Chapter 39 – Magic, Music, & Might

It was a bright, shining day in Queenshill. The capital of Luceneva, the city that started the nation, was a place of not constant but consistent motion, where its people lived their peaceful lives in well-worn routines, from the haughtiest courtier to the weariest worker. Yet today, there was a disruption in the city, a deviation from the norm, albeit one with a consistency all its own.

Simply put, a festival had come to town!

In the outer boroughs of Queenshill–outside the more cramped Peasant’s Quarter and away from the walls of the Smith’s Quarter–stood a set of fields and tourney grounds more commonly used by the local Brazier Knight’s Academy for training and such. Now though, the landscape was transformed as a full fairground complete with stages, stalls, and games set up all along the roads and trails, including the one Michael, Anaya, and Noriko were walking up at the moment.

“Well, I can certainly hear the music in the title,” Michael noted, idly taking a step back so a pair of kids–halfling and drake–could run past before continuing on their way while adjusting the somewhat annoying bundle they had strapped to their back, “Though I’ve yet to see any magic or might.”

“Hey Mishi, look over there,” Noriko requested, tugging their hand up and using it to point at a flame dancer weaving intricate shapes in fire through the air. They watched for a moment, then looked down at their friend, who plainly smirked at them through her mask. “Magic~!”

“…I’ve still yet to see ‘might’, so my point partially stands.”

“Oh I’m sure we’ll see might soon enough once the tourney stuff gets fully going,” Anaya said, walking along with a cheerful smile and a curious eye, taking in the sights and sounds of the colorful festival, where red and blue ribbons drifted on the air with the music that echoed from every corner, either from individual bards plying their trade or bands entertaining gathered crowds. It should be a cacophony, but there was a harmony to it, somehow, amid the performers plying their trades, from the elementalists displaying feats of artistic flames to simpler acts like jugglers, stilt-walkers, and acrobats walking the lines strung overhead between the stalls. “Before then though, we should take advantage of where we are and see the sights!”


“Well, there was one little place I was already thinking of visiting!”

The little place in question wasn’t actually at the festival. In fact, they fully had to enter the city proper to get to it; specifically, they traveled into the aforementioned Smith’s Quarter and down Crafter’s Road–a name Michael couldn’t help but look at with some suspicion–to one particular smith’s shop called, as the angel was dismayed to discover, “The Goldforge”.


“Because! It’s a hero’s workshop!” Anaya exclaimed, beaming brightly, “I told you before how those kids saved my life a couple decades back, right? Back with the Irascagan stuff?”

“Yes. But…Are you sure visiting this store during a festival is a good idea? They might be busy.” 

“Aw come on Misha, I just wanna look around!” She was pouting…

“Hm.” Well. Goldforge should still be in the Dark Lands, so it should be okay– 

“Hey, are you sure this is the right place?” Noriko asked as she pointed towards something at the window, “Cause it says it’s closing.” 

“What?” Anaya asked, before looking over at the window, and much like Noriko said there was a sign saying ‘Apologies dear clients, but after the festival of Magic, Music & Might, we shall be permanently closing’. “Aw what?? Why??”

Noriko shrugged. “Dunno? We could go in and ask–And she’s already in, neat. She moves fast for someone with a wooden leg.”

“Not really, she’s actually fairly slow most of them,” Michael noted, following Anaya into the smith’s shop, where about half of the displays were showing weapons and armor, while the rest were showing off various jewelry. Half-weaponsmith, half-goldsmith, from the look of things.

“Aw, don’t be mean to Naya. And huh, decent stuff up here, though it looks like they’re having a clearance sale.”

“Not especially decent. Your sword is better crafted than anything here.” 

“Since when are you an expert on swords?”

“I can recognize quality when I see it.” In other words, they knew basically nothing, but that mattered less than following Anaya to the front where she was ringing the service bell.

“Excuse me? Is there anyone back there?” 

No reply, so Michael walked over. “HEY! ATTEND THE FRONT!”

“ALRIGHT FINE, DON’T YELL!” yelled back a woman exiting the backroom of the shop. A brown-feathered wingdrake in worker’s clothing and an apron, with a nametag designating her as ‘Martha’. “Yeah, hi, how can I help you two?”

“Sorry about Misha, she gets impatient.” No I don’t. Anaya ignored the annoyed look they gave her though, in favor of continuing to speak to the clerk. “I was just wondering why the shop was closing?”

“Oh, is that all? Well, the biggest reason is that the proprietor of The Goldforge has moved to go marry his sweetheart. It’s a whole thing–”

“That’s Julius Goldforge, right? The hero?”

Martha sighed. “Yes, it is. Did you, uh, hear about all the stuff that happened with him, or…?”

“He galavanted off to the Dark Lands to marry the Demon Lord,” Michael cut in.

“Yeah, that’s one way of putting it, sure. Not inaccurate either…still, since Mister Goldforge will no longer be living here, he made the decision to close the store, but we, his remaining workers, decided to remain open until after the festival to sell all remaining wares.” 

“Oh, aw…” Anaya said, sounding genuinely disappointed, “I guess that means there’s no chance of meeting him here?”

“Ahh, that’s what you wanted. Yeah, sorry, Mister Goldforge isn’t even on the same continent, so we can’t really do meet and greets. He didn’t really like doing those in general, so I don’t know if he would’ve…uh, but if you have a request or something I could pass it along to our remaining smith?”

“No thank you, though thanks for the offer. Just a quick question though, what are you planning to do after this if you’re leaving?”

Martha blinked. “Oh, didn’t expect you to ask, but, uh, no need to worry about me, I’ve got a job lined up with the Fin & Scale Trading Company. As for our two remaining smiths, they’re probably going to be headed to Rosiava to take up a different apprenticeship. So, yeah, no real point to keeping the shop open.”

“I guess, yeah…hm…well, could I still get your autograph?”


“Well you’re still Sir Goldforge’s apprentice, right? Or at least someone who worked for him, so it’ll still be neat. And hey, if you turn out to be a famous saleswoman in the future, it’ll be like I got in on things ahead of time!”

Michael didn’t really see the point of, well, any of that, but the wingdrake laughed cheerfully enough, grinning now. “Yeah, alright, if you really want. Want me to call Andrew and Ollie out here too for autographs?”

“Sure! The more the merrier!”

“Hey, real quick, before that though,” Noriko interrupted, dropping her armful of knives, needles, and other haphazard weapons onto the counter, “How much for all of these? And do you know a good place to buy bolts?”

And so, with autographs acquired, purchases made, and recommendations given, the trio made their way from the Goldforge in all its remaining finery and back to the actual festival grounds, where some decisions needed to be made.

“Alright, to reiterate, our goal here is to attempt to acquire the…” Michael sighed. “Tickets to the king’s wedding. Correct?”


“Yeah, sounds about right.”

At their companions’ responses, the angel nodded from their current position, which was sitting on their bundle near some boxes around the side of one colorful stall serving some type of ice treats for the warm day. “And do we actually know what that competition is?”

“This gal’s pretty sure it’s one of the martial competitions. No singing or magecraft will get us in,” Noriko answered, earning a confused head tilt from Anaya as both women either crouched or sat on the ground nearby.

“Why’s that? Wouldn’t those also be valid ways of entering?”

“Yeah, but apparently the Bard’s College and Mage’s University actually lodged formal complaints to having those tickets be made the grand prizes for their competitions. They have their own traditional prizes and trying to make it a wedding invitation instead just really annoyed everyone. It’s part of why you’re seeing a lot of yellow badges around.” She pointed to one random drake wearing such a badge, displaying some type of insignia with a scythe and a pitchfork. 

“Right, the communalist thing. Well good on them, fight the power!” Anaya declared, earning a side-eye from both Michael and Noriko, before the angel further considered matters.

“Why isn’t the, ah…Knight faction?”

“Knight’s Academy.”

“Why are they all scholastic institutions?”

“Weird traditions. Anyways, the Knight’s Academy isn’t as prestigious as the College or the University, mostly because knighthood in general is treated more like a sporting thing, so they couldn’t bow out of accepting the tickets. They probably even jumped for it to get some prestige from the king’s ‘support’, though this gal doesn’t know all the details. Maybe we could ask around?”

Odd that knighthood wouldn’t be well-regarded, I thought it was a much bigger thing…no, never mind. “In a moment. First though, we should decide who will attempt to win the tickets.”

Anaya and Noriko shared a look, then turned back to Michael with skeptical eyes. “Aren’t you going to do it?”

“What? Why is it me by default?”

Anaya ticked off her fingers. “I don’t know how to ride an animal, I’m bad at fighting, and I don’t think I could hold a lance. Nori’s also really bad at dismounting animals–”

That unimportant detail aside, this gal is also…” Noriko sighed, seeming pained. “Short. That’s fine for being a jockey, good even, but being a jouster requires staying strong and steady. She can maybe use a polearm if needed, but she’s also not trained with a lance, while you’re all ‘spear-lady’ all the time.”

“Hm. Well, first I would like to say that you are much better with animals than me so I’m sure you’ll be able to ride a horse easily Anaya. Second, you are quite strong Noriko, as you’ve shown plenty of times before, and your stature can work to your advantage by being harder to hit.” 

“…H-Hm.” Noriko cleared her throat, for some reason. “Ah, yeah, that…thanks? Always weird getting compliments from you…”

“Heh, thank you, Misha,” Anaya said, smiling, “But I think I’ll still bow out of any jousting. I’m not really one for violence and I’m pretty sure I’d drop everything on the first pass.”

They nodded. “Understood. So, Noriko, do you think you could handle it?”

“Eh? Uh…again, this gal’s not exactly the jousting type. She does have some training on riding horseback, but she’s better at moving on her feet. She was also kinda assuming you’d be the one doing it, so, uh…” She shrugged. “Maybe she could? She’d need to practice.”

“That actually brings up a good point,” Anaya said, “We don’t have a horse.”

“Yes we–Wait, no, we left the unicorns in Gorokiva…” Michael frowned to themself. “That was a bad idea in hindsight…”

“Well Gauri and Sadja seemed like they had their own things going on. Especially Gauri, what with her whole bartender job.”

“That’s weird, right? It’s not just me, that’s genuinely weird.”

Anaya shrugged. “Not the weirdest. Just think of it like a centaur bartender but with a horse head. Actually, wait, would that even be a horse…?”

“This gal still doesn’t think those things are real,” Noriko said, before clapping her hands, “So! None of us have a horse available, and we can’t use Charlie since he’s not a horse.”

“The stables did take him in just fine though.”

Elsewhere, within a stable located right beside the outer wall of Queenshill, a stablehand by the name of Brian stared at the bizarre “motor carriage” that half-elf handed over earlier. The large, metal thing was just…sitting there, staring with those weird, glassy eye things on the front of it.

“…It’s gotta be alive,” he said, watching it.

“What? The carriage?” his fellow stablehand, Tim, asked, busy brushing down one of their horses, “It’s a carriage.”

“It was driving on its own. That means it’s either cursed or alive…”

“Or both. Actually, why can’t it be blessed? That one gal was a high elf, I think.”

“No, no, blessed stuff’s…brighter. Right? You’ve been in a shrine, it’s more glowy.”

“Eh. I think you’re just paranoid. Why do you even care?”

“I dunno. Just…if it’s alive…what do we feed it?”


“Oats? Oats…” Brian watched the carriage, then slowly looked towards one of the bags of oats they kept for horse feed. He glanced back at the carriage, then inclined his head towards the bag, trying to…ask it, maybe.

Its eyes flashed and it made an odd rumbling noise. 

…Brian brought it the oats.

“That doesn’t make him a horse,” Noriko pointed out, “And you can’t ride him in the joust either way, so we need to actually figure out the horse situation first.”

“Fine, you have a point,” Michael admitted, before furrowing their brow in thought, “Is there somewhere we can…rent a horse, maybe?”

“Well we’ll need to sign one of you up for the tournament to begin with, so maybe the people we sign up with can help us out?” Anaya suggested.

“This gal doesn’t want to shoot down your idea Naya, but why would a knightly tourney supply horses to amateurs?”

“To encourage new participants? Maybe? There’s bound to be some qualifying rounds before the big events, so maybe if we just do well enough with those, we can get all the way to the top!” 

“Well the tourney isn’t until tomorrow, so we have time to figure something out if they don’t supply horses.” 

“In that case, we should go check with registration, no?” Which brought them right back to that idea. Still, it wasn’t a bad one, so Michael nodded their assent, picked their bundle back up, and walked with their friends to go handle the whole registration business.

At least that was the plan. 

It was simple enough: head over, register, ask if they had horses available. More than simple; really, it should have been easy. But Michael had a feeling. An itch at the back of their neck, a sensation largely brought on by the simple fact they’d already been bothered by that pair of demons–Pine and Coco–twice, and things had a tendency to repeat in threes.

So they just decided to check, Looking deeper into the surrounding world along the way to the registration booth. They honestly didn’t expect to spot a leviathan. 

They really didn’t expect to spot a leviathan standing next to a demon. 

So they did the only thing that was natural. March right on over and punch the two. The duo were even dressed like knights so clearly this was another one of Seeker’s schemes. They might as well get ahead of the blasted plotting for once, so on they went, pulling away as Anaya and Noriko asked what the hurry was and cocking their fist back to slam it into the leviathan’s face. 

At least that was the plan–again–up until a minotaur stepped between them and blocked Michael’s attack. To be more accurate, said minotaur fully caught Michael’s fist before it could collide with the leviathan, earning a startled noise from said leviathan when she noticed.

“Woah there, you oughta be careful now, don’t want to be disqualified before you even have a chance to sign up, do you?” the minotaur–a tanned male about half a foot taller than Michael–asked, his voice a deep rumble as he easily held the angel at bay. Which was surprising even if Michael hadn’t put their all into the attack. For what it was worth, the cardinal could at least sense there was some divine energy with him; a paladin maybe?

“That’s a leviathan!” Michael snapped.

“Excuse you?” the leviathan in white and blue armor said, sounding annoyed.

“You heard me! I can recognize one of your kind anywhere! What are you plotting here with that demon!?”

“Woah now, hold on a moment,” the minotaur said, stepping further between Michael and the pair of conspirators, “Now I don’t know what–”

“What the hell did she just say!?” a new voice cut in, and Michael paused as a human woman–pink-haired with an olive skin tone, about Anaya’s height, dressed in a pink tunic with striped sleeves and white pants, plus a red beret–moved past the minotaur and shoved a finger in their face, “What are you accusing my teammates of!?”

“Your teammates–What? That’s a leviathan–”

“Her name is Ophelia, asshole!” Ophelia? That doesn’t sound anything like the other–Their thoughts were disrupted as the human jabbed her finger against their chest. “And who the hell are you supposed to be!?”

“Misha Centola, paladin of the Light.” Their answer received a scoff in return. 

“Of course you’re of the Light Faith. The Light needs to understand you can’t just judge someone because they’re a darklander!” 

“Wha–I’m not judging her by that! There’s a plot involving leviathans working with demons to overturn the–!” 

“We’re teaming up cause we’re friends!” interrupted the third member of their party, her voice oddly cheerful despite the current situation. And the fact that she was in blatantly evil-looking black and red armor. 

“Yeah! I don’t know what you’re on about, but we’re here to take part in the tourney!” the human insisted.

“Woah woah! Everyone calm down!” Noriko said as she suddenly popped up, “Look, this gal is sorry for her friend, but we can explain what’s going on.” 

“And who are you, pipsqueak?” Ophelia asked, and whatever good will Noriko had disappeared.

“THIS GAL’S NOT THAT SHORT! You guys are just freakishly tall!” 

The leviathan scoffed, earning a growl from Noriko. “Whatever, what do you want?” 

“This gal wants you to stop being rude!” 

“Then tell your friend to stop being a specist!” the human cut in again.

“I’m not!” Michael argued.

“You just tried attacking my teammate without a word!” 

“Right, enough of this now,” Anaya said as she stepped between the two groups, holding up her hands between them before turning towards the aggressive human with a polite smile, “Hi there, Anaya Greenfall, Druid of Chlora, get your insults out now cause we’re deescalating from here.” 

The leviathan and the human paused at her interruption, while the demon waved a hand. “Hi Anaya! I’m Tanya!”

“Don’t give her your name!” the human hissed while Anaya’s smile turned more genuine.

“Hi Tanya, it’s nice to meet you. I think our friends might need a moment to calm down.”

“Gonna have to agree with her,” the minotaur said, before he took out a bronze badge, holding it up to show his official position as a judge of the tourneys, “Even if this don’t come to blows, I’ll have to ban you from the tourneys if you keep it up any longer. As one of the judges, I can’t just be lettin’ you make a ruckus.” 

At his words, Michael looked around, noticing that some of the nearby festival goers were indeed staring at them. They could vaguely hear some murmuring, mentioning Centolas being at it again, which Michael felt was eminently unfair because they weren’t even a Centola.

“Hmph, fine, we’ll leave it here for now. But mark my words!” Pointing at them once again, the apparent leader addressed Michael. “I, Naomi Corsaro, won’t forget what you did here, and we will make you pay when we meet in the tourney!” 

“Gh–Fine! I accept your challenge! For all I know, you’re some kind of…co-conspirator!” 

“Misha, I’m pretty sure they’re not actually involved with the leviathan thing,” Anaya whispered, leaning towards their ear for a moment, before turning to Ophelia, “Just to check, are you a freshwater leviathan?”

“Oh ew, you thought I was a shellback? Gross.”

Michael blinked. “You’re not??”

“No, but honestly, I feel like I should fight you anyway for assuming I am one.”

“…F-Fine then! I’ll take on both of you!”

“No you won’t.”

“You don’t think I can make it that far?!”

“No, I mean you literally will not. Naomi’s not participating in the joust.”

“You didn’t have to tell her that!” Naomi retorted, earning a confused look from Michael.

“Why would you even challenge me if you’re not–Why are you even here?!”

“To participate in the bard competitions, duh! What do you think the harp’s for!?” On second glance, she did indeed appear to be carrying a harp at her back.

“H-How was I supposed to know what that was?!”

“Who doesn’t recognize a harp!?”

“You have it on your back! How was I supposed to spot that?!”

“With your eyes! Ugh, whatever, both of my friends are participating, so fuck you, you’ll lose anyway!”

“Y’all really ain’t all that good at this deescalation thing,” the minotaur judge noted, earning a sigh from Anaya.

“They really aren’t.”

“She’s the one escalating things!” Michael insisted, while Noriko folded her arms across her chest, glaring up at Ophelia, who was the tallest of the antagonistic trio.

“You know, this gal’s thinking she should join up too now. Maybe show this bitch not to mock her.”

“Bring it, half-pint,” Ophelia replied, immediately raising Noriko’s hackles as she outright growled up at the leviathan.

“Okay maybe cool it with the short insults, there are halflings around,” Naomi said while Anaya let out a sigh.

“Do we need to get two horses now?”

Naomi paused, turning right towards the elf. “Wait. Wait wait wait, you don’t have horses?” Her gaze turned towards Michael, who tried not to grimace as the human started grinning. “You didn’t bring your own??”

“Shut up.”

“Make me, jackass, you know you can’t!”

“ALRIGHT!” the minotaur interrupted, yet again, clapping his hands together, “Alright. Corsaro, you and your team oughta get to sign up, lest you miss your chances. Centola, oughta talk with you real quick. No protestin’, no arguin’, just get to movin’ or stayin’ or I’ll actually have to throw my weight around here.”

“…hmph. Fine.” With that, Naomi finally retreated, her two friends in tow, though not without including a rude gesture towards Michael as she went to sign up.

“Gh–That absolute–!”

“To be fair, you did try to sucker punch her friend, Misha,” Anaya pointed out.

“Her friend is a leviathan! How was I supposed to know she wasn’t the specific evil type we keep running into!?”

“She’s also a bitch,” Noriko added, quite rightfully, though Michael wouldn’t use that exact word. 

“Well…not to play too much devil’s advocate, or leviathan’s advocate in this case, but Misha’s way of introducing herself wasn’t, uh…exactly good for a first impression.”

“Yeah, but this gal was trying to take things down a notch! Tall, blue, and bitchy was the one that decided to insult me!”

“…yeaaaah. I have no response here, she was rude.”

“Glad y’all figured that out for yourselves. Now, I oughta introduce myself.” The minotaur pointed a thumb at himself, grinning as Michael took in his appearance. Tall, tanned, and red-haired with noticeable sideburns, wearing a brown vaquero hat with his horns poking through it that matched the open leather jacket he wore. Under it, he had a plaid shirt–also open to show an overly hairy chest and a golden ring on a pair of cords; some kind of medallion?–while his blue jeans were held up by a belt with a scorpion emblem belt buckle. “Lonnie Redridge, official judge of this here competition and sort of a delegate type, comin’ from Garotiva.”

Michael blinked. “Garotiva? Since when is there a nation called Garotiva?”

“Been a couple weeks now, least if I’m rememberin’ right. Back when his grace–oh, guess that oughta be his majesty now…point is, it’s when Archon Siromo decided he oughta take his own reins for himself and make a land of his own outta the territory he already owned so really, he’s just takin’ what’s his to begin with!” Redridge laughed, spreading his hands. “And ain’t that fun? Seems like this season’s the time for rebellions!”

“Don’t joke about that!” they snapped, scowling up at the taur.

“Woah now! No need to get testy now, I’m just appreciatin’ the people’s will! Folks don’t rebel if they’ve got nothin’ to rebel over.”

“The six daimyo rebelled because they’re a bunch of jackasses,” Noriko retorted, unimpressed, “There wasn’t much ‘will of the people’ in it, just aggressive idiots chafing under another idiot’s rules.”

“Well now, someone’s got some strong opinions there.” Redridge chuckled. “Prolly shouldn’t be callin’ your empress an idiot though, especially since she won.”

“This gal meant the shogun.”

“Then you oughta be more specific, though now that I’m thinkin’ about it, we shouldn’t be arguin’ here, this is a time for festivities! Celebration, enjoyin’ life, no need to get bogged in pointless–well, maybe a bit pointful…aw, forget about it, my point from earlier bein’ that Garotiva’s a new nation! Ain’t that grand?”

“Why would it be?!” Michael snapped again, “It’s not a nation, it’s a cavalcade of rebels and criminals!”

“Not under Archon Siromo’s rules they’re not. He pardoned all of ‘em, and Luceneva recognized his authority there, on account of Queen Circe bein’ his sister ‘n all. So, accordin’ to them, there ain’t no criminals in Garotiva.”

“That’s inane! And the only reason he seceded is because he himself was caught as a criminal!”

“And that only happened because of the Cardinal’s efforts. The Cardinal of Fortitude themself came down from the heavens to unveil the corruption seeded all through Sollamava, just as they came down again to tell Archon Siromo that he had a duty, a destiny, to redeem himself by forgin’ a new nation free of that corruption!”

Michael stiffened. “What?”

“It’s the truth. Archon Siromo spread the word to all his followers, declarin’ how the righteous of the heavens stand with him! That he alone is not only a lord who earned his position by merit, but one given a divine mandate to follow!” The taur’s grin was wide and bright, the gleam of some kind of…zealous delight in his eyes. 

“That’s not…He’s lying!”

“You can believe that if you want, but I am no man of doubt. I love my god, and I believe whatever truth comes from such a righteous deity. But!” His voice cut through the confusion and anger Michael felt–because they knew Garoti was lying, they hadn’t visited him, they hadn’t given him a mandate, they hadn’t even met the damned heretic before, but then how in the world could a man with the blessings of the divine on him follow such a heathen?–and they looked back up at his grinning face. “None of that’s especially relevant to any of you, am I right? So let me get to the point of why I wanted to talk with you, which is twofold! First fold bein’, you say your name’s Centola?”

That–What? Michael blinked, reeling from the sudden whiplash of the conversation. “I…yes?”

“Great! Drop that name.”


Redridge leaned in, his tone low and conspiratorial. “Look, between you and me, Centola carries a connotation outside of your home country. Self-righteous pricks, pardon my language, leadin’ the Feathery Furies and actin’ high and mighty because of it. Not liked, in other words, and you’ll be associated with ‘em as long as you’re carryin’ that name, so hey, pseudonym it up, make up somethin’ fun so people ain’t lookin’ at the high elf with red hair like she’s there to bring a plague on their house.”

“It…is it really that bad?”

“Yo, wood elf, you’ve probably met Cents before.”

Anaya shrugged. “I have, sure. People are people though, and I’ve met nice ones before.”

She patted Michael on the shoulder there. Which…well, they weren’t technically a Centola, but they could appreciate the implied compliment.

“Sure you have! Just bringin’ it up, in case, but for the second fold, you three need a horse, don’t you? Can’t joust without a horse! So I’m willin’ to provide.”

“What? Why would you do that?” Michael asked.

“Call it sympathy for your situation! I’d hate for aspirin’ combatants to be taken outta the runnin’ just because they lacked somethin’ as small as a horse!”

“Horses aren’t small.”

“Details, details, you get my point, and hey, here I am, fixin’ to help!”

“Is there a cost?” Noriko inquired, tilting her head in either curiosity or skepticism. Possibly both.

“More like a bet, since I’m somethin’ of a fan of challenges! Just a simple one, nothin’ bad, just askin’ you to do me a favor in exchange for a horse that oughta win you the tourney. Catch here bein’ that I won’t ask any favor if you win the whole thing! Course, if you lose even with my help, then you gotta pay me back. Sound fair?”

A large part of them balked at the idea of accepting a gamble, much less going along with what felt like cheating. A judge shouldn’t be helping a contestant. But another part of them…couldn’t help but consider it. They needed to win to get access to the wedding, and they needed to be at the wedding to defeat the leviathans’ plot. Not to mention the part of them that demanded they defeat Naomi’s group. Yes, they’d…acted hastily, but also they’d been challenged, and a challenge demanded–

Ugh, don’t think about that. Focus…Redridge is…there’s something off about him. A holy man shouldn’t be so callous–But then, hadn’t they met hundreds of callous holy men in their lifetime? Thousands, even? But he’s suggesting gambling… And hadn’t they met decent people who didn’t share their morals? They’d let criminals go because they were nice. The circumstances were different. Were they though?

“…” They stared into Redridge’s eyes, searching for…something. Sincerity, perhaps. 

He had a lazy smile, and red eyes that gleamed bright with conviction.

“Thank you for your offer, but we’ll have to think about it,” Anaya answered, “We’d like to leave our options open, you understand.”

They glanced back at her, a slight frown on their face at how she’d chosen for them, but Redridge just chuckled. “That’s all fine with me. Consider me a second, third, maybe even last resort! Just make sure you sign up today, or you might lose your shot.”

“We can handle that part fine on our own,” Michael replied, looking back at the taur, who simply nodded to them, tipped the brim of his hat, and left.

“See y’all around.”

“You could have let me handle that,” they said to Anaya once they were sure he was far enough.

“Oh, sorry. I…well, I guess I don’t really have a good excuse. Call it me being overprotective.”

Their frown deepened. “I don’t need protection. I’m the one protecting you, remember?”

“Well, you don’t have to, all the time. I can protect myself too.”

“Hey not to interrupt whatever this is, but Mishi, you need to sign up! This gal’s not being shown up by that bitchy leviathan!” Noriko insisted, grabbing their hand and suddenly pulling them towards the table near the tourney grounds where a human sat with sets of paperwork.

“Hi there, welcome to the sign-ups for the Triple Threat Tourney,” the human–a brown-haired and light-skinned male dressed in a page’s tunic who spoke in the somewhat tired and reedy voice of an adolescent–greeted, “Where the armor is shining and the knights are gallant. Would you like to–”

“Mishi’s signing up for the tourney!” Noriko interrupted.

“…Okay, but which one? There’s three–”

“The joust!”

“There’s three?” Anaya echoed, but the page wasn’t paying attention to her, instead grabbing a form from the stack and holding it up.

“Okay, so here’s the sheet, you just need to mark your entry and some details, like if you have a sponsorship, a liege lord, or another individual who you are sworn to, if you have an apprentice, if you are an apprentice, if you have dependents, what next of kin we can contact in the even of your untimely injury or demise–”

“Do people often die in these?” Anaya asked.

“It’s a tourney, ma’am, people are swinging big weapons at each other. Deaths are mitigated by the Knight’s Academy Commission, but sometimes shit happens, you know? So please mark that part, along with your appropriate funerary traditions, though note that we do not have high enough mountains for a sky burial so your remains will be turned over to the Sky’s Limit Funerary Parlor in Tramontava in the event of both your death and the selection of that option.”

“That part isn’t important,” Michael stated, taking the form and the offered quill, “What else do I need to know?”

“Uhh…well, if you’re affiliated, please remember to act in a manner befitting your affiliation. Drunken or otherwise inappropriate antics on the tourney fields will reflect on your affiliation and they will be fined in your place. If you are unaffiliated, this does not apply to you, since you’ll be directly fined instead. Uh, what else…oh, yeah, if you are entering a tournament for the first time, a new participant fee will be required–” He blinked as Michael set down a diamond, before just nodding. “–yeah, okay, that works. Oh, and if you do not have weapons or armor, they will be provided for you for a further fee.”

“They will? Hm…what if we need a horse?”

“You gotta bring your own horse, miss.”

“What? Why??”

“Tourney regulations. If you want to participate in the joust, you need to bring a horse. A knight has a horse, so you need to have one. If you would like to rent a horse, please check at our local stables such as…uh…ah, you can recognize them by the horse-shaped signs, it’s a branding thing.”

“And where are those?”

“Somewhere around here, I think. Probably not on the fairgrounds, but in the city for sure. I think. Maybe more around the outside? Or something.”

“We dropped Charlie off at a stable,” Anaya noted, “Though I think they mentioned the horses were already reserved for…oh, right, for this.”

Michael frowned, then sighed and turned back to the sheet of paper, asking things like their age, their species, their height and weight…It was overly personal, in their opinion, even somewhat invasive, but one thing that stood out was how the four major Adventurers’ Guilds just had their marks directly present on the paper, with “Circle here if applicable” displayed on them and “write in” for any other affiliation. Even the ducal houses didn’t have that honor.

Still…while they were pretending to be a Centola, actually declaring affiliation with them…didn’t feel right. Whatever that order was up to outside of Zemava, they didn’t know, but they did know how arrogant Icilia was, how controlling their guild was of adventurers in their home country, and what Redridge had to say on the subject. His words even echoed in their head there, bringing a frown to their face. Self-righteous pricks, he said…Do I really want to be known as that?

They didn’t. So, in the “Name of Applicant” box, they took the quill and wrote something…better, in their opinion. A better name to be known by.

Misha Redwing.

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