Chapter 37 – Encounters on the Road

“Oh yes, it was quite the dreadful business,” Lady Fersen described, teacup in hand as the plump human noblewoman settled back in her seat, “Poor Briony really had attracted the wrong sort of attention from the king there, though not quite the wrong sort in the right way, as you might guess from how things went.”

“No need to hem around the subject, Esther,” her companion, Lady Geser, continued, her more elven features creating a contrast between her and her friend. Not so much in physique, as both were on the chubby side, but where Fersen was more gray with age, Geser looked much younger. “A commoner girl in a relationship with a prince was never bound to work out, especially not when he became the crown prince.”

Anaya nodded along, listening just fine to the conversation as she pretended to agree while Michael dearly wished they were anywhere other than some baroness’s garden where she entertained guests. Yes, it was lucky that Anaya got them a meeting with someone who actually knew details about the king’s affairs, but still, the angel would much rather be still traveling straight to Queenshill, the nation’s capital, than taking any detours. Saving the king from whatever plot the leviathans were clearly cooking up took priority in their mind, and it would be best to stop things before they escalated. Such as by stopping the king from even leaving the capital in the first place.

Unfortunately, Anaya had to be “logical” about things and pointed out that not only did Michael want to avoid revealing themself as an angel–even though that restriction was really starting to chafe–flying straight across the country and punching the king’s fiancée in the face would likely cause more problems than it would solve, so doing some preliminary research into the situation would be good. 

Which apparently meant having a tea party with a baroness–which wasn’t the same thing as a baronet and they could get in actual trouble for referring to someone by the wrong title, and that was especially annoying because they were apparently just supposed to call her “Lady” to begin with…Suffice to say, Noriko’s impromptu etiquette lesson was helpful, but intensely aggravating. Especially because she just up and ditched us the second we got into the manor. If she went off to a bar, I’m going to blow up…some type of acceptable target. Hm, maybe there’s a use for those zombie cards after all…?

“So you were both there during that ‘dreadful business’?” Anaya asked, disregarding the angel’s fuming.

“Oh certainly. The Royal Academy is quite open with its admissions, to an almost surprising degree considering the prestige associated with attending, but then, it really is meant for a place for all of high society to gather,” Fersen answered, before sighing again, “And low society too, I suppose. In general, a commoner getting in is meant to be done through recommendation, essentially a showing that they are fit to, at the very least, make connections that may transfer them from low to middle. Or middle to upper-middle, more accurately.”

“It depends on what you define low by,” Geser added.

“Very true, dear Oline. The whole advent of the middle class really has made those distinctions trickier than they should be.” She sighed, shaking her head. “But that’s another discussion entirely. You were curious about the king’s paramour from that time, yes?” 

“That’s right,” Anaya replied, “She was pretty important to him, right? The mother of his first child and all that.”

Fersen laughed. “Oh heavens no! No no, Briony wasn’t, not at all. The first prince is the son of…heavens, who was it? She was still a commoner, I am certain of that.” What?

“Did she even go to the academy?” Geser asked.

“Perhaps not? I don’t think we had any, ah, ‘nine month illnesses’, at least not in the timeframe that would work. And that timeframe meant it couldn’t be Briony’s either, because it certainly would have been noticeable.”

“So what you’re saying is,” Michael checked, purely to confirm King Richard really was as pathetic as the conversation was implying, “The current king, Richard Lucene, didn’t have a child with the woman he was cheating on his betrothed for, but with a separate, third woman that he was cheating on both women with.”

“Oh certainly, it’s barely even an open secret among high society.”

“‘Open secret’ implies there is at least the facade of it being hidden,” Geser noted, sounding deeply amused.

Fersen nodded. “Quite right. Though I will say, the maternal parentage of Prince Aster remains uncertain. While it is obvious to anyone who actually attended the academy in the same year of dear King Richard the Second that his paramour at the time could not be the mother of his firstborn, no one really knows who the real mother is. A commoner, most assuredly, as any noble would prefer their child to be an acknowledged bastard if it means they’ll be a prince.”

Michael’s brow furrowed, their frown stuck between angered and confused. “That…No, no, the parentage doesn’t matter.”

“That may be true for Zemava, but it most certainly is not in most noble societies.” Was that intended as an insult? “A bastard child is a bastard child, but there’s a sharp difference between a dalliance between two nobles that can be smoothed over with reparations and an affair between a royal and a commoner. Social classes being what they are, a royal even engaging with a baron would be looked at as marrying severely below their station, so having an affair with a commoner, when you’re betrothed, is already iffy. But not only did the king have such an affair, he legitimized the child ahead of his actual marriage!”

“Do note that this wouldn’t actually be a problem if he followed the right procedures though,” Geser added, “A child out of wedlock isn’t the end of the world, and plenty nobles will adopt those children to fulfill more minor duties within their fief. Plenty of castellans or chevaliers gained their positions through such relations, and it’s not unheard of for even a common child to be adopted as an heir if there are some complications preventing a more standard heir. You just have to lie about their lineage.”

Michael blinked. “You…what?”

Fersen just nodded along though, like that made sense. “It goes back to what I said earlier about ‘open secrets’. No one acknowledges things like ‘this child has no blood relation to you’ because the important thing is the name, not the blood. As long as the legacy is upheld by a proper heir, a majority of nobles will play along perfectly well to the convenient fiction of ‘oh, they’re a long lost niece or cousin or what have you’ because then it opens up their own lineage to be called into question and really, no one wants to deal with that. Lying is just far more convenient, it’s like faking your own death.”

“Wh…What? Faking your death?”

“Oh yes, it happens all the time. Mostly for tax evasion, but then you have things like it turning out your daughter would rather be your son so alas, a mysterious ailment suddenly struck down your daughter, such a tragedy, now here’s our convenient nephew from the countryside, isn’t he so strapping and masculine? Take no note of how we’ve immediately adopted him as our son, can’t you see we’re grieving? Stop asking questions, stay in your fief. That type of thing.”

“So it’s not really that he cheated on his betrothed and apparently the girl he was cheating on her with, but that he lied about it the wrong way?” Anaya clarified.

“To a degree, yes. Really, the smart thing to do would have been to simply declare Aster was Lady Alice’s. It would have given a convenient lie to better solidify the alliance instead of doubly humiliating the poor dear by claiming his firstborn was born from her rival.”

“Wouldn’t that still be pretty unpleasant of him though? I don’t know if she’d be happy raising another woman’s child.”

“Neither do I, but, politically, it would have smoothed things through. Personally, no one can be sure how people would react, but personal feelings take less precedence than maintaining the peace in our nation. As it is though, our ‘great’ king picked the exact worst combination of events he could have chosen to ruin his marriage.”

“It doesn’t help that he married Lady Circe not long after,” Geser chimed in again.

“Ah yes, that was a messy business. I’m sure you’re aware of Prince Martin running off to join a cult.” At their nods, Fersen continued. “Well he had a betrothal himself in the works, one to one of the archducal families of Sollamava, more specifically the Garoti Family.” Garoti’s, again… “Once he abandoned the country though, the betrothal was broken, yet the Garoti’s still demanded compensation for that broken betrothal. As one would expect, honestly, since the practice of alimony is still quite present, but our great king decided he would marry Lady Circe instead of paying up.

She took a sip of tea, then continued. “Now that in and of itself wouldn’t be a complete disaster, though combined with his earlier adultery and adoption, it really was shaping up to be a mess. Polygamy is fully legal within Luceneva, particularly where royals are concerned, though generally speaking you usually see it take the form of a legal spouse and a paramour, thereby satisfying the requirements of a betrothal contract while still having someone to shower romance upon, but having multiple legal spouses isn’t out of the question. He did, however, essentially compound the insult he already put on the Eden Family, and then he royally erred even worse by impregnating Lady Circe before Lady Alice.”

“Ahh.” Anaya nodded along, apparently following all that, “Because of the succession.”

“Precisely. By having his second queen get pregnant before the first, he fully destabilized the already rocky succession line he’d already damaged the foundations of by adopting a child he fully lied about the parentage of in order to claim he was commonborn, not even nobleborn. So while Prince Aster is the first prince, his common origins makes his position controversial, to say the least. Meanwhile, Princess Hestia is a fine lady, skilled at both court and field and with the pedigree to hold the throne, the simple fact that she is the second queen’s daughter means naming her as heir would be a direct insult to the Eden Dukedom.”

“Why even allowed polygamy if it can ruin your political structure that easily?” Michael asked.

“Simply put, the laws were not written with a male monarch in mind. Our nation is matrilineal, and holds to the traditions of our foremothers, so the assumption carved into our laws is that a queen is holding the throne. You do not have to worry about bastards with a queen monarch, since you can at least tell the children she has come from her.” Fersen tittered there, a polite little laugh. “You cannot cuck a queen, in essence, while kings are eminently so. As such, multiple husbands is a non-issue, but multiple wives for a king makes things tricky. Really, it used to be a law that a king monarch could not have more than one wife to prevent such issues, but then all that gender equality stuff happened and suddenly everything needed to be balanced. Now look where we are.”

“Those facts are also part of why Prince Aster isn’t exactly popular with high society,” Geser added, “Even Prince Morgan, the second prince and son of Queen Alice, can’t help but be looked at with skepticism based on his father essentially embodying the worst negative stereotypes of a Lucene king.”

“Quite right, quite right. Really, Richard’s become downright famous for his exploits by this point. The stage play really did not help matters.”

The what? “Did you say ‘stage play’?”

“Oh yes, based on his affairs at the Academy. The tale of the unexpected heir, whose exploits rocked the world of the nobility, for all the worst reasons.”

“It’s really quite good,” Geser said, “Excellent storytelling, really, which is probably why it’s been a recurring part of any theater troupe’s repertoire for almost two decades now. It helps that his majesty himself promoted it so heavily.”

Michael blinked. “…he promoted a story about his affair?”

“Yes, quite heavily at that. I think he may believe he is the hero of the story? He is the protagonist, in a sense, but it’s more of an ensemble story with the names changed to avoid offending people too much. It’s still completely banned in the Eden Dukedom though, which probably helped its popularity more than anything.” The elven noble smiled cheerily. “Controversy does so delight the masses.”

“Well, I know what we’re doing later,” Anaya chirped–

“No.”

“Yes.”

“Anaya–”

“You know you’ll love it.”

“I won’t.”


They did.

“The Unlikely King” wasn’t a masterpiece by any means, but sitting at the outdoor theater and watching a troupe perform the tale of a true failure of a prince was surprisingly enjoyable. Even if Michael wasn’t sure how in the world King Richard could have possibly viewed the play as anyway complimentary to him.

Sure the play seemed to act like he was a charmer who everyone loved, but his mannerisms and words fell far from it. Seriously, what kind of line was “I suppose I can have you as my first wife”?

To make matters even worse, it was apparently a line King Richard himself came up with. 

To be specific, there were two versions of the play, the original one that came about a few years after Richard became king, and the version that came about after the king decided to promote it, adding his own changes so it would be more ‘accurate’. Said accuracy involved removing the affair he had with an unknown mistress, and even portraying Alice Eden as apparently very villainous. 

How kind of the theater troupe to sell playbills of both versions, so that people could see the ‘absurdity’ of the original. 

“This gal can’t help but wonder how that Briony gal feels about all this,” Noriko said, flipping through the original playbill as the three of them walked away from the venue, “She’s pretty important to this story, but everyone only seems to talk about the king and first queen.”

“The play says she–well, her equivalent character–left for ‘parts unknown’,” Anaya replied, “So she probably just wanted to get out of the oncoming line of disaster.”

“Yeah, but aren’t you curious what she might think? She’s gotta be still out there somewhere.”

“Assuming she isn’t dead,” Michael noted.

“Eesh, morbid, but yeah, assuming that. There’s no way she’d stay at the capital, but the play doesn’t actually mention where she lived originally and as a commoner who received ‘royal attention’, she wouldn’t want to stay anywhere that attention could still be on her.”

Anaya hummed in thought. “I’m pretty sure the play said she was an orphan? So that does cut down on local ties if she needed to flee the country.”

“Good point! Hmm, so she’d probably want to go far…realistically, a commoner could disappear easily into just about any nearby country, but that does presume they have enough funds to travel. If we assume the play’s correct about her being an orphan and that’s not just a convenient reason not to bring up her family, there’s a big question of what she would do for funding, but her being a single adult human woman on her own also means she has a pretty wide berth of places to go to…”

“Is this really a mystery that needs to be solved?” Michael asked, “She’s not exactly relevant to our current situation.”

“…maybe Madrigal, all exiles seem to wind up around there…”

“She’s not listening to me.”

Anaya gave them a pat on the shoulder. “There there.”

Well, plays and mysterious commonfolk who presumably vanished into the aether aside, Michael felt they had more of an understanding of Luceneva’s issues. Namely, King Richard was terrible and tea parties were annoying.

“You could just go with Noriko instead next time,” Anaya noted as they drove along to the next barony. Apparently there were a lot of those, to the point that the northwestern territory, the part closest to Sollamava, was simply known as The Baronies because of how many there were. There were a few earldoms too, but they weren’t nearly as plentiful.

“I am meant to escort you, not Noriko, and as you’ve stated, you’re not a fighter,” Michael replied, actually sitting inside the car for once. It wasn’t uncomfortable, admittedly, but the main reason they weren’t up top again, shooting down whatever slimes or shrubbies attempted to menace them like Noriko was–she was getting really good with that crossbow–was to figure out their next plan of action.

“Misha, I’m your guide, remember? I’m supposed to be showing you around the countries. Kinda. You did show me more around Zemava, but now I’m the one guiding, mostly! I bought some books on it, so yeah!”

“I’m not disputing that. You’re definitely my guide, and equally definite is the fact that I’m your guard.”

Anaya huffed. “That’s not your official position here.” Is so. “Besides, what do we have to worry about right now? It’s Luceneva, land of halflings and homesteads! What’s the most dangerous thing we could even run into?”

Field giants. Field giants were apparently the most dangerous thing they could run into, as evidenced by a pair of the 16ft monsters erupting out of the ground and trying to flatten their car with tree trunks.

Michael didn’t even spare Anaya the very flat look they wanted to give her–mainly because those tree trunks were literally about to smash down on them–as they flew straight up through the car and blasted the pair of moss-covered giants straight in their jade-eyed faces. The beasts bellowed, stumbling back, but rallied quickly, dirt raining from the clumps of soil and grass that formed their bulky bodies. One swung for Michael while the second moved past them, swinging for the car when a crossbow bolt pierced through the larger of its lopsided eyes. 

The gelatinous eye popped outright in a burst of green, earning another bellow from the monster as it stumbled back while Michael quite easily smashed the trunk swung for them into splinters of burnt wood. The unmarred giant had a moment to stare in some surprise before their spear tore its head off, while the half-blind beast caught more of Noriko’s bolts in soft parts of its body, where the arrowheads spread some frost into its earthen form. Not enough to put it down though, and the monstrosity rallied, raising a hand and bringing it down in an attempt to crush the carriage flat. 

Michael was going to spear the second giant. They’d fully planned to blast the second one to pieces too, before it could do any damage to their friends, but then its hand went sailing off in a burst of flower petals and they had a moment of brief confusion. One shared by the giant, that stared its stump where its hand was, before its intact eye turned towards the second angel floating nearby.

“Tsk tsk tsk. Is that any way to treat peaceful passersby?” the angel with bright pink wings chided, wagging a white-gloved finger at the monster. At a distance, they looked less like a proper angel and more like a mortal with wings, what with the pink and red chevalier’s tabard they were wearing. The white breeches and black boots didn’t help the image either, nor did the feathered cavalier’s hat. “A man should be a good host, even if he is a monster.”

The monster disagreed, lunging for the angel with its remaining hand, and that hand burst into the flowers. The giant stumbled, then its head was falling off too. In fact, its whole body was crumbling, suddenly collapsing into cut segments as the angel flicked their wrist, gathering–Rosary beads?–what looked like rosary beads around their upper arm.

Michael frowned, studying the odd, foreign angel, when they noticed they were suddenly in the shade. A glance back showed the giant they decapitated, still standing and swinging both its hands at once in an attempt to crush them between its clap. Hm, guess they don’t need their heads. That’s different.

Not really a problem for the cardinal though. Even less of one when the beast stilled, then slowly split straight down the middle, flowers blooming as its corpse hit the ground, right as the other giant did, both erupting into veritable flower gardens on either side of the road.

“Honestly, attacking from behind like that, how abhorrent,” the angel said as he floated down to the ground. 

Michael raised an eyebrow, noting the beads returning to his wrist as they drifted down to join him. “I had that handled.” 

“Of that I am sure as well, but it would be rude of me to stand idly by while you were being attacked. After all, a junior must respect their senior, no?” the angel replied, before grabbing their hat and bowing with a flourish, revealing the pink petals he had in place of hair. “I hope you accept my apologies nonetheless, great cardinal Michael, as well as my introduction. I am Rosemarigol, angel of the God of Roses. If you find my name too long, then please call me Mari, as it would be improper to call me Rose.” 

…Hm. Eccentricities aside, Michael did have to say, it felt nice being respected. So the cardinal supposed they could forgive him– 

Why is there a flower tucked behind my ear? 

They blinked as the rose angel smiled cheerfully, his face as pink as rose petals and noticeably textured similarly. Like someone had taken flower petals drifting on the breeze and collected them all into an elvish shape.

“Hey Mishi! Who’s your friend?” Noriko called out, drawing them out of their observations and confusion.

“He’s not my friend, he says his name’s Mari, and I just met him.”

“Y’know, you don’t have to be defensive everytime this gal teases you, Mishi. Conversations aren’t a competition!”

“Yes they are, and I always win.”

“…Okay but even if that’s sarcastic, you have to know that’s not true.”

They knew no such thing, but also Anaya was getting out of the car, so their attention shifted to the druid as she strode on up. “Hello, new angel. Anaya Greenfall, nice to meet you.”

Mari smiled at the greeting and curtsy, and returned it with another flourishing bow. “And a pleasure to you as well, Lady Greenfall! As my angelic senior did so state, I am Mari, otherwise known as Rosemari, Rosemarigol, or an archangel of the Rose Saint. Or even all at once!” His smile was a bright white, though there was an odd quality to his teeth; somewhat sharper and more solid than the rest of him, maybe like thorns?

“And this gal’s Noriko!” Noriko chimed in, hopping from the carriage with a bright grin. Or, well, a covered grin. It was obvious it was bright either way, but the mask did ruin some effect. “Thanks for the help with the giants!”

“You are quite welcome, my ladies!” Mari returned the smile, a pair of flowers forming from his flourishing hand before he tucked them behind Anaya and Noriko’s ears. Which…hm.

“Oh, uh, thanks?” Noriko said, checking the black-petaled flower curiously while Anaya beamed.

“Thank you! And here, a showing of my gratitude.” The druid did her own little hand flourish and a flower of her own formed, pink like the rose angel, before she handed it to him. And the angel’s smile went even wider, his teeth almost gleaming in the sunlight.

“My most sincere thanks to you, my dear lady! Truly, it is an honor to meet such a learned druid as yourself!” he praised, before fixing the flower to his tabard.

“So why are you here?” Michael asked, before pausing. They sounded terser than they’d intended.

Mari didn’t take offense though, just turning his smile to them. “In all truth? My fateful encounter with you is a complete coincidence, Senior Mishi!”

“What.”

He blinked at their flat tone, his eyes–also pink, though with green sclerae and irises that bloomed like flowers–oddly guileless as Noriko poorly covered a snort. “Ah, did I cause offense? I did not intend to. Your friend addressed you as Mishi, though perhaps that is too familiar?”

“…I am Cardinal Michael. You may address me as Misha.”

“Understood, Lady Misha!” He nodded firmly, his smile back in place. “As I was saying, I came here by complete coincidence! My stalwart traveling companion and I were traveling this very same road on our way to Magusal, to enjoy the delights of the Magilo dukedom!”

“The what?”

Anaya sighed, for some reason. “Misha, please.”

“What?? What’s the issue?”

“Ah-he-hem!” Noriko pretended to clear her throat, before raising up a notebook and flipping it open. “The Magilo Dukedom is the southwesternmost of Luceneva’s four dukedoms, overseeing the Mirable and Forvent earldoms and seven further baronies. Its house sigil is a dolphin and its house words are ‘Above the Depths’.” Her gaze was far too smug as she glanced over at Michael. “Also, this gal should correct herself, she looked into things some more, and it seems there’s an even bigger hierarchy for the tatos back in Rikfield, leading all the way up to a Spudperor, and the proper ‘leaders’ of the matos are the Mato Ministers, with the Prime Matoster as their chief–”

“That is completely irrelevant to anything I would ever need to know,” Michael stated, before giving a grudging sigh, “The part about the dukedom was helpful though.”

“Very much so!” Mari chimed in, applauding her efforts, “Very impressive, Lady Noriko! Did you write that yourself?”

“Eh, partially, this gal got a good amount from some guidebooks she checked out.” Noriko did seemed pleased by the compliment though, judging by the wider smile. Before she paused and tilted her body, staring past Mari. “Uh…is that your companion?”

It seemed so. And Michael had a brief moment of…bewilderment was the right word, they thought, as they saw the individual approaching. 

It should be noted that while Michael’s experience of the modern world was, perhaps, less comprehensive than it should be, they did still know a fair few things and could recognize certain things on sight, especially if it was from Zemava, so they knew what a follower of Purus looked like. They could recognize those solemn white masks anywhere–mostly because said masks mimicked the helmets Michael’s cousins wore–and the soft, pale blue surcoat and white mail hood worn by the more physically active members of the faith was easy to spot at the distance.

Really, the bewildering part was the fact that the faithful seemed to be riding some kind of…two-wheeled, two-seated device, his feet pressing down on the rotating pedals as he rode towards them. Noticeably, also, he was in the back seat, so the lack of a second rider was exceedingly apparent.

“Yes it is! Hello Cati! I told you I heard giants!”

“No, you did not, your grace,” ‘Cati’ replied as he pulled to a stop in front of them, his demeanor calm even as his chest rose and fell with the effort of breathing. “You said ‘Look, giants’ and flew off.” He glanced at the rest of them, nodding his head. “Hello travelers. I am Advocati, faithful of Purus and companion to his grace, Rosemarigol.”

“Cati, you can call me Mari! That I know I did say!”

“So you did.” Well, he definitely sounds like a follower of Purus. How do they all get their voices to have that echo-y sound?

“Well it’s a pleasure to meet you,” Anaya said, stepping forward, “Anaya Greenfall, druid of Chlora. These are my friends and companions, Noriko of Gorokiva, and Misha Centola of Zemava.”

“…” He was staring at Michael for some reason. “…’Mato Master’?”

“It’s a novelty shirt. From Rikfield.” They cleared their throat. “What’s with…that thing?”

“It is a tandem bicycle, the transportation of the future.” His gaze turned towards their car. “And that is?”

“A motor carriage. Their name is Charlie.”

“Hm.” He nodded. They nodded. A feeling of understanding passed between the two of them that the entire rest of the continent was just like this.

Anaya clapped her hands together. “So! You said you two are going to Magusal?”

“Yes, that we are!” Mari replied, his smile still bright, “Off to the grand plateau city of the west, where crystal blue water flows like waterfalls from its elevated lake! Said to form the castle’s moat, even!”

“Ooo…hey Misha-”

“We’re not diverting our course just to see a…plateau city.” Michael frowned. “How did they even get it up there?”

“No idea!” Mari responded, beaming. “I expect part of our visit will involve finding out! We’ve been touring most of the dukedoms and they’ve been lovely so far, especially with our specialized transportation offered by the noble people of Rosiava!” He patted his ‘tandem bicycle’. “Great for travel by roads, as well as building trust and companionship between the two pedalers! Why, just up the road we had a delightful ride through the slime ranches, made all the better with how easy it was to maneuver around the local trails!” 

Michael didn’t like how interested Anaya looked in the bicycle.

“Hm. Well, for our purposes as three travelers, our ride will suffice.” 

“That it shall! Ah, if I may ask, how did you acquire this Charlie?” 

“Oh, I can answer that!” Anaya piped up, “We had a dungeon core fuse to our carriage, but Misha was able to stop them from making monsters with their power. After that, a lovely lady named Shiho came up with the idea of making a shell using unicorn hair to help suppress it when Misha wasn’t around, while making it able to expel its energy to make the motor carriage move.”

“How fascinating! And this can be done with any dungeon core?”

Michael did not feel fear, but they suddenly felt a deep sense of foreboding. “It actively attracts monsters.”

“Even better! I am more than enough to keep my companion safe, and by attracting such monsters directly to us, we may make the roads ever safer for the common people who travel them!”

“This gal doesn’t really think we’re making the roads safer,” Noriko muttered.

“As loathe as I am to accept this course of action, Rosemarigol does have a point,” Cati said, leaning somewhat on his handlebars, “The removal of these giants most definitely will make this road safer than if they had been left to their own devices. Though, as a counterpoint, such giants would not normally be awoken by three people traveling on their own and only tend to rise in the presence of, say, a full cattle herd they could devour.”

“Ah ha, exactly my point!” Mari proclaimed, “Think of how many cattle we saved!”

“…That’s not entirely my point, but sure.” Cati’s voice carried the tone of a man long having given up attempting to reason with those around him. Michael could empathize, though their own will was impossible to break. “So, on a separate topic, if you three are continuing in this direction, do you all plan to go to the knightly tournament being held in Queenshill?”

Ah. Another test of my patience approaches… “The what?”

“The knightly tournament. Luceneva treats knighthood as a sporting event.”

“A very entertaining sporting event!” Mari chimed in, “Indeed, it’s even part of an even larger festival, filled with mystical competitions and musical performances, earning it the title the ‘Magic, Music, and Might Festival’!”

“Oh wow, that does sound great! So why aren’t you two going to it?” Anaya asked.

“Because King Richard’s an asshole!” Mari answered in the exact same enthusiastic tone, expression fully unchanged, “And I have zero interest in supporting his philandering with how that idiot is offering tickets to his damned marriage as the winning prizes for the tourney!”

…Michael had to admit, they didn’t expect that. 

“My companion’s words aside, it would also not do well for us to show up at his wedding. If an angel were to be there, it would be as if the gods themselves blessed the wedding, so it is not something to be taken lightly,” Cati further explained.

Which did bring up an unfortunate point for Michael. While they would prefer to put a stop to the leviathan’s plans and save Luceneva from whatever plot may occur…did they really want to be seen as endorsing King Richard’s wedding?

Anaya shrugged. “Well Misha’s been going in disguise anyways, so that shouldn’t be too much of a problem.” 

Oh right, paladin disguise. Hm. “True, I imagine it wouldn’t have the same effect to have a paladin there instead of an angel. Though we do have a princess in our party too…”

“And? This gal probably won’t let anyone know that part,” Noriko said, “Unless maybe we need an extra way in.”

“‘Extra’? What do you mean ‘extra’ way in?”

“Because we’re obviously going to win the tourney to get the tickets to go.”

“What? No.”

“It’s the subtlest way to get into the wedding without suspicion.”

“How does winning a tourney count as subtle!?”

“Easy, because we’re going to win it subtly!” Noriko’s eyes were sparkling with far too much mischief, though she thankfully reined it in. “That and it’s less politically inconvenient than coming in as a foreign delegation. This gal would have to get all dressed up and everything, so clearly it’s just smarter to go with this other idea.”

Michael grimaced. “And why can’t we just go to Orindaco and investigate the wedding without all these excuses?”

“Probably because a royal wedding is going to be one of the most guarded events imaginable, especially since the Archduchess of Orindaco pretty much has her reputation riding on things going off without a hitch and it’s guaranteed the nobility present are going to be both bringing their own bodyguards and hiring from the local guilds for extra security, and since all four of the top mercenary guilds on the continent have major offices in Orin, it’s gonna be a cavalcade of one-upmanship among those guys to keep the whole city safer and more protected than it’s ever been in its history.” She looked far too smug again. “Basically, sneaking in without an excuse is the worst of our options, so let’s go to the tourney!”

“I feel like there’s a great deal going on here that I don’t know about,” Mari said, reminding Michael that he was still here.

“There is. I don’t feel like explaining.”

“Hm, hm, fair enough! Well, best of luck with your efforts, and please don’t assassinate the king, because I will feel bad! Not for his death, because again, I’m not a fan, but because an angel should strive to protect, not harm! Unless they’re evil. Then…hm, maybe you should-”

Cati clapped his hands together, catching everyone’s attention. “This has been interesting. Thank you for your time. We should go.”

“Aw, already?”

“We want to visit that city, and we do not want to go to Queenshill. So yes, Rosemarigol, we should go.”

“Oh! Before you do!” Anaya took out her notebook. “Do you mind signing this?”

“Of course not!” With a flourish, Mari put his signature on it, before handing it to Cati, who did the same with none of the flourish. 

Still, Anaya gratefully accepted it with a bright smile. “Thank you!”

Nodding in response, Mari grinned. “You’re very welcome! May your journey be a pleasant one, my fair ladies!” He bowed deeply, then hopped into the front seat of the bicycle. “Onwards, Cati! To Magilo!”

And thus, off they sped. Really rapidly too.

“Wow, that thing moves a lot faster with two people,” Noriko noted while Anaya sighed.

“It’s a shame we’re not having another long trip with an angel and paladin pair.”

“It would get pretty old if we kept doing that.”

“Not necessarily, their differing personalities and backgrounds would still keep things pretty interesting.”

“Ehh. This gal feels like we should keep things tighter for now. It’d be pretty awkward having them ride alongside us too, even if they could keep up with Charlie.”

“I guess…” 

Michael wasn’t sure why Anaya was sulking, but they gave her a pat on the shoulder regardless.

“Aw, thank you Misha. Noriko, would you mind driving for a bit? I want to press my flower into my notebook.”

“You can do that? This gal thought there was, like, a whole big process to it.”

“Not really. Besides, I’m a druid, remember? This kind of thing is easy.”

“Huh…think you could show me?”

And so, rather than continue on their way, the group spent the next half hour going through the intricacies of flower pressing. Michael had no idea why anyone would even want to put actual flowers into books, nor did they really feel like paying attention, so they spent that time in annoyed boredom, idly going over the pros and cons of joining up with a knightly tournament in their head. The biggest issue being that they didn’t know how to joust, at all, and while they…mostly knew how to ride a horse, they were deeply out of practice. So…that should be something.

Maybe Noriko could do it if she’s so into the idea? they mused as they sat atop Charlie once again, the car slowly rolling into motion, She probably knows how to ride a horse better than I do…Then again, she always falls when attempting to dismount something, so maybe-

“Oi.” Noriko poked their cheek. “You’re thinking something rude again.”

“I’m thinking completely factual things. If they reflect negatively on you, that’s no fault of mine.”

“Hmph. So, have you been to Queenshill before?”

“A few times. Don’t ask me to act as a guide though, I’m not that familiar with the area.” They raised a hand, caught a seed spat by a shrubbet, and pitched it straight back into and through the bushy monster.

“C’mon, you’ve gotta know something!” She paused, raising her crossbow and shooting a second shrubbet through its leafy head/body, before turning back to Michael. “Anything, seriously.”

Annoying. Though…what do I even know about the capital? “…It’s on a hill.”

“Mishi. C’mon. You have to give me something better than that.”

“It…has a queen?”

“It doesn’t though, that’s the whole thing with Richard, remember?”

“It had a queen.”

Noriko sighed as she reloaded, tossing a needle to pop an approaching balloon-jelly in the meantime. “Okay, fine, name three things. Hill and queen can count if you really want them too, but you gotta give me something more.”

“…” Michael frowned, rubbing their chin. “…there is…a castle?”

“You shouldn’t sound that unsure.”

She was right, but also what did she expect? Michael didn’t pay attention to unnecessary details. Even though they did visit the castle some months ago. Hm. That’s right, that idiot king attempted to harass Gabriel… “Don’t go near Richard, or even catch his attention. He’ll attempt to flirt with you.” There, that’s a fourth thing.

“Not really something this gal needs to worry about. Aside from being a super stealthy ninja who can go completely unnoticed by even the perviest of kings, she’s not exactly a looker.”

“…a ‘looker’ meaning?”

Noriko huffed. “It means my whole…mouth situation is a strong deterrent. Most people don’t like ladies with missing lips.”

Michael frowned. “Your mouth isn’t an issue. Some people find such attributes attractive.”

She blinked, staring back at them with an odd expression. “…uh…thank you?” Why was that confusing? “Most people don’t though.”

“Then most people are idiots. You’re aesthetically pleasing.”

“…” The bewildered staring had worsened. “…This gal’s just going to act like that was a compliment.”

Their frown deepened. “You should. It was one. I was complimenting you. Wasn’t that obvious?”

“…oh. Huh. O-Okay, ah…hm.” She lapsed into silence, adjusting her mask for some reason. She seemed to be searching for something to say and her gaze drifted skyward. “…so, hey, lotta jelloons out.”

“Hm?” They followed her gaze and took note that, yes, there were a great deal of balloon-jellies–or jelloons, as they were apparently called–rising upwards, presumably from a nearby cavern in the hillsides. The bulbous, buoyant creatures drifted lazily on the breeze, though their carefree appearance belied their true nature as dangerous predators. At least to anyone frail enough to be unable to escape their grip. “So there are. Those may be an issue. They tend to prey on smaller individuals, such as children or halflings.”

“Yeah, that’s not great…wanna make a competition of how many we can shoot down?”

“…Orange ones count for one point, blue for two?”

“Sounds good for basics, we can figure out any extra variants after, starting now!” And she promptly loosed a crossbow bolt straight through one blue jelloon, bursting it into dust on the wind with one shot. 

So Michael blew up about ten orange and four blue with one massive fireball. 

“…cheater.”

“We didn’t set any ground rules for the usage of magic, so it’s not cheating.”

Noriko grumbled at that, but she was smiling. Michael could tell.

Though both of their smiles dropped as they reached a stretch of farmlands along the roads. Not because there was anything inherently wrong with farms–Polina would probably get mad if Michael suggested as such–but because somes of those farms were ranches. Monster ranches, to be specific, and slime ranches, to be exact.

Now, Michael, like most people in the world, was familiar with slimes. They were one of the most common monsters in existence, being simple lumps of gelatinous material akin to amoebas. They came in several varieties, and both they and Noriko had slain a few of the wild monsters on their travels already.

Some people liked to attempt to domesticate these creatures though, to varying degrees of success. Out of all the monsters in the world, they were probably some of the easiest, because they were just moving lumps of jelly. Easy enough to handle, and easily providing decent material for a variety of different purposes ranging from lantern oil to mystical potions. It’s just that they could turn into larger problems relatively easily, because slimes put together had a tendency to fuse and form into much larger variants.

Or, apparently, if sufficiently agitated–such as by a stupid monster-attracting car rumbling right by their pens–they could abstain from fusing in favor of collecting together in an increasingly gigantic mass of jelly.

“…huh. A slime tsunami,” Noriko mumbled, staring at the veritable tidal wave of gelatinous monsters that was about to crash down on them.

So Michael did the reasonable thing when faced with an overwhelming amount of monsters and chucked another fireball straight at the enormous slime wave. There was an eruption of heat and flame as the fireball exploded in the center of the wave, blasting it apart very easily, and immediately drenching both Michael and Noriko in a downpour of goo.

“GYAH! Agh, blegh, fuck, g-got it in my mouth, fuck!” Noriko spat, pulling her mask away from her face as it was soaked in pink slime, “Ewwww, and it’s warm too, ew ew ew!”

“…You see now why I think Charlie is an issue–”

“YES SHE SEES! BUT ALSO DON’T DRENCH HER IN HOT SLIME!” Hm. No need to be rude. Though, yes, this is clinging rather unpleasantly. Eugh, sticky too. Like molasses.

“Uh…” Anaya poked her head out of the driver side window as their car rolled to a stop, glancing up at the two of them, then the pink liquid dripping down their vehicle, and then over at the remaining slimes laying dazed across the grass. “…So clearly I missed something–”

“YA THINK!? How didn’t you notice the giant slime tsunami!?”

“I’m driving? You have to focus on the road ahead of you, though I did notice things getting weirdly pink.”

“And you didn’t stop??”

“Why would I stop if there’s a potential problem about to crash down on us? It would be easier to just keep driving and get away.”

“Ah–…this gal doesn’t have a response to that. Aside from why you didn’t try driving with the giants.”

“Because they were right in front of us? And I’m pretty sure Charlie can’t back…oh wait, no, there is a thing on the stick.” Charlie abruptly reversed, earning a yelp from Noriko before Michael steadied her. “Okay, that’s good to know for the future.”

“…Mishi?”

“Yes?”

“Thanks for catching me. This gal’s tired and annoyed so you win the contest, and also this gal’s riding inside with Anaya for the rest of the day.”

“Won’t the seats get sticky?”

“…” Noriko glared up at them. “…You’re a real smartass sometimes, you know that?”

“I’ve been addressed as such.” They glanced over the fields, idly noting the scattered slimes beginning to coalesce back to their original blobby shapes, though some were starting to move around the fields, heading off into the wild. “Hm. Those might be a problem–”

“Nope.”

“No?”

Noriko shook her head, still glaring up at them, before banging on Charlie’s roof. “Naya! Think we can get moving again?”

“Hm? Ah, alright, though shouldn’t we help with–”

“Nope! We’re leaving! It’s someone else’s problem!”

“Eh? But didn’t we–”

“Nope! Not our problem! Please drive! Now!”

The elf blinked, but nodded and went back into the car, starting it up again as Michael gave Noriko a considering look. “You’re oddly testy.”

“…This gal has warm, sticky slime sliding down her ass crack. Does it seem like she’s gonna be in a great mood?”

Ignoring the crassness, Michael simply gave Noriko a pat on the head. Then grimaced at the sticky, slimy feeling of her hair. “Alright, I’m starting to see how bad it is.”

“Glad you noticed.”

“We should avoid slime ranches when we’re with Charlie.”

“You think??”

“…So do I get anything for winning our competition?”

Noriko gave them an incredulous look, before finally cracking and bursting into giggles, the absurdity snapping through her annoyance. Just as planned.

Who said Michael wasn’t good with people?

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