Chapter 32 – Tempting Fate

They wound up staying for another blasted week in Gorokiva.

Things started just fine as they arrived at Shiomi. Sure, there was a surprisingly celebratory mood for a city that had just been ravaged by an invasion, but they did suppose it was only natural for mortals to be happy about their victories. The capital was awash with music and cheering even in the rain, the falling water joined by raining feathers as angels flew overhead. Not just the sparking yellow lightning angels of Innominatum, but also the watery blue angels of Mesic, which might explain the rain. Collaboration between the gods…

As for Michael, they had the forethought to be more subtle in their approach and actually bothered to disguise themself as a paladin once more. They were meant to be disguised, so disguised they would be. They also made Anaya get dressed–which she was more willing to do once she sobered up–so they were confident they wouldn’t attract nearly as much notice on their return to the Imperial Palace.

“So you just completely forgot that riding a giant tiger with wings made of lightning would be noticeable?” Noriko asked, far later than would actually be helpful.

“Shut up,” Michael replied, entirely reasonably, while they attempted to ignore the stares and gawking all around them by the various cityfolk, most of whom out in the streets were busy cleaning up after the attack. They leaned, trying to catch Tigress’s eye. “Can’t you just fly us right to the palace? You don’t need to walk through the streets.”

“Remember I’m a demigod if you would please, ‘paladin’.” She sounded far more amused than she should be by Michael’s disguise. “It’s only natural I bask in praise and adulation, isn’t it?”

“They don’t seem to be praising you.”

“Bask in awe then, my point still stands. Focus less on me and enjoy your hug, why don’t you?”

They frowned, feeling some heat creep up their face. “Anaya isn’t hugging me, she’s just holding on so she won’t slip–”

“No, I’m hugging you,” the druid refuted, her cheek pressed against Michael’s back while her arms looped around their waist, “That was a ruse.” 

“…Another deception then. I’ll count this as a further betrayal, Anaya.” 

She snorted, giggling in amusement as though they weren’t serious. “Aw, but you were the one who refused my hugs earlier, so clearly I just have to work it in properly. For the greater good of cuddles!”

They grunted in reply, not dignifying that with a response, then paused as they passed through the palace’s gates to find an even larger celebration taking place on the grounds. As in a full on festival, where it seemed people from all across the capital–though especially the local guards and soldiers–were having an enormous party under the lightly falling rain. 

Canopies stretching from wall to wall blocked off most of the falling water, keeping partygoers dry, though the palace itself also seemed to be fully open for the festivities. And also seemed to be where the majority of the festivities were taking place, as evidenced by how the entire main hall seemed to be taken up by tables of food and drink as the citizens and soldiers of Shiomi made merry, though most of the soldiers in question seemed heavily bandaged.

Still, they appeared to be enjoying themselves as they were served by…Why are angels acting like servers?

It took a moment for Michael to decipher what they were seeing, but it indeed looked like a number of lightning and rain angels were playing waiter for the mortals in the palace. They carried food and drink, attended to those who called on them, healed the aches of those still wounded, and some were definitely getting far closer to the mortals than they should be–Wait, is that Kokriel? And Vivian??

It was. At one table, which seemed to be set in a place of some honor, Vivian was sitting with Kokriel–how did they get here so fast?–in her lap, the angel in question being far, far too…”friendly” was one word for it. “Flirtatiously feeding the paladin orange slices” was a phrase to describe it too. Not at all helped at least three other angels–two lightning and one water–also hanging off of the paladin’s every word.

Oh and Polina was also there, sitting straight at attention with an odd stoicism to her. Unlike the loose elvish paladin by her side who’d slipped down to a rather open blouse and far too tight pants, Polina was still fully armored for some reason. Strange.

She did seem to relax somewhat when she noticed Michael’s approach, though maybe it was less relaxing and more slumping? She seemed oddly tired, and Vivian visibly choked and started laughing, so there was that.

“Why is she laughing?” Michael wondered, frowning.

“It’s because you’re still riding on me, isn’t it?” Tigress replied.

“Why is that comedic??”

“Because you’re a natural comedy act,” Noriko suggested in a far too matter-of-fact tone.

“I am not! I don’t even like comedy!”

“…This gal’s gonna take you to a theater.”

“What?”

“This gal is going to take you to a theater until you learn some culture and admit you’re wrong about everything ever.”

…Michael didn’t know how to reply to that, nor did they understand why Anaya was pressing her face into their back and giggling so much–was she still drunk?–though they did find something else to distract them fairly quickly.

“–yet even as his blade broke, this lord did not falter against his foe! He stood steady and strong, even as her blade rent his flesh!” From the sound of it, Kawajiri was doing well.

Not that Michael was happy about that given how it seemed he was telling a false set of events to the crowd of people listening around his extravagant seating. The fact that he hadn’t even noticed them in his aggrandizing was telling. If it wasn’t for Anaya holding them, they would have marched straight up to the blasted liar and put him in his place.

…wait I can phase- 

“Whatever you’re planning, just leave it. Trust me, he’ll get what’s coming to him later,” Noriko piped up as she hopped off Tigress. 

“I wasn’t-” 

A solid thump cut Michael off as Noriko landed face first again. 

“…” 

“…” 

Anaya joined in on laughing with Vivian, thankfully letting go of Michael so they could climb down and pick up Noriko. 

“Leave me to wallow in my shame.” 

“There’s a festival going on, you’d likely get stepped on if I leave you on the floor.” Walking over to where Polina and Vivian were, Michael set Noriko down next to them. She didn’t look too hurt, though her face was significantly redder than usual. Either because she was embarrassed or because she smacked straight into solid tiles. Either was likely.

As for the wayward members of their travel group, Michael considered for a moment whether they should bring up Polina’s odd stoicism or Vivian’s…Vivian-ing first. 

“Hi Mish, hi Nori, it’s nice to see both of you, glad you came, thanks for sayin’ hi and not just sittin’ down on your own.” Oh, so Polina wants to go first then.

“Hello Polina, why are you fully-armored and extremely quiet?”

“…” The sigh reverberated in her helmet. “…Yeah, alright, I should’ve expected that.”

“She’s just staying armored up so no one talks to her. Polina’s pretty shy when she isn’t around you,” Vivian chimed in.

“Oh yeah, she was super shy when we first met,” Anaya added as she approached, making her way off of Tigress far more easily than Noriko–

“Oi.” 

“I said nothing,” Michael replied to Noriko’s glare.

“You were thinking about it.”

“Most brains think of things. And Anaya does make a point, Polina, you were far shyer when we first met. Very stuttery too.”

“Y-Yeah yeah, you’re late to that conversation by a lot, Anaya and I already had a whole talk about it,” the minotaur muttered, still refusing to remove her helm. 

“What? When? Where was I during this?”

“Havin’ lunch with your dragon friend, Katsuro.”

“He’s not my friend.”

“Sure. Point bein’, sometimes people talk when you’re not there, it happens.”

“It shouldn’t. What did you talk about?”

“How you probably caused the explosions we were hearing from town, then a bit about your fashion sense and the cute dress you liked so much,” Anaya chimed in, completely inappropriately, “Then it kinda segued to local environments, like how I live in more tree-filled area while things in Natsuno were more open so I wasn’t as used to the open heat, then about the monsters that tend to live around there, some stuff about vampire owls in comparison to stymphs, then fashion things like how some people use stymph feathers for decoration in Sollamava and other people use giant beetle plating for armor in Nalori, oh and some explanation on my fun way of dealing with heat.”

Michael blinked at the deluge of information, then frowned. “And that way would be what?”

Anaya grinned, then clapped her hands together and spread her hands, causing some orange petals to drift to the floor as the air actually did turn cooler. “Ta dah! Disperses heat by converting it into flower petals, very handy for extremely hot days. I can do the same for the cold too, though doing both at once leaves the air feeling weird.”

“Ooo,” Noriko said, leaning to stare, “Teach me!”

“Sure! Later though, and you’ll need to learn a bit about Rose magic first.”

Michael paused, furrowing their brow. “Rose magic? Not plant magic?”

“Yup! Though I guess ‘flower magic’ is the more specific subtype? Or Spring magic, if you want to go broader instead. There’s enough of a distinction to count as a different type of magic, kinda, but it’s still a topic lots of people argue about, myself included! If I remember right, and this was when I was a lot younger, so my memory’s a bit spotty, I learned the trick from a Rose druid back when we were both on a job in this disputed chunk of land between Nalori and Rosiava. It was something about clearing away a rotwood and helping the blossoms bloom around this small, and we got to arguing about theology and the differences between ecological pragmatism and idealistic romanticism, wound up drinking and talking, and we showed each other some fun tricks!” She beamed cheerfully. “The sex was great too!”

There was a sharp noise as Michael’s knee banged against the table hard enough to actually make them wince, though the enormous heat at their face distracted them from whatever pain they might’ve felt. And it wasn’t like they were the only one justifiably caught off guard by Anaya’s brazenness! Vivian’s bark of laughter sounded distinctly startled! Enough to startle Kokriel in turn, at the very least, judging by the other angel’s flustered sparking! So it wasn’t just Michael!

“You were waitin’ all this time to retell that stupid story,” Polina muttered, a hand over her–still-helmeted–face. 

“I was, and it was worth it,” Anaya replied, still far too cheerful.

“…” Michael just sighed, slowly, in some attempt at recapturing their composure, and elected to just settle down and refocus. “…Speaking of elves engaging in debauchery, what are you doing, Vivian?”

Why that earned another snort from the paladin, they weren’t sure, but she grinned at them nonetheless as her arms wrapped tightly around Kokriel, eliciting a squeak from the angel. “Kokriel and I are getting acquainted~. Isn’t it natural for paladins and angels to get along, Paladin Centola?”

“Y-Yes, Miss Paladin Vivian makes a very good point, Miss Paladin who I’ve never met before!” Kokriel added, deliberately avoiding Michael’s unimpressed stare, “B-Besides, we angels of our Heavenly Lord do, sometimes, occasionally, come down for festivals and things because they are holy days and it does everyone good to have such meetings! To bask in the light of the heavens and know that we heavenly beings do share affection for our mortal brethren!”

“Didn’t you say travel was inconvenient?” Michael asked, their unimpressed stare steadily turning more towards a glare, “And weren’t you supposed to carry messages for the workers of Fujimi?”

“E-Eh heh heh, ah, th-this angel r-recalls no such things, th-they are simply a humble messenger who doesn’t speak whatever language you are saying, very sorry to say, can’t be helped! A-And it’s not like they didn’t do the other thing they didn’t hear you say, they just…delegated! To less senior angels, it’s fine, things were still done, everything’s good, they didn’t just want to join the party, they’re fine!” They laughed nervously, still not looking at Michael. “B-B-Besides, we h-haven’t done such things for a good few decades now for reasons and things, and hey! You should ask Sister Amitiel about that! She’d know better!”

“Oh yeah, where is Ami?” Anaya asked as she stole one of Vivian’s orange slices. A reprehensible act, though one Noriko had also been copying for most of the conversation…Those slices do look tasty…

“Probably with Nori’s sister,” Polina said, nodding to the unsubtle ninja, “Most of the still-loyal Daimyo got brought over here by all the angels around, so they’re probably still talkin’ politics up there.”

Michael frowned, glancing over at where the self-aggrandizing Shogun still talked about his grand victory, and also still didn’t notice the giant tiger now relaxing nearby a number of chatty priests and angels. “And Kawajiri isn’t up there with them for what reason?” 

“Mainly? Because he’s hostin’ this party. Somethin’ to uplift the spirits’ of the nation’s people, the way he was sayin’ it.” She glanced over at the shogun, her voice low. “Probably some amount of ass-coverin’ there too. Not a lotta folks were impressed by him showin up late for the battle, but him tellin’ all about how he battled the enemy leviathan cooled a lotta tempers.”

Not Michael’s. In fact, the angel was feeling far more agitated by the second.

But, in the end, it wasn’t their place to call out the idiot. Even if they wanted to. Declaring the Shogun a liar in front of everyone was neither smart nor subtle, and Michael did their best to be both as the festivities continued. 

The fact that Anaya had her hand on the back of their robes and tugged on them every time they tried to stand and denounce the shogun also helped, to a lesser extent. 

At least the orange slices were indeed tasty. And Vivian didn’t seem to mind since she was occupied with the angels. Still extremely inappropriate, but Michael was willing to allow such things because they technically had no power to allow or disallow anything within the country. They could still express some disapproval, but after one such unsuccessful dialogue–

“You should realize it’s immensely inappropriate to be seated with a messenger of the gods in such a way.”

“What, are you jealous?”

–they elected to let the matter lie.

Besides, there were other matters to pay more attention to. Such as the Empress and the six remaining loya Daimyo joining the festivities in the grand hall. Most of whom Michael hadn’t met at all.

“The tall taur over there is Tsubakimoto and the smaller lady is Ishibashi,” Noriko explained, pointing to the two in question.

“I see…hm, it appears the curse must have affected Ishibashi much more heavily,” Michael noted, watching the slight woman in icy-blue and sharp silver, “She seems almost shrunken…”

“No, she’s naturally that short. Her family has some halfling blood.”

“Oh. Hm. I suppose it must be a similar condition to yours that gives her the sharp teeth then.”

“Nope, that’s because of the curse.”

“…I see…sorry.”

The pat on the shoulder she gave them felt less reassuring and more pitying. “It’s cool. Now you can probably pick out Kawajiri Junior over there–” Yes, the blue drake does stand out somewhat. “–and you’ve already met Akaboshi. The kinda gruff lady there would be Inukai Koyu, and this gal’s pretty sure the red-haired lady there is Hirari, a cousin and retainer of Himuro Hizashi. She doesn’t see him though…not sure why Rari brought a rooster with her either.”

They shrugged. “A pet, perhaps?”

“Maybe? Ah, wait, looks like Eiko wants to say something.”

Michael nodded, focusing on the Empress as she took to a raised podium and cleared her throat, the sound echoing as voices all around the hall went silent in rapt attention.

“Good day to you all, noble warriors of Gorokiva and honored guests from both our neighbors on the land and in the heavens,” the Empress began, her face bare in the light and showing the remnants of the magic that once afflicted her. Altogether, Michael had to say the Empress looked reasonably well for someone who’d recently transformed into a nue, though she wasn’t unscarred from the experience. 

The Empress actually looked a great deal more like Noriko now in terms of facial features, though she’d still retained most of her lips. Her sharp teeth did poke out as she spoke though and most of said teeth were showing through the new gashes in her cheeks. The whites of her eyes were also similarly yellowed now, though strangely enough, her hair actually stayed black instead of bleaching white.

Maybe some differences in their nature caused different reactions to the curse? Think about it later, she’s speaking now. “Our nation has survived a great ordeal in these past days, one that few other nations have survived before. Not merely an invasion from foreign powers or an attack by demonic forces, no; what we have experienced is nothing less than the deepest pain any people could feel. Betrayal, by those who should have called them kin.”

The speech continued in that vein for some time; heavy condemnation for those who betrayed the nation that moved into praise for those who protected the people and saved the country from the evil curse laid upon them by said reprehensible traitors and their demonic allies. 

Hm. Technically speaking, the traitors didn’t know about the curse until it happened… There was also the fact that the empress made a point that, despite being demonic, the traitors’ allies weren’t from the Dark Lands. Which was accurate, sure, but Michael felt it didn’t necessarily need to be mentioned. The Dark Lands could still be somewhat involved, maybe…

The leviathans did use Therian magic to enact their curse, so it could be possible someone familiar with her ways taught them. And since Therian was worshipped in the Dark Lands, it was very possible said person was from the Dark Lands… 

Though before they could continue down their clearly correct trail of thought they felt Anaya poke them. 

“What?”

“You kinda spaced out during the speech, but Eiko asked us to follow her to a private party. So unless you wanna keep hanging out here by yourself, we should go.” And it seemed that the others didn’t wait for them, since–aside from the angels who were previously hanging off of Vivian–it appeared they were the only ones left at their table. The other partygoers were still present, and probably flirting more with the angels around than appropriate, and the fact that those angels were actually reciprocating…

“…Yes, we should go.” Thankfully, it seemed that aside from Amitiel and Kokriel–who was sitting beside their older sister and appeared to be trying their best to sit up straight–there were no angels in the inner chambers, so no one was sitting in Vivian’s lap when they entered, though Vivian was over at Amitiel’s end of the long table instead of closer to where Noriko and Polina were sitting. Polina also seemed to have taken off her helmet, though the reason why seemed to be more about how the Empress and several daimyos were present rather than her being more relaxed.

“About time you showed up,” Polina said, “Did you get lost on the way up?”

“Nope, Misha just nodded off during the speech,” Anaya replied as she took a seat across from the paladin.

Michael frowned at her, sitting beside Anaya and thus across from Noriko, who seemed busy snacking on some seeds of some type. “I didn’t ‘nod off’. I was wondering where the leviathans had gotten knowledge of therian curses. They aren’t worshipers of the Beast, so they must have gotten it from someone else.” 

“Well given how they were able to infiltrate the Light Lands, I wouldn’t be surprised if they also infiltrated the Dark Lands. Heck, it’s probably easier for them by just sayin’ they’re one of those, what’re they called…riverfolk?” 

“That is…one possibility.” Probably not a likely one, especially since Michael’s idea was much more likely. 

“Do you mind if this lady sits here?” Letting out a noncommittal noise in response, Michael continued their thought, wondering if the Church of the Beast was working directly with the leviathans. 

“Oh hey sis!” Noriko greeted with an open smile, her mask down again, while Polina visibly sat straighter, staring right at the woman now sitting at Michael’s side.

“A-Ah, u-uh…m-my greetin’s t-to you, y-your majesty. Sh-Should I, uh…” She glanced at Noriko. “Do I stand?”

“Hmm…dunno. Hey Eiko, does Polly need to stand or can she stay seated?”

“Meh, she’s fine,” the empress of Gorokiva replied, waving a hand dismissively–

Michael blinked. They glanced at the shorter woman sitting beside them, who was indeed the empress of the nation they were currently in. “…Shouldn’t you be at the head of the table?”

“This empress probably should, but also she’s exhausted and wants to hang out with her little sister and her friends.”

“Since when is this gal little?” Noriko groused. To which Michael promptly leaned across the table and put their hand on her head, before raising it up to Polina’s head for comparison. “…Misha, sincerely and with all the love, anger, and sorrow in all this gal’s heart, go fuck yourself.”

“No.” Their point made, they sat. Then paused. “So Noriko is younger?”

“Hm? Yeah, she was born second. Do you think this empress would be this empress if she wasn’t?”

“…The nuances of your grammar confuses me,” Michael replied, before looking over at Noriko, who was glancing away, leaning on her hand. Her face seemed a little red, for some reason, and she seemed to be smiling slightly. They didn’t entirely get it, but perhaps she was feeling better?

They decided to look down the table, taking in the sight of the daimyos of Gorokiva, who looked…well, all of them were actually being remarkably casual for a people who’d recently experienced a coup. There was chatting and laughter, mostly aided by Katsuro–who was apparently a part of the proceedings and who seemed to be making friends with Akaboshi and that Tsubakimoto guy–and Vivian–who had an arm draped around Kokriel as she told some extravagant tale. 

“…How are you going to handle things?” Michael asked, looking back at Eiko.

“That’s the question, isn’t it? The traitorous nobles, one and all, will have to have trials since they were taken alive. Their guilt isn’t in question, but we need to stick to procedures, even when we’re dealing with something unprecedented.” She sighed. “Gods, it’s going to be a pain in the ass.”

“Hm. To clarify, execution is legal in Gorokiva, correct?”

“Oh for sure, that’s not off the table by any means. It’s just messy, especially since we don’t have a full count of the rebels, especially considering how many deserters there were once the curse took hold. Kin got a rough estimate based on what we saw before the fighting and he put it between forty to sixty thousand soldiers, so while many were killed or captured in the fighting, we’re probably going to be dealing with bandit and pirate problems for generations because of it…”

“Not exactly what she asked, sis,” Noriko chimed in, “Though, question, where’s Toki? He’s probably got a bunch of random bullshit Misha would like to know about–”

“Here.” And there was the emperor. Or consort? Michael forgot the title, but the point was, he was here and pressing a kiss to Eiko’s forehead. All around, he seemed less changed–his hair was significantly more feathery and there was a yellowish tinge to his irises–though…the furry toddler in one arm was new, as was the black-haired child with sharpened teeth whose hand he was holding. “Paladin Centola, if you wouldn’t mind?”

Michael raised an eyebrow, wondering what he meant–

“Mish, scooch over one,” Polina said. Which, right, they should do that.

So Michael moved over by one pillow to let Kintoki sit down beside his wife, then paused. Wait, wasn’t Anaya sitting here? Where did–

Then there was a small child staring up at them. “…Hello.”

“Hi. You have red eyes.”

“…I do.”

“I?”

“Yes? Eye?”

“I…” He tilted his head, scrutinizing them with an intense gaze.

“…” Michael stood, walked around the table, and sat beside Polina instead. 

“Ah, hey! You moved!”

“This makes it easier to speak with the empress.”

“Oh…” He nodded very seriously to that, then brightened as he seemed to notice Noriko. “Hi Auntie Nori! This boy has cool teeth like yours now!” He beamed, showing those very sharp teeth.

“…Y-Yeah, that’s really nice, Hiki.” Odd. Why does she sound choked up? 

“Heh. Hey, Hikaru, why don’t you go with your Aunty to meet the angels?” Eiko suggested, smiling at the little boy.

“Oh, okay! C’mon Aunty Nori!” He scampered around the table to pull her out of her seat, earning a laugh from Noriko.

“Jeez, you got strong, little prince!”

 Michael watched Noriko pretend to be dragged away by her nephew, then noticed Polina’s smirk. “…What?”

“Not good with kids, huh?”

“I’m fine with children as long as they are not in my presence.” They glanced at the toddler. It appeared distracted by the lights above it, which was acceptable. “…So you were talking about the matter of the traitors?”

Eiko winced. “Gods, that’s going to be such a pain. We’ll need to have trials and tribunals and this empress doubts we have enough prison space…Kin, do we have any more islands we can exile people to?”

“A few. Island exile is supposed to be reserved for nobility though.”

“What? Why? No, better question, why can’t this empress exile common traitors?”

“You can, it’s just not done. Well, exile is done, but it’s more our ancestors would just ship them towards the Sun Lands or push them towards one of the other nations if exile came up, but these days that would probably get us in more trouble. No one wants to take another nation’s criminals.” He paused, thinking. “Unless it’s one of those prison cults. There might be an island like that by Catessard, if this lord remembers right…”

“That’s off-topic, stay focused! What do we do with the traitorous soldiers?”

He shrugged. “We’re just going to have to take it on a case by case basis. Perhaps the angels could help out? But as it is, it’s going to be a longstanding problem. We can’t go executing them en masse either, since unhallowed dead and mass graves are ripe for undead and demonic incursions.” He paused. “And it would be morally wrong.”

“It would?” Michael asked. What’s wrong about executing traitors?

“Most faiths frown on mass executions, Mish,” Polina pointed out.

“…Since when?”

“Probably since it caused labor shortages in the era of the more militant faiths,” Kintoki said, “Morality often descends from practicality, as the philosophers say.”

“Hm…morals aside–”

“Never a great way to start a sentence,” Polina muttered.

“–what do you plan to do about the provinces who no longer have rulers?”

“Ah, the easiest and hardest question we had to answer today,” Eiko said, huffing in wry amusement and some irritation, “That’s simple. We’re going to be taking a leaf from the Rosians and trying democracy on for size.”

Michael blinked. “Democracy? You’re going to let the commoners rule??”

“In a sense, sure. It took a lot of annoying talking and we’re not fully settled on things with the daimyos, but trying to appoint the right people to the right places, balancing the power, making sure some nobles get something and others get whatever was going to be a long, arduous, and really frustrating process. In the simplest terms I can put it, the fact that half our daimyo decided to turn traitor really fucked us.”

“Language,” Kintoki chided, distracting the giggling toddler in his grasp with a feather.

“Ah, right, sorry Shige! Mommy’s just frustrated by her stupid vassals!” Eiko cooed, giving the toddler a little pat, before turning back to Michael, “Essentially, we looked at the problem and how much of an enormous hassle it was going to be, and this empress decided the smartest move was holding elections in the affected areas. The common people can pick who they want to represent them politically while this empress gets to tear down any chance those traitorous prick–ah…prickles have of anyone in their families ever assuming power again.”

“It is easier than trying to kill entire clans,” Kintoki added, holding the feather slightly out of the child’s reach so he could try grabbing it.

“And less gruesome. Say this empress has a weak stomach if you want, but she’s not interested in butchering babies to punish six stupid turncoats.” Her eyes narrowed into a glare. “As for the traitors themselves…we’ll have to see how that turns out.”

“It might vary. Rokuhara and Nekotani directly attacked the capital, so there’s no chance of them ever living outside a cell at this point, but Nakazono did surrender without struggle and Inukai’s relationship with Saruta could be a factor in what happens to him.”

Michael frowned. “Are you thinking of letting a traitor go free?”

“Don’t forget who’s the empress here,” Eiko said, and they couldn’t quite help the odd shiver they felt there. Not one of fear, but some type of natural reaction to that tone. “As far as I’m concerned, the stability of my nation comes first. It’s our country and our responsibility. If we are to call ourselves its rulers, we need to bear the responsibilities that position entails. The traitors forgot that or chose to ignore it, but there is a very large difference between those two. So if it comes down to it and one of my loyal daimyo would feel more grateful if she had a choice in what happens to a childhood friend of hers who she apparently had something with, then I’ll make an allowance.

“The hardest choice is never ‘should I kill my enemy’ but ‘should I let my enemy go’.” She held up a finger. “Not that that is what is occurring here. Saruta will never hold political power in Gorokiva again. Who knows? Maybe Inukai would rather leave with him, or maybe she’d rather remove his head herself. This empress will be asking about her intentions, but later.” Her smile returned. “Today, she’d like to just relax, alright?”

“…” Michael nodded. “Understood.”

“Uh…pardon, just…” Polina began, a little awkwardly, “I’m…k-kinda curious what you meant there? By, uh, their relationship?”

“Oh, well, from this empress’s understanding, the two were childhood friends.”

“Oh, alright.”

“That and they were apparently wrestling on the battlefield while naked, so–”

“Your majesty,” Kintoki interrupted in a tone like a reprimand, which earned a laugh from his wife.

“What~? This empress is just repeating what she heard~ Though she did expect some blushing from Lady Polina, not so much Lady Misha~”

“I lived with a lotta sisters then in the paladin barracks. You get used to those kinds of jokes,” Polina said with some amusement, looking somewhat more at ease as Michael frowned. My face isn’t that red…

“Greetings, oh gracious empress!” came the voice of Shogun Kawajiri, and Michael did feel some vague amusement at how rapidly Eiko’s expression dropped into pure irritation.

“Hello, Shingo,” Eiko replied, staring up as the Shogun strutted over, a proud smile on his face and some noticeable lipstick marks along his cheeks and neck. Which…wow. “This empress sees you’re doing well.”

“But of course! The people of the capital have been quite gracious to this lord, as they should be! For you see, he–”

“Yes, we heard the story already, no need to tell it again. You’ve met Paladin Centola and Paladin Vlahos before, yes?”

He paused, then seemed to register Michael’s presence. “Oh, yes! Paladin Centola, this lord greets you, and must thank you for aiding him in subduing that dastardly leviathan!”

“…Aiding you.” Did the blood loss affect his brain?

“Yes, of course, aiding! That is what happened, and what everyone knows happened!” He smiled, a glint of that previous cold calculation appearing in his eyes. “And one wouldn’t want to contradict the Shogun who saved the country, now would they?”

For some reason, Michael didn’t feel angry. Really, there was no hint of anger in the slightest. They were just genuinely baffled that one man could actually be that audacious. He does know I’m an angel, right? Does he think I’m trying to hide that?? I mean, I am, but why would that mean I’ll just let him do whatever he wants?!?

“But of course, we can’t forget the other heroes who contributed so greatly!” he continued, gesturing to Polina, who shut her mouth with a faint click, “Truly, you have this lord’s thanks, and he will ensure you are honored highly for being representative of your nations’ deep friendship and commitment to our own!”

“Alright, let’s leave the political talk for later,” Eiko said, standing. She smiled at the Shogun, which wasn’t what Michael wanted to see in the slightest. “Today is a day for honoring our heroes, so please, allow this empress to propose a toast!”

Her voice raised, drawing the attention of the daimyos and other guests as Eiko strolled over to a pitcher of some alcohol and picked it up along with two cups. She handed one to Kawajiri and raised the pitcher, earning a startled look from the shogun.

“Ah–Your majesty, that is too much–”

“Nonsense! You deserve this, Shingo.” Eiko poured him a cup, before doing the same for herself. She set the pitcher on the table, pressed her forehead to her husband’s for a moment–Right, she probably can’t kiss…be affectionate as easily without lips.–and then raised her cup. “To the heroes who save our nation! To the soldiers who battled our foes and the volunteers that rescued our people! To the righteous samurai of our nation and our friends from foreign lands! And to Kawajiri Shingo, the last Shogun of Gorokiva!”

There was a cheer as the assembled nobility and guests toasted along with the empress, and from where Michael was sitting, they could see the moment Kawajiri’s smile dropped. “…did you say last?”

“Mm?” Eiko finished her drink, sighed happily, then grinned up at him. “But of course! This empress is sure you understand, but after half of the daimyo betrayed our nation, there’s no way we can keep our current political structure. Really, it’s far better if we consolidate the military power, especially since your distance from the capital meant it couldn’t be adequately used in this emergency. Add in how the current Lord Rokuhara turned traitor under our noses and his family has traditionally held that position…well, the office is somewhat tainted, wouldn’t you agree?

She smiled, patting him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry though, our nation will survive this transition just fine, thanks to your efforts! So please, do enjoy your retirement while your son continues his duty as your family’s lord.”

Kawajiri’s eyes darted towards his son, who was laughing along with–Oh, there’s where Anaya went. Wait, does she have that autograph book out again? When did she bring that along??

Anaya’s absurdities aside, the former Shogun’s mouth worked silently, as though he wasn’t quite sure how to reply, but he shook it off and took a breath. “Your majesty, while this lord appreciates the honor–”

“Good, you should.”

He winced. “…he…it would be prudent to note that the office of shogun has existed since–”

“Since many many centuries ago, this empress is aware, and she’s certain your name will last centuries more as the last one. Enjoy the honor, Shingo.”

Despite everything, it looked like he was about to reply again, when a large hand clamped down on his shoulder and Katsuro Rokuhara grinned down at him. “Hey Shin, congrats on your retirement! Me and the others were chatting about all the wild shit that happened and I’m sure you’ve got stories to tell! So how bout it?”

He didn’t wait for a reply, instead dragging the still stunned man away, where he was greeted with cheer and congratulations he clearly did not want. Still…

“His only punishment is retirement?” Michael asked as Eiko sat back down.

“Heh. Paladin Misha, forgive me for saying so, but you clearly have a lot to learn when it comes to what people regard as punishments.” The empress smiled. “Sometimes you don’t have to rip down everything a person built to drive home that they’re done.”

“…hmph. It still doesn’t feel like enough.”

“And he’ll be thinking the same thing for the rest of his life.”

And that was that. 

Kawajiri later stated to the public that he was stepping down from the position of his own volition, but Michael did notice a great deal of frustration on the man’s face the few times they encountered him again during their stay in Gorokiva.

Which, again, did take far longer than they wanted it to. Largely because Anaya wanted to tour the city and Noriko was extremely excited to show them around to every location she thought would be fun to visit, ranging from some kind of ninja monastery she apparently trained at that they couldn’t even see until she knocked on the front door to some outcropping along the coast where an enormous nest of golden ox-spiders was residing. 

The fact that Michael wasn’t allowed to burn the clearly cursed place to the ground was, in their opinion, immensely stupid, but apparently it was “important to the economy” or some nonsense. That wasn’t even getting into the fact that they spent a full day being dragged along to various theaters once the businesses were opened again to satisfy Noriko’s demand that they “experience culture”. 

Sure, some of the shows were funny and the mechanical puppets were interesting, and yes, they may have gasped when a stagehand in one drama turned out to actually be a ninja who assassinates the protagonist’s father, but it was still a waste of their time! Mostly! They did get oddly invested in the rakugo show…They wound up buying Noriko some mochi after that one, which earned a very bright smile.

Still, the touring lasted longer than was necessary, even if they did learn more about the country than they ever really cared to know–

“Wait, there are five provinces?”

“Six, technically,” Noriko replied, holding out a map for them, “See? Arashino is the capital’s province, where we are, and the peninsula up here is Genkino.”

“Ooo. Wait, so does that have any daimyo ruling it?” Anaya asked, leaning over Noriko’s other shoulder while attempting to keep the bag of fried squid in her hand steady.

“Nope, just some ministers. It’s still a hereditary position coming from the Hosokawa family, but they’re just not official daimyo, mostly because of tradition. This gal wouldn’t be surprised if they decide to apply for the title now though, with all the traitors and stuff.”

“Ahh, interesting. So do they have a season associated with them?”

“Does Arashino?” Michael asked, frowning, “There’s only four seasons.”

“Technically Arashino represents ‘Monsoon’, which is a season in some places characterized by heavy storms and rain. Makes sense for the capital of thunder, right?” Noriko asked, grinning, “As for Genkino, she’s pretty sure the name is actually a mistake ancient Gororans made when it came to translating things, since it’s supposed to be the ‘land of spirits’, but they misunderstood what ‘genki’ means. Different kind of spirit, more peppy than spooky. But then the name stuck so whoops.”

“They could still correct it…huh.” Michael leaned closer, frowning at the image of the peninsula. “…Isn’t that where Lokaliva was?”

“Hm? Is it?”

They pointed directly at the peninsula on the map, nodding to themself. “Yes, I’m fairly certain it is…”

“…Like the lost kingdom Lokaliva?” Anaya asked, “The one the western ocean is named after?”

“Yes, that one. Unless there’s another Lokaliva.”

“No no, that…huh. Well that’s one mystery I didn’t expect to solve today…”

–including some things that were apparently “archeologically significant” for some reason. 

That aside, they also had to wait some time for Katsuro to take them back to Kyora, which meant spending more days “relaxing” and “enjoying good food” and other such diversions while all kinds of political matters were being handled, like some business with those Blue Scale mercenaries and nonsense about new tax brackets. Though there was one unexpected interruption.


“You’re going home?” Michael asked, feeling…strange as they stared up at Polina.

“Yeah, in a sense. Just for a bit,” the minotaur explained. The two of them were sitting at a booth near a beach while the others were exploring around, picking up debris from the water while wearing far too little clothing in Anaya and Vivian’s case–bathing suits were clearly crafted by some type of lust demon, though Michael did have to admit it was better than them being naked–and poking at squid-crabs in Noriko and Kokriel’s case, with Amitiel supervising. The fact that the second, younger lightning angel had stuck around was a bit distracting, not least because of how often they hung off of Vivian, but they had more important things to focus on at the moment.

“Why? Did something happen?”

“More like somethin’ was already happenin’, and what happened here gave me some perspective on it.”

Michael frowned. “Stop being vague.”

She snorted, then took a drink from her glass of ice tea. “Hah…the coup here, with half the country going for the other half’s throats, made me think about Garoti rebellin’ back home. And maybe it’s nothin’. Tisma’s home now, Sollamava has other heroes to help, it should be fine. But part of me can’t help but wonder if there might be more there. Part of me can’t help but worry.”

“Hm…I see your point.” I could probably fly there, but that would mean leaving Anaya behind…best to check first. “Do you want me to kill Archduke Garoti for you?”

They leaned back to avoid the spray as Polina sputtered on her drink. “Gh-D-Dammit Mish, give a woman some warnin’! Y’can’t just–Ugh, never mind, look, no, no goin’ off and killin’ archdukes, even if they are treacherous pricks!”

“Language.”

That earned an incredulous look. “…You have the weirdest standards of anyone I’ve ever met. How’s that one bit of cussin’–No, never mind, again, I ain’t gonna like however this conversation goes.” She sighed, brushing some of the tea from her face, though a fair amount had soaked into her shirt already. “Anyways, my point here is that Ami and Viv are already goin’ up north to visit Sollamava next, and hey, even if it’s nothin’, it might be good for me to be their guide up there. I got a good enough sense of where everythin’ is, and I can teach them about my faith, same as I did for you.”

“…Those are valid points. However…” They considered matters. They had some objection to her leaving, they just needed to figure out what it was…Ah, there we go. “Didn’t you want to explore the continent? You wanted to see as much of it as possible.”

“Maybe not as much as possible, but yeah, you do have a point there. And the thing is, I still do, and I’m happy to travel with you gals, it’s just…I’m worried. Even if it’s nothin’, my brain’s not gonna let me ignore it, even if my heart wants to keep goin’.”

“I think it’s an issue if your internal organs are arguing.” 

“Nah, that’s just how bodies work. There’s cooperation, sure, but plenty of arguin’ too.” She huffed, amused at herself. “But hey, I’m still gonna be travelin’, just with Ami and Viv for a time. Least that’s the plan.”

“I see. So you’re trading us away then. How cruel of you,” they said. They attempted to keep their tone…lighter than typical, to show they weren’t trying to be harsh. 

“See, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard you be sarcastic, so whatever you’re doin’ there just sounds weird.”

Their eyes narrowed. “Let me rephrase then. Have fun with your new friends, you horrible traitor, worse than the coldest demon of the deepest hell. Is that better?”

“Much. You did real good there.”

“Thank you, I try.”

The silence stretched, buoyed by the distant sound of waves, then both of them sighed.

“I’ll miss you,” Michael elected to admit.

“…Heh. You don’t know how weird yet nice it feels to hear you say that.”

Polina was a friend, so they decided not to take offense. “I can guess.”

“But hey, it’s not like we won’t see each other again. Viv and Ami are probably headed to Zemava after Sollamava, so I could break off there, maybe try to meet up with you and Anaya again?”

Michael paused, considering their mental map of the continent. After spending so long in Gorokiva, they had to really think about just how their route would play out, especially since they still had to visit the temples… “We plan to head through Luceneva next, towards Orindaco, then up towards Tramontava, and Naloriva after that.”

“Hm, almost the exact opposite way of Ami and Viv, huh? Though, yeah, I think I can see a good spot there. We can meet up again in Tramontava, maybe around Stenistrata?”

“The capital?”

“Sure, why not? There’s supposed to be a decently big Wind Shrine over there, so we can use that as a landmark.” She grinned. “How’s that sound?”

“Good. It sounds good.”

“Good to hear.”

Michael hadn’t really thought about goodbyes. They were aware they would be saying goodbye to certain people, but actually leaving behind a companion was unexpected, in a strange way.

There was an unpleasant sensation in their chest as they said goodbye at the city gates. Amitiel gave them a hug. They shook Vivian’s hand. And they gave Polina a hug, because she was a friend.

And that was that.

“We’ll see her again, you know?” Anaya said, smiling up at them as they watched the rented carriage driving off.

“I’m aware.” Even if a part of them couldn’t help but think of the definition of “mortal” and how easily a goodbye could indeed be a final one.

“Aw, this gal didn’t expect to see such a sentimental side to you, Mishi~” Noriko teased from their other side, immediately eliciting a frown from the angel.

“What.”

“What? This gal thought you needed a cuter nickname.”

“…” They didn’t sigh. They wanted to though. “So when are you leaving?”

“Oh, she’s not.”

They blinked. “You’re not?”

“Nope! This gal has nothing better to do, so she’s gonna follow you two around!” She leaned around Michael’s back, giving a thumbs up towards Anaya. “You’re cool with that, right Naya?”

“Oh sure! The more the merrier!” the druid replied with a bright smile.

“Don’t I have a say in this?” Michael groused.

“You can say yes!” Noriko replied. And then both women were looking up at Michael with bright smiles and shining eyes and the angel felt something in them waver. Not their resolve, that was unshakeable, it was just…this situation had nothing to do with resolve to begin with, there was no resolution to deal with, so…

“I don’t recall saying I had objections…” they mumbled–Then Noriko was hugging them and they stepped away, phasing from her grip as the human squawked and flopped into the dirt. “…We should work on your coordination though–”

“Your sense of humor sucks and this gal shall have vengeance!” Noriko declared from the dirt.

“No, you won’t.”

“Hm.” They paused, glancing over at Anaya, who was studying them thoughtfully, for some reason. “…Hey Misha, did you ever explain to Polly that you’re an angel?”

“…”

“…”

“Wooooooooow–Gah! Hey, no kicking!”

Michael retracted their foot from where it’d lightly tapped Noriko’s side. “That wasn’t a kick, it was a nudge, much like one would nudge dirt out of their way. As to your question…hm. I could probably catch up with their carriage–”

“How about we just leave it for now, okay? We can make it a special surprise the next time we see her!” Anaya suggested.

“Hm. I suppose.” Well, that just meant they’d have to make sure to see Polina again. 

After all, an angel had to keep their promises.

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