“How long has it been since you’ve taken a bath?”
Michael blinked, glancing at Noriko as the human laid flat on the futon she’d claimed as her bed.
“What was that?”
“When did you last take a bath? Just wondering since, ever since we met, this gal hasn’t seen you take one.”
“I don’t require a bath.”
“So you haven’t then, got it.” Standing up, Noriko began to walk out of their shared room. “Well come on then, time to fix that.”
“I said I don’t need one.”
She looked back at Michael specifically so the angel could see her roll her eyes. “Look, this gal doesn’t care if you got some angel magic to make yourself look clean, you can’t just go around not taking baths. Not only is that gross, you’re gonna start standing out more if you don’t at least make an attempt to look normal.”
“I’m doing a perfectly fine job at being normal!” They had even changed so that they were no longer in the worn and torn dress that Matsuzaki had given them, instead now wearing a robe called a nemaki. Some type of loungewear. Admittedly comfy loungewear.
“Sure, you’re the picture of normality. Now come on and be more normal by actually cleaning yourself.”
“No. I see no reason to go along with-”
“Do you think Miss Anaya would be up to scrub this gal’s back?”
“…What…What does Anaya have to do with…?”
“You know we Gororan’s practice communal bathing, right? It’s a good bonding activity, nice and relaxing. Not to mention it helps save on time and water.”
“That…That doesn’t matter, if you wish to take a bath, then go ahead.”
“Oh, finally found you two.” Came the familiar voice of Polina as the door opened up, crouching slightly to look in. “Hey, if you two are up to join, we’re gonna go take a bath.”
“That’s quite fortunate timing, this gal was just going to ask if you and Anaya wanted to join her.”
“Of course, though heads up, Vivian is joining us.”
“…Would Amitiel also be joining in?” Noriko asked.
“She can’t. If she did, she’d end up shocking us, apparently, so she’s taking a bath first and we’re going in after.”
“That’s good, this gal was worried we might have an accident if she did join~.”
“Can we move along?” Michael asked, standing behind Noriko and waiting for her to move.
“Oh? This gal thought you didn’t need to take a bath?” Noriko said with a teasing tone.
“I don’t trust Popola, so I’m not leaving her alone with you three.”
“Oh~? You’re trying to protect our virtue then~? And here this gal thought paladins of light were the most modest and chaste of the bunch.”
“I thought the same, but evidence points otherwise,” Michael stated as they pushed past Noriko, ignoring the human’s amused giggles.
It wasn’t difficult to find the castle’s baths. They were close to the bedrooms–likely for convenience–and the halls were refreshingly straightforward. Lanterns of solidified flame lit the way through ashwood hallways lined with tapestries woven by…They were forgetting exactly what the Nakazono heir had described it as but it was some type of silkworm thing. Probably fire related. Or horse related, the Nakazonos were also big on horse stuff.
Michael paused for a moment, considering if a nearby tapestry displaying a scene of a horse kneeling to a crowned figure might be woven out of horse hair, when their attention was diverted by a familiar figure composed of pure electricity wandering out of a curtained off room.
“Mmm, hmm, mm-Oh, hello again Misha,” Amitiel greeted, turning to them with a smile.
“…Hello again, Amitiel,” Michael returned the greeting, idly wondering how in the world electricity could manage to look damp. Somehow, it could, because Amitiel, also dressed in a nemaki, did look damp. Her electric hair was loose, falling freely over her shoulders and adding an odd tingle to the air. “You finished your bath then.”
“That I did. Were you planning to take one too?”
“I’ve been told I should.” They glanced behind her, checking to see if they could spot Popola through the curtain.
“Not a fan, I take it?”
They looked back at the other angel. She was shorter than them, but she felt far older. Older than Michael’s cousins, even, though maybe not as old as Jophiel. “Not particularly. I don’t like wasting time.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s wasting time. Even if you don’t need to clean yourself, laying back and soaking in hot water can be very relaxing.”
“I don’t need to relax.”
Amitiel shrugged. “If you say so. Anyhow, I’ll be at my room if you need me.”
I won’t. “You do that.”
They watched her leave, trying to ignore the odd discomfort they felt around the other angel, and pushed through the curtain, entering some small area situated before the baths that they very quickly realized was a changing room because they were seeing Vivian Popola changing.
“Hm? Oh, it’s just you,” Popola said, sounding disinterested. Probably giving them another cold look, though Michael couldn’t tell at the moment because they’d immediately shut their eyes and turned away from the undressed paladin. “…Have you ever been outside of Zemava before?”
That gave them pause, though they still didn’t look. “What? Of course I have.”
“In the past hundred years?”
“Just a few months ago, I went to Lu–” No, wait, don’t mention that, you can’t let her know you’re an angel. “-I don’t need to tell you anything, now put your clothes back on.”
“I can’t bathe with my clothes on. I guess I could use a washcloth, but even then I’d want to avoid getting my clothes wet. How don’t you know this?”
They scowled, still not looking. The wall was more interesting. It was very…orange. Some kind of mural of the sunrise–Focus. “I know how to be modest, something you don’t seem to consider!”
“…Kid, I’m in a changing room.”
Outrage finally turned their head to glare Popola in the eyes. “I’m not a child! Don’t you dare think–!”
“Okay, okay, alright, simmer down.” Popola sighed. “Look, I don’t know who gave you this job, Cen…Misha, right?”
“…Misha is preferable, yes.”
“Gods, you can’t stop for a second, can you? No, look, why were you assigned to this? You’re clearly out of your element and you’re not handling well.”
“Yes I am!” they snapped before her words fully registered, then outrage overrode any consideration they may have given her, “And who are you to ask that!? You said yourself that you were only assigned because of your cousin!”
“Yes. Because that’s how things work. This is an important mission, so of course someone trusted would be assigned, and I don’t know about you, but my cousin trusts me, and a Pontiff’s word has weight.”
“E-Even so, this quest we were assigned shouldn’t be decided by nepotism alone!”
“Then why are you here?”
“Uh, are we interrupting something?” cut in Polina, awkwardly standing at the doorway to the changing room.
“Nothing of importance,” responded Popola, who then turned around and headed into the baths, “Just try to keep your companion in check.”
“Now now, a bath should be a time to relax~” Noriko said, popping in out of nowhere, “It’s bad manners to get into a fight while everyone is trying to relax no?”
“…hmph.” Turning around, Michael once again stared at the wall.
“…Are you not going to take a bath, Misha?” Polina asked.
“Oh she’s just shy~” Noriko chirped, “You should blame that modest upbringing of hers. The poor girl just can’t handle seeing skin!”
“Modesty is important,” Michael growled, “Besides, as stated, I don’t need-”
“Though this gal thinks her modesty might be too much, don’t you agree, Miss Polina? This gal hasn’t seen Miss Misha take a bath in all the time she’s known her.” Michael’s eyes were on the wall, but they could hear the smirk in Noriko’s voice. “Have you?”
“…Actually, no, I haven’t,” Polina said, sounding far too thoughtful for Michael’s liking, “Mish, are you actually keepin’ clean?”
They hazarded a glance, then fully turned to speak when they noticed neither woman had undressed yet. “Of course I am.”
“You sure? I’ve never even seen you use a washcloth.”
“Of course I haven’t. I have no need to.”
“…” What’s with the skeptical look? “Mish, you know what a washcloth is, right?”
“Of course I do, it’s a cloth for washing.”
“Sure. Where can you find it in an inn?”
They did not shrug, though they felt the urge to. “With the innkeeper.”
That was the wrong answer, judging by the baffled look that quickly tuned weary. “…Hoo, kay. Mish, when you get a room at an inn, what do you use the pitcher of water they leave in there for?”
“I don’t.” The baffled look returned, worse this time. Think of an excuse. “I’m not thirsty. Usually.”
“Mish…no. That…people use that water to wash off. It’s like a quick way to get clean, how do you not…” Polina shook her head, pinching the bridge of her nose. “Right, you never were in the room when we were cleanin’ up…How the hell–Ah, how’ve you been keepin’ clean?”
Michael was starting to realize they vastly misstepped in this conversational field and plunged straight into an awkward ravine of requiring excuses. They tried to be subtle in glancing at Noriko to gauge the odds of the human helping. Judging by the extremely obvious smile even with half her face covered, Michael would find no aid there. “…Purification magic.”
“You what.” Oh that reaction is worse. It seemed their excusing foothold in the ravine’s wall was actually a hole full of alarmed snakes. “Mish you’ve been usin’ what?”
“Not what I just said I was using.” Perfect.
“Gods, Mish, look–Is that a Zem thing? Did you just-Look, you can’t do that, cleanin’ magic’ll scrub your skin off if you do that, you might as well be rubbin’ yourself with slimes!”
“This gal has heard of some nobles doing that,” Noriko chimed in, “The less corrosive types can apparently be very soothing.”
“Not my point,” Polina stated, before looking down at Michael with an expression they didn’t particularly like, “Right, that’s stoppin’ now. You’re takin’ a normal bath, even if I hafta toss you in there, got it?”
“I’ve lifted you before. Now I ain’t gonna strip you or nothin’-”
“Aw,” Noriko complained.
“–but you’re goin’ in that bath, one way or another.”
“…” Michael stared back at the serious minotaur, internally fighting to keep the heat that wanted to rise to their face down. The whole situation was…They weren’t in the wrong here, clearly Noriko was pushing for this immodesty, it wasn’t an issue in the slightest and they had no reason for their heart to be beating faster as Polina stared down at them, waiting for their answer. “…I refus-”
Michael kept the towel clutched very, very tightly around their body as they stepped into the main room of the baths, ignoring the heat in their face with the formidable will of an angel, even if they did feel far too exposed. The fact that they were even allowed to keep a towel on was the only reason they were allowing this.
That, and Anaya wasn’t present. The wood elf apparently was distracted by conversation with Amitiel again, so Michael didn’t have to worry about her…reactions, whatever they might be.
“Ooo, nice and cozy~” Noriko said, staring around the steaming baths with obvious interest. The springs were open to the air, which really didn’t help, and Michael could see the flames that surrounded the castle had turned a greenish-blue shade as the evening turned to night. Floating lanterns kept the area lit, and they could see Popola sitting in one of the pools.
So they promptly turned and moved towards a different one, having no intention to–They most definitely didn’t squeak as they felt a sudden tug on their towel. Instead, they immediately whirled to glare at the amused perpetrator.
“You need to wash off before going into the baths,” Noriko teased, her mouth still covered, though this time by a white cloth, matching the towel she wore, “Good hygiene is important, Mi~sha~”
“What? Baths are for cleaning off, why would-”
They blinked as Noriko poked them on the nose. “Nope~! Baths are for relaxing with company. You don’t want to get the water grimy, so you clean off first, like so.” She gestured over to a set of pitchers and stools along the wall where mirrors and shelves of soaps rested. Also where Polina was proving Noriko’s point in washing off and Michael very deliberately looked away there because the towels provided were not intended for someone of Polina’s height and the minotaur hadn’t bothered. “This gal can help out, if you need~”
“I don’t require your help,” Michael stated, moving past the human towards the–They took a moment to slap Noriko’s hand away from their towel, earning a giggle from the human, before they moved towards one of the stools and sat. They knew how to use soap, it wasn’t hard, but they still felt…awkward, doing this. Inexperience made the task feel more daunting than it was.
“Hm, this gal does suppose you don’t have enough hair to actually wash,” Noriko commented, because apparently she felt the need to sit next to them.
They grunted in reply, then stiffened when Noriko brushed a hand across their scalp. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Just checking. Your head feels pretty fuzzy. How long’s it been since you last shaved it?”
“…” They hadn’t. Was that something they needed to do? Ignore it. Focus on getting clean so Polina will leave you alone.
They glanced over at the minotaur, doing their best to keep their eyes focused towards her face as Polina dumped a pitcher of water over herself, washing away the suds on her skin. The minotaur stood, turning towards the baths, then noticed them–Right, I was in her blindspot.
She didn’t seem to mind though, just smiling and giving them a wave as she headed for the baths to sit by Popola.
“Yeah, this gal gets it.” Michael paused, then glanced at Noriko, who had her arms crossed over her chest again. “She totally gets it. Miss Polina is super hot, and tails make butts look way better. Though which do you think is better, Miss Polina’s or Miss Vivian’s? They’re both pretty toned, but there’s something enticing about a gold tail, don’t you think?”
“…” They ignored that. They checked their reflection instead, frowning at the elf that frowned back. Their head was looking fuzzier. Mammalian folk have their hair grow if they don’t trim it. Even if I’m not a mortal, I guess this body will still have processes like that occur…
Michael shook off those thoughts. There was no point in dwelling. They reached for a pitcher.
“Oh, let this gal do it,” Noriko offered, earning a scowl from Michael.
“I’ve told you before, I don’t need–” But Noriko didn’t listen, instead dumping a pitcher full of the far too cold water straight over their head.
Michael wasn’t sure what exactly the strangled sound that rang out through the baths was, but they swore it did not come from them.
“Hm? Too cold?”
“…” If Michael could glare fire at someone, Noriko would be far less smiley than she currently was. As it was, the water dripping down them turned from frigid to steaming in seconds. “Yes.”
“You sure? It looks plenty warm from where this gal is sitting~” Resist the urge to throw her in the baths. Resist it!
It was a very difficult urge to resist, but they were a mature, composed, capable angel who did not retaliate to petty pranks–
“Oh, this gal realizes what the problem is! She got your towel wet, let her help~” And then came the tug at the back of their towel and another startled yelp sounded out as Michael’s face went completely red.
Polina’s sigh was also quite audible, even if Michael wasn’t fully paying attention to that. “Nori, would you quit messin’ with–”
Really, by that point, retaliation was only natural, which was why Michael grabbed a pitcher and threw its contents full in Noriko’s face. The startled shriek felt vindicating, up until retaliation was returned with another pitcher of far too cold water–How does she keep finding the cold ones?!
Noriko’s smile was obvious, her wet mask slipping down to actually show it, so further retaliatory actions clearly needed to be taken. If there was one thing Michael appreciated from these baths, it was how many pitchers had been prepared in case there were many people wishing to bathe at once. Or in case an angel needed to soak an annoying human.
Perhaps too many though, as when Michael took a step back during the middle of their battle, they stepped onto a pitcher, causing them to slip and fall on their back.
“Pft, hahahahaaha! This gal has seen plenty of people toss themselves into the baths, but never onto the floor~!”
“I didn’t do this intentionally!” they retorted, glaring up at the giggling human.
“If you say so~ Need some help~?” Noriko held out her hand, still smiling wide.
Michael’s eyes narrowed…then they let a smile creep up their face too. “Certainly.”
Noriko had half a second to look surprised as Michael took her hand, before the human yelped in surprise when they hoisted her up onto their shoulder. “Ah-! H-Hey, what are you–Wait no no, don’t you dare–”
Her confusion turned to startled laughter as Michael easily carried her to the edge of the baths and threw Noriko straight in, a large splash going up as they sunk her into the deep end. “HA! How’s that for tossing!?”
“BWAH!” Noriko resurfaced, shaking her water from her dark, wet hair as it drooped over her face. She spat out some more water, turned her gaze towards Michael, and laughed outright. “Hahahaha! Ah, snk–gods, you total bitch! You absolute ass!”
Their smile twitched at the insults, but the humor in her voice…They shook it off, grinning. “You mean the absolute winner of our bout!”
“Haha–Oh? Oh really? Who’s calling it a defeat here, huh?” She posed, one hand on her hip as she pointed. “This gal shall never surrender!”
“That gal should sit down and stop splashin’ water everywhere!” Polina called out, “Same to you, Mish!”
Michael stiffened, then decided no, they weren’t going to be affronted, because they were the clear winner here, and so crossed their arms over their chest. “All I did was retaliate to aggression, I have nothing to apologize for.”
Polina sighed as Popola chuckled, the elf glancing over. “Just keep to your own pool, kay ‘Mish’?”
“Wh-Don’t encourage them!” Polina complained–
Then Michael felt a hand on their back and a yelp of their own slipped out as they were suddenly shoved into the baths. Their first thought on hitting the water was bafflement at how Noriko could’ve gotten behind them, while the second was that the water actually did feel really good…Either way, they pushed themself up quickly and turned to retaliate, when they realized that wasn’t Noriko standing at the bath’s edge.
“Ha! Sorry, sorry, I couldn’t resist!” Anaya covered her mouth as she giggled, her laughter light and cheery as Michael went through several emotions at once, including indignation at Anaya’s sudden betrayal, amusement that they couldn’t quite clamp down on, and…certain feelings that they didn’t have a name to give as they saw that Anaya wasn’t wearing a towel. Or anything at all.
Though that last feeling was overtaken by surprise as they saw Noriko burst from the shadows in the water and yank Anaya down into the bath by her ankle, earning a surprised squeal from the druid as she went straight in.
She broke the surface a second later, laughing and giving the giggling human a shove. “Noriiii! Come on, I didn’t even clean off yet!”
“Hey now, you should know you can’t go wandering near the water’s edge when there are dastardly predators about~” Noriko chided, still smiling wide. At least until Michael easily lifted and tossed her into the pool again. “Blagh! Ah, betrayal!”
“I’m not on your side,” Michael replied, “Anaya’s my partner, remember?”
“She’s right!” Anaya chimed in, “Which is why this hurts me too!”
Michael had a second to blink before Anaya promptly shoved them over again. “Gah!”
“Ah ha! See!” Noriko shouted, pointing dramatically at the treasonous Anaya, “The dastardly wiles of the Nalori cannot be trusted! Misha, we must form an alliance to stand against her encroachment into our rivalry!”
“…” Michael considered matters as they pushed themself up again, watching the giggling wood elf as she backed away, putting ground between the two of them. “Hm…I suppose she has proved she can’t be trusted…”
They paused, turning as Noriko handed them a small wooden bucket of water. “With me then, oh noble ally of the Empire!”
They felt their grin widen as they noticed how chilly the bucket in question felt. “An alliance it is then!”
“Aw, hey! Two on one isn’t fair!” Anaya decried, as though she hadn’t betrayed them seconds prior, “Don’t I get a buddy?”
“Nope! Besides, like you said, you needed to wash off, right~?”
And thus retribution began, and Anaya’s squeals sounded out as twin deluges cascaded over her. “GYAH! A-Ah, h-h-hey, no magic!”
“Hmm? This gal doesn’t know what you’re talking about, she never used magic,” Noriko quite blatantly lied through her pointy teeth. Though, huh, they didn’t take her for an ice mage. Actually, don’t mortals normally have tattoos for those practices? I don’t see any– “Misha! Eyes on the battle and not my perfect butt!”
Michael stiffened, then huffed and splashed Noriko, earning a startled laugh and then a mock gasp from the human. “Gasp! Is this treachery!? From my own ally?!?”
“Where else would treachery be coming from? Besides, clearly that was friendly fire. Or friendly water? One or the other.”
“Hmph, fine, but this gal gets a retaliatory spl–” Noriko’s demands were cut off as a wet towel smacked straight into her face.
Michael couldn’t help it. “PFF-BWAHAHAHAHA!”
“…” Noriko turned to Anaya, towel still on her face. “…Dhs gl hpes yu rrlize, dhs mns wrr.”
“Hm? It wasn’t war already? Speaking of, I could really use some allies! Polly?”
Polina sighed again, by this point sunk down so low she was mostly submerged. It was actually impressive, given her height. “Nope. Leave me outta it.”
“Aw, come on! I need at least someone–Eep!” And the towel went straight back into her face, knocking her right back into the water.
“Heheh-Ah, good shot,” Michael complimented, earning a proud smile from Noriko.
“Of course it is! This gal’s got a fantastic throwing arm!” Noriko preened–
Michael’s vision went dark as the felt wet cloth smack straight over their eyes, and they yanked the towel away to see Popola standing on her side of the baths, her arm still outstretched and a very wide grin on her face. “I think that’s a point for me.”
“…Noriko and I are still ahead!” Michael declared, before balling up the towel and pitching it back.
Popola caught it though, stepping out of the bath and walking over to their pool with a smirk. “Then I guess Anaya and I have some catching up to do. C’mon Greenfall, let’s show the youngins how it’s done!”
“Woo! You got it!”
And thus the fight started up again in earnest, with wet towels thrown and water splashed. How the contest was even supposed to be scored, Michael wasn’t sure, but in the moment, it didn’t really matter. For the moment, nothing else did either.
At least until Michael accidentally hit Polina in the face. In fairness to them, they didn’t expect her to sit up at that moment, and they were aiming for Anaya, though that didn’t stop the minotaur from putting a firm stop to their contest.
Confiscating all the towels seemed a step far, but Noriko had a proposed solution in the form of something she called “calvary fight”, the gist being that the shorter partners in the bout sit on their taller partner’s shoulders and attempt to push each other off into the pool. Simple enough, if somewhat distracting, but Michael still gave it their best!
They lost. Badly.
“Okay but both of them had a height advantage on us,” Noriko stated as the four of them dressed afterwards, “Anaya’s taller than this gal, Vivian’s taller than you, it’s cheap.”
“It is,” Michael agreed, adjusting their new and cozy nemaki.
“Oh? So you’d rather switch and have me on your shoulders?” Anaya said, her robe not yet on, which was why Michael kept their eyes forward as they replied.
“Noriko was my partner for this bout, so no, no switching.”
“Aw, thank you!” Noriko beamed, giving them a shoulder bump. Well, bumping her shoulder into them. She was still short. “Oi, don’t think this gal didn’t notice that look! What was that thought, huh?”
“That you’re short,” Michael replied, trying not to smile at the human’s gasp of mock-offense.
“Gasp again! Another bout of friendly fire, huh?”
“Hmph. Well, this gal may not be big in height, but she’s bigger in other areas.”
“…” Michael raised an eyebrow, glancing at Noriko in confusion as they tried to figure out what she meant. “…In what way?”
Noriko stilled, then shot them an annoyed look. “Okay, so she’s not that much bigger, but at least she’s got some tits…”
It took a second for her meaning to be clear. “Oh.” Michael glanced down at their chest. “…And?”
Vivian snorted for some reason there as Noriko huffed. “How’s that something that doesn’t offend you? Ah, whatever, it’s fine.”
Still a bit confused, Michael followed after Noriko as she headed back to their–Oh, right. “Ah, wait, I wanted to speak with Polina.”
“Eh? Oh, go ahead then. Hm, maybe this gal should see if Anaya and Vivian are up for games…”
They shrugged. “Have fun if you do.”
It wasn’t too difficult to track down Polina. The guest rooms were all in one portion of the castle and there weren’t too many guests there at the moment. They were still somewhat surprised to see Amitiel with her though.
“Oh. Hello?” Michael greeted as the two looked at them. Both were relaxing under some type of large table with a blanket. “…” Right, be polite. “Pardon for interrupting your relaxation. I wanted to speak with Polina.”
Polina sighed for some reason, before patting the table she was sticking half out of. “Yeah, alright, c’mon. Join the kotatsu.”
“…” Okay then. They maneuvered under the table, their legs under the blankets as they tried to remain sitting up straight. “Polina, I wanted to discuss your findings regarding the curse shop. Shogun Kawajiri, from all evidence, isn’t going to do anything about it, so I want to put a stop to it and all the problems it’s causing.”
“Oh, so it is real,” Amitiel noted, still lying back on the pillow she was resting on, “Hm. That’s an actual problem then.”
“Ah, yes, it is. Were you looking into it?”
“Sorry, no. I only barely heard rumors.” She sighed, sounding annoyed. “Most likely, the nobility didn’t want me to know of such things.”
“Hm, that tracks,” Polina muttered, before she reached over to her bags and pulled out that notebook Michael had noticed, “Glad I kept this from Shiomi then, means my and the scribes’ work doesn’t go to waste.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Michael agreed, leaning to look as Polina opened up her notes and started to explain what she’d learned about the cursed shop.
“So, first off, the curse shop is an active threat to the people of Gorokiva, but it hasn’t caused enough mayhem to be considered a threat by anyone in charge. That bein’ said, it’s clear that whoever is behind it has something dangerous in mind, given the nature of the cursed items they’re givin’ out.” Laying things out clearly for Amitiel, Polina continued. “For example, a hair clip infused with a curse to make the Skin-Weaver harm whoever wears it.”
“Unless she just so happens to be liked by the skin weaver,” Michael muttered quietly.
“Even so, it’s not somethin’ to overlook. Cursed items that’re able to directly call on a god aren’t easy to come by or make, and given that whoever is running this shop handed it out to a random outworlder, it likely means they have more.”
“Just to make sure, these are all the known locations of the cursed shop, yes?” Amitiel asked, staring down at a list of locations.
“Some are, others are unconfirmed sightings.” Flipping to another page, Polina showed a rough sketch of a map of Gorokiva, with a mark at each sighting. “Now, from what we know, the shop will be at one location for a few days, before disappearing and reappearing elsewhere. In those days, it’ll catch the attention of at least one person willin’ to give it a look. Whether it’s specifically targetin’ people it knows will want to come in or if it’s just takin’ whoever comes in, we don’t know and can’t really know unless we meet the proprietor, and from Robin the ronin and Keiko Matsuzaki’s testimonies, we do know there is a shopkeep, though what’s interestin’ about that is that they both described really different people they met. Robin described her as a young, blonde woman in a bright, colorful shop, while Keiko called ‘em a spooky, hunched over person in a dark coat.”
Michael frowned, thinking back. “Robin also mentioned her as a ‘traveling peddler’, right?”
“Sounds right, which is interestin’. Has pretty different implications from an established shop mysteriously appearin’, don’t it?”
“…Could there be two shops?”
“Maybe? It’s an interestin’ possibility, especially since recorded testimonies, least from people willin’ to admit they bought from the shop, describe the strange figure instead of the young woman, so either it’s a coincidence and Robin got sold to by a completely unrelated person, or we’re lookin’ at a set-up where multiple people are involved. Maybe two different shops, maybe a new person takin’ over for the old one, maybe plenty of things, but it’s somethin’ we oughta note.
Michael nodded, listening as Polina pointed back to the map, “The reports and rumors the scribes had were enough to make somethin’ of a pattern, or at least somethin’ we can kinda follow. It’s a little hard to tell, on account of some weird reports and the high chances that some of these have gone unreported, either ‘cuz nothin’ happened, like in Keiko’s case, or the victims couldn’t report it afterward.
“As far as we can tell though, the pattern’s a simple one, with the first reported case bein’ down in a town called Joki down on the south coast of Natsuno, that bein’ the province we’re in now. Fisher started growin’ sores that leaked seawater after suddenly strikin’ a lot of big hauls and blamed it on a charm he bought. From there, no reports for a bit until some kinda occurrence in Ishi, the city run by the Tsubakimoto clan, which is clear on the other side of the country in Fuyuno. Stonemason wound up slowly petrifying, though it was stopped before it got lethal.
“Then another town, this time in Akino, the Fall province, then a small, and I mean small, village back in Natsuno was hit by a swarm of giant hornets, all suddenly springin’ from a beekeeper’s place. Then another town, this time in Haruno, and then an incident in Buki, another big city in Akino. And it keeps goin’, seemin’ly without pattern in terms of provinces, but definitely in a pattern in terms of settlements, always goin’ city, town, village, town, city, though part of that is conjecture since it seems to skip ‘village’ at points. Which isn’t too surprisin’, considerin’ some places hit might be too remote to even record what happened.”
“What about the islands?” Amitiel asked, staring intently at the map.
“Huh? Oh. Oh, shi–shoot, right, there’s all kinds of islands along the coasts, aren’t there?”
“Small ones, certainly. Some uninhabited, but plenty that do have small communities on them…” Amitiel frowned as she studied the map. “…do you mind if I write on this?”
“Oh, uh, go ahead?”
Amitiel nodded, drew a pen from her pack, and began pouring over the pages in earnest, marking positions as she looked between the notes and the map. The angel made small notes of her own at first, then started drawing between positions outright, muttering under her breath about some type of pattern. “…What do these reports mean? The ones here, about instances where strange buildings were sighted in odd places.”
“Those’re reports the scribes listed as maybe related incidents. Things like a strange building appearin’ where it shouldn’t. The ‘Top of Tamoi Mountain Incident’ was probably the biggest flag there, though they had to go get harpies for help with investigatin’ it. Found nothin’ though.”
“Did they find anything at all in those places?” Michael asked.
“Not really, no. At most, some people found the areas kinda eerie? Course, most weren’t investigated much, since it was just all just a weird sightin’ to the people around.”
Amitiel frowned, then huffed, setting her pen down as she frowned at the…
“…Is that a hand?” Michael asked.
“Hm? Ah, sorry, no.”
“Is it an elephant?” Polina inquired next, “There’s kinda the ears, the tusks, the trunk…?”
“Not that either, at least I don’t think…” She sighed. “Maybe it was too much to think there was a pattern in it…”
There was definitely a shape there though. Michael could see where the lines formed, stretching across the country like the fingers of a hand…or maybe the bars of a cage…
Their eyes narrowed, tracking the line from Mt Tamoi in the upper northeast to Buki in northeast, though it was more towards the middle of Natsuno province than up at the pointy bit of the map, bordering Lake Toge. “…We’re not thinking of this correctly. We don’t need to find a pattern on the map, we just need to know where it’s most likely to strike next. And if it struck Robin recently, would that fulfill the requirement for the ‘village’ or the ‘town’?”
Polina shook her head. “We’d hafta know where exactly he bought the charm to be sure.”
“Hm…I’m not sure if it helps, but out of the major cities, Sui hasn’t been struck yet,” Amitiel noted.
Polina paused. “Wait, you mentioned that one before. That’s the one by Lake Hie, right? Up in Fuyuno.”
“Right, and it’s not in the incident reports. Maybe because an incident was unreported there, but it could be that it’s one of the few places that hasn’t been targeted.”
Michael frowned. “Is it really the only major city not to have an ‘incident’?”
“Aside from the two capitals, yes. The reports here even list Mera as one of the affected cities, though the incident here was resolved quickly. A clay monster rose up around the factories and was put down by the guards and a visiting vassal of Lord Rokuhara.”
What. “Rokuhara has vassals?”
“Well, yes? He’s arguably the most prominent lord in the country, so of course he would.”
Wait. “So…not the one in Kyora.”
“Oh, no, not that one. I think they’re brothers though?”
Hm. One can only wonder how much worse the actual lord is compared to his lesser brother…
While Michael mused on that, Polina nodded. “So if Sui’s the only city that hasn’t been attacked, aside from the capitals, it’s safe to assume it might see some trouble sometime soon. Course, we can’t be sure it’ll be that convenient for us.”
“But if it is the next target, and we aren’t there, then the shop will get away again,” Michael pointed out.
“Yeah, that’s true. We’re gonna need a faster way to get over there…”
“Well an angel would be able to get there very quickly,” Amitiel noted, not looking at Michael, though they did get her implication, “I could try helping, if you want.”
“The offer’s real appreciated, but you can’t really carry four people at once, right? Five if we’re bringin’ Vivian too.”
“Hm…then what about the nearby Rokuhara–”
“No,” Michael denied.
Polina just looked thoughtful though. “Hm…Misha, you’ve seen how big he can get, right? Would he fit all of us?”
He would. “…mph. Fine. We’ll ask him.”
Polina nodded. “Alright, in the mornin’ then. Our best bet is to get some rest so we’re up for searchin’ tomorrow.”
Michael, who didn’t need any such rest, considered disagreeing. Really, I could just go on my own if they all need their rest that badly. But that would mean leaving Anaya behind, and also they didn’t know the city well at all. So… “Alright. I’ll let everyone know then.”
“Thanks. Night, Mish.”
Amitiel smiled. “Good night Misha!”
Michael nodded to both of them, then stood and left, thinking on matters as they went back to their room. If they were lucky, if everything worked out, then the cursed shop would be in Sui and they could put a stop to it, and from there, all they had to do was talk to the Empress about her nation’s obvious issues. Simple enough.
They returned to their room to find Noriko had indeed managed to recruit Anaya and Vivian into a game, all sitting around a low table as they played…some kind of game with tiles.
“Oh, hey Misha!” Anaya greeted with a smile, “Wanna join in? Nori just showing us how to play mahjong.”
“You say showing, but don’t think this gal didn’t notice how ‘lucky’ you’ve been so far,” Noriko complained, earning a giggle.
“I did say I wasn’t familiar with three-person mahjong, right? And you did say it had different rules~”
Vivian chuckled to that, then stood. “Anaya’s experience aside, could you two give me a moment? I wanted to chat with my fellow paladin.”
“Aw, what? But this gal had–Ah, never mind, do your thing.”
Anaya giggled again and gave Michael a reassuring smile. Not that they needed to be reassured. “Be nice to each other, alright?”
“I’ll be nice,” Vivian replied.
Michael considered the elf, then nodded. “I will do the same.”
They didn’t quite expect Vivian to take them by the shoulder as she walked away from the room, but they walked along with her easily enough, to a balcony outside. The elf leaned against the railing, the fires doing nothing to singe her clothing as she looked out into the distance. “You know, it’s funny. When I first met you, I couldn’t help seeing some of myself in you.”
Michael blinked. “…You did?”
“Yup. Myself when I was younger, more zealous. Firm in my beliefs in modesty and abstinence and intent on making sure others followed it. The fact that you were walking around in a scuffed up dress registered less than your hair and eyes. Then you spoke and it just cemented this idea in my head that you were some stupid Centola getting a job she couldn’t handle.”
They tried not to scowl. The anger was there, but… “What’s your point?”
“My point is that I thought you were shit on my first impression, then considered you might just be a dumb kid on my second. Then I saw you in the baths, having fun and actually laughing, and I’d say it let me see you with different eyes.” She turned, leaning back on the railing. Her purple eyes seemed to glimmer in the firelight. “And notice things I should have earlier.”
Their brow furrowed, more in confusion. “Such as?”
“You don’t have a tail, for one thing.” Her robe shifted as her tail presumably flicked. “It’s not impossible that you’re a half-elf. They don’t tend to have the ‘secondary characteristics’ of full elves, so it’s not impossible. It’s a little hard to believe though that the Centola would send a half-elf as their representative, but it’s not impossible. But then, I also noticed you don’t have any tattoos.
Her smile felt less genuine. More like a neutral expression. “That’s also not impossible. Some people don’t like tattoos. Some parts of Gorokiva even have a taboo brought over from the outworlders. It’s silly, but it can happen, and besides, there’s charms, wands, even staves if you really want, even if they’re far less convenient and even a little dangerous. But it actually is impossible, if you’re a paladin of light.
She held up her hands, showing the golden triangles tattooed on the backs, then turned and tugged at the collar of her robe, showing the third tattoo on the back of her neck. “You don’t become a paladin without these. You definitely don’t get sent on missions without them. Do you know why?”
“…” Michael considered the question. Things had gone wrong. Their cover was broken. So then…the truth? “I don’t.”
“Being honest now, huh? That’s good. It’s because magic’s corruptive. It doesn’t matter what type of magic. Channeling the powers of any god changes a person, and if they let it change them too far, things go very wrong. Tattoos like these are what we use to channel things properly. The stronger you are, the more intricate they get, but the basics are something anyone should know. Anyone that naturally lives in the Light Lands. So, Misha. Are you willing to be honest with me?”
…Bleh. May as well. They raised their hand and flicked it behind their head, showing their halo of flames.
They weren’t sure what they expected. Awe, maybe? The disbelief wasn’t too much of a surprise, though maybe not the exact expression of disbelief Vivian had at the moment? “…You’re an angel? A cardinal?”
“And you act like that??”
What. “What?” They couldn’t hide the affront in their voice as they felt a twinge of offense. “What’s wrong with how I act?!”
Vivian faked a cough. “…”
Michael glared at her, trying to ignore the heat at their face. “…”
“…” Vivian walked up to them and gave them a pat on the shoulder. “Good talk.”
Then walked straight past them back inside–”WHAT!? What was that?! Vivian!”
Vivian didn’t answer, she just started sprinting while utterly refusing to acknowledge the increasingly agitated angel as they chased after her.