Orindaco, the city by the sea. One of many cities by many seas, realistically, though no other could boast of being the sole independent city-state currently existing in the Light Lands. Nor could any of those other, clearly lesser seaside cities say they were home to the Water Temple of Mesic; only Orindaco held that particular honor.
From the sky, one might say the enormous port city resembled a six-fingered hand, consisting of a central, circular “palm” situated at the mouth of the Koralin River–itself forming the “arm”–and half a dozen “fingers” extending out into the sea. Which was probably why it was nicknamed “The River’s Hand”. Possibly.
Founded near the beginning of the second millennium–give a couple centuries or so–the independent city was a bustling metropolis of deep canals and stone streets, leading to wooden docks and piers out of the water where ships of all stripes settled. Each finger, commonly referred to as The Docks, were practically neighborhoods in their own rights, containing different factions, communities, and criminal elements, all vying for prominence in a city known for its shady history and deep, dark past.
The important part at the moment though was the palm, the central core of the city, where the Archducal Palace made its seat. Home to generations of incompetent and/or corrupt rulers, th shimmering Seaside Palace was built in a combination of lightlander and sunlander styles; the primary focus of the mostly white-stone castle was a large central onion dome painted a watery teal and emblazoned with a golden sun pierced through by a pair of equally gold spears, symbolizing something someone most certainly thought was dramatic at some point, but had lost meaning over the many, many years.
Spires surrounded the globe-like dome, almost caging it in, while the broad walls of the keep proper spread outwards, almost forming arms that could try to contain the various other buildings spread across the grounds, most far younger than the palace itself where the King of Luceneva was currently being hosted, along with his myriad family members he couldn’t get away with not inviting. And, of course, where the Archduchess herself resided, and where she was currently stamping several orders to her harried attendants, who had discovered just how much of a pain having to host royals could be over the past few days.
“Your grace, the chefs are complaining about the wasted food from the preliminary feasts–”
“Your grace! The Serpents are requisitioning another set of barracks to bring in more guards!”
“Captain, Prince Clarence is requesting his attendants wear maid dresses while serving, and he sent over sketches for what the outfits should look like–”
“Your grace, Blondey Lin at the Luxury Lounge has sent in a formal complaint regarding the conduct of Princes Theodore and Dylan–”
“Milady, the royal guard commander is insisting she be allowed to take command over Commodore Zarlengo so the chain of command will fall under Lucenevan authority–”
“Your grace! We’re running out of red wine already! At this rate, we’re going to need to bring out the rosé early!”
“Captain Brascul, Sal the gondolier is back and we’re pretty sure he’s trying to bootleg again–”
Margrave K. Brascul, Archduchess of Orindaco, sister to Julius Goldforge, and a well-built forty-seven year old human woman with dirty blonde hair–currently tied back in a low bun–let out an irritated sigh as she massaged the bridge of her nose with a gloved hand, around where a thin, largely faded scar split across it. “Gods fucking damn it, why is Sal back. I swear that man has more roach to him than human.”
“I think he’s half-dwarf. It’d explain the longevity,” her secretary, Torna, commented while filling out the paperwork being handed to her, before passing it to Graves for a last check and signature/stamp. The blue-feathered firedrake was long-practiced at it, her crimson-scaled hands working with the earned dexterity of a professional paper-pusher. “Though he is pretty tall, so I’m not completely convinced.”
“Giacomo’s tall and he’s half dwarf.” Graves pressed her gloved hands over her teal eyes for a moment, before pushing them back over her head and stretching her arms out. She let out a slight grunt as her back popped. “I should have pitched Richard Lucene into the sea the instant he showed his face here.”
“I think that’s why he had his wife meet you first, captain. Well, the first wife, the human one…at least I think the third one isn’t human? She’s a genie, right?”
“You’re thinking of a djinni, and no, she’s not. I don’t know whether she’s the type who’d prefer to call herself an ifrit or a zebani, but either way, don’t ask her to grant wishes unless you want the royals to get pissed.”
“Got it, got it, stay away from the touchy royals.” Torna sighed, pushing her glasses up as she grimaced at the next set of requisition forms for dealing with the influx of crowds in the city. “On the one hand, all these tourists coming to see the wedding are bound to be a boon for the season. We’re probably looking at our richest summer since you took power, captain. But, on the other hand, holy shit is this a security nightmare.”
“It was always going to be.” Graves sighed too, leaning back in her seat. “I swear to the gods, if the king dies on my watch here, I’m just gonna fuck right off into the ocean instead of dealing with that bullshit…”
“You say that, but we all know you’d sink with this ship, captain.” Graves didn’t dignify that with a response, which unfortunately meant Torna would continue to think she was right. “And hey, at least there isn’t a war going on right now to put anyone in dan–”
Living on the seas for any length of time required at least a passable sense of spatial awareness; attacks could come from anywhere, especially in deeper waters where all manners of monsters could lurk, so developing the sixth sense was practically a necessity for survival. So the instant Graves felt that change in the air, she was up and out of her chair, grabbing Torna by the back of her blouse and dragging her out of her seat as the wall behind them burst with chunks of plaster and stone.
The former captain of the Brass Skull was up and on her feet as over a dozen concealed crossbows and waterlocks snapped up into the hands of her attendants, aimed straight at the…bizarre carriage–largely black with very skeletal decorations that Graves couldn’t help but approve of–sticking halfway through the back wall, somehow managing to land right between two windows that definitely would’ve been easier to break through, at least for any prospective assassins dumb enough to take a shot at the archduchess.
Though the pair sitting in the front seats of the carriage didn’t really look like assassins–No, wait, the white-haired human(?) with the mask definitely did. But the alarm on her face seemed genuine, as did the nervous laughter that came with recognizing several ranged weapons pointed in her direction. The other woman there, a black-haired wood elf, was clutching the wheel in front of her with the death grip of a helmsman in a storm, terror etched into her face slowly fading as she seemed to remember she could breathe.
“…u-uh…hi?” White-Hair greeted, a hand raised–then immediately lowered when the majority of Graves’s attendants turned their aim towards her. “Right. Right, hands in this gal’s lap, just gonna do that…”
This gal? The human was Gororan?
A second look seemed to confirm it–the epicanthic folds around her eyes were more common to Gororans than other lightlanders–and Graves briefly wondered if she’d done something to piss off the Gororan royalty too when she noticed the pair of redheads in the back of the carriage. Well, one redhead, and one literal head with red hair, being held by the former.
“There we go! Got us there!” the head exclaimed with a bright smile before the high elf holding it–her?–decided to pull their cloak closed over said head, “Wha–Hey! C’mon, I got us to the Orin place! Can’t I stay out?”
“…” The redheaded high elf who was starting to seem strangely familiar to Graves cleared her throat, then leaned forward, attempting to look through the pair of seats on either side of her and prompting several crossbows to turn her way as the rest of the crowd noticed her presence.
“Hello. I am Misha Redwing.”
Graves twitched. It was the only reaction she showed as that familiarity clicked into place.
“I would like to apologize for the–” The elf paused. As did everyone else in the room as they heard a rough, cracking noise and noticed the carriage seemed to be tipping backwards. “…disturbance–”
Scratch that, it wasn’t tipping over. It was falling out of the hole, followed by a pair of screams and an annoyed noise, before a large splash sounded out.
“…Torna, which fountain was that.”
Torna slowly lowered the gun in her hand and placed it back in her skirt pocket, before heading over to the hole and looking out. “It was the freshwater pond, captain.”
“Fucking angels…” the archduchess of Orindaco muttered, pinching the bridge of her nose again as she felt an even bigger headache coming on.
“So, your names are Misha Redwing, Anaya Greenfall, Noriko of Gorokiva, and Seona of the Sixth, and you did not intentionally fly your…’motor carriage’ into my home office,” began Margrave Brascul, sister of Julius Goldforge and Archduchess of Orindaco. And having encountered Goldforge previously, Michael had to say they didn’t really see the resemblance. Her hair was a dirtier blonde than his more gold-gray shade, her eyes were teal to his gray, and that cast to the well-built human’s features was distinctly harsher, with a natural glare to her gaze that seemed to exude threatening intentions.
Though that aura of menace might have been compounded by the fact Anaya and Seona had–unintentionally–driven Charlie into her castle, an act that prompted the quartet’s current status of having manacles clamped around their wrists. Or, well, not Seona’s, since she didn’t have wrists; instead, her far smaller manacles were attached to her hair, giving the dullahead the semblance of pigtails as she “sat” beside Noriko on the couch all four of the unintentional vandals were seated on.
Brascul was seated across from them, taking the opposing couch for herself, and folded her gloved hands in front of her face as she leaned forward, her elbows resting on her knees. She wore a navy blue vest over a white blouse and matching white pants, loosely reminding Michael of a naval officer– “So. Why are you in my city.”
“I–” “Well that–” “So basically–” Michael, Anaya, and Noriko all paused, glancing amidst each other.
“I see you are a very cohesive crew,” Brascul drawled as one of her attendants snickered. And there were several of those attendants still in the room because apparently the quartet’s entrance was unappreciated by Brascul’s subordinates, who were also the ones to both frisk and towel the group off after their impromptu dip in a pool outside the castle. Or manor? They weren’t really sure. They did have one thought though.
“First and foremost, have your people retrieved Charlie from that pool yet?”
“…So the first thing you want to say to me is to ask if I’ve gotten your carriage, that you drove into my palace–” No, it definitely isn’t a palace, that’s too fancy a word. “–out of the freshwater pond you dropped it into. You don’t want to explain why you’re here, Misha Redwing, because you don’t feel I deserve that explanation. Is that it?”
“Oh yeah, sorry about that,” Seona spoke up, “I was sorta too happy about actually reaching the place I wanted to go to remember most people don’t like getting their houses broken into.”
“Most people don’t, no.”
“I was asking after Charlie because they are a companion of ours,” Michael explained, ignoring Seona’s interruption, “You do deserve an explanation for our presence, Lady Brascul, but I would prefer to ensure my companion’s safety.”
“Sure, because you can’t trust me to keep your carriage safe. I understand.” So she’s going to be like that then… “My people are retrieving them. Lou, tell the boys the carriage is alive and to keep it away from the royals.”
As her nereid attendant bowed and hurried out to obey the order, Anaya decided to speak up, “We would like to apologize, your grace. While what we did was dangerous, we can assure you we had a very important reason for arriving so quickly.”
“Ah yes, and I’m sure whatever it is will excuse you for almost killing my secretary and me.” She definitely isn’t making this easy.
“It most certainly does not.” Noriko said as she began to bow. “So on behalf of her companions, this humble lady would like to apologize. As the sister of the empress of Gorokiva she shall endeavor to repay you.” That tidbit of information did give Brascul pause, though for only a moment.
“I see, and I’m sure you hope I’ll let you off by waving around your status. If anything, this could become quite the incident since your party did almost end up killing me.” With a slight grin, she leaned forward. “Or perhaps you were trying to kill me and that’s why you brought a dullahan with you.”
“Oh, well, I can’t really do much right now, since I’m well, only a head. Also I’m not really allowed to take lightlander souls, kinda crosses too much red tape you know?” Seona explained, seemingly unphased by Brascul, “Well, unless you’re a follower of the Ouza. In which case, hey I’ll be sure to help you move along!” …Not really helping our situation right now.
Brascul eyed the dullahead, then turned her gaze back to Michael. “Right. Well, in that case, tell me your reasons for your arrival, and I might even be lenient on your punishment.”
“…We have come to say there is a plot that will likely target King Richard’s life and we wish to aid you in stopping it.” And that just got a disappointed roll of the eyes from Brascul.
“Really. I’ve already had to deal with three of those since the royals got here, I think we’ll be good on that end.” Three? How many enemies does the king have?? No, never mind that.
“But are you aware of the true threat?” Michael asked, “Did you know about the leviathan posing as the king’s future bride?”
“This gal feels like we should be asking about the whole ‘three attempts on King Richard’s life’ part,” Noriko muttered as Brascul raised an eyebrow.
“That’s a big claim, ‘Redwing’. I assume you have some basis for your accusation.”
Michael did, and thus the angel did impart unto the mortal the knowledge they had acquired over the course of their journey. Aided, at times, by Anaya and Noriko chiming in with further information regarding the leviathans and their plots.
“Hm.” Brascul leaned back in her seat, a thoughtful expression on her face after the helpful recap. “I’m surprised. I could actually follow your logic there. Leviathans, demons, plots to ruin countries…yeah, I could see how you might assume little Miss Seaside is up to something.”
“Then you agree–”
“But.” Brascul held up a finger. “You don’t have a guarantee that you’re right. You don’t have evidence either. You just have a hunch. And I’m not inclined to trust the hunches of someone lying to me, Cardinal Michael.”
Michael grimaced. “…It was that obvious then?”
“It is when you know what to look for. I don’t forget people who have wronged me or my crew, and I’ll always remember someone who wrongs my family.”
“Lady Brascul, your grace,” Anaya spoke up, her tone calm and conciliatory as Michael fought back a scowl, “Whatever happened between you and Michael before, I’m sure they didn’t intend any harm–”
“They burned my brother’s eye out of its socket.” Ah, right, Orc-Kicker mentioned–
Then they went very, very still at Anaya’s faint, disbelieving whisper.
“Four months ago, Cardinal Michael, angel of Iudex and servant of the Triarchy of Light abducted my brother, Julius Goldforge, from the Temple of Light he had brought his students to,” Brascul continued, her tone low and her gaze sharp, “The angel was apparently acting under the orders of their god to exile my brother, who risked his life again and again to save this entire damn continent and all the people within it, all because he fell in love with the wrong woman.”
“That wasn’t it!” Michael snapped, a sudden anger surging up, “Yes, I was obeying my god, but his exile was because he invoked the magic of the Butcher–!”
“Magic he only had to rely on because of the many, many deadly fights he had to participate in on behalf of the Light Lands as a whole. And then you dumped him in the volcanic lands of Maleficaba so he’d die of exposure, and later decided to not only attempt to assassinate his fiance, the damn empress of the Dark Lands, but you tried to kill him outright–”
“He attacked me! I gave him a chance to walk away–”
“You mean he gave you a chance, and you refused it at every damn turn, angel.”
Michael stood, a snarl coming to their face–
“Ah, pardon me?” Before that rage faded as Seona spoke up, her voice cutting through their building anger. And letting them notice every attendant had immediately drawn those strange, white flintlocks and pointed them at the angered angel. “Did you say you’re Julius’s sister?”
“…” Brascul kept her eyes on Michael, her gaze steady and dark. “Yes, I did. Do you know my brother?”
“I do! We actually met in Maleficaba! I saved him from a chimera, it was a whole thing. We’re buddies now, and it’s nice to meet some of his family! I think he mentioned you, Ellen, right?”
That actually earned a flicker of surprise from Brascul. “…Margrave, actually.”
“Ohhh! The older sister!”
“Okay, you two definitely have stuff to chat about, so sorry to interrupt, but this gal’s curious about something,” Noriko interrupted, “What do you mean Goldforge was exiled? She hasn’t heard anything about Luceneva kicking him out.”
“That would be because the nation of Luceneva didn’t kick him out,” Brascul answered, “The gods did.”
“…” Michael could tell Noriko glanced at them. They didn’t look back, keeping their gaze on Brascul.
“…and how does that work?” Noriko asked, her tone wary in a way Michael didn’t like.
“To put it simply, the gods decided Jules can’t live in the Light Lands anymore. If you want to be fancy, call it a divine exile,” Brascul explained, “It has no legal authority unless the governments of each nation actually agree to it, but it seems that doesn’t matter. If Julius tries to come back home, the angel sitting next to you is going to kill him.”
“…That…that’s not how things work.” Her voice was full of disbelief. And maybe something else. Horror? “Gods don’t do that. Divine intervention, it’s like…it’s like the Nameless One letting the rain fall to clear a curse, sending his angels to help, not…This lady knows Eiko didn’t ratify anything like that, his ‘exile’ isn’t official!”
“But that doesn’t matter. Now does it.” Brascul’s eyes never left Michael’s.
“It probably does.” Michael paused, glancing at Anaya’s low, thoughtful tone. “Divine Right is a tricky thing, historically speaking. Plenty of monarchs over the millennia have upheld the gods as their reason for being royal. Divine favor gave them the right to rule, essentially. It’s why so many nations were founded by former heroes or ‘chosen ones’. Gods are powerful, so having their backing means you have that power on your side. At least, supposedly.
“The problem comes with how gods are active, intelligent entities. If you just said you had the divine right to rule because the moon said so, you wouldn’t have actual obligations to the moon because the moon isn’t a thinking being. At least, I’m pretty sure it isn’t…” She shrugged, the motion clinking the chains on her manacles. “But saying a god favors you is going to get the attention of that god. You’ll be…interesting to them. And if you do things they don’t approve of, they’ll directly show it. They have angels as messengers for a reason.” Michael wasn’t sure why they stiffened there. There was something in her tone. “Invoking a deity’s name and saying they approve of you…it’s a two-edged sword.
“Take Sollamava and Luceneva, for instance. In Sollamava, you have to win the throne by competing for it. You can’t just hold power through inheritance, and even if you win, if the throne stops approving of you, your own palace will throw you out. Meanwhile, in Luceneva, you can only gain the crown if you have the name Lucene because of the blessing on the nation. Even though they don’t really follow the elder goddess Lucere anymore, the blessing is still there, and if a monarch wearing the crown is disapproved of by the spirit of the nation, misfortune strikes until they’re overthrown. Examples like that is why most royals don’t actually want their authority purely derived from the gods. The separation of faith and crown is meant to keep the gods from simply taking a royal’s authority, because any king who rules by divine right is admitting there is a higher power than him who can take it away at any time.
Anaya took a slow breath. The room was quiet, all attention on her. Except for Brascul. Her gaze was still on Michael. “…Basically, if the nations of the Light Lands agreed that the gods’ authority supersedes their own, if they all agreed to the exile, then it could be legally valid. But Orindaco hasn’t. Gorokiva hasn’t. And I doubt any nation other than Zemava even knows the exile is in effect, and even then, knowing how much the people there idolize the heroes, does the general public know of it? Or only the Pontiff?”
“…” Michael’s eyes were entirely on Anaya. “…that…That isn’t the point!”
“You’re right. It isn’t.” And for the first time, Michael saw Anaya outright glare at them. “The point is that the gods aren’t supposed to intervene with mortal affairs unless it’s on the scale of what happened in Gorokiva. The point is that no matter what Julius Goldforge did, he should have had a fair trial in his own home country instead of being sentenced by a ‘faith’ that never once tried to help anyone outside their borders. The POINT is that Julius Goldforge is a hero who risked his life saving thousands of lives from a madman and his monster of a dragon, including mine! And you tried to kill him!?”
“Is that why you’re missing a hand?! Do you lose it trying to kill a hero!? I thought–I sympathized with you, you–” She grit her teeth, hands clenched into fists as leaves grew in between her fingers, before she turned to Brascul. “Lady Brascul, I apologize for my conduct. I didn’t understand the situation. I would like to leave the room, please. I need time to think.”
“Sure, I’ll allow that.” What? Brascul nodded to one of her attendants. “Kolby, we should have a few clear guest rooms. Put her in a nice one and take the shackles off.”
“No, wait–Anaya–” Michael tried to say as she was being led away, “Anaya, I–”
She stopped, looked over her shoulder. Her hands were still clenched and she seemed to be fighting a scowl. “You don’t–…want to talk to me right now. I need space.”
And then she left, and Michael sank back in their seat, a dull feeling in their chest and a pit in their gut. “…”
“I can’t say I expected that, but I do appreciate that your friends can tell when an injustice was done,” Brascul commented, amusement coloring her tone.
That dull feeling immediately roared into fury and Michael glared straight at the damned pirate across from them, the heat from their body surging against the cuffs around their wrists–Which immediately snapped back with a sudden cold that made them flinch.
“I took precautions, angel. I know your type.” She folded her hands in her lap, sitting back and crossing her legs. “So, now that the air’s clear and everyone knows why you piss me off, we should get back to business. You said you have a way of detecting demons and leviathans. If I show you to Molly, could you detect her nature on sight?”
“That–You just–You want me to help you after–After that?!”
“That’s why you’re here. You smashed into my palace to help. So help. Or were all your claims just meaningless words?”
Michael’s mouth opened…closed. Opened again. They looked at Noriko, who winced at their gaze, an awkward confusion and unwillingness to speak up evident in her posture, then over at Seona, who simply raised and lowered her eyebrows in a rough approximation of a shrug. Neither were going to help them.
Michael’s charitable side was willing to admit most wouldn’t know what to say in such a situation. That Noriko was likely processing the recent revelations herself and would need time. Their aggressive side felt an anger building, rage that turned from their friends–and an almost anxious part of them really wanted them all to remain friends–towards the pirate who caused everything to fall apart so quickly. Even though you knew your lies would be revealed eventually…
“Fine. All I need is a view of her.”
“I can provide that. Before I do though, swear to me, on your god, that–”
“I swear to you, Margrave Brascul of Orindaco, by the light of my Holy Father, that I will report to you the full truth of what I see when I attempt to detect the leviathan I believe to be present within your territory.”
Brascul leaned back, her eyes glancing towards the ceiling as she seemed to count something in her head, mouthing some words as she did. “…I can accept that oath. Come on then.”
The walk was tense, not helped by the clink of Michael’s manacles echoing through the halls. Brascul’s sense of decoration appeared to lean towards the nautical, with paintings of ships and sea creatures hanging up teal and sky blue walls. Waves were a recurring motif, as one might expect from a seaside castle.
Red, blue, or maroon carpets covered tiled floors decorated in seashell patterns, blue curtains hung like waterfalls over tall windows, fantastical frescos were painted into the vaulted ceilings displaying tableaus of sirens and sea angels, and Michael’s focus drifted from decoration to decoration, their attention wandering almost intentionally as they tried not to think of the disaster they had made of their relationships.
“Here,” Brascul eventually said, directing them to a window. One like many others, though the exception to it appeared to be that it overlooked an expansive pool, one surrounded by chairs and tables where it appeared a number of people were relaxing. “Tell me if you need a scope.”
“I don’t.” Michael stepped forward, reaching the window and focusing out at the distant figures. There was a small number of people, some older, some younger, though a majority seemed to be human, or at least human-adjacent. Not many, because the day was turning to evening and the warm light of the sun was casting an orange shade across the sky. But they weren’t important; no, the only important one down there was the leviathan, and she was bound to be beside the king–Ah, there he is.
King Richard Lucene the Second, the current ruling monarch of Luceneva, was a clean-shaven man with stark white hair and a broad-shouldered physique. A gold circlet curled around his head, denoting his status as royalty, as he lounged on a long lounge chair with wine in one hand and a woman in the other. To be more clear, his right hand, glinting with three rings–one on every finger except the one meant for them–was firmly clasped to the rear end of the blonde snuggling up against him while dressed in a green two-piece swimsuit. A garment that was actually less revealing than the king’s own swim briefs, patterned to be red on one half and blue on the other.
And the blonde was the leviathan. It was easy enough to discern, and as Michael Looked deeper at the situation, checking the souls of the sapients present, they…they…
Michael blinked, then leaned out the window, staring directly at the woman with golden-blonde hair, straight and striking in the remaining sunlight. The woman whose soul betrayed faint shades of greed and envy mixed with glimmers of other, minor sins any human would have. The woman whose soul, as Michael stared directly into its depths, was undeniably not a leviathan’s.
“…Which one is Molly Seaside?” Michael asked as the mortal world faded back into mundanity.
“She’s the one snuggling the king,” Brascul said in a tone that implied they were a complete idiot for failing to recognize her.
“No, it isn’t. That–Are you sure?!”
“…Cardinal. What did you see?”
“…” Michael swallowed. Their throat felt dry. “…She’s not a leviathan.”
“No. She isn’t.” The dull ache came back, cold along the scar that split their chest. “…I was wrong.”