“Former Daimyos of Mosa, Nobi, Hana, and Mera,” the Empress of Gorokiva began, sitting atop her throne as she looked down on the four traitorous lords within her sight, “Each and all of you stand accused of having engaged in plotting and attempting treason against this nation of Gorokiva. Each and all of you stand accused of collaborating, knowingly or otherwise, with foreign powers seeking the death and destruction of our people and culture. Each and all of you stand accused of facilitating the nationwide curse that afflicted our people, and each and all of you will be put on trial for these and all other crimes you may have committed.”
Eiko’s eyes slowly looked over each of the kneeling traitors, taking in the sight of those who once ruled within her nation. Each wore a different expression.
Saruta was pale and nervous, his eyes flicking to and fro, as though there was a route out of his current position; most often, his eyes drifted towards Lady Inukai, though they also frequently looked towards the armored samurai standing on his right, holding a sharp naginata that gleamed in the light.
Nakazono seemed more steady. He stared straight ahead, though not at the empress. His gaze was calm, even with his hands bound behind him. Though it may have been a forced calm. It was difficult to tell, but any man in his position could be allowed some nervousness. It did him credit that he at least attempted to keep his composure.
Nekotani looked surly, of all things. Like she was more irritated by her position than afraid. A bandage was affixed over her broken nose, adding to the perpetual scowl she wore, and more bandages visibly crossed over her chest, under the plain kimono she’d been draped in as a prisoner.
At least her surliness was better than Kogetsu. The man looked almost arrogant, even as he knelt. There was no humility in his eyes, no shame in his bearing, and no hint of remorse in any part of him.
Eiko was almost tempted to glare at him, to remind him of what his position was, but there were rules to how an Empress should compose herself in such a situation. Even if she did want to leave, snuggle up to Toki and cuddle her kids, and forget all her troubles. Maybe she should just make the whole country democratic? It wasn’t like she’d have to give up anything, she could stay as a wealthy figurehead…
No, those who wanted to rule had obligations to uphold. And one of those obligations was handling those who refused to accept that responsibility.
The remaining loyal Daimyo–and also Himuro Hirari, since apparently Daimyo Hizashi wasn’t turning back from a rooster–sat on either side of the throne room, on pillows along the walls. The specific spots set up for their families, established centuries ago. Most of the spots were empty now. Chief Torahiko sat in what was once the Nekotani’s spot, partially because it made sense for one of the Tiger Clan to sit where the Cat Clan typically sat, and partially because Eiko knew that was exactly what would piss off Nekotani even more, and she was feeling petty.
Subtly petty, in socially acceptable ways, like having the traitors kneel on the hard floor instead of on pillows. Just some small things.
“Until such a time as you may officially be put on trial for your crimes, you will be remaining in the custody of the Imperial Family. Your conduct during this period will factor into how your trials proceed, and any evidence or testimony you provide during these times may be used against you. As traitors to the nation, you and your clans will be stripped of all lands and titles. Your families will not be harmed for your actions, unless it is discovered they were actively complicit in your crimes.”
Saruta paled even further, his eyes fully on her now as he trembled. Nakazono bowed his head, perhaps in acceptance or in weariness. Nekotani scowled deeper, grinding her teeth. And Kogetsu had the audacity to roll his eyes.
Eiko almost raised an eyebrow at the arrogant idiot, but she still had decorum to maintain. “You have committed grave crimes against our nation and people. In ages past, you would be sentenced to painful executions or honorable suicides while your entire bloodlines were wiped from history entirely. Fortunately for you, we live in a more peaceful age, so your fate may be decided differently. At the very least, your families will not pay for your crimes, though they will not retain the privileges they have enjoyed in the past.” Even then, the likelihood of any of their families remaining in the country was low, as while official punishments may be lenient, few had sympathy for traitors, and every last loyal family member was bound to be a social pariah. The safest move would be to simply take whatever noble favors they could get and leave; an unofficial exile, as it were. “As for your own fates, they will be decided by the legal authorities you have decided do not apply to you, and the people you have stepped on in your vain climbs towards power.
“Your presence here today is an allowance in respect to your familys’ histories and nothing more. Some matters shall be discussed here, and you will be allowed to speak on your own behalf. Recognize that this is a privilege afforded to you and do not squander it.
She looked towards Saruta first. “Masahiko, you may stand.”
The former lord flinched at the use of his given name, but he managed to make it to his feet, even if his legs shook.
“…Th-Thi…Th-This l-ah, th-this m-man, he…” His mouth worked, words failing him. He took slow breaths, sweat beading down his face under the eyes of the assembled lords. “…M-May h-he…a-a-ask, a-ah…w-w-where…?”
“You wish to ask where Daigo is? Or the late Lady Isozaki?”
Somehow, he paled further. “…L-Late?”
“Meaning deceased. Lady Isozaki’s body was found alongside her husband’s in her castle. From all appearances, she committed suicide, potentially as penance.” The truth was obvious though. Isozaki Iwa was killed by the leviathans, most likely long before the traitors even devised their ideas for the coup. That information would be shared with the public once Eiko knew whether or not the other daimyo knew of it beforehand, though judging by Saruta’s shock, he clearly didn’t. “As for Daigo, the former Lord Rokuhara is being held in a cell within the city, where he will remain until his own trial is decided. This empress has no intention of allowing a traitorous dragon into her throne room, she’s not stupid.”
Saruta winced as her tone turned sardonic, but nodded. “Th-Then…th-this lord would, um…h-he would beg forgiveness for his transgressions! H-He…H-He apologizes, a-and would d-do his utmost to make up for his transgressions! Or, ah, actions? A-Actions, y-yes.”
“Crimes would also be a decent descriptor,” Eiko helpfully pointed out.
“…Y-Yes, h-he, ah…a-apologizes for those.”
“Your contrition is quite apparent. Fortunately for you, Masahiko, it appears you do have some friends left who take pity on a foolish soul like yours. Traitor though you are, you are also still what many would consider a young man, and the young are often led astray by those older who should have guided them towards virtue instead of vice.”
Realistically, he was twenty-six, only five years younger than Eiko and certainly old enough to know better, but the past decades hadn’t been kind and orphans with responsibilities were perhaps more common than they should be. Though Inukai turned out fine–well, relatively speaking–so she wasn’t sure she could even give him that excuse.
Still, he had an out, so she may as well provide him with it. “You will never hold power in this country again, but you may know mercy. As such, this empress provides you with a choice. You may enter into the custody of Lady Inukai, who will act as your warden, and live under arrest within her domain, with restriction. It will be up to her to decide if past fondness merits future kindness.”
“…” Saruta visibly swallowed, then looked over at Inukai, who returned his gaze with a steadiness and composure he sorely lacked. “…i-is there another option?”
“You can be executed or imprisoned for life in an actual prison.”
“A-Ah…um…” The indecision was mildly concerning, though judging by some redness, it might be less due to fear and more due to things that really shouldn’t be on his mind during a discussion about his potential imprisonment or execution. “…y-yeah, um, l-living with Koyu–L-Lady Inukai sounds fine.”
“You’re still under arrest. While we won’t completely cast you into a fate worse than death, as even the worst of criminals still maintain a right to dignity as sapient beings, your life is in her hands. Do not give her reason to believe you are not worth this chance.”
“Y-Yes, your majesty. Thank you, your majesty.” His bow was deep, and he looked less like he may collapse as he took to his knees again.
So Eiko turned her gaze to the next in line. “Nobuhito, you may stand.”
Nakazono stood, then bowed even deeper than Saruta. “This man has nothing he can say. He only offers meager apologies for his abhorrent conduct.”
“You admit your crimes then.”
“He does. This man has committed crimes against the nation and people he loves. He has no excuse, and does not pretend at justification. He believed in a cause that existed nowhere but in his own delusions, and he cannot make up for those who were hurt by his foolish decisions. He does not ask for clemency, and he can only thank you, your majesty, for declaring your intent to show mercy towards his family. His only request would have been for the innocent among his kin to be spared, and you have given that freely.” Tears dripped down, soaking into the floor even as Nakazono maintained his rigid bow. “He is ashamed. He is sorry. He is…so sorry.”
Committing treason for the love of his country…it was a shame that she could believe it. Nobuhito never struck her as a vile man, but then, his certainty in his own moral fortitude was an arrogance almost the same as Daigo’s. He’d let his conviction pull him towards taking a city hostage and it blinded him to what type of people he worked with.
She felt some pity for him. It was hard not to. “You will still have your day in court, Nobuhito. Your fate is not decided yet. If you are truly contrite, then accept what consequence comes to you.” Perhaps fate would be kind to him. He might do well in exile, or better in his next life. “You may sit.”
He straightened, doing nothing to brush away the tears that still rolled down his cheeks, and nodded. “Thank you for your kindness, your majesty.”
Then it was onto the next one. “Umeko.”
Nekotani visibly scowled, but stood nonetheless.
“You aided in the direct assault on the capital of our nation. You assaulted the protectors of this city with lethal intent. You laid siege to the empress you pledged your loyalty to. Do you have anything to say?”
Eiko waited. Nekotani said nothing else, just glaring sullenly at a spot on the floor in front of the empress. “You will receive a trial, the same as the other traitors. Your direct involvement in the coup will have bearing on your sentence. You had your chance to speak. Kneel.”
She grit her teeth and visibly bristled, but complied nonetheless. It seemed she had no interest in pleading her case.
Which left one more. “Teijo.”
“Finally, this lord thought we’d never get here.” More than a few of the daimyos assembled stared at Kogetsu in visible alarm and confusion at his audacity as the last of the traitors stood up. “There has been a grave miscarriage of justice here, and this lord will see it repaired!”
Eiko couldn’t help it. She raised an eyebrow. “…What do you mean, Teijo?”
“This lord is referred to as Lord Kogetsu, my empress, a title he shall most assuredly keep once you are made aware of his circumstances! For you see, this lord never once betrayed the nation of Gorokiva. He was on your side all along!”
She found it remarkably hard to believe someone could be a double agent for her without her knowledge. Still, she might as well see where this would go. “Would you explain?”
“I would! You see, from the very beginning, this lord had infiltrated the gathering of traitors who so outrageously betrayed our beloved country! While these malcontents, these reprobates, these treacherous louts plotted and planned their monstrous deeds, he acted as though he was one of them! He pretended! So that he might collect the necessary evidence to save our country from these monsters!”
By now, the other traitors were staring at Kogetsu in probably the most baffled and outraged expressions Eiko had ever seen. Only Saruta–who was leaning more towards the “baffled” side of the spectrum–looked like he even remotely believed Kogetsu’s nonsense, while Nekotani seemed so far on the outraged side that she was becoming visibly enraged.
“But then, before he could act to prevent this tragedy, he was callously struck by that damned red-winged angel! A foreign interloper who had no right to interfere in our nation’s affairs dared to strike me, a Daimyo of our great nation! So, truly, everything that happened was entirely her fault for completely failing to even have the barest respect for our country’s dignity as a sovereign nation!”
“So you didn’t have the town called Kyora razed and your daughter abducted?” Eiko inquired, mostly just to see what excuse he could have.
“Of course not! Those were all the actions of these wretches who so disrespect our beloved nation! My beloved daughter was even abducted by Rokuhara to use as a hostage against me! And when this lord went to rescue her, was he greeted as the hero he deserved to be seen as? No! He was instead struck by, again, a foreign interloper! Who deliberately launched him to the capital purely to frame him for the crimes he was attempting to prevent! Really, she might even be in on it! Didn’t she go speak to this wretched traitor before the battle?” He pointed to Nekotani with his bound hand, earning possibly the most affronted and enraged glare Eiko had ever seen. “It’s clearly a conspiracy, and they wished to make me their patsy!”
“And Umeko is arrested right alongside you because…?”
“Hmph, because these damned foreigners used these idiots as their lackeys! None of them–”
“Your majesty, this woman would like to speak,” Nekotani interrupted, her eyes still fixed on Kogetsu, who stiffened in outrage.
“How dare you interrupt me, you accursed traitor! You have no right–”
“She does,” Eiko said, then gestured for Nekotani to stand, “You may speak.”
“Thank you.” For the first time, the bandaged and bruised lady smiled, though no hint of mirth showed in her eyes. “She’ll make this quick. You have no need to worry about a trial for Lord Kogetsu.”
Kogetsu blinked. “Wha-Ah, well, of course not, it’s good you agree! This lord knew there was some good still in you!”
Nekotani twitched. In a moment, all the restrained rage she had vanished into a sudden, eerie serenity, as though she’d reached an enlightenment through her anger.
“No need for an execution either. I’ll handle that now.” And in less than a second, she was on him. Her hands were still bound, so she had to use her teeth.
Amidst the sudden panic, as the guards tried to pull Nekotani from Kogetsu without ripping out his throat completely, Eiko found herself musing that maybe it wasn’t the best idea to seat the rabbit beside the cat.
The cell was dark. Cold too, made to restrain someone with a fiery spirit until whatever flame they had was dimmed and dull.
Daigo wasn’t shivering, but Kawajiri Shingo felt chilly. Almost sluggish.
He touched the pendant of heat he wore, and sighed at the warmth that suffused his clothes, before he looked at the former lord. The last lord of the dragon clan. Even hobbled, his every limb locked tight as he was forced to kneel, Daigo was still almost taller than him.
Daigo had seen better days. Bruises swelled his face and chest, both of which were bare in a cell cold enough to have first clinging to the stones. Thick chains leashed him to one wall, enough that he could have the barest movement and nothing more. The metal around his throat was strong enough that he’d break before it would, should he try to transform. If he even could.
“So the shogun comes to greet the dragon. To what does he owe the honor?” He was still missing teeth. Both of his eyes were blackened, the red scales–more than there once were–bruised dark enough to match the purpled parts of his flesh. Even then, Shingo couldn’t tell if Daigo meant he was honored, or if he was implying Shingo should be.
“…This man felt it best to…talk.” To be honest, for once.
“Why? You know this dragon wants you dead. What more is there to say?”
“…He’s surprised you’re still so bruised. The strikes of those empowered by the heavens must truly be fierce.”
“They were, but your assumption is wrong. These are fresher than that.” He smirked through bruised lips, the gaps showing in his teeth. “My bastard brother came to speak. It seems he took exception to my decisions. Something about his little village, his little wife, things like that.”
Shingo nodded, slowly. “Most men do take umbrage with those who would harm their families.”
“Like you do with me? No, you would be angrier if Nakazono had killed your family, so that didn’t work.” He shrugged. “A pity.”
“…What happened to you?”
“I lost. The gods saw my pride and struck me down, lest I threaten them in truth.”
“No. No, not that, and you know as well as I do that you never had a chance to reach the heavens! That’s not what this is about!” He took a breath, trying to calm himself. The pendant felt almost too hot now. “You…You betrayed your country.”
“I would have fixed–”
“No, you wouldn’t! The fact that you sold your services to foreign powers, that you let some leviathan curse the entire country–Why!? What could have possibly made you think this was the right path!?”
“A dragon has no need to explain himself to a snake.”
“…You don’t get it, do you? You’re the last one. The name Rokuhara is done in this country. Your family, your bloodline…it’s over. It has ended, and you…generations of noble dragons, and you shattered it. Your brother, the pardoned criminal, he’s given up the name. He’s chosen to go by his wife’s, by ‘Yojin’ instead. You’re the last Lord Rokuhara, and your name will die in disgrace.”
“As though your ‘disgrace’ matters to me. No matter what you may declare, you will never rob me of my true nobility, snake. This is not my end.”
“IT IS! This is it! Either you die beneath an executioner’s blade, or you live just like this! In cold cell after cold cell, day after day, year after year, until you die! That’s the fate you’ve earned! That’s…” He tried to reach, as though he could do anything to make him understand, then his hands fell to his side. “…And I am the last shogun. The position is being dissolved and the country unified under the empress and parliament, of all things…”
His smirk turned to a sneer. “…You’ve won then. Congratulations.”
“…In what world have I won? The office I dedicated my life to, the honor I tried to uphold…” He shook his head, tried to refocus. “…Your mother died for this country. She fought against that dragon of the Dark Lands, held it off so many more could survive. And you…you killed those people instead. Why?”
“You have nerve to speak of my mother.” His tone was low, angry. “I knew what you were from the start. From the moment I saw you, the reedy drake who followed her as her assistant. I knew you were a pathetic leech clinging to your betters, and you proved me right at every turn.”
“…I did what I thought was best. I wanted us to be prosperous.”
“You usurped a position that was rightfully mine.”
“That’s…I assumed the position because your mother died. I worked, every day, to try to live up to her legacy.”
“…” Shingo slowly nodded. “It seems I did…but what then? You could have talked to me. If you truly thought I was doing wrong…why didn’t you speak to me?”
“What dragon speaks to a snake? If you knew your place, you would have abdicated, not clung to power.”
“I…It had to be me though. Anyone else…you were too young, the others…so many died, and…someone else would have done it wrong.”
The sneer returned. “You did it wrong.”
“But you could have done better. This wasn’t how it had to be.”
“You still don’t get it. I never would have lowered myself to work with you.”
“…You wouldn’t, would you?” He nodded again, more to himself. “…I loved your mother. She was my inspiration.” He tilted his head. “I don’t know why it took me this long to see there was nothing of her in you.”
“HA! Lie to yourself all you want, snake, but my pride is hers. The blood in my veins came from hers, and your false idea of some imagined idol can never match that. The only difference is that I won’t die for sentimentality.” There was a madness in his eyes, obvious now, burning a bright crimson. “Call me a disgrace all you want. I will never bow, and I will never die!”
“…So you say. If that is all, then I suppose this will be it.” He sighed. “…Out of respect for the blood in your veins, I have to ask. Do you have any final requests?”
He expected laughter, maybe. Some kind of declaration that Daigo neither wanted nor needed anything from him, ever. He didn’t expect the wide smile, showing just how many teeth the defeated dragon was missing.
“Actually, I do. There’s a cell here that I want to visit.” The fire in his eyes hadn’t dimmed in the slightest. “There is a ‘vassal’ of mine that I must have words with.”
The air in Kozloi’s cell was uncomfortably dry. Somehow, no matter what time it was, no matter what conditions there were outside, the small room she was imprisoned in always maintained the exact same level of arid heat. Her best guess was that it was made to contain those with a more watery nature.
She didn’t have just a watery nature anymore, which was likely why she had a collar of coldmetal around her neck. Aside from that, her hands were manacled in front of her and her ankles were cuffed. There was some freedom of movement, enough to shuffled around the interior of her stuffy cell, but not much to do aside from wait for meals and relax on the provided cot.
It wasn’t overbearing, just enough to be annoying and make her consider stripping out of the thin robe she wore, if just to keep it from clinging when she felt sweaty.
“Ffff…they’d better not leave me in here to bake. I want my execution to be at least a little more interesting,” she groused to herself, resting her head against the back wall. It wasn’t even cool enough to be comfortable…
The bruise on her face still throbbed from where the angel struck her. It was an irritating reminder of her circumstances, exhausting as they were. She’d gotten used to the perpetual heat though, enough so that she noticed the sudden shift in the air. It was a subtle thing, like a small breeze on a warm day, but it was enough to make her sit up and take notice. Especially when that breeze became a slowly building gust.
The light above her flickered, which shouldn’t have been possible. Light stones were affixed to its insides, those shouldn’t go out for years, but then, all at once, it was dark. And she heard a low chuckle on the breeze.
“I have to say, it’s not every day I break into a prison, and you certainly picked a fun one to get yourself locked up in.” The demonic voice echoed in the dark. “Y’know, it’s not even technically a prison? It’s a monastery, y’know like a chapel but for nerds. And these bunch of nerds, oh, they’re fun, very fun, some kind of…shade shinobi or whatever, but the real fun part of it is that they trained that little fucker following around the jackass angel that put you in a crater!” There was another laugh. “Ain’t life’s coincidences grand~?”
“…Sure, they’re interesting,” Kozloi replied to the figure looming over her, “May this herald ask your name?”
“Oh are you being cheeky? Trying to be formal, or just mimicking the Goros out there? Or both?” There was a rush and she could see spirals in front of her eyes. “If it’s both, I might be mean to you here~. Cheeky gals get my blood up~”
“…Alright, I’ll be more casual, if you’d prefer that. Are you one of the demons the Prophet contracted?”
“Oh no no no, not quite, your Listener contracted me. So you’re technically right if we go up the line of authority, but, ah, let’s not. I don’t have a head for politics. Well, that’s a lie, I have forty of them in jars, but we’re talking about you, not my collections, unless you’re offering?”
Kozloi tried not to sigh. Wasn’t there a rule of three or something when dealing with demons? “Demon, I ask that you tell me who you are.”
“Ooo, getting serious now, cute~ But then you are a pretty thing in general, aren’t you? Very hybridy, very interesting, but! You’re right, I’m being rude, and no one likes to hire a rude worker, at least as long as the one they’re being rude to is you.” She had the impression that the demon stood, and then swept into a bow as the darkness shifted and the breeze blew, coalescing into a tall, thin humanoid…holding a hat in its flourishing hand. A bowler hat, her mind supplied, somehow.
The demon stood and rolled the hat up their arm before it popped up and landed on their head, instantly casting all the shadows in the room away. The light was back, but it had changed, casting a purple glow over the grinning demon with violet skin and pitch-black teeth. Spirals cascaded across their skin, curling and winding over a narrow torso and thin limbs until they reached her fingers, which curled like snakes as she adjusted her hat.
“Nice to meet you, Kozloi Banguani mar Zyafol. You can call me Thrillseeker, or just Seeker for short.” She leaned again, her grin getting wider. The hat covered her eyes. For good reason, Kozloi couldn’t help but feel. “I am what we in the business call a Manager. An Upper-Manager, specifically, and a CEO if we want to get corporate.” She chuckled. “If we want to get old school though, you might understand the rank better as Demon Prince.”
“…” Kozloi swallowed, wincing at the feeling of her dry throat.
“Nothing to say? No cheeky comment? Because I did like the cheeky comment. Or is it just a matter of thinking the title’s inaccurate? I know, I know, I really am more of a princess, don’t you agree?” She cocked her hip and placed a hand on her chest, her finger curling over her collarbones. “You could get a closer look if you really want~”
Kozloi kept her eyes steady, and tried to smile back. “I-I’ll have to refuse that offer.”
Her mind raced back to old lessons. Do not thank her. Do not say you appreciate anything. Do not accept anything.
Don’t put yourself in her debt.
“Ooo, you clocked it, didn’t you? See, plenty of people see the purple and assume Pride, and while I’m sure that would appeal to you, I’ve got a golden heart in my chest here, as I’m sure you figured out.” Her smile curled up her cheeks. Literally curled, the teeth and skin spiraling the further up it went. “And that brings me to why I’m here, bothering you instead of trying to ransack whatever sacred scrolls the dumbfucks upstairs are clinging onto. I have a job, an order made that I’ve gotta carry out.
“Your Listener was fine with leaving you to rot, ah, not to Rot but to decay like a corpse in the dirt, but other factors, higher factors, wanted things more directly handled. Imagine my surprise to receive an order like that, but here we are.” Her head tilted, and Kozloi felt her head involuntarily duck as a hint of golden eyes nearly showed. It wasn’t even conscious, just an instinct that if she looked, something horrible would happen. “So, oh clashing cutie, we have some decisions to make. Because consent is important! Robbery is a cruel thing, left for the boors and the classless.
Kozloi stiffened as she felt those fingers winding through her hair and curling around her tentacles. She tried not to recoil. She could handle it. “So you alone have the options here. The request was that you be dealt with, so a deal has to be struck. My client would prefer you die for being inconvenient, and that’s an option for you. You pass on and go to the depths of your ancestors…but then, your kind fears Tehom these days, don’t you?”
She couldn’t stop the shiver. The sudden cold. “…N-Not that one.”
“Oh so you can talk again! Good good, that makes this easier, communication is key, y’know. Now your second option is one I like that’s more of a…modification of what we already have, which is that I take you.” One finger wound around her throat, tapping at the collar there. The end of it looked almost wormlike, like some sort of narrow tubing. “One swift motion, you die here, and I collect you. You are fascinating to me, a hybrid soul born from Beast magic gone wrong, and I promise, I’d be a better master than the one that wants you dead.”
She couldn’t help the flinch. “She doesn’t–!”
“Aw, no, who do you think the order came from? Come on, no illusions here, we’re all big girls. Anyhow, option three, you remember those cute cards Tangie brought you? My orange gal, matching your nice scales, if you can’t figure out the context clues. Point is, you don’t get owned by me, but you do get some kind of master, along the line.” She flicked a blank card out from nowhere, the paper glossy and black between her fingers, which lowered down to show her. “It’s a project, one we’re hoping to expand from little curses to outright heroes, and who knows? We might even make multiple prints, once Crafter pieces it together better, and you’ll live on, eternal, as…how’s ‘The Cursed Herald’ sound? You could be a mix of Water/Fire typing and everything!” She paused, making a thoughtful noise. “Actually, that’s not a half bad idea in general…think you’re up to sell your likeness? No, no, that’s basically option three in a nutshell, let’s not get too bogged down in the logistics, we’re not swampdwellers here.”
“…” Her hands gripped the cloth of her robes. She didn’t want any of them. This was shit. “…what’s option four?”
“Being cute again, I see, but you are right, there is a fourth option. Four’s significant, even more than three, so here’s what you get: I leave.”
She had to fight her desire to look up. “What? You…leave? With nothing?”
“Did I say that? I didn’t say that. I said ‘I leave’. I leave you, here, to bake or broil or whatever the Goros want to do to you, and you live for however long it takes for you to wind up going down option one. Or, maybe, just maybe, you find a way out, enough to let you go, and you scamper out to swim with the fishes as a pretty little hybrid cursed to never see her home again, because you know they’ll kill you if you go back.” Seeker smiled again. “But I’m not leaving without something. A deal has to be made, since I said I’d deal with you.”
She crouched suddenly, right in front of Kozloi, and the leviathan flinched, only to see the hat was hiding the demon’s eyes again.
“So I need something, cutie, and since I doubt they want you to talk about the plans and plots under the sea, the deal is simple: Your tongue for your life.”
“…My tongue?” Her own words echoed in her ears. That she’d sooner bite her tongue than speak. The thought made her shiver now.
“Can’t talk without a tongue, can you? And if you’re wondering, thinking there’s a way out and around, lemme tell you a simple thing, a free sample of knowledge that I’ll be billing your boss for: Any deal made with a devil is final. I take your tongue, you never get a tongue back. A prosthetic, sure, maybe, some fake to replace it, maybe, but a real, perfect tongue? Nah, never, it’ll burn in your mouth. So count it lucky that I’m not looking to buy your voice.”
“I…can…can I ask for some time?”
“Sure you can. I’m the nice one, so take some time, take a reprieve, but know that you’re committed now. You’ve gotta make a decision, and time’s money.”
And then the demon was gone. But the light stayed purple.
“…” Kozloi took a breath, trying to steady her pounding heart. She could hear it, almost. The tick-tock of her time running out. Her father had one of those clocks, a bright, silver thing he’d taken in a raid. She felt she could hear it now.
It wasn’t fair. She knew the risks of being a herald, she knew the duties expected of her, she knew what purpose she served, but what the hell was this?! She knew there were consequences to being caught, she knew her death was a real possibility, but why was it coming from her own side!?! She carried out her duties exactly as she needed!
She was one of the strongest in her generation, a natural born leviathan, one of Fathom’s chosen! She wasn’t a runt like Borzla or a freak like Rumari! She was a Herald, damn it! Everything, from her upbringing to her efforts, marked her as someone worthy! She was chosen for this damned mission, she didn’t even volunteer! So why!? What wasn’t good enough?!
She’d curled in on herself before she realized it, but the tears in her eyes burned with rage, not sorrow. There was pain, the thought that everything she’d ever done was thrown away by a wretch who didn’t even care about what she gave, the thoughts that she’d never see her family again, that she’d never again relax in her little room atop the tortoiseshell and watch the light play across the glass treasure she’d admired, but it was being buried under a surging fury that steamed against the collar around her neck.
To lose the angel was infuriating, but to be betrayed by her Prophet…
“…” She raised her head. “…”
There was no reply to her silence. The room remained empty, but the purple light still shone.
So she opened her mouth and let her tongue hang out over her jaw.
“…heheheha, ah, I don’t hate that. I do think it’s a shame though. I would’ve appreciated you much more than…hm?”
Kozloi glared at the air, daring the demon to take what she claimed to want, when the lock to her cell clicked and the steel door begant to unlock. She stared in some confusion, then hastily put her tongue back in her mouth, before she saw the figure in the doorway. “…oh.”
Daigo Rokuhara had to bend to fit in her cell. Chains covered him, thick and heavy, and he was almost kneeling as he still loomed over her, an iron mask covering the lower half of his face. “Yumin. Or is it Kozloi?”
“…” She glanced around him to see a pair of black-clothed guards, glaring at the dragon’s back, and a blue drake standing beside the door, a conflicted expression on his face. “…Hello, my lord.”
“You know that’s not the right form of address.”
“I’m already in prison. I don’t think they care about etiquette.”
“You should still refer to this dragon properly. You claimed to be his vassal. But then, you never were.”
“…” A part of her felt there was some irony here. That she was so devastated by betrayal when she’d betrayed others so readily. There were differences though. She’d never been on Daigo’s side. The Prophet chose to throw her away. “And what of it?”
“You used this dragon’s cause to attack his nation. You manipulated and used him to drive his country into war, all so you could transform his people into beasts and drive us all into ruin. You used him. You used me.”
“…and what of it?” She didn’t like how quiet her voice sounded.
He stepped closer. “And look what’s become of you as a result. You barely hid the truth from me before, but this dragon never did see what you looked like naturally.” His red eyes roamed over her, before settling on her marred face. “Half leviathan, half dragon. The curse of the Beast was more of a blessing to you.”
Her fists clenched and she glared up at him.
“So fierce, even now.” He took another step. His wrists were manacled, but his hands were free.
She looked at the guards, who still stood in the doorway, and then the drake, who couldn’t meet her gaze.
“Look at me.” Ah. So that was it then.
She looked up at the lord she’d deceived. The dragon, big enough to crush her head in his hands. His red eyes burned with a flame, still bright and raging.
“What is your full name? Who are you?”
“…Kozloi Banguani mar Zyafol. Daughter of Ralk, child of the great Zyafol, and Herald of the…” She collected her thoughts. “Herald of Fathom. A liar who deceived you and cursed your country.”
He nodded, slowly. “Understood.”
She nodded to him in turn. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. When faced with an eternity of cold, a warm death felt better.
Daigo approached until he was right in front of her, then knelt. “Stand. I want to look into your eyes.”
She felt her lips twitch in some amusement. Funny how clear her head felt now. She stood.
He nodded once more. “Kozloi Banguani mar Zyafol, daughter of Ralk. You have deceived me, cursed me, and brought me lower than any other. Would you marry me?”
Kozloi blinked. “…what.”
His expression was completely serious. “You are the most conniving and callous woman I have ever met. My every moment with you has filled me with a warmth and passion to drive the world to its knees that I had never felt before you. My rage was once impotent and you gave it meaning. I love none, but I would give you all I had to give and more I would eagerly take.”
His eyes were bright and intense as he leaned closer. “You are the most beautiful being I have ever encountered and I want you like no other.
“…” How was one supposed to act when something they weren’t expecting to face happened just as they accepted their death? For one such as Kozloi, sentenced to die by her prophet, she had no answer, so she did the only thing she could.
Not out of joy, or of malice, but of something she couldn’t describe.
“…you would propose to someone who betrayed you, and has no reason to be loyal?”
Kozloi always knew he was foolish, but it seemed Daigo could reach beyond the depths she had already seen.
“It is because of that, that this man wishes to propose. To have something that can never truly be his is quite the treasure, is it not?”
“So I’m a treasure, huh?” Kozloi lips began to curl mirthlessly.
“The greatest this Dragon has ever seen.”
Well, there was probably some benefit to having him on her side, even if he was currently as locked up as she was. And it did feel good to have someone look at her with such intense desire…She’d never been a romantic, not in the lovey sense, but even she could see the value in having someone love her.
So, not really expecting anything, Kozloi leaned in and gave Daigo a kiss on the forehead. “Then sure, I will accept your proposal. I’m yours, and you’re mine.”
Every single lock restraining Daigo clicked open at once right as a sudden breeze slammed the heavy steel door shut with an enormous crash. Kozloi had a second to blink before Daigo surged forward without hesitation, his warm lips suddenly meeting her own. She stared, a little warm and a lot confused, then his fist crashed into and through the wall behind her head.
There was shouting outside the door as his wings burst from his back, large and mighty, and she could hear the crash of waves beneath the now present hole in her wall. She felt a laugh bubble up, disbelief at her luck warring with a sudden excitement as Daigo clutched her close, turning his head towards the door with a smirk.
“THANK YOU FOR ACQUIESCING TO MY REQUEST, SHOGUN KAWAJIRI! ENJOY YOUR DISGRACE!” And with one heavy flap of his wings, the two of them were airborne, and Kozloi couldn’t stop her laughter.
The leviathan’s laughter echoed in the air along with the cursing from one guard and the yelling of the other as he lambasted the former Shogun for whatever sentimental stupidity had possessed him to allow such an escape opportunity for the worst traitor alive in the country, all while the lightstone in the ceiling slowly lost its violet glimmer. And once it did, an amused breeze swirled around itself and floated outside the new, convenient opening that made it so much easier for her to leave than her original plan.
The wind almost whistled around the Three Shades Monastery. Things were just going so well for Seeker lately! For the most part. Sure, she hadn’t gotten a cool, fancy hybrid dragon-leviathan, but who knew? Maybe in a few generations, she’d had more opportunities to make some deals~.
But the future was for later, and for now, she had other things to do, and while she would love to keep floating about the mortal realms, she, again, had other things to do. To anyone looking, it might have looked as though there was a brief crack in the air. But no one was, so it didn’t.
Sulfur and brimstone were commonly used when describing the scents of the demonic, but such descriptors often missed the subtle nuances of what a devilish aroma could truly carry. Anyone who ever visited the Fourth Circle, for instance, would probably describe it as smelling far more of molten gold, which had a very peculiar scent all its own.
Seeker’s feet formed first as she strode onto the landing pad extending from the Mortal Acquisitions skyscraper, her black dress shoes glinting in the light of millions of roaring furnaces. Black, striped suspenders covered her–still long but much more human in proportion–lower body and extended over a white dress shirt complete with a very nice purple tie covered in black spirals. She adjusted her face, fixing some details, then slipped on a pair of black gloves to keep her hands into the right shape. Lastly, she popped off her favorite hat and slicked back the golden hair that threatened to otherwise spill over her violet face before her golden horns finally jutted up from her head.
“Hmm, ponytail, yes or no?” she mused to herself, her golden eyes idly glancing over the clockwork automatons–dressed as frilly maids, of course–that busied themselves about her office, because offices were places to be busy, and she was a very professional devil. “…nah, Labby’s not gonna give a shit.”
Speak of the devil, her cute apprentice/intern was sitting in front of her desk! Waiting for her, and pretty clearly sinking into the leather caress of her fancy waiting chairs. Though she looked more awkward than relaxed, but that might have to do with all the hunting gear she was still wearing, so clearly it wasn’t Seeker’s fault.
“Like ‘em? The auctioneer I got ‘em from claims they fell down from Altum, so those are potentially genuine Socordian leather!” Seeker said as she took a seat on her desk, grinning at the newbie.
“…I think it’s trying to eat me.”
“They do that.” Seeker rubbed her chin, thinking. “They might be Gulan leather, now that I think about it…or maybe I’m thinking of Pigritian? Maybe maybe…”
“Mm. Ah…did things go well, Madam Seeker?”
“Ah ah, no Madam here, I’m not your boss, I’m just your boss! Be friendly, make me think you value me as more than a source of money when you know I don’t value you as anything more than a source of labor!”
“Still wrong, but we’ll work on that. Now then, you got arrested, how was that?”
Ah, there was that flush of shame. She really was cute for a daughter of the Plaguemother, especially with her birdy mask off and her ivory hood down, showing her tightly braided and pallid locks. “…it was humiliating. I failed.”
“Nope, cutting that off now, you didn’t fail in the slightest. You protected your client and ensured her getaway, so that’s a big success for you.” Seeker flicked her hand, forming a folder with very important notes, and pulled her reading glasses from her breast pocket to look ever more professional as she pretended to peruse her own random scribblings. “Sure, you got captured, but you didn’t get killed, and I sprung you, so tell me, how’s it count as a failure?”
“…You shouldn’t have needed to ‘spring’ me. I should have handled that angel or made my escape. Because I didn’t, I let slip information that ruined the leviathans’ plans.”
“How’s that? Their plans went on without a hitch and they never caught the Listener. Your slip up barely helped them, though sure, you did slip. Oaths are a pain in the ass, let me tell you that now, and part of learning is figuring out how to work around them, just like dealing with heroes means knowing they’ll know those tricks.”
“B-But I still lost! I could have–”
“Ah buh bup,” Seeker interrupted, pointing at Labby with the tip of her spade-headed tail instead of bothering with her hands. She needed to doodle–AKA write a report–after all. “You went up against a Cardinal angel, and those freaks of nature are problems to demons on my level, much less a youngster like you.”
“…” Her gaze lowered as she scowled, her gloved hands clenching into fists. “…I still don’t like it.”
“And that’s good! You feel that feeling in your chest there, that anger and resentment? Keep that going! Stoke it! Let it fester! You don’t get a plague going by letting it die down, right? You need to push it up, to let it infest and inflict and all those other words! Let your anger motivate you until you can’t help but dream of ripping that angel down from the sky and tearing them apart!” She hopped off the desk, tossed the folder away, and put her hands on the armrests on either side of Labby, letting her smile widen and spiral. “Tell me something, Labby Labs, do you want Michael dead? Do you want to rip their spine out with your hands? Their throat out with your teeth? Do you want to crush them so completely and utterly until they cling to you as the only source of warmth in the life?! Do you want vengeance!?”
“…” Labatu blinked up at her. “Ah…not to that extent, no. I just want to beat them up?”
“And that’s fine!” Seeker replied, straightening back up and fixing both her hair and her face, “Intense loathing towards a nemesis isn’t for everyone, and really, I’m glad you’re not going for mine because threeway blood feuds get awkward, let me tell you.” She sat back on her desk, crossing one leg over the other. “I’ll still try to arrange another shot at Mikey later for you though, see if we can’t get a good prize fight out of it. Just, ah, so long as we’re being frank, if I don’t give you the go ahead to kill them, you’re not killing them, kay? Kay.”
Labby slowly nodded. Clever girl, understood things better than most newbies. “Um…on the topic of vengeance though, ah…I…sort of, may have…declared a death oath against a paladin of light.”
“Ooo? Oh, that’s fun, is that your first?”
“Ah, yeah. It was…impulsive.”
“That’s fine! The best death oaths are made on impulse, but I’m guessing the problem here is that you’re feeling like you jumped in too quickly, right?”
“R-Right. There are, ah, supposed to be consequences for failing one of those, right?”
“Oh sure, it leaves a permanent scar on your soul that can never be repaired, same for breaking any oath. Hurts like a motherfucker, let me tell you that, not a good idea, but! But but, here’s the thing, death oaths are like the easiest of oaths to fulfill because mortals are, as you might’ve guessed, made to die! Seriously, all of them, every one, passes at some point or another, that’s why they’re called mortals, and so long as she doesn’t turn that into immortal, you’ve got a shot!”
“Ah, true…but what if she dies by other means?”
“Now see, that’s the fun part. Technically speaking, you don’t have to directly kill them for it to count, you can just contribute to their death! Lemme guess, you used the ‘I’ll see you dead’ one?” At her nod, Seeker grinned. “Perfect! Then literally all you have to do is see her death, make sure you’re there for it! So long as there’s at least some excuse that you’re mildly responsible for it, like, say, tossing a discus into the air and it coincidentally hits her in the head, or you go yodeling and it causes an avalanche on her village, or even you sufficiently piss of someone else who decides to stab her later, you’re in the clear! Nothing to worry about, solid B plus for this mission, no need to get in a tizzy, and I’m saying that genuinely, swear to my golden heart, it’s not just because your mother terrifies me on a spiritual level.”
Aw, that earned a smile. “Th-Thanks, it’s nice to hear that. Ah, so, er…what next?”
“Well the way I figure it, I’m gonna fuck with Michael.”
“Gods I wish, but no, firebrand’s too much of a square to go for that, even if their halo’s a round one. No, I mean I’m gonna find ways to mess with them because I hate them and want to see them suffer.”
“…But you also want to fuck them?”
“That’s how nemeses work, yes. You’ll understand once you find someone to hate, but in a passionate way, not in a disgusted or contemptuous way, trust me, there’s so many differences between the three, and a good part of passionate hate is begrudgingly finding them far too attractive for their own fucking good because you’d take a hammer to their legs to keep them from leaving.”
“They have wings though?”
“Now you’re getting it!” Seeker clapped her hands, hopping off the desk again. “Anyhow, before that, I decided to do my good deed of the decade and helped a cute couple elope, so you’re gonna help me take their house.”
“One of them’s a former lord, he has a fancy flying castle, I want it so godsdamned much I am willing to kill every single person in it to claim it for myself, but I figure you can get rid of them less than lethally so it’s not as much of a hassle. Remember that, killing too many mortals tends to draw heroes and every last one of those pithy fucks causes more problems than they’re worth. Anyhow, consider it a make-up assignment if you’re still feeling bad about the thing with the runty leviathan.”
“Oh, understood.” With a few motions, on went the hood and the mask, and the daughter of Rot stood ready to help with some repossession. Really, it was only natural that she would take such a hefty payment for uniting two cute lovebirds! Well, one very passionate love-dragon and a cutie who knew how to manipulate that kind of passion. A perfect couple, really.
Though, before that, Seeker glanced over Labatu again, frowning somewhat. “Hm…we need to get you a suit.”
“Nah, yeah, we’re doing that later, you’ll look super cute, it’ll be great! No need to worry about payment either, just take advantage of your mother’s love and put it on her tab! Remember–”
“‘Family isn’t family unless you can exploit them’,” Labby dutifully recited. Ah, it did Seeker’s golden heart good to see such a youngster learn so well.
Truly, she really was the kindest of her siblings.