Michael didn’t know much about naval affairs. They didn’t really care to know either. Boats were boats, ships were ships, the sea in the north was the Janea, the ocean in the west was the Lokalic, and they only really remembered that one because they’d actually gone to Lokaliva when that country existed. Who Janea was and what happened to them, they genuinely had no clue, and didn’t really feel like learning, since it really was more Gabriel’s field.
The point there being that they didn’t really care to find out the names of all the bays the Rainflower was passing through on its way to the capital, nor did they feel like learning more about the workings of the ship itself, which led to them deciding instead to focus on matters they considered more important, and conversations they felt they should have had earlier.
“This gal doesn’t get what the big deal is. You lied about being a paladin,” Noriko pointed out, entirely too casually for the revelations recently revealed, earning a scowl from Michael.
“Yes, but that’s different!”
“You’re mortal royalty! There are different rules!”
“Sure, but why? Aren’t you like angelic royalty anyways?”
“No–…” Wait, am I? Michael furrowed their brow, frowning in thought as the distant noise of crashing waves sounded out down below. “…Explain your reasoning.”
“You’re the direct child of a god and gods are essentially divine royalty.”
“That’s reductive of godhood and also that would make Amitiel royalty too.”
“Sure, but there’s a difference. All angels are ‘children’ of their gods, but most of them have more of a subject feel to them. You have more of a ‘princess on a mission’ vibe.”
“I–What? No, no, I’m also a servant of Father–…of my god.”
“And a prince is still subordinate to their king while remaining royalty. Like how this gal is out spying on people for her empress, who happens to also be her sister.”
“…I understand the logic, but I’m not angelic royalty.”
“You have a unique title, you’re associated with a virtue, you’re the direct child of your god; those all sound like pretty significant things for an angel.”
“That still doesn’t mean I’m royalty!”
“You’re the actual royal here! Why are you even turning this around on me?”
“Because you’re fun to mess with~”
Glaring at her, Michael briefly wondered if all royalty was as difficult as Noriko. Queen Molgari wasn’t that bad, so maybe it was just her…but then there was basically every other royal they’d ever encountered, so…Hm, a more difficult question than I thought.
“Why are you two in the crow’s nest?” came the voice of Polina, her head sticking up the side of said crow’s nest.
“Arguing about how Misha’s a princess,” Noriko replied.
“We are not! I brought Noriko up here for some privacy so we may discuss the matters of how she is royalty,” Michael explained, “Such as why she decided to keep such things secret from us.”
“Right. And how did that involve Mish being a princess?”
“Well, if you must know, this gal and Misha have a blossoming romance and Misha was so set on talking about it that she pulled me up here just to…” Trailing off with an obviously fake blush, Noriko looked away, her hand over her covered mouth like some kind of demure maiden.
“…” And now Michael could feel their eye twitching for some reason.
“…Y’know, that does make a weird amount of sense,” Polina said, which was completely wrong because it didn’t at all.
Still, they had better things to focus on. “Why am I the only one reacting properly to this revelation? Noriko’s royalty, shouldn’t that be the subject of discussion?”
“She’s also noticing that you didn’t actually deny her words,” Noriko noted–
“I deny everything.”
She mock-gasped. “Betrayal! And from my very own lady love…” Noriko sighed in seeming despair, falling backward as she languished in pure sorrow…then straightened and dropped the act as she looked at Polina again. “So are you going to hang out on the ladder this whole time, or do you want to come up?”
“I was actually thinkin’ you two oughta come down from here. This spot’s for the actual lookout.”
“It’s fine, I asked the person up here if we could borrow it for a private conversation,” Michael explained.
“Right, followin’ up on that, why’d you decide to have a private conversation about this now? You had most of the day to talk about Nori bein’ royal.”
“I’ve learned that discretion is important and sometimes people don’t want to talk about certain things. Noriko avoided the subject previously, so obviously it’s better to talk to her in an isolated environment.”
Polina raised an eyebrow. “Sure, but she literally brought it up herself when Anaya confirmed we were goin’ to Shiomi next.”
“This gal did, yeah,” Noriko confirmed, “It was either that or have a big awkward revelation when you all meet Eiko and she really didn’t feel like dealing with that. Sure, it would’ve been dramatic, but it would’ve taken away from the whole ‘oh yeah, one of our major vassals is probably dead and replaced by an identity-stealing seafolk’.”
“We don’t know if they’re dead,” Michael said.
Noriko sighed, shaking her head. “Mish, Mish, Mish–”
“Repeat my name again and I pitch you into the sea.”
“You know you wouldn’t.” They were certain they would. “Anyways! Speaking as someone trained in the arts of espionage and, yes, assasination also, you don’t leave someone alive if they can break open your whole conspiracy. Maybe if you’re feeling super nice, they wind up unconscious in a box on a ship traveling to distant lands, but that’s not really a nice fate either, and it’s pretty impractical when murder is easier.”
They frowned. “Murder isn’t easy.”
“It kinda is. You just poke one of these–” She flicked her wrist and a thin, metal needle appeared from her sleeve. “–in the brainstem and boom.”
“You’ve killed before?” Perhaps it was a stupid question. Killing wasn’t a rare thing, but they still felt the question come to them. They hadn’t gotten that kind of impression from Noriko.
“Sure have. This gal’s training involved learning how to hunt and skin animals since she was old enough to hold a knife, and they just work up from there. Rabbits, foxes, boars, monsters, demons, it’s not hard.”
There was an obvious omission there. “And what of people?”
“…” She scratched at her neck, then sighed. “Yeah. Bandits, pirates, there’s always gonna be some people that decide they oughta live outside the law and take what they want because they can get away with it, and then they don’t. And for a shinobi order like the Three Shades, if someone needs to…learn, an outlaw could be requested.”
They nodded. “You served as an executioner then.”
“Yep. She made it clean, at least.”
“Sometimes, that’s all you can do,” Polina said, nodding.
“Yep. So what about you, Miss Polly? You must have killed before, paladin that you are.”
“Sure have. Hell, it used to be a practice for the Paladin Order of Judgement that they had to…right, move over, this is a longer story, so I’m not hangin’ out on the ladder for the whole thing.”
Room was made, though the nest did make something of a creaking noise as Polina climbed atop and sat down. “Right. So, first off, the idea of learnin’ to be fine with violence from killin’ a condemned prisoner is an old idea. Plenty of orders across time have taken up the practice since it’s a decent way to get your people thinkin’ cruelly towards their fellow folk. Lots of them even started it off with killing monsters first so the newcomers would start to associate folk with monsters.” She nodded to Noriko. “Makes it even easier.”
“This gal…doesn’t think that’s what we were doing?”
“Might not be. But hey, keep it in mind, maybe. Anyways, the Order of Judgement had that as a kind of final trial for a long time. To become a full-fledged paladin, you had to ‘judge’ a condemned prisoner. But then the times changed, and a different attitude took hold. You had to properly judge. Fully, completely judge a trial in which someone had committed crimes enough to warrant death. You had to judge their guilt, sure, but you also had to judge their life, their circumstances. You had to learn everythin’, do every bit of research you could. You had to know the person just as much as if they’d been a lifelong friend, and you had to judge for yourself if what they’d done was worthy of death. And you had to carry out that sentence yourself, with your own hands swingin’ the hammer.
She let out a slow breath through her nose. “Some countries use swords or axes when it comes to executions. In Sollamava though, a hammer’s used. Swift, strong, and brutal. No chance of survival, so long as you do it right. And after judgin’ a person’s soul, on such a level…what kinda person would you be if you didn’t do it right?”
“That practice is required to become a paladin?” Michael asked.
“Not anymore. The Final Judgement isn’t required to become a paladin these days, instead there’s a whole trial goin’ through a dungeon, and once you do that, congrat, you’re a Third Order Paladin of Judgement. It is still practiced if you wanna become a Second Order though.”
“…And which order are you?”
Polina smiled wryly. “Second.” Then she stood. “Now c’mon, let’s get off of this before I wind up breaking through it.”
Michael nodded and stood, following Polina down to join the rest down below the deck, where they found their thoughts turning towards mortals, their lives, and just how short those lives could be.
The distance from Fuyuno to Arashino was far. Further than they would’ve liked, but then mortal distances were a frustrating thing in general. Still, the winds and tides were on their side–perhaps aided somewhat by Amitiel apparently being very convincing–to a point where what would have been a near week-long journey instead took “only” two days. Still long enough to make Michael increasingly impatient, certainly.
They had a bad feeling. They didn’t know what it was, but there was something in the air that kept them tense through the journey. A sense of building…not dread. Dread implied fear. Anticipation of ill-tidings, at most. And their impressions seemed on point, as usual.
“See, it’s not that there’s a lot of ships,” Noriko muttered as she looked through the telescope she was using, “It’s how they’re positioned. That, and what flags they’re flying.”
Michael frowned, watching the ships in question. It wasn’t anything as obvious as a ring of frigates and liners forming a blockade, but there was a definite positioning to them that felt…threatening. The ways they were spaced, where their cannons were pointed, how they seemed to block parts of the docks…
“See the flags? Yellow with pink are Cat Claws while blue with white are Ram Horns.”
“Daimyo Nekotani and Daimyo Isozaki.” She gestured to the flag above them in the crow’s nest. “Blue with red is Akaboshi, the Red Tusks. Put those three together and you have the three major naval fleets of the country, not counting the Thunder Guard, who you might notice aren’t looking ecstatic at their presence.”
There was the other half to it. The black, iron-reinforced ships positioned as though they were guarding the docks. The gold flags they flew showed where their allegiances laid, and the cannons along their sides seemed to gleam in the sun.
“The way this gal heard it, the atakebune are armed with cannons forged from steel mixed with bronze-shark bones and carved with elemental runes using blood-falcon feathers. Supposedly, they can pierce through any hull, no matter how solid,” Noriko said conversationally, “Add in the iron plating, and they’re probably one of the more solid warships on the seas. Expensive as hell to produce though.”
“I see. I don’t know much about boats,” Michael admitted, “Which do you think would win, should it come to that?”
“One on one, this gal would bet on one from the home team. One against ten…cannons do a lot of damage. The city’s got defenses, sure, but…those are a lot of cannons.”
They nodded, frowning. “Two daimyo. We only know about one.”
“Yeah. So either there’s even more leviathans in play…or there’s something bigger going on that everyone is missing.”
Michael watched one of Cat Claw frigates sail closer to their vessel. A cat-headed woman formed its prow.
“Shit,” Noriko muttered, drawing their attention to where she was looking, “Those aren’t just navy ships. Why are the Blue Scales out here?”
“Mercenary guild, one of the largest on the continent.” On the continent. Very big then. “Ah, you know the Vermillion Furies, right?”
“A group of reckless reprobates who couldn’t cut it as paladins choosing instead to seek adventure and profit as hunters for hire, yes, I am familiar.”
“Yeah, well, they’re about the same, just more like former pirates. Or privateers now, kinda.”
“They let pirates be mercenaries?”
“…Oh you’re going to hate the privateer system, huh?”
Michael had a distinct feeling Noriko was very correct. They looked down again, watching as the Cat Claw frigate extended a plank from their side to the Rainflower and someone of apparent importance strode across, speaking with the captain.
“Do you think there will be a problem?” Michael asked.
“Blockades aren’t usually keen on letting ships go through, historically speaking. Course, our group does have some ways of cheating.” Noriko smiled beneath her mask as she gestured down at the deck, where Amitiel walked over to the immediately far more nervous Cat Claw captain.
The way he started bowing deep did bring a smirk to Michael’s face, though it faded as they looked out towards the city. It was still bustling, filled with people going about their days, but no ships were leaving the harbor and even from there, they could see a harried kind of motion to the people on shore.
They looked back. Polina had joined the conversation and the claw-captain was visibly sweating, but he seemed to be insistent too. They inclined their head, listening faintly as he said the Rainflower needed to turn around.
“–and it is suspected that some members of the Shogun’s forces have been consorting with demons, due to the recent attack, so Lady Nekotani felt it best to shore up defenses. There is some concern though, so travel has been restricted.”
“Sure, I getcha. But this’s her holiness Amitiel, angel of your god,” Polina replied, “Are you really tellin’ her she can’t visit the capital?”
Amitiel sighed despondently. “Oh, and I so wanted to visit the Thunder and Rain Shrines again…”
“…” The man visibly schooled his expression, keeping himself steady. “This captain does understand the issue, however–”
But Polina continued, overriding his attempted excuses. “Sides, if it’s a demon thing, wouldn’t it be best to bring an angel in? She’d be real good for that type of problem.”
“As helpful as this captain is sure she would be, he still has his orders. If Lady Amitiel would want to enter the city, he would be happy to escort her.”
“That’s fine, the rest of us don’t need an escort.” Michael called down from the crow’s nest, well aware that of everyone there, Amitiel would be the best at taking care of herself. Minus Michael, of course.
The captain frowned as he looked up at them. “That is not what this captain meant.”
“Even so, as you said, travel is restricted, not banned. That isn’t even mentioning that Amitiel is on a pilgrimage given to her by Lord Innominatum, so denying her passage is denying the gods.” Vivian added with a smirk, which clearly caught the captain off guard. Not least because yet another paladin was joining a conversation he wasn’t equipped for.
“R-Regardless, we cannot just permit her to enter freely! If we were to move our blockade, a demon may use the chance to sneak by. Lady Nekotani gave this captain the duty to protect this place, so he shall.” Even on the backfoot, it seemed the sailor was going to be stubborn, which only spoke more about whoever was in charge of him rather than the captain himself.
“We could always just sneak in.” Noriko whispered to Michael. “Angels can phase through things, yeah? Just go below deck and we can fly on through underwater.” And for a brief moment, Michael did consider it, before glancing at the rest of their group.
“No. Whatever is happening, it won’t be a good idea if we leave everyone behind. Anaya, Polina, and Vivian can take care of themselves, but on this ship they won’t be able to do much against all those other ships, and I’m not about to leave them behind to whatever is going on here.” Thinking to themself, Michael tried to figure something out. “…You can hide in Amitiel’s shadow, right?”
“Of course this gal can.”
“What if you hide in her shadow, while she takes the captain’s offer to be escorted, and when given the chance, you sneak off to meet with the empress?”
“Eh?” She blinked. “Wait, then what will you do?”
Michael scowled. “I…will wait. There will be other ways into the city, and the important thing is that the information is conveyed.”
“…Are you sure?”
“The situation is tense. I won’t be the one to cause it to erupt.” They gave Noriko a pat on the shoulder. “I know you’re capable of stealth. You can handle it.”
“…Yeah, alright. Don’t wait too long, okay? This gal wouldn’t want you to miss all the action~.”
They allowed themself a smirk. “I doubt I’ll miss any of it.”
The situation in Calmstorm Bay was a tense one. Anyone could tell it on any of the ships around. The question wasn’t “would the shooting start”, but “when will the shooting start”, and who would bear the brunt of the effects as a result.
Anxiety was in the air, and with it came a rigid silence, broken only by the uncaring waves and unknowing winds. Aside from one fell breeze that weaved through the sails of one ship bearing the flag of the Ram Horn Fleet.
It was a soft wind, one of crooning promises as it weaved along the ears of sailors. The songs of sirens were small in comparison to the crooning of the breeze, and souls of the sea felt their eyes turning, their thoughts churning, and ideas coming to light.
One sailor absently clutched a talisman around his neck, a topaz medallion he was told bore the thunderbolt of his god. One given to him for protection by his own captain, who, in turn, was given protection by her Daimyo, who swore that the winds of fortune would be at her back.
And they were. It’s just the unfortunate reality that the winds of fortune belong to a capricious demigod, one whose spiraled eyes curled in petty delight as the sails turned her way.
The ill-feeling wasn’t going away. In fact, it felt like it was getting worse as Michael watched the ship carrying Amitiel–and Noriko–sailing for the shore.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Vivian asked. Polina didn’t echo the question, but Michael could tell she was thinking similar.
“…No. It’s a terrible idea. But I don’t know what else to do.”
Vivian nodded. “I get that. You still have options though. Don’t forget that.”
“I won’t.” I can’t just go on the attack though. I don’t know enough, I don’t understand enough. Something was squirming in their gut. Nausea, maybe? “I should check on Anaya, see she hasn’t gotten worse.”
That earned an amused huff from Vivian. “Yeah, you should. Poor lady has no sealegs.” She grinned up at Polina. “Even our farmgirl’s handling it better.”
“Well, one of my sisters did become a sailor. Maybe it’s in the blood.”
Michael left the two to their conversation and headed below deck. It wasn’t hard to find Anaya hammock.
“Uuuuuugh…” the druid groaned, laying back with her hands over her stomach, before she turned to look at Michael. “…so, are we, mm…there yet?”
“There’s been an issue. Fleets are blockading the capital.”
“…oh. Oh that’s bad.”
“Yes, it is. It’s more than one fleet. More than one daimyo is involved.”
“Ahh…yeah, I get it. That’s…gods, this one’s just getting worse, huh?”
“Yes. It is.” They sighed. It helped. “I…feel I should apologize. This tour should be easier for you, not filled with all these problems.”
“Pfft, aw, you sweetheart.” Their face warmed as she giggled. “Trust me, honey, this isn’t the worst I’ve had. Even with this stupid seasickness. I mean, jeez, I thought I got over this…then again, I haven’t been on a boat in…uh…”
“Did you travel overland to get to Divica?”
“Yep. Yeah, so, not one for boat travel. Hm…maybe I’ll get lucky and be good with sky travel? I didn’t get sick on Katsuro’s back.”
“Perhaps.” They felt a question enter their head and decided to voice it. “How have you had it worse?”
“…I’m Nalorivan, Misha. You know, the people who get invaded every human generation. Maybe more, maybe less, but since I was a little girl, I’ve experienced about…thirty-one separate invasions of my homeland. So, hm. More than just once a generation, for sure.”
“Yes, about twice that. That’s more like every ten years.”
“I mean, some of those should probably count as sub-invasions. Like an invasion directly after an invasion or an invasion during an invasion because apparently every warlord thinks my homeland is a great place to attack. But, yeah, unless you can replicate a famine and plague going on right in the middle of an invasion of candle-headed fanatics, then you’re doing better than my hundredth birthday.”
They blinked, then paused in thought. “Wolzad the Candlemaker?”
“Gods, was that his name? Wolzad the opportunistic prick-stick, more like. Jumped right in after that bread-obsessed gluttony demon and the stupid Butcher cult.” She sighs, laying back again. “So…how’s bad it looking?”
“It’s tense, but it will be fine, I promise you that. I have no intention of allowing things to explode into violence–”
Anaya shot up in the hammock, her eyes wide as she looked towards the wall half a second before an iron cannon ball smashed through the hull.
Michael moved fast, their arms wrapping around Anaya as their wings flared from their back as more explosions from firing cannons and shattering wood sounded out. In seconds, they were away, flying Anaya to the shore–They noted that the vessel Amitiel and Noriko were on had just started docking as they arrived and already they could see a flash of electric yellow wings spreading from the deck–
“W-Wait, wait, Polly, Vivian, the crew–”
Michael nodded sharply as they set Anaya down, and their wings flared as they flew straight back to the ship–The Ram Horn vessel was still firing, bombarding the unprepared Rainflower with explosions of flames and splinters–Vivian and Polina were on the deck and they flew down, spreading their wings and hands in a wall of flames–
Then the cannonballs still in-flight froze in the air. On reflex, Michael looked up, pausing for the briefest moment to see the snarl of genuine rage on the face of a seraph with all six wings spread, creating not a barrier, but a zone of immense, electric power, stilling every projectile in its path. “WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING.”
Michael didn’t pay attention to that rage though. They dove into the water without hesitation, flew through the ship and all its rooms, and everywhere they found a mortal, they grabbed them and sped them to shore.
Vivian was awake as she landed, hacking water from her lungs. Polina was unconscious, armor and shield dented where she’d acted as a protector. Blood dripped from her head, but Anaya was there, pressing her hands to the wound and pushing the magic of Life and Healing into the injury. Some of the crew were worse off, and Michael shouted for healers, clerics, anyone who could help, and they were gratified to see the cityfolk bringing aid.
“Shit. Shit shit shit, what?!” Noriko said as she formed next to Michael, staring out at the ships.
“Why are you here?”
“Wh-” Her gaze snapped to Michael, disbelief in her eyes.
“You need to speak to the empress. Remember what our goal here is.”
“Th–You can’t think–”
“The situation is handled, now–”
The explosion rocked the bay. Michael turned, eyes wide at the enormous fireball erupted upward from ship Amitiel had been by. Had the cannonballs exploded? Could they? Had the ship? There was water and wood and fire flying and they couldn’t see Amitiel.
“What the fuck…” Noriko breathed, eyes wide.
Dimly, Michael could hear shout and yells, and the black ships were moving. More cannons roared as the bay filled with fire and thunder and they still didn’t see Amitiel.
They felt a tug on their shirt and met Anaya’s determined gaze. “We need to go. Everyone’s evacuating to the first wall, can you help carry Polly?”
They stared, heard the calls and cries for exactly that, the announcement of evacuation, of seeking shelter, and they nodded, moving without thought to grab Polina and hoist her onto their back. There were smaller fortresses and bunkers standing in the dockside districts. That was where most of the civilians were heading, following the calls of the samurai leading them to safety.
Michael knew where they needed to go though. They couldn’t afford to wait. All they did was make sure everyone was with them–And they were, with Anaya supporting Vivian and Noriko staying close, still looking back at the fighting on the water every so often–and make for the golden-roofed castle where the empress resided.
All while they heard the dim sound of laughter on the wind. Laughter that felt…familiar.
Goro-jo, the imperial palace of Gorokiva, was a massive building constructed with golden roofs reaching skyward, rigid prongs along the tiles piercing upwards like thunderbolts aiming to meet the sky. Its design reminded Michael of the castles in Mera and Sui, but built from lightning instead of fire or water.
It was also a pain to get to, what with how deep into the city it was. A second layer of walls was more than enough, even if there was some kind of social quartering going on or whatever it was supposed to be, and especially with all the soldiers riding through the city on horseback, which did make things a little more convenient since all the gates were open. Maybe they were traveling for messages–though the messenger birds in flight were more likely meant for that purpose–or maybe to reinforce the docks. The sounds of cannon fire were still echoing.
“HALT! No one is cleared to enter–”
Michael was genuinely about to punch the gold-armored samurai stepping in their way at the gates when Noriko stepped forward, yanking down her mask. “TENYA YOU DUMB FUCK, GET OUT OF THIS LADY’S WAY RIGHT NOW OR YOU’LL BE LUCKY IF YOU ONLY LOSE A FINGER FOR OBSTRUCTING HER!”
The man went from barricading to kowtowing in seconds; it was almost impressive how quickly his head touched the ground. “One thousand apologies, your highness! There is no punishment too harsh for this fool’s unworthy soul!”
“Yeah yeah, you’re real sorry, NOW WHO’S THE ASSHOLE KEEPING THE GATE CLOSED?!”
Said gate shot open without hesitation. The structure almost seemed to shiver in fear as Noriko strode through and every assembled samurai bowed deep. “Sorry, stressed, get back to helping, greetings can be made later, where’s Eiko?”
The first samurai, Tenya, was up again and striding right alongside her with such practiced ease it was genuinely impressive. “In the upper chambers, your highness, with the assembled magistrates, officials, and clan heads.”
“That was quick.” Noriko fixed her mask, not breaking stride. “Were they assembled before the fighting started?”
“Very astute, your highness. The city has been under a kind of pseudo-siege, not long, barely more than a day, but the assembled forces of clans Rokuhara, Nekotani, and Kogetsu are outside the walls while–”
“This lady saw the navies. They’ve been camping outside the outer walls?”
“Yes. Normally they would be allowed into the aristocratic quarters without issue, but they’ve elected to set up tents outside the city instead. There is no siege equipment, not visible at least, and they’ve made no move to seize the walls. They claim they are mere guests of Shiomi seeking to address grievances, but their entourages number in the thousands. Perhaps the tens of thousands, all for ‘security’.”
“Right, demon attack, this lady heard. There’s more to it, which is why we’re talking with Eiko right now. Also, contact the palace healer, Paladin Vlahos is injured and requires aid.”
“…Y’know, I’m finding it a lot easier to believe Noriko’s royalty now,” Vivian muttered, walking under her own power now.
“Heh. It’s hard to doubt now, huh?” Anaya added.
Michael ignored the byplay, even if a part of them felt irritated at the lack of gravity the elves were treating the situation with. That part was ignored too in favor of getting Polina to the arriving healers.
“Treat her with care,” Michael recommended as they laid Polina down on the physicians’ stretcher.
“Of course, your grace.” And that was that.
They watched for a moment as Polina–breathing slowly, looking as though she was asleep–was carried away, then strode ahead, catching up with Noriko, Anaya, Vivian, and the far less significant individuals following those three. Noriko walked with purpose and brought them to an upper section of the castle, past a pair of a samurai guarding an ornate set of doors–who hopped aside the instant Noriko gave the order–and into a room with a balcony overlooking the city.
It struck them that the castle’s war room eerily resembled the meeting room in Fujimi, in some ways. It was also square, with four pillars in each corner, though it lacked the large paintings and the table in the middle was actually circular instead of dodecagonal. It was more occupied too, filled with people in official clothing and ornate armor.
One such individual–a yellow-scaled drake with a short, feathered goatee–bristled when he saw their group enter. “What is this!? How dare you enter without–”
“Nori?” came a surprised voice, and it was all too obvious that the speaker was the ruler of Gorokiva, Empress Eiko.
Not only because she was wearing a set of layered robes turning from shades of indigo and blue threaded with gold flowers and thunder symbols to warm yellows and oranges underneath and a full headdress carved of gold and jade that resembled a ball of lightning, but because she really did look almost exactly like Noriko. Her hair was longer and flowed freely, aside from a pair of braids wrapped with ribbons that framed her face, and her eyes were a clear blue instead of magenta, but she really did look like her twin.
She was even keeping her mouth covered too, with a blue cloth. “You’re back!”
The empress stood, clearly beaming, before one of her attendants cleared his throat. “Your majesty.”
“Ah, of course.” She sat back and inclined her head. “This empress greets you, Princess of Shiomi.”
Noriko bowed low, followed by Vivian and Anaya. Michael just started tapping their foot. “This lady greets you in turn, oh most honored Empress–”
“The city is being attacked, can we hurry up?” Michael requested, quite reasonably.
“No, no, she’s right,” Eiko agreed, speaking over her attendant’s complaint, “Typical proceedings can be ignored in this circumstance. It’s good to have you back in the capital, Nori. This empress assumes you have a report to make?”
Noriko straightened, gave Michael an undeservedly annoyed look, and spoke. “Okay so you know the curse shop thing? This gal assumes you do so she’s not gonna go over it again, the point is that a leviathan was running it, she summoned a plague demon, Misha–” She gestured to Michael. “–caught the plague demon, the demon confirmed that one of the daimyo of Gorokiva has been replaced by another leviathan, we’re pretty sure that’s why this is happening.”
“You’re out of the loop then,” the snippy attendant–maybe a magistrate, based on the clothes; yellow robes, with one of those black silk hats–said, “The allegations of leviathans aside, which this noble assumes you have some type of proof of, the ongoing situation is a result of the Shogun deciding to overstep his boundaries in the most extreme way possible.” His already present sneer became even more condescending. “Weren’t you supposed to prevent such a thing, princess?”
“This lady wouldn’t say it was to specifically prevent the shogun from attacking our own citizens, which, seriously? Did he really?”
“That is what our reports say, yes. And the heralds, the newspapers, the general public, just about anyone you could ask if you weren’t doing whatever this is with a group of…” He raised an eyebrow. “Are those two paladins?”
Michael stepped forward, scowling. “Yes, we are, and what we’ve been doing is properly investigating the issues plaguing this country instead of whining like a petulant child! Noriko was ordered by that exact Shogun who is very obviously being blamed for the plot of the leviathans, which you would understand if you listened properly and asked real questions instead of haranguing one of the people actually trying to solve this mess!”
He stared at them, his eyebrow still raised. “Wow. It’s been a while since someone has talked to this lord like that.”
“I’m so sure it has. Who are you supposed to be anyways?”
“The emperor,” Noriko answered.
“…” Michael frowned. They looked at Noriko, then back at the…guy, then back to Noriko, who nodded to their unasked question. They looked back to the emperor. “…I take back absolutely nothing and I meant all of it.”
That earned a snort from Anaya while Noriko just sighed.
Vivian, meanwhile, raised a hand in greeting to one of the humans at the table. “Hey again, Hiro.”
“Oh? Oh! Hello Miss Popola! It’s been a while! How are you doing?”
“Well enough. You?”
“Well I-ah, well, this chieftain is doing fine, just fine,” the man in the orange, striped robes continued, nodding like he wasn’t speaking through an awkward silence, “The siege is a little worrying though. Oh, and how’s her holiness Amitiel? She didn’t come with you?”
“She did, and then one of the ships in the harbor blew her up. So…yeah, maybe not great.”
“Oh. Oh, that’s…extremely not good.”
“Right, pardon, but did you just say Lady Amitiel, the angel of our god, was just blown up in our harbor?” the empress cut in.
“…Well we’re fucked.”
That earned some alarmed noises and a sigh from Eiko’s husband. “Your majesty, please. Decorum.”
“Right, decorum, that is most definitely something we need when an angel of the unnamed storm is BLOWN UP IN OUR OWN HARBOR, KIN! THIS IS DEFINITELY THE TIME TO KEEP PROPER MANNERS!!”
“Ei, please. Breathe.”
Eiko pinched the bridge of her nose, grumbling mutinously under her breath as her husband moved behind her and started massaging her shoulders. “Mmmmgh…gods, that has to be something like a thousand years of ill fortune, doesn’t it? It has to be, right?”
“It can be,” Michael noted, “No god enjoys losing one of their angels, as we are akin to servants and vassals, yet also honored children.”
Why that earned them an elbow from Noriko, they weren’t sure. “Not helping, Misha.” Ah, that’s why.
“You said ‘we’.” The husband was staring at them, though he didn’t pause in his massaging.
“…No I didn’t.”
“You did,” Eiko echoed.
“She did,” Anaya confirmed, before stepping in front of Michael, “But before we get into that, hi there, I’m Anaya, I’m a druid, I’m on a tour with Misha here, we didn’t expect there to be a outright coup going on, but we’ve kind of dealt with problems like this before, kinda, and with minimal property damage, so I have a few quick questions. Firstly, Mister Husband, what’s your name, and why don’t you refer to yourself as ‘this emperor’?”
“…Kintoki of Shiomi, formerly Kintoki Sado. This lord is not technically the emperor, that would require being the descendant of the previous imperial monarch. He is the imperial consort.”
“Interesting! Secondly, is there a history with you and Noriko we should be concerned about?”
“This lord doesn’t like her.”
“The feeling’s mutual, Toki Tokes,” Noriko drawled.
Anaya nodded, accepting that. “Thirdly, do you two have kids?”
“…Odd question, but yes. Two boys,” Kintoki answered.
Eiko sighed, leaning in her seat. “Hikaru and Shigeru. They’re in a safer location. Hopefully doing fine…”
“They are, and will remain so. Don’t worry.”
Anaya nodded again, smiling. “Fourthly, now that we’ve maybe calmed down more, what exactly is going on with the ‘Shogun attack’? People were saying demons were involved.”
Kintoki frowned. “Hm…the full story isn’t fully understood, but from all reports, the Shogun had his forces attack a town in the Nakazono Clan’s dominion. A smaller one, called Kyora–”
He paused, staring, confused, at Michael, before Anaya gestured. “Please, continue, your majesty.”
“…Well, as this lord was saying, supposedly the Shogun’s forces were sent out to save Lady Kogetsu Shiho from her apparent captivity in the town, though matters become…strange there. Many claim she was living in Kyora peacefully, and had, in fact, eloped. Lord Kogetsu is claiming that the Shogun has instead abducted his daughter as a political hostage and his own forces are outside our walls now, to demand action, though Lord Kogetsu is not here himself. He has Lady Nekotani representing his interests instead, though that only accounts for around half of the forces arrayed outside our gates. The remaining half consists of Lord Rokuhara’s forces, seeking restitution for his brother’s death in the raid on Kyora.”
Michael went rigid.
“…His brother?” Anaya asked.
“Yes, the lord of the town. Or the mayor? One or the other.” Kintoki shrugged. “Not that it matters much now.”
Michael slowly nodded, half-agreeing as the conversation continued. Their thoughts were elsewhere though.
Katsuro was a criminal. He helped us. He didn’t abduct Shiho, they were married. The Shogun gave us leave to handle him. Kawajiri is a coward. He doesn’t take action even when he has reason and means to. One of the Daimyo is a leviathan. I know that. So what do I do?
I want to go to Kyora. That’s where the attack took place, there are bound to be survivors, there has to be something there that will let me learn more. But do I go there, or remain here? Things have already erupted into violence, there’s fighting in the bay, how long until the forces outside the walls lead an attack?
They turned and went to the balcony, ignoring questions. It offered a wide view of the city. Not as much as if they flew upwards, but enough that they could see more of the city, more of its buildings, and…no, the walls were too tall.
“Hmph.” They scowled, then extended their wings and flew upwards to get a better view. There were tents in the distance, some yellow, some white, and most red. They flew flags with dragons and cats and rabbits on them.
“…No more hesitation,” they muttered, and flew straight for the camp.