It was bright. For some reason, that stuck out to Michael.
All indications they’d had was that Arashino was a land of storms. An odd place to position the capital, perhaps, but still. It struck them as odd that it was so sunny out in a place where rain was held as sacred.
They touched down on a grassy field overtaken by tents. Startled soldiers flinched at their arrival, some reflexively reaching for spears or crossbows while others went wide-eyed and bowed deep to the angel in their midst.
Michael turned their gaze over the soldiers, noting the armor they wore, the weapons they carried, the fact that they were so clearly set for battle, and looked to the largest, reddest tent on the field of dry grass. There was a second tent beside it, a yellow one, and the two flew flags of the dragon and the cat. Simple enough.
Samurai stared as they strode for the tent, watching yet not making any moves to stop them. They took further note of the weapons–most had spears or glaives, but what struck Michael the most was the firesteel tips and blades affixed to the polearms–and the mounts–firesteeds, the horselike creatures the Nakazono bred–the camp had, before they pushed their way into the tent.
There was a map of the city of Shiomi on the center table. Figurines were set up across it, some in the bay, some in the fields, and the woman in a breastplate over yellow robes with far too many swords at her belt paused in the midst of making a pair of figurines mock battle, her eyes widening in alarm–
Michael felt the blade at their throat before the voice spoke. “St–”
And their hand was around the man’s neck before he could get out a second word. He was dressed in tight red clothes, wearing a white mask and a hooded cowl. It reminded Michael of Noriko’s “ninja” attire, if more conspicuous. Though they hadn’t seen him, so…
They also idly noted the several crossbows drawn and pointed at them from various angles, held by more ninja around the tent.
“Who the hell are you?” the blonde woman demanded, her scowl showing sharp teeth.
Michael tilted their head, ignoring the violet steel of the poisoned blade still by their throat in favor of Looking more deeply at the woman. There was the taint of the Beast on her, but they knew of the catfolk that resided around Gorokiva, so that likely meant nothing. It was more significant that she didn’t register as a leviathan. “Michael, the Cardinal of Fortitude, who will break the neck of your vassal if he and his cohorts do not lower their weapons.”
“The Hidden Flame aren’t her vassals,” a new voice spoke from behind them.
They glanced, then looked upwards as the very tall dragon-in-human-form standing in the entrance of the tent. “I see. He would be yours then?”
“Yes, he would.”
“Then my statement goes to you instead.”
The dragon’s nostrils flared. “Do it then. Just get out of the way.”
Michael frowned, but acquiesced. To the moving, not the neck-breaking, though they did have to move somewhat awkwardly to keep their grip on the ninja. He’d lowered the blade by that point, but the others still had their crossbows drawn, so Michael elected to keep their grip up in case they needed to fulfill their conditions.
Daigo Rokuhara looked a bit like his brother, but not much. Their builds were similar, but their hair, scales, and even eyes were different. Red to Katsuro’s gold, in almost all respects.
He was armored too, dressed similarly to the catwoman–Tigrin? Is that specifically tigers, or a general classification?–though even more fully armored in a crimson steel with a horned helm bearing a snarling dragon’s face under his arm. He set it down on the table as he sat in a tall chair, resting one leg on top the other as he laid his head upon his fist.
“Why are you here, angel? Your kind shouldn’t be interfering in mortal affairs.”
“I wouldn’t be without cause. I’m ‘interfering’ because others have interfered already. Do you know of the curse shop?”
“No, I don’t.” His tone was bored, but the blonde’s eyes flicked towards him. It was the barest second, maybe a reflex at hearing him speak, but it felt significant. “The field of kings is no place for a god, angel. This dragon doesn’t care for your reasons.”
“Field of kings or no, an angel was fired upon. Even if there were no other reason to intervene, the moment the angel Amitiel was attacked by the servants of Clan Isozaki was the moment I was compelled to ‘interfere’.”
His eyes narrowed. “…This dragon expresses his sincere condolences. It was never his intention to allow a servant of the gods to come to harm. All he cares for is restitution for the shogun’s crimes.”
Michael shook their head. “I have reason to believe it wasn’t the shogun that attacked your brother and his town. I have been touring your lands with Anaya Greenfall, druid of Chlora, and Polina Vlahos, paladin of Iudex. We visited the castle Fujimi and spoke with the shogun, who requested we ‘rescue’ Lady Shiho and defeat Katsuro.”
They nodded. “I don’t like the Shogun Kawajiri. From every impression I’ve gotten of him, he masks cowardice under practicality. But the fact that he is a coward is important. You have to agree, making a move like this is out of character for him.”
“Perhaps. Or perhaps your lack of success pushed him past a breaking point. The shogun is a coward, yes, and what coward could stand to have his power so flagrantly ignored?”
“But would this coward react in that way? More importantly, how many daimyo are allied with you on this matter?”
“Not counting this dragon, five.”
Five. Isn’t that close to half? “And do you trust them?”
“He has one in his tent right now. Does that answer your question?”
They glanced at the blonde, who raised an eyebrow in turn. “You didn’t answer it directly, so no.”
The blonde scoffed. “What’s the point of all this? Did an angel really get hurt, or is this just some ploy of the empress’s minders?”
“Don’t be rude, Lady Nekotani,” Rokuhara chided. Why that earned a surprised look from Nekotani, Michael wasn’t sure, but they nodded in thanks to the dragon. At least he’s taking this seriously.
“I’ll explain more if needed, but to get to the point, I know that one of the daimyo of Gorokiva has been replaced by a disguised leviathan.”
Nekotani stiffened. “What?!”
“…Replaced?” Rokuhara’s tone was even, but his eyes widened by a fraction, for just a moment. “Explain further, if you would please.”
So Michael did, covering their search for the Curse Shop, their encounter with Borzla, the interrogation of Labatu, and the utter certainty they had that someone was manipulating events in Gorokiva to the country’s detriment. They also finally released the ninja, because that was getting kind of awkward.
“And are you certain on who it might be?”
“No, however, as it stands, would not someone who wants to sow chaos in Gorokiva side with those against the shogun?”
“This dragon does not intend to sow chaos. His soldiers are only here if force is needed.”
They nodded, then glanced at Nekotani. “And yours?”
“This lady is supporting her ally.” She smirked. “And showing off a bit. A crisis like this lets her flex her might, particularly to certain tigerish idiots in the capital.”
Michael had no context for whatever that was supposed to mean. “I see. And what of the lords Kogetsu and Isozaki?”
“Teijo’s at his castle, in case any news of his daughter shows up. Like this lady said, she’s here on his behalf. As for Lady Isozaki, she’s helping Daigo here out by providing sea support. It’s not like she’d take to the field herself.”
“And you don’t find it at all suspicious that they’re not here?”
“Not really. Teijo’s kind of a prick, so it stands to reason he’d be more focused on keeping his own problems in check, and Isozaki’s not a fighter. She’s more the social type, painting her face so pale it looks white and speaking like she knows everything. This lady doesn’t think she’s ever even seen her open her eyes…Ah, but if it helps, Isozaki has a husband, and I think he’d notice if she was switched out.”
Michael nodded, frowning as they took in that information.
“You’ve given this dragon much to think about,” Rokuhara said, drawing their attention, “However, he cannot take this all at your word. Even if you are a messenger of the gods, you are not responsible for mortal affairs. Angels are not meant to interfere, and we mortal lords must consider mortal matters.”
“Be that as it may, you’re not dealing with mortal matters here. A leviathan-”
“Is mortal. Perhaps she could be considered a demigod, akin to a dragon, though it matters not.” He leaned forward in his seat. “This dragon is willing to accept your words, but for two issues. He must hold to his commitments, and he has no proof of your claims. As such, there is a simple solution. He will wait one full day. He shall not take action until such a time is up, or until you return with full information on the impersonator in our midst.”
Michael blinked, then slowly nodded. “That…works. Thank you for understanding, Lord Daigo.”
“Certainly. Fly fast, angel. You’re the only one who can avert disaster here.”
They nodded, more firmly. “I will. Thank you.”
Before they spread their wings and returned to the sky, heading back to the palace. It was a good thing Rokuhara was so understanding. They had a good feeling about this!
“So that was an actual angel,” Nekotani Umeko said, still staring up where said angel had flown through the tent. Not that the angel had left a hole, she’d phased right through the material, but still.
“It was. And?”
“And?? That’s an angel! A messenger of the gods! And apparently one of our own is a leviathan now!” She scowled. “This lady bets it really is Kogetsu, he’s always been a prick.”
“We can check after the capital is seized.”
That gave her pause. “What? Wait, this lady thought we were putting that off? You promised the angel–”
“I lied.” His red eyes flicked towards her. “Is there an issue?”
“…Not from this lady, but won’t this cause some problems? If the angel finds out you lied to her…And what exactly did you lie about?”
“Once the angel leaves the capital, put our plans into action. We have claws among the guards, they’ll open the gates, we’ll arrive as guests of the empress, there to negotiate.”
“This lady knows the plan. She’s just…if an angel has been harmed–”
“Then appropriate penance will be paid. Isozaki’s sailors attacked the angel, she’ll pay the penance when the time comes. Just keep the soldiers away from any shrines. This dragon won’t see himself brought low by the petty pique of a deity.”
She stared at him, half-disbelieving. “…That…you’re not worried?”
“No true king fears something as petty as a god.” He stood, and Umeko was reminded just how tall the dragon in human form was. And just how many of his ninja were in the tent, somehow out of sight, even with her knowing they were there. Aside from the one visibly massaging his throat where the angel nearly strangled him.
A bead of sweat rolled down her face. “…Understood. W-Well, this lady trusts you have things under control. What of Redwing there?”
“Who cares about the whims of a foreign god? Once the country is in our hands, things will be handled appropriately, assuming they aren’t dealt with during the transfer of power.”
“…Killing an angel is a very drastic step to take.”
Those red eyes regarded her again. “Then it’s a good thing the shogun is the monster wielding demons here, isn’t it?”
She swallowed, her throat dry. “It is, yes.”
“It’s good you understand. Don’t worry though. The angel confirmed one thing, and it’s that you aren’t any type of infiltrator.” She felt a shiver as he smiled. “This dragon rewards loyalty. Unfortunately, he has another woman in mind for his queen. You understand.”
It would be a deeply bad idea to let out a breath of relief at that moment. “Ah, darn. Shame. You’re, uh, a real catch.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“…So! We have a city to seize!”
“Seize is a strong word. One this dragon likes, though do remember, we’re guests of the imperial family.” His smile returned with a hint of teeth. “We must be gracious to our hosts.”
“You made a deal with Rokuhara.” Kintoki stared at Michael, genuine confusion on his face, even though they’d fully explained what they just did.
“Yes, as I said. You’re welcome.”
“…We have a day then?”
“Yes. As stated.”
“…” He looked back to his wife, who was massaging her own temples. “…Thank you. This lord thinks he has some things to discuss with her majesty.”
Michael watched as he went to soothe his aggravated empress, before turning with a smile to Noriko and Anaya, both of them also out on the balcony.
“…This gal feels like she should pat your head.”
Michael blinked. “What? Why?”
“Dunno. Just something about your smile feels very…puppy-ish.”
Anaya grinned, then leaned up–Michael moved back, evading the attempted head pat. “Aw…”
They further ignored her disappointed pout–and faint grumbling about Misha being too tall–in favor of focusing on the matter at hand. “While I do agree that I’ve done well in this instance–”
They ignored that. “–the problem isn’t solved yet. We still need to discover what happened with Katsuro and Shiho, as well as find Amitiel.”
Anaya nodded. “Right, let’s go then.”
“You can fly us to Kyora. You’ve already shown off your wings to everyone here, so it’s not like it’s a secret you need to keep anymore.”
“…” Right. I was supposed to keep that a secret… “I see your point. Fine, though I doubt I’ll be able to carry everyone.”
“That’s fine. Nori can travel in your shadow, right?”
“This gal can do that, yep. Though shouldn’t we try to find Amitiel first? She’s closer and Misha can do…whatever it is you do. The…sensing thing.”
“It’s not exactly like that…” Michael thought for a moment, trying to figure out how to explain. “I can sense divine presence, yes, though it would be more accurate to say that, as angels, my kind was created to be the antithesis of demonic beings, as well as the sins they carry. While this makes it easy to detect those such as leviathans even while they are in disguise due to the nature of their souls, it also means that sin and evil are what stand out more. To the point that if things are heightened to a point like they were in the harbor, with the intense violence going on, my senses actually work against me.”
“Oh, so that explains what happened at the casino.” Anaya said, remembering the moment where Michael seemed like they were going to pass out.
“Yes, that. While this situation wasn’t as bad since I wasn’t actively searching, it also meant I couldn’t sense where Amitiel was. However, such an attack wouldn’t be able to kill an angel, much less a seraph.”
“Hm…could you try sensing now?”
They nodded, then paused. “Ah, one moment.” They flew up, looked out towards the harbor, and tried–Then immediately landed back down, their eyes stinging and their head pounding. “No, not possible.”
“Eesh. You look like someone took a kanabo to your head,” Noriko muttered while Anaya walked up to them and laid her hand on their temple.
They allowed it this time as they felt the healing light of Life emanating from her hand and soothing their headache. The pleasant sensation slowly pushed away the pain of bright, vivid violence and Wrath, and Michael found themself leaning into the touch…then stiffening when Anaya took the opportunity to pat them. “…Deceptive.”
She just smiled. “Fuzzy.”
“Mm. Polina is fine, right?”
“She is. You don’t need to worry.”
“I don’t worry.”
“Sure. Hey, Vivian!”
The paladin paused, mid-conversation with the tigrin she’d been talking to earlier. Hiro-something.
“Hey Anaya. I see Misha’s back.” Vivian headed over, followed by the tigrin for some reason. “So, what’s the deal?”
Michael raised an eyebrow. “You weren’t listening in?”
“Of course I was. I still need to know what the plan is for me though.”
“Well, what are you thinking?” Anaya asked, “As strong as Misha is, I think she might have a tough time carrying both of us at once. If just because you’re taller than her.”
Michael frowned at the reminder, but Vivian nodded. “Yeah, I was thinking similar. Polina needs someone to look after her, this city is bound to need defending even if we have an extra day to work with, and Ami’s still out there somewhere. I was charged with traveling with her, so I think it’s best if I’m the one staying nearby.”
“Good, it’s decided then,” Michael said, then paused when Hiro-something cleared his throat.
“Ah, hello, Cardinal Michael. I–Er, this man–no, this chief isn’t sure if you remember me–him, but he is Torahiko Hiroto, the chieftain of Koshima and guardian of Rainfall Island, though more importantly, this chief was also at Shioneri Island as the representative of Gorokiva.”
They didn’t stiffen. They didn’t show any sign that they may have been caught off guard by his statement, instead regarding the sudden, potential problem with a steady stare. “Oh? And?”
“And…uh…this may be awkward to ask, but…how’s your sister doing?”
Michael blinked. “…Which one and why are you asking.”
“Eh, um, well, Cardinal Gabriel is who I–this chief is asking after, and because he and she traveled for a time and he is curious? She seemed very troubled last time he saw her, though that was some months ago at this point, and I guess I’m just curious? There was that whole mess with the skylanders and everything, so really, I just wanted to check in.”
Oh. Well that’s simple–Wait, why is he this concerned? What are his intentions?? Their gaze turned into more of a glare. They didn’t even remember this guy at all, and it’s not like Gabriel ever mentioned him…but maybe that was significant? Is there something going on here I’m not aware of–
They stiffened as Anaya poked their side and turned their glare on the unrepentant druid. “Shouldn’t we be going?”
Oh, right, time limit. “Yes, we should.” They glanced back at Torahiko, sized him up for a moment, then disregarded him as a potential threat to her sibling’s well-being and nodded slowly. “She’s doing fine. She never mentioned you. You don’t seem threatening. We can talk later.”
“…good, that’s a little hurtful, I…guess that’s a compliment? And alright then.”
Michael nodded. “Good. Noriko, Anaya, are you two ready?”
“Ready!” Noriko replied, easily slipping into Michael’s shadow once more.
“Ready~!” Anaya chirped, before throwing her arms around Michael’s shoulders, making the angel stiffen.
“…This isn’t an easy way to carry–No, never mind. Just…hold on tight.” Shaking their head as they tried to ignore Anaya’s face right in front of them, Michael spread their wings and took off into the air. It was definitely different, flying with someone Michael wasn’t trying to intimidate or harm. For one, they couldn’t go as fast as they usually did, in the event such speeds harmed Anaya, but they also had to fly low to ensure there was a shadow for Noriko to travel in.
As such, it became quite evident that many people were able to see them as they flew, some even kneeling down to pray. While it certainly wasn’t necessary, Michael did find themselves appreciating it after so much disrespect.
By the time they landed in Kyora, the sun was high in the sky. The air felt even hotter than usual, which was…something. They’d already experienced Summer days in the Summer Province, so the fact that it felt even hotter–the fact that they actually felt the heat–stood out in an unpleasant way, underscored by the ruins the town had been reduced to.
Some buildings still stood, but even those that did were still heavily scorched. Blackened wood stood out starkly against the once colorful buildings, and they could see some people sweeping up and collecting shattered glass and charred debris.
“–should’ve listened and just went with damn paper windows,” one man was grousing under his breath, focused on sweeping the shards with a small brush and a dustpan, a bag of debris opened next to him.
Michael frowned, surveying the damage, then paused as Anaya perked up upon noticing the man. “Oh hey! I know you!”
The man paused, looked up, and immediately groaned. “Oh gods it’s the nudist elf again…”
“What…?” Michael asked, momentarily stunned at his words and the implication they carried.
“It’s nothing important,” Anaya answered, maybe a little too quickly, “Now, sorry to bother you, but we came to find out what happened here.”
“It’s pretty obvious if you look around. We got raided and got our asses kicked.” Sighing again, he focused once again on cleaning up. “If that’s all y’wanted to know, y’can go now.”
“Nope, we’ve got business here. Also, this gal’s surprised you’re not reacting more strongly to an angel showing up,” Noriko said as she popped out of Michael’s shadow.
“We just got invaded by demons, angels are tame by comparison.”
“What!?” Striding up to him, Michael grabbed the guard by the front of his yellow shirt. “Tell me what happened, now!”
“Mish, you heard about the demons earlier, you don’t need–”
“No no, it’s cool, it’s not the first time this guy’s been interrogated like this,” the guard said, waving off Noriko’s unneeded concern, “Really, this way is nicer than gettin’ dangled off a roof.”
Noriko blinked, looking at Michael. “You did what to him?”
“No no, different person, unrelated,” the guard explained, “This guy’s had worse, seriously.”
“I could fix that, if you so desire,” Michael offered, before they remembered that the guard in front of them was technically the victim in this situation, despite being a criminal, and set him down. “Disregard that. Please explain.”
“…Okay, see, definitely nicer. Well, the basics are that about two days ago, a bunch of assholes in blue armor riding demon horses and apparently calling more demons down on us decided to set our town on fire. This guy, being a regular grunt in the grand scheme of the world, even got to see the first arrows landing down, before he jumped into the nearest cool cellar he could find and bunkered down until things calmed down.”
They frowned. “You didn’t try to help?”
“Oh sure, this guy in his hakama definitely should’ve gone up against fully armored cavalry backed by the forces of Hell, he totally would’ve survived that.” He huffed, looking out towards the plains. “This guy’s been on debris clean-up, so he’s not super well-informed, but he knows there’s guys building pyres down that way for the folks who thought the same as you. We mortals aren’t as sturdy as angels or dragons.”
“Dragons?” Anaya spoke up, “So Katsuro isn’t dead then?”
“Ah jeez, is that what people’re sayin’? No, Boss Katsuro definitely isn’t dead. Bit messed up though, but he’s restin’ it off in his den–Waaaait. You’re that elf, the other elf!” he said, staring at Michael–
“Oh, I did interrogate you before. The drake with the club.”
“Yeah, name’s Nari. You’re an angel?”
“Huh. Small world. You look really different with the wings out. Also without the dress, and this guy thinks your hair’s more grown–”
“Okay, catching up aside,” Anaya cut in, “Could we speak to Katsuro?”
“Probably not. Captain Genta’s been handlin’ things while Boss Katsuro sleeps off his wounds, so if you wanna head by the Koryujin–” He gestured further into town, where the bulk of the people moving around seemed to be, “–he should still be organizin’ things.”
Michael raised an eyebrow. “The wood elf bartender? He’s a captain?”
“Sure, in the sense that he’s pretty much the underboss and captain sounds catchier. Easier to say too, less syllables.” He rubbed his chin, thinking. “Capo’s another word for it, maybe? This guy thinks he heard somethin’ like that once, maybe from one’a those Blue Scale guys…”
“Yep. Sometimes their parties would come through town, relax and have fun, all that. Course, this guy doubts they’re gonna be comin’ around again, what with all this…”
“Their favorite places burning down would probably scare off most of them,” Anaya agreed, before giving the guard a slight bow, “Thank you for your help.”
“Eh? Ah, it’s nothin’. Just say hi to Brother Gauri for me, yeah?”
“Of course! Which–Wait. Gauri? The unicorn?” Wait, what?
The question raised was answered as the trio made their way to the center of town, where the crowds were noticeably smaller than the last time Michael had been there, but somehow much more active. There was a large table along one side with soup pots set across it, being served to those coming for meals, while bags filled with trash and debris were being stacked opposite, with a familiar elf organizing the collections, an accounting book in hand and a familiar unicorn noticeably at his side, standing proud like some kind of enforcer.
Why the unicorn in question had a yellow cape draped over her back, Michael wasn’t entirely sure, though they had some guesses.
“Oh, it’s you again.” They were getting that reaction a lot today. “You’re just open about the angel thing now?”
“…” Right. Wings, halo. Both out. Hm. “Somewhat.”
“…Yeah, alright. You’re way too late to help when we actually had a demon problem, but that’s about typical.” Genta the barkeep–his head wrapped in a yellow cloth that wound through his antlers while his tattooed chest was bare under the sun–sighed, before whistling, catching the attention of some men taking a break nearby. “MASU! BUNJIRO! TAKE OVER HERE!”
As the two hurried over, the elf passed his account book to Gauri, who accepted it with a graceful nod. While holding it in her mouth. So. Hm. Genta didn’t seem to mind though, just patting Gauri’s mane. “Thanks for the help, brother. Now, what do you want, angel?”
“…Why is Gauri your ‘brother’ now?”
“Few reasons. Saving our boss’s life is plenty of reason though. C’mon.” He turned without pause, leading the way towards the bar.
Michael raised an eyebrow, but followed, their eyes drifting to his back. “Why do you have a carp on your back?”
“It’s a koi fish. They’re lucky. Lotta guys around here wear ‘em because it feels arrogant to get a dragon tattoo when your boss is one. Only one man can be the dragon, that type of thing.”
“So you’re carps instead, ones that never climbed their waterfalls to become dragons,” Noriko noted, before acknowledging Michael’s questioning look, “It’s an old legend. Some say outworlders carried it over with them when they first appeared here, but there are some very old writings that claim the very first dragons were once fish strong and proud enough, or arrogant and greedy enough, to swim the rivers of fire created in a grand struggle between the Elder Sun and the Ancient Eruption.”
“You wouldn’t know anything about that, huh angel?”
Michael shook their head at Genta’s curious look. “No. I’m three thousand, not…however long that would have been. Three billion?”
“Is the world even that old?” They shrugged, not sure. Genta stared back, then grunted. “Right, kinda pointless question, least right now. This guy sees you two are still together. Angel and kunoichi, weird pair.” He glanced at Anaya. “He doesn’t think he met you though.”
“Nope, don’t think so either. Hi, I’m Anaya, I’m a druid, and just one quick question before we see Katsu, where would Sadja and Charlie be?”
“Charlie…the carriage?” At her nod, he scratched his chin, thinking. “Miss Shiho was excited about that…it oughta still be in her workshop, back side of this place. This guy told his guys to leave it alone, mostly because Brother Gauri encouraged it. As for Sadja, he’s been helping out too. Unicorns got some kinda sense for when people are injured or something cause both of ‘em have been great for tracking down folks that got hurt. Ah, there he is.”
Genta gestured down one road, where Sadja was indeed approaching, with a flower crown over his horn, more flower wreaths around his neck, and a number of women cooing and fussing over him, two on his back while more walked with him, offering him apples and sugar and brushing his mane as he preened. “Aw, such a sweetheart~!” “Such a handsome boy~!” “Hey, this gal gets to ride next, right?” “So cute~!”
Sadja whinnied proudly, basking in the rightful praise, then stiffened when he noticed Michael and their distinctly unimpressed gaze. The angel wasn’t sure if it was possible for a horse to look sheepish–mostly because those were two entirely different species–but Sadja definitely had that look about him…for a few seconds before he apparently decided to pretend he didn’t see anything and started walking in the other direction, earning some surprise from his entourage before they kept back up with his brisk turnaround.
“Pft. Well, it’s good that Sadja is doing well for himself,” Anaya said, amusement audible in her voice, “Though I’m pretty sure none of those women were maidens. Kind of proving that story there very false, huh Misha?”
Michael just sighed. “I don’t even care anymore. We have more pressing things to deal with than one of our steeds being AN INDOLENT LAYABOUT!”
Sadja ducked his head, speeding up to a trot as Michael glared at the stupid unicorn, before they huffed and headed into the bar, ready to just get this mess over with.
They weren’t quite ready to see Katsuro look so…broken though.
Genta was silent on the way down to the den, no mockery this time as he led the way to Katsuro’s hoard. The blades and gold were more spread out, set so he could lay flat on his back, sleeping steadily in his humanoid form on a large cushion spread over his wealth. Michael’s scar ached in sympathy as they saw how utterly shredded his chest looked.
The wounds were closed, stitched shut, but still a raw, ugly red as they curved all along his body, the worst being a deep slice that split across his belly. Most of the wounds were clean slices; they didn’t look jagged or distorted, just red lines splitting through his skin, deep enough to stay.
Worse were the arrow wounds; those were jagged and distorted, deep punctures that punched through his flesh. From the look, none of them went all the way through and out his back, though some had definitely sunk in deep before they could be pulled out.
There was a bespectacled man looking over him, dressed in black medical attire, his head covered by a cloth cap and a cloth mask over his mouth. He glanced up as they entered, a magnifying glass in hand, for some reason. “Genta. You brought guests.”
“Yeah, this guy did. These are, ah…uh…” He made an odd gesture, like he was reaching for something, then snapped his fingers and pointed at Anaya. “This one’s Anaya, the druid.”
“Hi there!” Anaya greeted as Michael felt a sudden need to sigh.
“You forgot our names?”
“That, or you didn’t tell this guy. Ah, anyways, it’s not important–”
“The hell it isn’t,” Noriko muttered, miffed.
“–ladies, this is Futoshi the Barber, our local barber.”
“Why the redundancy?” Michael wondered while Noriko blinked.
“The barber? You have a barber as your healer??”
“I am a qualified surgeon with a medical license,” the barber answered, though he also muttered under his breath, “in Rosiava”, so Michael felt some skepticism was warranted.
Anaya didn’t though, just waving a hand. “It’s fine, plenty of places have doctors and barbers be the same profession. I’m sure he’s doing a good job! Though if he does need a second pair of eyes, I am a druid who knows how to heal.”
“Ah, handy. I wouldn’t mind the extra help.”
So while Anaya did that, Michael turned to Genta. “So Katsuro’s…not fine, but alive. That’s good.”
“Glad you agree, else we were gonna have a problem.”
“I realize and you know I would win so let’s leave the immensely unthreatening passive aggression for after you explain what happened.” For what it was worth, Michael did note Genta didn’t back down even at their dismissal.
“…Assuming you already heard the basics, the boss here fought off the hoard that invaded, but even he has his limits. Even more so when he drops his guard cause some bitch grabbed Shiho while he was fighting that samurai.” Sighing, Genta shook his head. “Even after they left, it took everything we had to stop the boss from going on a rampage.”
“So Shiho was captured…” Noriko muttered, as she thought to herself. “Even so, it’s odd to think one of Kawajiri’s forces would be able to match Katsuro, even if he was distracted.”
“Is that what people are saying? Take it from this man, we’ve dealt with his men before, and despite the leader’s claims, they weren’t the shogun’s. They were Rokuhara’s.”
Michael stiffened. “…his brother?”
“Feh. Some brother. The elder asshole’s never given a shit, aside from trying to keep the boss under his thumb.”
“Technically, the people that came to shake us down in the early years were working for their cousins, not the elder brother himself,” Futoshi clarified, “And none of them are true dragons, just drakes playing at it. Whether he was the one to send shinobi to harass us early on though, who can say? But there’s no love lost between the boss and the daimyo.”
Michael shook their head. “There isn’t? But he’s at Shiomi right now, trying–”
“Trying for restitution, I presume? That would be what we in the business call ‘casus belli’. No one wants an attack to feel unjustified. Reasons ease consciences.”
Genta snorted. “Sure does. These bastards raided us anyway, completely unprovoked.”
“You say that, but you know the reasons. To rescue the princess, to put an end to the criminals. Bullshit, in other words, but enough to play it up like they were the Shogun’s men.”
“What happened?” Anaya asked, looking at Genta, “What specifically happened? We want to help.”
“…Boss Katsuro recognized the samurai in the lead. Yumin’s her name, and she works for fuckin’ Daigo. The rest of the assholes, we don’t know specifics on. We brought down a few of them, but the demons Yumin had with her, a pair of them, were weirdly keen on burning the bodies once they had the opportunity. Though this guy’s pretty sure he saw the big demon eat one instead. Not sure if the guy was even dead…”
“…” Michael took a breath, trying to focus. Rokuhara–Daigo–was…potentially an issue. Potentially. Most likely. Was I really that wrong again?? But that wasn’t important at the moment. But if he has a female samurai who consorts with demons… “What were the demons? What did she use?”
“First one was a giant flaming elephant, but Boss killed that one, so I doubt you gotta worry about it. The other two…they seemed like a pair, like they usually worked together. Both were big, but one was fat and bulky and the other was skinny and lean. This guy thinks…one might’ve been a minotaur? Or something like one. He had kinda a bull head, but there was a black hood covering it. The other was weirder, had more of a horse head, maybe. Never heard of folks with those, but eh.”
“Aren’t centaurs supposed to be horsefolk?” Noriko asked, for some reason focused on that part.
“Kind of, but they’re less like people with horselike features and more like the top half of a regular person put on top of a horse’s body, where the neck would be,” Anaya answered.
“…You’re messing with me. That’s not real.”
Anaya made a non-committal noise while Michael thought. “…Oxhead and Horseface?”
“The demons you mentioned. I believe those are their names.”
Genta blinked. “…You, uh, sure about that?”
No. “Positive. If I remember right…” Augh, Gabriel was always better at trivia… “They were…executioners? For a cruel king or something. There might’ve been something about boiling people in oil? Then they tried to execute some hero and the hero knocked them in instead, so now they do as they did in life, torturing and killing at their master’s behest, though now their services are available to anyone cruel enough to keep their interest. Or rich enough to hire them? They’re rather lame, from what I remember.”
“…They cut up our boss pretty bad. Though he did smash them down easy once he switched out of dragon form.” He scowled. “Shame the assholes didn’t stay down. They didn’t even go after him again after that, just tried striking at the rest of us to keep him distracted while that prick Yumin kept cutting him up…Course, then Brother Gauri showed up and stabbed the big one, so that helped.”
“Yeah, no, not calling him that.”
Michael frowned, then paused as Katsuro shifted, letting out an irritated grunt. “If you assholes want me under so bad, stop talkin’ where I’m sleepin’…”
Genta winced. “Ah, sorry, Boss. How are you feelin’?”
“Like I was gutted.” He let out a slow breath, then looked over at Michael. “Hey Redwing. Can’t have a rematch right now. Gotta…gotta get up–”
Anaya pushed him back down. “No, you don’t. Futoshi, how bad was it when you started healing him?”
“LIke he was gutted, to quote the boss. If a bit more literal than he meant it.”
“This guy said what he said…”
“So you shouldn’t be moving at all,” Anaya insisted.
“Shouldn’t, but gotta. They took Shiho. So I gotta.”
“Okay, let’s say you do get up. So where would you go? Where would they take her if they took her, hm? Do you know?”
“…Daigo’s gotta want her for some reason. That asshole wouldn’t just…there’s gotta be something.”
“Daimyo Rokuhara is allied with Daimyo Nekotani, Daimyo Isozaki, and Daimyo Kogetsu, right?” Noriko pointed out, “And Shiho is Kogetsu’s daughter, so it stands to reason he abducted her for him.”
“What?” Michael said, turning to Noriko, “Her own father had–He wouldn’t.”
“That rabbity fuck would,” Katsuro grunted, “Prick tried to keep Shiho locked up most of her life. Course he’d finally get the spine with fuckin’ Daigo backin’ him…”
“But that’s…” Yojin did call him a ‘shithead’, swore to never have anything to do with him… The idea still sat unpleasantly with Michael. Sure, mortals could be flawed, but family was family. And Katsuro’s brother may have attempted to murder him. “…There were two other daimyo allied with him. Daigo said so, that there were five allied together aside from him, six total.”
“Gh–ha, ah, that fuckin’ asshole. He’s pullin’ a damn coup…Hey Gen. It’s weird Nakazono didn’t send shit to help us, ain’t it?”
“…that fuckin’ prick. Mera’s been closed off, fear of demon attacks, no one’s sendin’ help, and that asshole came back just to ride off a few days ago, going for Moku…”
“The shogun’s home city?” Anaya asked as Michael felt a chill.
It is a coup. They’re all aiming to seize power at once. Who was it, who was coming to meet Nakazono, with the skyship– “Saruta. Saruta was meeting with Nakazono. He’s the sixth.”
“Shit. Shit, you’re right,” Noriko said, hand over her covered mouth, “If all three Spring Daimyo are in on it, and so are two Summer Daimyo, they can seize the capital and Moku easily, but why an Autumn…an Autumn who has a skyship, who can get to Fujimi. They’re not just trying to take the cities, they’re going to kill Kawajiri.”
“The shogun ‘sent a raid’ and ‘summoned demons’, right?” Genta added, “So wouldn’t it be a funny thing if a certain demon summoner went that way to make sure everything looked right?”
“We need to go. I need to go, right now,” Michael said, “If this is already in motion, if they’re already moving–Damn it, Polina’s back at the capital, if Daigo’s attacking now–But Kawajiri, if Yumin’s the leviathan, if she’s attacking him–Ngh, blast it, I should’ve beaten that bastard the moment I saw him!”
“Misha, calm down, we just–” Anaya paused as Katsuro stood. “H-Hey! You need to–”
“I’ll lay down. I just gotta do one thing first.” The dragon was swaying, unsteady on his feet.
“You can’t, you’re going to–”
“I…am the bastard son of Rokuhara Hitomo. She had me outta wedlock, and there was no shot of me ever inheritin’ anythin’. I’m…a shit person. I’ve beaten people, I’ve killed people. Some deserved it, some didn’t. I’m a violent thug. And I ain’t gonna say I’ve gotten better, just cause I’ve got this. Just cause people love me.
He took a breath, seeming steadier. “I’m not worthy of what I’ve got. This guy’s not worth much at all. So all I gotta do…is one thing.”
He took a breath, stood tall, and looked down at Michael. “…Red Wing. Cardinal Misha.”
He knelt, on both knees, put his hands to the floor, and bowed his head as low as it could go, his forehead pressing against the ground.
“Please. Save Shiho,” he prayed.
And that decided it.
“Anaya, stay here.”
She blinked, looking over at Michael.
“You can help better here, they’ll keep you safe.”
“Noriko, you’re with me.”
“Eh? Ah…alright, sure.”
Genta raised a hand. “If you’ll give this guy a second, please.” He moved quickly, and returned with a sword that he passed to Noriko. “One of Miss Shiho’s best. Steel and silver. Not sure if you can use it-”
“This gal can. Thank you.”
He smiled, then bowed deep, without another word.
And the Cardinal of Fortitude spread their wings wide, before taking off into the sky, a shadow clutching tight to their back as they flew to the land of Spring.