Rokuhara brought them relatively far from the town, though the trip didn’t take too long. Both of them could fly, and without anyone around, Michael was perfectly fine with allowing their wings free for this excursion.
It was pleasant. Letting their wings spread from their back, feeling the wind on them. It had been too long; the last time was at that leviathan’s hotel, and it had been cramped, hectic, and unpleasantly wet there, so actually having some time to just fly felt better than they expected.
Rokuhara landed first, down on a stretch of dry ground with only a few rocky hills dotting the empty area. His wings–tattooed with black clouds and streaks of blue lightning–shrunk back down into a pair of slits in his clothing, modified to allow their presence.
Michael’s wings were more metaphysical, so they had no such limitation as they touched down on the barren land and let them vanish, staring straight at the draconic criminal as he clearly sized them up.
“That’s handy,” he said.
“What is?” they replied, carefully listening for any sort of trap in his words.
“Your wings vanishing like that. It’s a lot handier than my thing.” He turned, showing the slits again. “Most of my clothes need to be modified for my wings. This guy’s always had trouble with it, ever since he was young, dumb, and really hated shirts.”
“You don’t seem especially smart, so your younger self must have been a true fool.”
That earned a chuckle as he turned again. “Yeah, maybe. He wanted to go picking a fight with the dragon slayer, once upon a time, but, ah…” He shrugged, scratching at the base of the golden horns jutting up from his head. “Got my ass kicked before this guy even saw him.”
Michael raised an eyebrow, ignoring the mention of who they were certain was Goldforge. “You’re surprisingly candid for a vicious criminal. I thought men of your type would hate admitting defeat.”
“It’s better to admit it when you lose badly, multiple times. Saves face.” He yawned again. “Pride’s too much trouble. I like my small town, I like my small wife, I like what I’ve got.
Rokuhara yawned yet again, tilted his head until his neck cracked, and blinked with far more focus than the sleepy man should have had. “And I’m not giving it up.”
Michael scowled. “You have a lot of nerve to speak about what ‘belongs’ to you when you’re a smuggler and an abductor. Where is Lady Kogetsu?”
“There’s no one with that name in my village.”
They let their wings flare out in a rush of flames as their scowl deepened. “Don’t lie to me! I have already been told of your crimes!”
“Told.” He tilted his head the other way, letting his neck crack again, then rolled his shoulders. “You should have your friend back away.”
Confusion cut through their fury. “My–Who?”
“Shadow girl, the ninja.”
Michael glanced back and suppressed a snarl when they saw a sheepish and sweating Masami backing away from their shadow. “Why are you here?”
“For curiosity, and also…yeah, mostly curiosity. Maybe to make sure this doesn’t turn into an international incident but we’re kinda past that point, huh?” She giggled nervously. “Ehm…This gal’ll…just be over here? Just, ah, don’t kill each other, please! And good luck!”
They watched her scurry off to a boulder for cover. Then scurry to one much further away, probably to avoid being in range of the fighting. “…Don’t you dare go after her.”
Rokuhara smirked. “You have a really low opinion of me, huh?”
“Of course I do.” They turned their burning gaze on him. “Criminals deserve no quarter.”
“Huuuuh. I wonder about that. But we can talk after.” He paused, frowning. “Unless you wanna change first? This guy wouldn’t want to wreck your dress.”
“Hmph. Don’t pretend at generosity. Ready yourself.”
“That’s fair. He gets it. Sometimes, when your blood starts boiling, you just want a fight.” His smile returned, wider and bearing sharp teeth as his eyes sparked with golden electricity. “And I’m happy to oblige.”
Flame and thunder boomed across the landscape as Michael and Rokuhara’s fists collided. His met theirs with a burst of force that ripped apart the land beneath their feet, yet neither opponent budged. The prospect of backing down didn’t even enter either mind.
More blows were exchanged, mainly probing, but still with more than enough force to shatter human bones. Rokuhara had a longer reach than Michael did and his height gave him an advantage, but they hit just as hard, if not harder, and–
He gripped their forearm and tossed them, sending them skidding across the dirt, a snarl at their lips before they blocked a heavy palm–He grabbed them again, pulled them off balance, then they caught his fist with their forehead, a growl slipping out as the dirt buckled beneath their feet. They pushed back and punched–he caught their wrist and they kicked, slamming their shin into his side.
His grip was tight and unfaltering but they pushed in close, using their wings to push up and kick up his chest and into his face, finally snapping his head back as a laugh slipped from his lips. Then he twisted and slammed them down into the dirt, so they opened their hands to fire full blasts of flames straight into his face.
Not that it did much, mostly just frizzing the dragon’s hair, but even a beast would flinch on reflex to roaring flames, and the instant he let go, they were up again and punching straight for his face and taking a hard hit in turn as both their fists crossed.
Michael skidded back, flaring their wings to slow their momentum as their heels dug into the dirt, then their eyes went wide as they saw Rokuhara’s mouth open wide and a beam of electricity blasted straight at them. Their first instinct was to take it, to block the blast directly, but the roar of thunder–They moved, and a hill behind them exploded into a rain of rubble.
Hand to hand wasn’t working. In a flick of their wrists, a spear–staff, no pointy tip, not lethal–of solid flame formed and Rokuhara smiled wider, his eyes alight with interest, and they burst in close again, jabbing for his head repeatedly as he jerked from side to side, the blunt pole missing him by inches.
An attempt to grab it saw the flames curl around his hand, reforming as Michael swung, the fire solid as it struck his temple–His foot caught them in the chest, sending them skidding back, the dirt burning under their feet as he pulled his robes off his shoulders, baring his heavily tattooed chest and spreading his wings, which was a bizarre choice–Is that a rabbit on his pec?
The reason for his partial disrobing became clear very quickly as Rokuhara copied them in racing forward, his fist slamming against their staff as they blocked. He hit hard, but Michael had experience, and–And they weren’t expecting their retaliatory swing to be blocked by his wing.
It took a moment for the sight of Rokuhara’s wing twisting and extending like a shield for his side to register, and that moment was enough for Rokuhara’s fist to collide with their chest, sending a sharp pain through their throbbing scar, the crackle, the spark, the–
He backed up a step, tilted his head, raised an eyebrow. Almost asking if they were okay, if they could continue if they were weak–
Thunder roared in their ears as they snarled and snapped their staff in half, holding each half like a pair of baton and bursting forward, swinging one for his smug face and another stabbing towards his stomach and when he blocked one with a forearm and the other with a hand they let both vanish and slammed their fist up into his chin instead, snapping his head back and when he kicked they were already up, using their wings for a short burst as they landed on his leg and slammed a gathered fireball straight into his chest.
Michael drifted back as Rokuhara blasted across the wasteland, tumbling head over feet until he dug his claws into the ground in a savage, eager grin, teeth bared–His mouth opened and for a second time they had to dodge as an electric beam roared through the sky, dissipating in seconds but far too close–A second beam is a cheap trick!
One that was ineffective as Michael dropped and soared low to the ground, gripping a shocked Rokuhara around the waste and driving him straight into one of the surrounding hills, smashing through dirt and stone–His skin and scales crackling was the only warning they had to shoot backwards, out of range as lightning exploded the whole hill.
Dust surged all around but they had more than one way of seeing and a look towards Rokuhara showed a soul filled with Sloth–Not Greed? But all dragons–
His manic, malicious smile and the surge of Bloodlust made them doubt sloth was all that could lie in his heart, before his massive hand gripped their face and flung them straight into and through a different hill. Though with far less destruction because Michael could go intangible.
It took Michael a moment to register– “HOW IS IT!?”
“DODGIN’ DAMAGE IS CHEAP SHIT, REDWING!”
Michael was not one to curse but also Rokuhara could go–No, no, be calm, be focused, you still have a job to do and why is Masami so close what–
They looked at the ninja, who gave a nervous wave back.
“…Find a better hiding spot, seriously.”
They didn’t wait for a reply, instead bursting straight back up and smashing their fist into Rokuhara’s mouth, splitting lips and spraying blood as they twisted and drove their heel into his temple. He spun, flared his wing and shot back towards them, exchanging blows as his heavy fists met the solid walls of their arms while each jab and hook they took was met with shocking speed from the massive man, their blows meeting air instead of–
They slammed the back of their fist into his wrist, blocking an attempted grab, then brought their shin up to block a kick that still send them blasting back, lack of leverage making holding their position trickier than it should, but Rokuhara didn’t follow up, instead soaring backward in one strong flap of his wings.
The sparks across his body, the curling, rolling lightning, was the only hint they had that yet another beam of electric power was coming, this one feeling even larger and mightier than those that came before, and yet Michael did not falter, they did not move.
Instead, flame gathered in their hands, and when the dragon’s maw opened and golden lightning roared forth, it was met by a concentrated inferno spiralling from the angel’s palms.
The explosion then was far bigger, blanketing the sky in sparks and embers, but neither combatant showed any sign of exhaustion or damage, even if one did feel both. So again their fists clashed, and the sky rumbled with the force of their blows.
Masami was starting to think she made some mistakes with her life. Well, not her life in general, she was pretty sure the ninja thing was ultimately a better career path than the other options she had available as a youngster, but following an angel through her shadow was maybe a poor choice?
Buuuut also she was pretty sure if she left Misha alone, she would go even more overboard than she already was going. Masami wasn’t completely sure how the angel–and wow was that still wild to find out–could escalate from fighting the local semi-criminal dragon lord in a mid-air sky battle, but anything was possible. Especially when it turned out one of the paladins she was traveling with was almost certainly one of the Cardinal Angels from Zemava.
Misha, Michael, it did make sense, though there was the possibility that the red-winged angel was actually one of the other ones in a deeper disguise. Buuuut said angel also seemed way too stubborn, straightforward, and a little stupid to actually think far enough to come up with a pseudonym that didn’t have the first letter of her name in it.
Though was Masami much better? Sure, she was so much better on the pseudonym thing, she really was great at that, but she slipped pretty bad at the bar, pretending to stare at Katsuro’s ass and all that. Might’ve played it too pervy/oblivious, but she was allowed to be surprised! Having someone turn out to be an angel could do that! She needed time to think, but then Misha was already heading out and now she was watching a full on firestorm going on up in the sky–
Gods, there was no way she was hiding this…No, no, don’t be pessimistic, Masami isn’t pessimistic, she could maybe work that angle with Misuzu but not Masami. Masami was the false-professional, the casual perv, a way to have fun–A way to get the job done.
The woman called Masami took a slow, steady breath through her ruined mouth, and watched carefully as the fight between angel and dragon continued in the sky. Plumes of flame and blasts of lightning streaked across the sky, though they dissipated long before they could hit the ground. The two fighters were at least trying to keep collateral damage down…Probably.
Maybe she could play it as a fight between dragons? Those weren’t…too rare, and most people wouldn’t guess “angel” if they heard there was some kind of aerial battle, and there wasn’t anyone close enough to say otherwise–
She stilled at the sound of hoofbeats, and at the irritated sigh of a familiar, pink-haired woman. “Dammit Katsu! What did I say about fighting without me!?”
Long, pink hair, check. Pale features, check. Narrow eyes, small nose, check and check. Tattoo of the kanji for “dragon” on her shoulder, not expected, almost made Masami wince on reflex. Still, most signs pointed to the woman on the black horse–who was pulling what appeared to be a whistle from her tank top–being the “missing” Lady Kogetsu Shiho, wayward 37 year old bachelorette heiress of the Kogetsu family, who looked like a total dork as her cheeks puffed out from blowing sharply on the silver whistle in her grasp.
The sound carried further and more directly than it should have–so it was definitely magic–and both angel and dragon stilled in their combat at the sound. And within seconds, Rokuhara Katsuro, the infamous Dragon of Kyora, whose open flouting of the Shogun’s law had nearly given the self-righteous prick a conniption, was deep in dogeza in front of the deeply unimpressed noblewoman. “SORRY HONEY!”
“…” Shiho sighed, getting off her horse in one swift motion. Pretty impressive for someone wearing half a yukata, though it was pretty loose. “Katsu, you don’t need to prostrate yourself to me.”
“Nope, I do.”
“You really don’t.”
“Nope. I have brought shame to our family, so I must repent.”
“Really? And this informal talk is how you’re repenting?”
“Ah…right. Uh, this guy-”
“Katsu, you’re a lord, remember? Or at least a mayor. Or…you get the point!”
“Just, up, please.”
“The dirt isn’t that comfy, c’mon.”
The dragon straightened, his own clothes looking surprisingly fine for garments that just took several fire blasts as he pulled them back into place, covering his extremely nice chest as some blood dripped from his bruised lips. “Sorry. Don’t be mad.”
Shiho rolled her eyes, gestured for him to lower his head, and gave him a pat once he did so. “I’m not mad. Just no getting into scraps like that, alright? Least not without support.” She smiled then frowned, pulling a handkerchief from her pocket and starting to dab at his lips. “Jeez, that prick must’ve hit you hard to actually-”
“HEY!” Ah, and here came Misha, looking extremely angry in her much more tattered and scorched dress. “Whoever you are, don’t think you’ll get away with trying to distract me with that whis-!”
Then Shiho poked Misha straight in the forehead, interrupting her mid-tirade.
“Don’t yell at me after picking a fight with my husband! Ah, did she pick the fight?” Despite turning to face Katsuro, Shiho did not stop poking Misha whenever she tried to speak up. And the angel did try to interrupt at least twelve times in just that sentence, receiving a sharp poke to the head every single time.
“Ah, yeah, she did. But she does think this guy-ah, this boss kidnapped you.”
“What??” She turned to Misha, who flinched. “Where did you get that idea? Have you been talking to my father?!” After a pause, she frowned. “You can speak, I won’t poke you.”
“…I don’t…think so? Are you Shogun Kawajiri’s daughter?”
“Good gods no! Ah, well, no offense to Kengo, just, gods, the idea of him being this lady’s father is almost worse than–” She shook her head. “No, my name is Yojin Shiho, so you’re looking in the wrong place.”
Misha blinked. “So you are not Lady Kogetsu either?”
“No, I’m not, because I don’t want to be.” At the angel’s obvious confusion, she sighed. “My father is Daimyo Kogetsu Teijo. I am not interested in being his heir, he killed all interest I might’ve had in it through being a shithead, I left that position years ago, I’m not going back to him, he has plenty of cousins to pick an heir from if he wants to stop being a stubborn ass, and I’m not missing or abducted or whatever, no matter what nonsense that idiot comes up with this time!”
Oh, so the rumors were true. Lady Kogetsu really had been running away from the rest of her family for decades now. Well, that wasn’t too unexpected; Daimyo Kogetsu made all kinds of excuses for her frequent disappearances from high society, ranging from claims that she was studying abroad to diplomatic work. The fact that he finally decided to claim she was missing entirely did make some sense, given how obvious it was that she’d married “Boss” Katsuro here.
Well, obvious now that Masami was actually seeing the two next to each other. There was no mistaking that kind of closeness–
Then Shiho turned and glared straight at her. “And would you get out of those shadows already?!”
Masami paused, then slid from her cover with a smile no one could see, sauntering forward cheerfully. “Hello Lady Shiho! This gal sees the tales of the Kogetsu having excellent hearing are quite true!”
“…Akiko?” Shit. When was–Ah, right, with the Himuro clan, Shiho did visit Hirari, didn’t she? The chances of a noble recognizing a random servant–possibly just by voice–was so low though that Masami couldn’t help but feel frustrated as Shiho stared at her in confusion. “That’s you, isn’t it? What are you doing here?”
Ah, took too long to respond, the recognition was too obvious. Welp.
“Akiko? You said your name was Masami.” And now Misha was joining in. Hm, tricky.
“Ah, you caught her! This gal has many names, because of her profession, and sometimes she uses different ones depending on how things go–”
“Then what’s your real name?” …Misha truly was a blunt individual.
Masami tilted her head, feigning confusion. “This gal told you her name was Masami. Is there something wrong-”
Misha’s wings flared wide and her eyes burned with a fire unmistakably divine. “Do not lie to me.”
Masami was prostrated before she even realized, ingrained teachings mixing with natural instinct in a compulsion to show supplication to the holy messenger. “This lady’s name is Noriko, hallowed messenger of the gods! Forgive her impertinence!”
Despite her situation, Noriko couldn’t help but feel proud at how her voice didn’t even waver.
“You’re an angel?!” And then she felt a bit baffled because what. She chanced a glance up at Shiho, who was bowing deeply and repeatedly. “Sorry! Sorry sorry, I didn’t even realize–Katsu! Bow!”
“KATSU! This is an angel! The messengers of the gods! Bow!”
“Why?” It was almost hilarious seeing Shiho jump up to pull Katsuro down to bow.
“My husband and I apologize for our transgressions against you!”
“…Hmph. Be that as it may, your husband is still a crimelord,” Misha intoned, her wings fluttering for a second in what Masami thought might be happiness, before folding against her back, “While I appreciate the due respect you’re showing me, my position as a cardinal means I must act when encountering criminals. Even if they didn’t abduct someone, I guess.” She paused. “Just to be absolutely sure, he didn’t abduct you, did he?”
“No, he didn’t, hallowed messenger!” Shiho yelled, her head still bowed and her hand still on the back of her husband’s bowing head, “This lady came to him! She, well…ah, I was mostly looking for–Okay, um, it would take a while to go through all my reasons for going around the way I did, but I started off wanting to work for him because he’s a dragon and I-Well not just because of the dragon thing, though that was part of-I-It was kind of shallow, I guess-”
“You’re not shallow,” Katsuro reassured, his head still bowed.
“Mmh, I guess–Ah, my point is, I came to him for a job, since I didn’t want to leave my home country completely, but I wasn’t about to try living anywhere in Haruno while that pri–while my father is still the head of the family…ugh, this is hard to explain…”
Well, Noriko was nothing if not helpful, and she was pretty sure she had a decent grasp of the situation. “You decided to get a job with a known criminal so your family would back off, then fell in love with him and decided to get married.” Noriko straightened, keeping her expression neutral and pretending not to notice Shiho’s flustered look. “Is this lady correct?”
“You left out how she bribed me with knives,” Katsuro said, earning a huff from his wife.
“It wasn’t a bribe, it was a sample of my work!”
Misha stiffened. Probably a bad sign. “You’re a knifesmith?”
“A weaponsmith, thank you–S-Sorry, thi-I didn’t mean to sass-”
“Who trained you.” Oh that was definitely a bad tone. One that was making Katsuro bristle.
“E-Eh? Er…Nader Bluesteel, y-your holiness. A dwarven smith from Rosia–”
“Never mind.” Huh. Quick change. Was she interested in a particular smith? Either way, Misha looked less agitated and more firm as she glanced at Katsuro, who was glaring, then back to Shiho, who was wincing. “Your occupation and circumstances aside, you have chosen to associate with a known criminal. One who has elected to organize his criminal activities in the form of smuggling and–”
“He doesn’t smuggle!” Shiho protested.
“You shouldn’t deny it. I saw the stones-”
“We imported those! Legally! Look, I have the paperwork back home, we can get it if you need to see.”
“…Be that as it may, he has committed other crimes, such as…selling alcohol, and prostitution.”
“I’m not a prostitute,” Katsuro replied with a raised eyebrow.
“That-I wasn’t implying you were! You–”
“Probably would’ve made bank if he did.” Noriko paused at the immediate glare Misha shot her. But, well, it was a lot less “fierce gaze of a messenger of god” and more “displeased by implications”, so she felt far less intimidated. “He is an attractive man, Miss Misha.”
That earned a skeptical eyebrow. “Are you sure?”
“Huh. How much do you think?” Katsuro asked, still on the previous topic.
So it was only right to answer him, even if Shiho was looking distinctly displeased by the way the conversation was turning. “Probably a higher rate than most sex workers around, considering the prestige factor of you being a big dragon. The fact that you’re married might also hit a fet-”
“DESIST!” Misha hissed, before taking a breath and running a hand down her face, “Stop encouraging illegal activities, and you two have still committed crimes!”
Katsuro nodded. “Yup. So fine us.”
“I haven’t done anything that’d get me arrested. But I still have to pay a fine, right?”
“…What are you talking about? What is this ‘fine’?”
“Do they not have those in your country?”
From what Noriko knew, they didn’t. It was either prison or monastery service for Zemans. “Allow this lady to explain. Simply put, if one is found guilty of a crime that is not considered severe, they must pay a previously established sum of money or face further consequences.”
“That…That’s just a bribe!” Oh Misha did not look happy.
“Well unless an official is corrupt and takes the money for themselves, not really.”
“It doesn’t matter who it goes to! What you’re saying is that as long as someone has money, they can just commit crimes as much as they want as long as they pay a fee!”
“The fine’s meant to discourage committing crimes.”
“Financial ruin is typically a good incentive to avoid committing crimes.”
“No it isn’t! It’s an incentive to commit enough crimes so the fee doesn’t matter!”
Katsuro nodded. “That is what I’ve been doing, yeah.”
Shiho elbowed him. “Stop helping. Also, no prostitution.”
“Why not? It’s a viable profession–”
“Plenty of people do it–”
“I’m not sharing!”
“Really? But what about with Yugiri–?”
“Th-That’s different! We don’t pay her!”
“Stop with the sex talk!” Misha demanded, her face red, before she glared down at Noriko. Which, again, far less intimidating than earlier. “Your justice system is terrible and I’m fixing it, now! You and I are going back to the Shogun, and he’s going to-”
“Do what? Fix it?” Noriko interrupted, “Like he’s doing with the cursed shop problem?”
“I-He said he was going to handle it!”
How was it that a thousands of years old angel was this naive? “Yeah, that’s called lying. It’s a thing mortals do. Though this lady does guess you do know about that one, what with the Misha disguise. Should this lady change her way of addressing you, by the way?”
“…Shut up.” Misha paused, her scowl turning thoughtful. “Fine. Then if the Shogun won’t fix the problems of his system, if he insists on doing absolutely nothing, then I’ll go to a higher authority than him!”
Noriko winced. This was going to be a bigger problem than she thought. Still…she had to ask. “And that would be?”
“Your empress, of course!” And there it was.
“You’re going directly to the empress just so you can find a way to arrest my husband?” Shiho didn’t even sound mad, just bewildered.
“Crimes must be paid their proper penance! And while your husband must indeed pay for his crimes, this discussion has shown to me that there’s a far greater issue of justice going undone in this country! So if the Shogun Kawajiri won’t take action, then I’ll make him!”
“This lady thought you wanted to just get things over with and leave,” Noriko pointed out.
“Bah! Pursuing my quest is important, but it’s clear to me that there are evils in this country that need to be rooted out!”
“The evils of fines?”
“Yes, exactly! Also the curse shop, which Polina already said she figured out, so we can take care of it on the way!”
“Neat. Hope it goes well,” Katsuro said, idly scratching at his beard, “Wanna grab lunch before you go?”
“As though I would–Why are you even offering?”
He shrugged. “I’m hungry and there’s a good yakiniku place over in Meracho.”
“…” Misha just stared at him, completely silent. For a moment, Noriko felt a twinge of…maybe not fear, exactly, but concern at the quiet menace the angered angel was exuding– “I have no idea what that is.”
Oh. Or she was just confused.
“It’s like…meat stuff. Grilled. You’ve never had it?”
He nodded. “We’re having it then. C’mon.”
“What?? No! I’m not going out for lunch with a criminal!”
“C’mon, it’s tradition. After a fight, you have a big meal, make up, all that.”
“I-What kind of tradition is that!?”
“A good one.” Misha just glowered at him, so Katsuro glanced at his wife. “Hey Shiho, could you grab her?”
“Eh? Why me?”
“Pretty sure she’d deck me if I pulled her along.”
“And she wouldn’t deck me?”
“Nah, she’s decent, she just doesn’t like me. You, she’s probably fine with,” Katsuro said, before turning and walking off, earning an offended noise from the angel in question.
His wife huffed, but grabbed Misha by the wrist and indeed started easily pulling her along after Katsuro. And yup, Misha was frowning, but also definitely not resisting the smaller woman’s pull. Whether that was because the Lady Kogetsu was a noble, was largely innocent in any criminal doings, or was just cute enough to fluster the angel…well, it was something Noriko could figure out easily enough as she trailed behind the group, content to play shadow once more.
Though, would it be fine to play that shadow all the way to Shiomi? The capital didn’t hold too many good memories for her.
Her hand drifted to her mask, almost reflexively covering her monstrous mouth. The marking on her tongue itched, the taste of ink and needles still sharp even after all these years. The gifts of royalty…
Well. At least she could check up on her sister. That crown of hers had to be getting heavy.