” he muttered, apparently to himself though his voice was far too audible to be whispering around elven ears, “Ahem. This lord greets you, Paladin Centola and Druid Greenfall, and welcomes you to the glorious nation of Gorokiva.”

Michael nodded politely. “Yes, we’ve been greeted. Is there anything you wanted?” 

“What else could a noble lord wish for than to exposit on the virtues of his beautiful homeland?”

“You could wish for a resolution to the matter of the ‘mystery shop’.”

His smile twitched. “Ah, of course. Not to worry, noble paladin, but that matter is being handled. You should have no fears while touring this beautiful nation.”

“I have no fears, I am not afraid, I want to handle this issue so people stop being cursed.”

“And it is being handled, as stated.”

Michael frowned. “By whom?”

“By Gororans. Because this is a Gororan issue, not one requiring a Zeman intervention. We handle our own issues, we do not require your aid, and there is no reason to trouble yourself with what is ultimately our own trouble to deal with.”

“But I can-”

“Allow this lord to rephrase: Do not continue with your ‘investigation’. This is a matter that does not involve you.”

“Yes it does! I’m already involved-”

“By what standard? Have you been affected by this issue?”

“A person I know-”

“Were they of this nation? Did they request your aid in the mission you have claimed?”

“I don’t need someone to–This is bigger than that! The person running this so-called shop is a leviathan aiming to destroy the Light Lands!”

“And you have proof of that?”

“Wha-How would I-!?”

“This lord shall take that as a negative then.” Kawajiri raised a hand, stilling Michael’s angry retort. “This lord will not apologize, for he is doing what is needed for his country, but he will state that he recognizes your intentions are born of a desire to aid. The matter of this ‘so-called shop’, as you have said, will be handled by the people of Gorokiva, for it is our problem to deal with. However, in respect to your intent to help, Paladin Centola, this lord would like to propose an alternative.”

Michael blinked. “What?? What’s that supposed to mean?? I’m trying to end a threat-”

“And this lord is telling you, quite firmly, that the threat you aim at is a matter we Gororans may solve on our own. However, what he is proposing to you, instead, is a matter that has remained quite stubbornly unsolved for far longer than it should.”

They paused, new curiosity warring with their usual stubbornness. Even asking him to explain could be seen as giving up…or worse, like I didn’t even care about the shop to begin with and just wanted something to do–

“This lord has had the fortune of holding his position for a quarter of a century,” Kawajiri continued, “And in his time, he has made efforts to ensure the prosperity of his nation, the chief of which being his commitment to supporting the towns and cities that act as the backbone of our great nation. A nation is an animal that must continue to grow if it aims to survive, and growth must be stimulated as necessary. Yet, there are those who would prefer to live in squalor merely to be contradictory, and a consistent thorn in this nation’s side has been the centers of indolence that prefer criminality to progress. One such place is the town of Kyora, a den of iniquity ruled by one Rokuhara Katsuro.”

“Rokuhara? The dragons?”

“Indeed. Th-”

“Are they literal dragons?” Anaya asked. Kawajiri blined at the interruption and gave her an odd glance. “No one mentioned so far if the dragons in this situation are literal or symbolic and I’m kinda curious.”

“…Literal, Druid Greenfall, which is why a rogue Rokuhara is such a threat. And indeed, Rokuhara Katsuro is one such threat to the peace of Gorokiva. The rogue is a bastard of the Rokuhara who has chosen to rule as a slumlord rather than accept the rightful authority of his misfortunate half-brother, the true leader of their clan.”

“You have slums?”

He twitched, looking at Anaya again. “Yes, even the most prosperous of nations will have slums. It is an unfortunate fact of life. Is it not the matter for Naloriva as well?”

“Not really, we just call them towns.”

“That’s sad.” Ignoring Anaya’s bewildered look, he continued, “Rokuhara Katsuro presents a persistent difficulty for the people of our nation. He is a criminal who engages in all manner of reprehensible actions! Violence, prostitution, the sale of illicit substances and illegally obtained goods! No matter the crime, he is willing to engage in it, and his presence within this lord’s homeland is a mark of true shame, not just for his familial connections and personal power allowing him a net of safety that none can cut, but for the very fact that he resides within this lord’s own home province, where his clan has resided for generations!”

“Your clan or his clan?”

“His cl-” Kawajiri paused, then shot Anaya an irritated look. “The Kawajiri clan.”

“Just checking.”

“The Rokuhara clan resides in Haruno, the Kawajiri clan resides in Natsuno.”

“Right, got it.”

The suspicion in his eyes didn’t abate, but he looked back to Michael, who couldn’t quite keep their growing displeasure from showing on their face because they still weren’t used to these stupid fleshy facial muscles. And also they were used to being able to cover their eyes with their helmet but that was neither here nor there. “I…Is…Is this your way of asking us to help? What happened to Gorokivan problems being your own?”

“…Rokuhara Katsuro is a persistent issue that is nigh impossible to remove through the means available to this lord. Not without violating the laws he seeks to uphold. Yet Rokuhara Katsuro may have forced his hand, regardless, for you see, the bastard is believed to be linked to the disappearance of the young Lady Kogetsu.”

“Who?”

“Lady Kogetsu is the heir to the Kogetsu family, who are the Daimyo of Nobi. She went missing a few years ago, with no trace.” 

Michael bristled, clamping down on their urge to demand why he hadn’t found her in that time then in favor of focusing on the immediate issue. “And what makes you think this Katsuro was involved?” 

“Simply put, thanks to the influence of his family name, we have been unable to approach his lands. Even asking the commoners reveals nothing. Likely, they have been coerced into silence.”

“Why hasn’t anything been done about him then?!”

“As this shogun has said-“

“Yes, he is part of a ruling family, but his villainy is a blight upon the light lands, so he must be dealt with!”

“…As this shogun was saying, It is not that simple. Katsuro is a great dragon, and to go against a great dragon without sufficient reason, is to declare war on the Rokuhara.”

“Then declare war! If they are a problem, then deal with them!”

Kawajiri sighed, muttering under his breath as he looked back at the paintings. “Were it only that simple…”

“Ah, so, just to confirm, you don’t want us to investigate the mystery shop any more, but you do want us to fight a dragon crime lord?” Anaya asked.

“If the noble paladin is set on interfering with Gorokivan matters, then it is better that she handle problems that we cannot solve ourselves, is it not?” Kawajiri retorted, before nodding to Michael, “If you wish to help, this lord offers this problem to solve. If you do not, continue your tour as you desire. Do not interfere in the matters of the ‘shop’ any longer.”

“…” Michael nodded, slowly. Because, as much as it galled them, as much as the thought of giving up on a mission burned in their chest and tensed every muscle they had, the idea that evil was left unchecked because it was inconvenient made their choice. “Fine.”

Kawajiri smirked. “Good. Masaki will be your guide there.”

Michael didn’t flinch. Their eyes did widen though, at the sight of a woman quite literally stepping from the shogun’s shadow. “…A dark mage?”

“Not quite. This is this lord’s bodyguard, of sorts.”

She was shorter than her lord, and much shorter than Michael. She might have even been shorter than Anaya. Black hair fell down to her chin, curtaining what could be seen of her pale face. Her nose and mouth were covered in a black cloth mask, which matched the dark, long-sleeved shirt she wore. Said sleeves were long enough to cover her hands, and her black pants were wrapped at the ankles, creating a somewhat poofy effect on the legs of the garment.

“Greetings.” She pressed her sleeves together and gave them a deep bow, her head bowed in supplication.

“Why do you have a dark mage in your employ?” Michael asked, ignoring the inherent sense of disquiet Masaki’s powers gave them. 

“Because she is useful, paladin. Make no mistake, unlicensed use of the dark arts are, quite rightly, banned within the lands of Gorokiva, yet all things have their place, and if shadows may be used in defense of the people, then it is only right to allow such.”

“…Only right?

Anaya tapped them on the arm, drawing them from the building fury that was threatening to boil over. “Hey, how about we get going? I think I’ve seen enough of this place.”

“Yes, let’s.”

They turned and left, their footsteps echoing loudly in this empty place. Not loud enough to drown out Kawajiri’s final words though. “Do enjoy your time in Gorokiva.”


“Oh hey Misha!” Polina greeted them with a grin, raising one hand while the other gestured to the parchments she had laid out on a table. A number of scribes were with her, examining and chatting about the papers in question. “So while you were gone, we’ve been cross-referencin’ the records and statements we have here and the locales we know for sure the shop’s shown up in and found a few points in common through the locations and victims! We might even have enough to guess for sure where the shop’s gonna pop up next-”

“We’re not doing that anymore,” Michael stated, annoyed at the reminder, “The Shogun Kawajiri refuses to allow us to investigate further.”

They weren’t expecting Polina to visibly droop though, nor for the scribes to immediately stop in their tracks and let out irritated groans and sighs. “Oh. Uh, right, got it.”

“…” They winced as Anaya elbowed them. “Ah…I am sure the active investigators could use this information though.”

“What active investigators?” one of the scribes grumbled–

“What? What do-”

“The Honorable Shogun instead offers to your group, Paladin Polina, the opportunity to eliminate a draconic threat that has acted as a corruptive force within our nation for far too long,” Masaki spoke up, cutting off Michael’s question, “The scribes here shall ensure this information is given to the proper authorities who will actually do something about the issue.”

“O-Oh, uh, good?” Polina blinked. “Er, who’re you again?”

“This kunoichi has the honor of being known here as Masaki, though her actual name is Masami.”

Now Michael blinked. “It is?”

“Indeed.”

“Kawajiri forgot, huh?” Anaya asked with a poorly hidden smile.

“Indeed.”

Polina just looked more confused. Michael could sympathize. “Uh. Alright? Um, I’m Polina–y-you already knew my name, right, uh…Guess we’re goin’ then?”

“That we are! Come on gals, let’s mosey!” Anaya declared, leading the…moseying.

Michael had to ask. “Mosey?”

“I think it’s a decent word for what we’re doing.”

“…Sure.” A thought hit them. “Didn’t you want to get an autograph from the shogun?”

“Eh, nah, I don’t want an asshole’s autograph cluttering up my journal.” 

Michael wasn’t sure, but it sounded like Masak–Masami snorted, but a glance back at the…human? Showed nothing but neutral stoicism.

Which dropped the instant the trio–or perhaps a quartet now–entered the gondola for the return trip down.

“Haaaaaah, fuck yes, she thought she’d never get out of that shitty place!” Masami said as she stretched out, leaning far back on the bench she was on, before she shifted her feet up onto it, taking up the whole thing. “Gods, that was the dullest assignment she’s ever had!” She giggled, then looked over at Michael, who…really wasn’t sure about this situation in the slightest. “You’ll be a lot more interesting, won’t you Miss Paladin~?”

“…I see dark mages are still very attuned to deception.” It wasn’t their best response, but it was the only thing that came to mind.

“Not a dark mage, exactly. This gal does use darkness for her work, but she’s a kunoichi, get it? Ninja, shinobi, warrior of the night, and hiding in darkness is easier than trying to hide in light. Though she has met people who can do that, she admits. Masters of the craft and all that.”

“And we can’t have one of them instead, why?”

“Because you’re stuck with her! So long as you want to go to Kyora, this gal’s here to show you the way! But if you don’t want to, then you’ll just have to leave the big bad dragon alone, and you’re not going to do that. Though whether it’s because you want to save the missing lady or defeat the evil dragon, she isn’t quite sure.”

“Those are the same thing.”

Masami giggled again, then stared straight at Michael. Her eyes were magenta. An odd color, but odder was how yellow the whites of her eyes looked. Were her pupils slitted? “They’re really not. But I’m sure you’ll figure that out.”

“Huh, very interesting conversation here,” Anaya commented, before clapping her hands together, “But, more importantly, Masami! As our new guide, do you know any nice spots along the way?”

“Hmm, in Natsuno or in Akino?”

“Both! We do have a ways to go, right?”

“True, we do, we do, so where would be fun…”

“…we have a mission,” Michael said, but Masami just pulled her legs back so Anaya could sit beside her as the two started chatting about nice towns and major features along their way. They looked up at Polina, who was watching the chipper conversation with some bemusement. “I’m not wrong to be bothered by her sudden personality shift, correct?”

“Yeah that’s somethin’. Granted, people put on acts all the time, especially if they’re doin’ a job they don’t like.” I don’t. “Still, guess it’s good we have someone to show us around. We don’t wanna get lost lookin’ for this place, right?”

She does have a point…Fine. Fine, I can handle this. It’s just traveling with an…odd individual. Not a threat or a problem, not even a criminal because apparently she has a license or some nonsense and Gorokivans are just okay with that, so it’s fine. Just keep ready. All I have to do is defeat the dragon, save the girl, and then I’m done with this stupid country.

Hopefully, there would be no problems on their way…

Well, there was immediately one, because one of the unicorns had stabbed an attempted thief.

“Gauri! No! No stabbing!” Anaya chided to the suitably chastised unicorn as Polina apologized to the stablehands complaining about the blood and the healer fee. Though the unicorn did give Michael a slight look that appeared completely unashamed…so Michael gave it a thumb’s up. 

Positive reinforcement was important.

Though they could’ve done without Masami’s laughter.

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