Chapter 20 – Meeting in the City of Fire

Michael wasn’t sure what to make of their current situation. Mostly because their current situation was bizarre, but also delicious.

“Katsu, don’t let them sit that long, the meat will char.”

“Charred meat’s fine.”

“It’s dry is what it is. You lose all the flavor if you let it cook too long!”

“Mm…tastes fine to me.”

“Are you sure getting punched in the face didn’t knock your sense of taste loose?”

That situation happened to be sitting at a restaurant table and watching the dragon they came to defeat and the noble they came to rescue bicker over meat. From the tone, this was a familiar argument between the two of them, and one neither was especially invested in. More teasing than actually irritated.

“Yojin has the right of it,” Michael commented as they selected a piece of meat from the large grill built into the table and dipped it in the provided sauce, “There’s more flavor if it isn’t overcooked.”

“Heathens, all of you,” Rokuhara complained, blithely and heretically continuing to let his pieces char.

Heretic though he was, he did pick a decent establishment, if a small one that wasn’t actually inside the city of Mera itself. At least, it didn’t seem to be.

The restaurant was located outside the walls of the city proper, in a smaller residential district apparently called a suburb. Possibly because it was a subsection of the urban area? Either way, it was a byproduct of people moving to the cities, apparently encouraged by the shogun’s policies of urban growth, whatever that all meant. 

The long and short was that walled cities had large walls that couldn’t be moved easily, so when there were too many people trying to live in said city, those people just built outside the city, even if that meant they had to rely on smaller protections like talismans on posts to ward away monsters. Either way, all of that meant there was a decent place to try yakiniku, which Michael appreciated.

Meanwhile, Masami–no, Noriko, that’s what she said–was…maybe also enjoying the meal? There was less rice, less soup, and less salad in the various bowls in front of her, but also Michael hadn’t seen her lower her mask once during the whole meal.

After a few seconds, Noriko noticed their staring and swallowed whatever she’d been chewing on. “Sup?”

“What are you doing?”

“Eating.”

Michael’s eyes narrowed. “Why do you still have your mask on?”

“Cause we’re eating.”

Something registered. “I’ve never seen you eat.”

“Is that a surprise? We haven’t known each other that long.”

“…Lower your mask.”

Her wince, small as it was, was very noticeable, and a deeper concern took hold. “This gal really doesn’t want to ruin lunch, alright?”

“Now I’m curious,” Rokuhara rumbled, earning an elbow from Yojin.

“Be nice! And, ah, holy messenger, it’s not that big an issue if Aki–Ah, Nori leaves it on, right?”

Michael frowned. “Yes, it is. She’s hiding things.”

“You were hiding your angelness,” Noriko grumbled.

“For good reason! I am a cardinal, I am not–” They paused, then spoke in a lower tone, in case of eavesdroppers. Not that it was particularly necessary, the restaurant only had a few workers and no other customers. “If I were going around openly as a cardinal, enemies may assume Zemava is undefended.”

“Aren’t there three other cardinals, oh holy messenger?”

“…Yes, but also…”

“But also…?”

Letting people know a cardinal angel is entering their nations could make them suspicious about Zemava’s plans. But they weren’t going to say that. “Remove the mask or I will remove it.”

“…For an angel, you’re a real ass.” Offense flared in them, though it was replaced by bemusement as Noriko lowered her mask, showing a mouth filled with sharp teeth that appeared to be missing the lips, leaving said teeth bared through torn-looking flesh. Nothing that a leviathan would have though.

“Is that it–?”

“KYAH!” A crash sounded out as their waitress dropped her tray, sending a ceramic pitcher and cups of water smashing to the floor, the immediate fear on her scaly face turning to embarrassed panic as the firedrake stammered apologies. “S-S-S-Sorry, sorry, I-I d-d-didn’t, I-I’ll j-just, um, o-one moment!”

Michael watched her scurry off with a raised eyebrow, then turned back to the table. “Odd reaction. Now, Noriko-”

Drop it!” she snapped, not looking at Michael in favor of glowering down at her food–

“Hey! You put your mask back up!”

“…” She turned to them, looking incredulous and angry. “What the fuck is wrong with you?!”

“What?! You’re the one–!”

The snap and boom of thunder made them go rigid, and they turned their glare towards Rokuhara, who stared impassively back. “Calm it, Redwing. Less you wanna go a second round already.”

“You–FINE! RIGHT NOW THEN–Geh!” Then Yojin jabbed them in the forehead and Michael fell right back into their seat, their anger cutting out in that same sense of confusion and mild pain. 

“W-What did you say your name was again?”

They blinked, staring at Yojin, who was standing, one hand on the table as she leaned forward, the other still primed to poke. “…Michael?”

“No, the other one.”

“Misha.”

“Right. Misha. You need to stop it.”

They bristled. “Stop what-ow!” Another poke. How is she so fast with those?!

“Stop whatever this is. I don’t know why you’re so hung up Ak–Nori keeping her face covered, but she’s obviously not comfortable with showing off her…” She made a gesture, maybe looking for the word.

“What? Her teeth? Sharp teeth are common in many species.”

“…Yeah, but also…look, you’re being…yeah, you’re being an ass about it, alright? So please stop it.”

Michael frowned. “I don’t like being lied to or having things be kept hidden from me, so I asked them to remove their mask, that’s it.”

“Hypocrite,” Noriko muttered.

Michael scowled, glaring at…the hunched and upset woman, refusing to look at them at all. Which. Hm. “…” 

Their scar itched.

“…” They glanced at Rokuhara and Yojin. The former raised an eyebrow while the latter sat back down and made a gesture for them to…say something. “…”

They looked back at Noriko, who sighed. “Right, just, it’s whatever, get back eating. This lady’ll just–”

“Do you want a hug?”

“…” The look she gave them this time was still incredulous, but far less angry. “…What??”

“You’re not a sibling of mine, but hugs are meant to be comforting.” Wait, too much, one step back. “And…I am sorry. I was j…I am sorry. My actions distressed you, the blame lies with me.”

“…” Noriko stared at them, her confusion turning tired as she sighed. “Bleh…It’s whatever. You’re not the first, you won’t be the last–”

“Yes I will.”

She blinked. “…huh?”

“I will be the last one to make you feel upset in this way. You have my word.”

“…hold up, what? How does that work??”

“It just does. To start, is this an ailment, injury, or curse? If so, I can fix it.”

“…Ff, ah, no, it’s just…some people call it a curse, but this lady was just born with it. Slit-mouth, torn-mouth, it’s a thing that can happen. Some say it’s a curse certain bloodlines carry, punishment for some trespass or another, others say it comes to those who practiced cannibalism in their past life, marking them in the new one as a monster.” 

“I would know if you were a monster, and you’re not.” They checked, seeing a soul tinged by Envy, but not to a demonic degree and most definitely a normal, mortal soul. “See? Not a monster.”

“…You didn’t do anything though?”

Right, they can’t see me check… So they put their hand on her forehead, mumbled some nonsense, and made their hand glow. “There, not a monster, otherwise you would have exploded.”

“…” Her face twitched. Possibly a bad sign. “How about you don’t try tests on this lady that could blow her up, okay?”

“It’s fine, I was lying about the exploding. Still, you have an angelic guarantee that you’re not a monster, so don’t be worried about that.”

“Fine fine, this lady accepts your apology and your attempts at being nice.” Her eyes took on a playful gleam that reminded Michael of Anaya. Who they really should be getting back to… “But she thinks it’s only fair if you share a secret in turn~.”

“Oh. Such as?”

“This gal wouldn’t know what your secrets are, remember? Though if you have anything physically embarrassing or cool to show off, feel free to~”

Their scar twinged. “I’m not taking off my blouse in the middle of a restaurant.”

Noriko blinked, then snorted, giggling as the slight tinkling of porcelain sounded out. A glance over showed the waitress from earlier stiffening in the middle of brushing up all the broken fragments, her gaze flitting towards Michael for an instant before she ducked her head and kept cleaning. 

Weird. Oh, wait. “There is one other thing.” They dismissed the illusion of mortal flesh around their right hand, showing the metal there. “My right hand is artificial. Is that sufficient?”

“Heehee-eh, ah, eh? Oh, yeah that’s–Oh wow, that’s rad!” And now Noriko was staring at their hand, examining the shimmery silver. “Is that fully metal?”

“Yes, I believe so–”

“How does it work??” asked Shiho, also now leaning across the table. Which probably wasn’t proper restaurant etiquette.

“Ah…I’m not sure. My sibling was the one who made this.” 

“Aw, so you don’t know at all? Ah, not that that’s a bad thing! Just curious!” She laughed nervously, then stared intently at Michael’s hand. “…Would you mind letting me look–”

“I would mind.”

“Aw…” She sulked, then squeaked when Rokuhara tugged her back down into her seat. “Hey!”

“No leaning on the table.” He gave her a pat on the head, eliciting an irritated noise from his wife, before looking at Michael again. “You hit harder with your left.”

“…What is that supposed to mean?” they asked.

“Just something to take note of.”

Their eyes narrowed, but they weren’t sure if there was any insult in the dragon’s words. He seemed more interested in finishing his meal than finishing the conversation anyways, so they elected to let things lie. The situation was strange enough already and they weren’t completely sure if they’d be violating some taboo if they just up and left, so on with eating delicious food.

And so, upon finishing and paying for their meal, Michael and company prepared to leave the restaurant in order to begin…well, probably heading back to Kyora. After all, Michael had to get back to Anaya, so finding her again was their next–

“AH! THERE SHE IS!” Oh, or Anaya would come to them. As did Polina, the large minotaur trying to pass by the various guests–huh, did they just hit the lunch rush?–while not bumping into them as Anaya rushed forward. “Hmph, here we are worried about you, and it turns out you went to eat without us.” 

“This was not something I decided to do.” 

“Sure sure,” Anaya said as she squeezed between Michael and Noriko, “Now, what’s this and who are these two?” 

“Thes-” 

“Woah, Misha, are you okay!?” Arriving at the table, Polina cut them off as she stared down at Michael’s metallic hand. Which they hadn’t hidden. Right.

“…Yes. This injury was already present, don’t worry.”

“It was? You didn’t have a metal hand before though.”

“Yes I did.”

“…Pretty sure I would’ve noticed that.”

“Sometimes when the light catches it right it looks like my normal skin tone, it’s fine, also this is Katsuro Rokuhara, the dragon crimelord, and his wife, Shiho Yojin.”

“…” Polina looked from Michael to Rokuhara, then back again. “…Y’mean the guy you came here to arrest for abducting that noble lady?”

“Yes, Kawajiri lied, he didn’t do that.”

“I can confirm that he didn’t!” Yojin spoke up, raising a hand in greeting.

“…Alright, uh…huh.”

“Well, it’s good that you figured that out,” Anaya said with an odd smile, “It’s also really good that you decided not to hang around the blasted out wasteland that we assumed you went to and instead left to have lunch with your new pals!”

Michael blinked. “…Are you angry?”

Anaya gave them a pat on the head. It wasn’t very reassuring. “Oh, also, we ran into a couple people also very interested in knowing why there’s a blasted out wasteland.”

Michael looked over at the people Anaya indicated, who were not, in fact, guests of the restaurant, though they possibly still could be, if they felt hungry. No, the “guests” were actually fully armored samurai in red plate. So. Hm.

“This samurai believes that’s her cue then,” one–who looked distinct from the rest with the plume of horsehair coming from her helmet and, judging the cloven hooves, was probably a satyr–said as she turned her masked gaze on Rokuhara, “Sir Rokuhara.”

“Hey…you.”

The sigh reverberated in her helmet. “Captain Uchino is this samurai’s rank and name. Please remember it this time.”

“Sure, Uchi.”

A deeper sigh this time. “Sir Rokuhara, who were you fighting earlier?”

“Nah, wasn’t. Was showing off.”

Michael blinked as Captain Uchino groaned, pressing a hand to her mask as though she could ease off her headache by pinching its nose. “Seriously…?”

Rokuhara grinned. “What can this guy say? A couple cute ladies wanted him to show his stuff, so he did.”

What.

Both hands were pressing against the mask now. “Sir Rokuhara you can’t blow up mountains to show off…”

“Pretty sure those were hills, not mountains. Sides, Shiho already scolded this guy, so you’re a little late.”

“…” Michael, who still felt offended by Rokuhara’s excuse, could see the moment the captain just gave up completely. “You still have to pay a fine.”

Oddly, Rokuhara winced there. “For what?”

“Destruction of property and disturbing the peace.”

“Okay, this guy’ll give you the peace thing, but what property?”

“Those hills belonged to someone, probably.”

A sour look crossed the dragon’s face. “Oh come on, that’s-”

“C’mon Katsu, don’t be a baby about it,” Yojin said as she stood, putting a hand on her husband’s shoulder, “We’ll be right along, Captain Uchino.”

“Good, thank you for handling him.” As Rokuhara grumbled about government robbery, the samurai turned to Michael. “This is the paladin you were looking for?” Oh, or she was looking at Anaya.

“Yup! She’s the only Misha I know, so I’m pretty sure she’s the right one.”

“Huh. Weird. Didn’t think this city would be playing host to two paladins in one day…”

Michael frowned. “We’re not staying long. Polina and I will be continuing our journey, along with-”

“Not you two. Didn’t even realize Miss Polina was a paladin.” She gave a glance to Polina, who was holding her nose and looking displeased, for some reason. “This samurai meant the other paladin of light, the one with the angel.”

Michael paused, absorbed that information, then elected to ignore it. “Well, as I said, we won’t be stay-” 

“Aw, come on now Misha, it would be rude to ignore your fellow paladin! We should at least say hi!”  …Was Anaya doing this as revenge for leaving her in Kyora?

“Even so, I’m sure Polina would prefer it if we go as well.” 

“Uh…well, I mean, I’ve always wanted to meet an angel.” 

The irony of that statement made Michael almost decide to reveal their halo. But no. They were strong, they would not be tempted to do stupid things just to win a conversation. 

“Well they should still be in the city,” Captain Uchino said, “So if you want to meet up, feel free to.”

Anaya beamed. “Thank you, captain!” 

“It’s no trouble. Come along, Sir Rokuhara. It’s best we get this over with.”

The dragon grumbled as his wife giggled, before the two followed the samurai captain out, though the other samurai with them stayed behind. For reasons that became very obvious very quickly at the gathered samurai–who seemed to be made up of primarily satyrs and firedrakes–started removing their helmets and picking tables, apparently aiming to have lunch now that the immediate problem was dealt with. 

“…This stuff tends to happen around you a lot, huh?” Noriko commented–Oh, right.

“Anaya, Polina, Masami is actually named Noriko.”

“Oh, really–?”

“Yeah yeah, I’m sure it’s real interestin’, can we get outta here? My stomach’s not feelin’ great with the smell.” Polina did in fact look pale as she held a hand to her face. 

“Oh, are you okay?” Anaya asked as she got up to help Polina out, the minotaur muttering something about an aversion to beef. It was a good thing they had the carriage outside, as it seemed Polina needed to rest in it for a bit. 

Also of note, there were apparently flaming horses in Gorokiva. Or at least red horse-like creatures with flaming manes and tails and draconic scales across their bodies. They didn’t seem to be threats, considering they were just waiting in the street while wearing saddles, bridles, and bits of armor, but they also seemed overly interested in the unicorns, who were…more kind of preening and showing off than discouraging such interest. So, hm.

Oh, and Anaya was talking again. “Michael, I’m going to help Polina out real quick. Don’t go wandering off without me again!”

“I didn’t wander…” Michael muttered, but they did stay put regardless, ignoring Noriko’s snickering. They had some things to consider anyways, such as the fact that a paladin and angel were present nearby. A paladin of light, specifically, which, if they remembered the exchange properly, meant said paladin would be paired with an angel of thunder. And they really only knew one lightning angel, so it was bound to be her, and that was…

Awkward was probably the right word. Amitiel hadn’t done anything wrong, exactly, especially since the gods said she didn’t, but she also did things that very much skirted the line of what Michael would consider to be wrong.

“Yeah, this gal gets it,” Noriko said, nodding her head with her arms crossed over her chest. Which was…weird. Wait, did I say my thoughts out loud? 

Noriko gave them a glance, then nodded again. “This gal totally gets it. Horses are weird.” Oh.

“I’m not thinking about the…” Well, now that she mentions it… “Why are there flaming horses here?”

“Hm? Mera is the city of fire, it’s run by the Nakazono, who have a horse as their emblem. So there you go.”

“…The flaming horses exist because nobles who like horses run a city of fire? Which isn’t actually on fire in the slightest, also, so it’s just called that for some other inane reason.”

“Yup.”

“That’s not how reality works.”

Noriko shrugged, holding her hands behind her head. “Tell that to reality.”

“…” Michael was beginning to wonder if it was a mistake to even bother coming to Gorokiva. Bringing Noriko along definitely was one. And things were bound to only get even more irritating once they encountered Amitiel again.

Still, Amitiel was traveling with a paladin of light, assuming Michael’s assumptions were right. Even if the angel was questionable, the paladin accompanying her was chosen for a reason, and it would be good to meet up with someone who upholds the standards and dignity that such a station demands.


“CHUG CHUG CHUG CHUG!” The rhythmic shouting of enthusiastic onlookers watching two competitors drink down full jugs of sake echoed throughout the factory, the high roof carrying the sound far even through the crackling fires of the kilns along its walls.

One of the competitors was a firedrake, steam rising up from his mouth as he guzzled down the alcohol. The other, far more immediately important and troubling competitor was a high elf. A female high elf with closely-shaved, pale blonde hair, wearing far less than she should be. She wasn’t completely immodest–just mostly–wearing a purple kimono with the top pulled down to her waist and white undershirt that had its sleeves rolled up to her admittedly solid shoulders and its hem rolled up to bare her abs, glistening with sweat in the heat–

Michael shook their head, refocused, and tried to find the moral outrage they should most definitely be feeling at the moment. 

Finding information about where the visiting paladin and angel were wasn’t difficult; really, finding people in general seemed to be trickier, since it appeared to be the middle of the workday for most. But enough people had enough info for Anaya and Noriko to easily discover that the duo were over at the “factory district”, and from there it was a simple matter of just checking the right building, made easier because there was quite the gathered crowd at this particular one.

“So are paladins of light in general more like her, or you?” And Noriko’s words managed to spark that moral outrage Michael should have been feeling as they began to march up to the competitors. That is until Polina held them from behind, stopping them in their tracks as Anaya went ahead. 

“H-Hey! Let go of me!” 

“No can do. We want to have a nice first impression after all.” And as the elven competitor slammed down her jug to a chorus of cheers, Polina looked down at Michael. “Unless you’re telling me that you weren’t going to get angry at her for drinking?” 

“I…wouldn’t have done so in front of everyone.” 

“You don’t have to lie to me, Mish.”

Michael gave Polina an irritated glare, then turned their attention towards Anaya as the druid made her way through the crowd of cheerful or disappointed onlookers as money changed hands from lost bets. Which was gambling, also a bad thing.

“Hello there!” Anaya greeted with a bright smile, drawing the eyes of the elf, “Just guessing, but would you be the paladin of light everyone’s talking about?”

“Hm?” Glancing up at Anaya, a smile spread across the elf’s face. “I might be~ Though if you want to make sure, we can go somewhere to get more acquainted~” Michael wasn’t sure why, but they felt it was a good thing that Polina was holding them back. 

“Maybe some other time~ I’m actually here with some friends,” Anaya said, pointing over at her group, “Though I should introduce myself! My name is Anaya Greenfell, a druid who’s going on the same journey as you.”

“Oh, you’re the druid then.” The elf smiled as she stood, taller than Anaya, and held out her hand. “Paladin Vivian Popola, at your service.”

Anaya smiled back and took the offered hand, letting Popola kiss her knuckles before glancing back at Michael, who definitely needed to be held back. She giggled at Michael’s irritated scowl, which didn’t help matters, and looked back to Popola. “It’s nice to meet you! As you might’ve guessed, these are the ladies traveling with me! We kinda picked up a few extra gals on our way, so let me introduce you to Polina Vlahos, paladin of judgement extraordinaire! The mysterious kunoichi who hid her true name up until a few minutes ago, Noriko! And the glarey lady there is Misha Centola, my main escort for the journey and a very cute gal who’s easy to fluster.”

Michael wasn’t sure if they should be offended by that description. Though any offence they might’ve felt deviated into…some odd feeling at the cold, dismissive look Popola gave them, before the paladin smiled again. “Is that so? Alright, in order then, it’s nice to meet you, Polina. Nice to see a fellow paladin helping out.”

“O-Oh, er, th-thanks? Um, i-it’s nice to meet you too.” Polina’s nervousness didn’t loosen her grip in the slightest, Michael noted.

“No need to get nervous. I’m not about to mouth off about propriety here.” Her easy smiling continued as she looked towards Noriko. “And it’s nice to meet you too, Miss Noriko.”

“Aw, so polite~!” Noriko giggled, then spoke in a sly tone as she glanced at Michael. “Why aren’t you ever that polite, hm~?”

“What? I’m polite.” They weren’t sure why Polina snorted, but they felt mocked. “My manners are fine!”

“That’s a surprise. I didn’t think Cents knew how to speak anything but derisive sneer.” That was definitely mocking. But it was directed towards the Centolas, and Michael didn’t like the Centolas. But it was also directed towards Michael because Popola thought they were…hm.

“…Clearly I’m better than them then, because I can speak without sneering,” they said with a sneer–…

A glint of amusement entered Popola’s eyes as Michael tried to fix their expression. 

“…Where is your traveling companion?” Michael asked, trying to get Popola to focus on something else. 

“Amitiel? Somewhere in the factory. Apparently these weren’t around last time she was here, so she wants to see what the deal is. Though if you ask me, I think she just wants to spend as much time as she can back home.” Hmph, likely not. Their issues with the lightning angel aside, Michael was certain Amitiel wouldn’t waste her time when she had such important duties to uphold. 

“Well, we should probably wait here until she comes back. Since it wouldn’t be safe to wander round here without a guide. And, uh, no offense, but I don’t think any of them are up for the task,” Polina said, glancing over at the rowdy workers at the end there. 

“…Can you let go of me now?” 

“Oh, uh, sorry.”

“Your apology is accepted.” Michael nodded to Polina as they were let down, then looked back to Popola. And they couldn’t help but frown as they noticed the elf was taller than them, made worse when that glint of amusement turned to an actual smile. It wasn’t even by much, only maybe a few inches, and Michael had been around Polina, other minotaurs, and even Uriel before, who were all taller than them, but something about Popola being taller than the angel was setting off…something. 

“So, why were you sent along for this?” Popola asked as the others started looking around the ceramics factory, talking with the workers, and skulking around. Still in sight, so Michael didn’t have to worry. Not that they ever worried.

“What do you mean by that?”

“It’s just a question, Centy. I’m curious.”

“Why?”

“How about because you don’t look older than a hundred? Or how about the fact that I got this job because my cousin’s the new pontiff? I’m curious what makes you special enough to get this position when you’re a Cent I don’t recognize.”

“I am older than one hundred and I don’t need to explain anything to you.”

“Sure you don’t.” She pointed towards Michael’s leg. “You’ve got a tear in your skirt, right there, and it’s showing some thigh.”

They went rigid and immediately slapped their hand down over the tear indicated, feeling heat rush to their face at the inch of skin they were showing.

Popola snickered and Michael shot a glare at her, prompting a grin. “What? I pointed it out, didn’t I? You should be thanking me.”

“…”

“Come on, say it. Say thank you.” Their glare intensified. “I know young ladies like you can be shy, don’t worry. Let’s say it together, alright? Thank…?”

“I am not thanking you.”

“Alright, if you insist. It’s a cute dress, by the way. Not exactly the modest standard a proper Zeman paladin should be wearing.”

“And what about your outfit?!”

“This?” She glanced at her clothes and tugged the front of her shirt. “It’s a cultural outfit. Kinda. It’s an exception.”

“Hmph. Mine is also a cultural outfit then. And a far better one at that.” They reached for one of their cards, then considered if Popola really deserved one–

“OI! The hell are you all doing?!” a voice echoed out, and Michael’s attention was drawn to a rather rotund firedrake in workman’s clothes who looked…oddly sweaty, despite the fact that firedrakes were naturally fine with heat and also they were pretty sure drakes didn’t sweat in general? Since they were reptilian…anyways, he was far less important than the person who was walking with him.

Or more specifically the angel walking with him. The glasses-wearing lightning angel, dressed in the white and black attire of a thunder shrine priestess. Her sparking hair was tied back in a tail of crackling electricity, and her curious eyes, looking wide behind her spectacles, alighted on Michael immediately, recognition obvious in them.

“Apologies miss, this drake did not think his workers would start to drink! He swears they aren’t usually like this!” the firedrake said, bowing repeatedly to Amitiel and Popola as everyone else stared curiously. The workers didn’t seem especially chastised either, instead just packing up the table and drinks.

“It’s quite alright, they were just trying to make me feel welcomed,” Popola said, waving off his concerns, “Besides, I brought the alcohol so it’s not really their faults.”

Michael stiffened at that new information and gave Popola an affronted glare even as the apparent foreman continued his hand-wringing. “E-Even so, they should know better than to drink while on site.” 

“Mister Otani, this angel assures you everything is okay,” Amitiel said, her voice kind and soothing, “In fact, she is sure her father will be delighted to know your workers are showing Vivian how our celebrations are done.” 

“Thank you for your kindness!” Otani bowed again, before going to his workers to demand they get back to their stations, which appeared to be pottery wheels. Many of them, in several rows, possibly for efficiency.

Still, Michael was less interested in the operations of the factory then they were with Anaya heading right up to Amitiel with a bright smile on her face. “Greetings! It’s nice to meet you, my name is Anaya Greenfall.” 

“Pleasure to meet you, I am Amitiel Goldenrose.” Smiling brightly, Amitiel bowed to her in greeting.

Introductions proceeded as they typically did, so Michael paid little attention to the shared greetings in favor of watching their fellow angel. Well, not exactly my fellow angel, Amitiel is a different type, so it–Not the point. The point is…I don’t know how to react to her.

Part of them thought they should be…not hostile, exactly, and aggressive didn’t sound right either, which was part of the problem. They’d been alarmed by Amitiel’s apparent breaking of sacred laws back when this whole tour was proposed, but a month had given their anger time to cool and they really did have a lot more pressing issues to deal with than one angel deciding to…have a family with a mortal. Apparently with her god’s permission too, so that added an extra element of ambiguity to it, and Michael didn’t particularly like ambiguity. Too ambiguous.

Besides, Popola was clearly the more annoying of the pair, so giving a nod back to Amitiel after the angel bowed to them was only polite.

“You should be bowing lower for an angel, Cent.” Speaking of annoying Popolas.

“Oh, it’s fine! Miss Centola, was it?” Amitiel smiled at them, recognition still very obvious in her eyes. 

“I am known by that name, yes.”

Popola snorted. “What are they teaching kids these days?” 

Amitiel’s lips twitched in amusement, but Michael’s eyes were on Popola, glaring. “What was that!? I’m not a child!”

“Reaching maturity doesn’t make you mature, Cent.” Her gaze was dismissive, a skeptical eyebrow raised. “Act like a brat and that’s what everyone will assume you are.”

“I am not–”

“Ooookay, let’s calm things down for a moment, alright?” Anaya said, stepping in, “So, Ami, how have things been on your part of the tour?”

The electric angel beamed, unphased by the glare Michael was shooting Popola. “Heh, they’ve been going fine, thank you for asking! We’ve been sticking to Gorokiva for now, since I wanted to visit every one of the major cities in something of…not quite a loop? We’re not planning to repeat, but we’ve been moving counter-clockwise around the country since we first met up in Ishi on the border.”

“That’s the mountain city, right?” The what? They have those?

“Yup! Ruled by the Tsubakimoto Clan, specifically, and I thought it would be best to start there, since it’s like starting the year! Though I guess we should have started at Sui if we wanted to make that exactly accurate…”

“Oh, and that’s the coastal one?”

“Not exactly, actually! Sui’s more situated around Lake Hie, which is more inland–”

Michael felt lost, but Anaya nodded along with a comprehending smile as Amitiel explained…geography? Major cities? They glanced towards Polina for some clue, but she was just nodding along while…taking notes? When did she pick up a notebook?

It didn’t matter. They could still look to Noriko for–And Noriko was no longer in sight. Hm.

“–actually staying over at the Daimyo’s castle for the night! Lord Nobuhito is away on business, but we could ask Sir Nobuyuki for permission if you wanted to stay too.” Wait, what?

They turned their attention back to the conversation as Anaya beamed and nodded cheerfully. “Sure, that sounds great! It does save us the trouble of trying to find somewhere, and I won’t say no to fancy hospitality~”

“Great! The more the merrier!”

“Hear that, Cent?” Popola’s irritating voice cut through their confusion. “Looks like you’ll be spending the night with us. Maybe we can fit in some etiquette lessons after the touring?”

“After the what–I do not need etiquette lessons! Especially from someone who so readily shows herself off!”

“It’s hot out. Less clothes means less heat.” She smirked, then leaned, pulling the front of her shirt–

Michael immediately looked away, ignoring the heat of their face and the flagrant display the well-endowe–the perverted paladin was committing–Then a sharp whistle caught their attention and they glanced back to see Popola holding an icy-blue stone attached to the necklace she was wearing. “Coldstones also help, if you can afford them.”

“…Your advice is unnecessary and unwanted.”

She shrugged, letting the stone drop back against her chest. “If you say so.”

They did, and they meant it, and they were ready to get on with whatever else this tour would involve, though they first took the prudent step of moving so Polina was between them and Popola. Why that earned a little chuckle from Polina, they weren’t sure, but it didn’t matter, nor did Anaya and Amitiel both looking far too amused. “Commence touring. Let’s get this over with.”

They ignored the giggling in favor of glaring back at Popola. Truly, corruption runs deeper in the ranks of the paladins of light than I ever realized…

Though that was matter for another time as they were dragged on another city tour. One they weren’t particularly invested in, though they did make note of how the residential areas within the city were most definitely nicer than the suburbs outside. The buildings just generally looked cleaner and better furnished, even from the outside, and a part of them was struck by just how many people weren’t working, instead relaxing under verandas or walking casually with umbrellas out to keep away the sunlight. Coldstones were also clearly present on the more affluent citizens’ clothing, the glimmering icy-blue standing out against the usually red fabrics of their clothes.

Michael also made a mental note that the relaxing citizens seemed to be primarily satyrs, while the working citizens were mostly drakes. A mammalian bias, maybe?

Aside from possible social issues, Mera was a decent city. Heat gave the air around it a shimmering quality, and that, aided by the gleam of scarlet and orange in the architecture and swooping curves along the rooftops, made the city genuinely look like it was perpetually aflame. 

So maybe it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to see the city’s palace genuinely aflame, but Michael was still a bit nonplussed at the sight.

“Er…should we be concerned?” Polina asked, pointing to the obviously blazing building as Anaya let out an “ooo” of awe.

“No, though I understand why you would be,” Amitiel replied, “It’s been doing that for, oh, eighty years now? Which is decent for a Meran palace, though nowhere near the record breaking two hundred the fourteenth Fire Palace managed.”

“They all do this?”

“Yup. It’s similar for water, wind, and metal palaces. Oh, and earth palaces too, but those keep sinking underground, so there’s less of them.”

“…Huh.”

The palace was less on fire on the inside, and generally less ablaze around the grounds. Really it mostly seemed to be the roofs of the multi-tiered castle that were on fire, with the largest at the top forming a crown of orange flame. The walls were largely untouched aside from some braziers at the top of the lookout towers, and the grounds were well-maintained, if mostly made up of sand gardens rather than grass. There was a full field closer to the quite large stables, which apparently required gardeners fully trained in plant magic to maintain, as a result of the more exotic horses frequently damaging the lawn.

Not just fire horses; the Nakazono Clan apparently raised multiple different breeds of steeds, or so their host for the night, Nobuyuki Nakazono, explained. According to the long-winded young man–who Michael noted was also a satyr–his family specifically bred elemental horses of varying types, which was why they technically had three full equestrian stables present on their grounds. Best to keep the different types comfortable, particularly due to their different temperaments and needs.

Michael half-paid attention while the noble regaled the rest of the group with his knowledge of equestrian affairs. They didn’t have anything to contribute as their knowledge of horses was nonexistent beyond the fact that they were quadrupeds and vaguely angular, maybe. They weren’t sure if that was the right word, but it was the only one coming to their mind and they didn’t have much else to focus on besides the tea Nakazono provided to them.

“So do you think he has a crush on Amitiel?” Noriko asked–

Michael paused and glanced at the cushion beside them at the tea table. “…How long have you been there?”

“Long enough to notice horse guy’s mostly focused on Ami. This gal’s trying to figure out if it’s an attraction thing or if he’s just trying to curry favor.”

“Favor.”

“Ooo, quick answer, interesting…” Noriko rubbed her covered chin, watching the proceedings with an interest that Michael just didn’t feel at all.

This is pointless, they thought, watching as Polina joined the lecture disguised as a conversation, offering her own take as a daughter of farmers. I’m not going to need any of this information, and it gets me nowhere closer to solving the problems of the cursed shop, the leviathans in general, and those damnable fines, which are almost certainly contributing to the issues plaguing this country.

They needed to focus. They couldn’t afford to let trivialities distract them any longer.

That night, they would discuss the secrets of the curse shop that Polina had discovered and put an end to that problem, once and for all. No more distractions, no new problems, just handling what they knew they could handle. There was no need to overcomplicate things.

Nothing else would get in their way.

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