Sona Komottos was a massive city. From the sky, it was shaped like a distorted oval, stretched on the sides and bending at points where large buildings stood and hills raised parts of the city above the lower plains. If Michael had anything to compare it to, it was an egg yolk; the majority was the “white”, spreading outward from the largest hill in the city–the “yolk”–that contained the central palace of Sona Komottos.
Sona Palati was the name of the central palace, though the seat of the Monarch of Sollamava was more open than Michael expected. Also, in some ways, smaller than they expected.
The structure was tall, certainly, with massive columns supporting the front entrance that sat at the top of a long flight of stairs known as the “Monarch’s Climb”. It was a grand stone staircase designed to challenge those who would seek entrance to the palace, demanding formidable will and strength in order to conquer.
The palace also had a set of ramps leading up one side of the hill for those who couldn’t or simply didn’t want to walk up the stairs, but Michael was neither of those things so it was with an eager drive to prove themself that they stepped from their carriage and took the first step onto the Climb. Then they remembered they needed to actually hitch the carriage somewhere, which they did at a nearby stable–the stablehand on duty reacted rather oddly to their payment, but Michael was starting to get used to that; mortals just reacted strangely to diamonds, for some reason–and also Anaya needed to walk with them.
“...Any chance you can bring out your wings and fly us up?”
“Yeah, I thought so…”
So it was with an increasingly out of breath Anaya following behind them that Michael made their way up to the palace, which, as mentioned prior to their stair-based distraction, wasn’t especially large in comparison to other castles, though it was broad. Very solid, with a largely square and rectangular shape that stretched backwards and extended out towards the east and west in something of a “†” formation. Perhaps it would be better to say it actually wasn’t “tall”; the palace only had a single floor, though that floor consisted of a number of rooms, many of which were open-air and connected to the gardens that were scattered all across the palace grounds.
Interestingly, said gardens were open to the public, which was also relatively unusual. Most nobility, at least that Michael could remember, tended to jealously guard their property. Even the paladin orders had a tendency to restrict access to their grounds, so this openness was–
Michael glanced to their side, where Anaya had just flopped face first into a flower bed. “...Are you okay?”
“Mmmm hmm...jst nd rst…”
...Well, they could wait for a minute or two. The pause gave the angel the chance to look at the occupants of the palace that they could see. Which seemed to be all minotaurs, which wasn’t especially surprising. Michael had picked up on the fact that only minotaurs seemed to hold positions of actual authority and power in Sollamava, which wasn’t much different from how things worked in Zemava. Yes, elves of other kinds and even some half elves held positions as paladins within the halidom, but, for the most part, the anointed members of the faith were high elves and the highest positions were made up entirely of them.
"You're not supposed to lay on the flowers." Coming out of their thoughts, Michael looked over to see a surprisingly small minotaur. Which meant he was still a couple inches taller than the angel, but still. His fur was also a surprising shade of red, complementing the brown doublet he wore. Perhaps he was only half-minotaur? And he had a nose ring like the guards they’d encountered, though it was bronze instead of steel.
"Heh. Been awhile since someone not used to the stairs came up, but even if you are expected guests, it's quite rude to ruin the flowers, especially as we have a bed prepared should you wish to stay the night."
"....peas." I’ll assume she meant please. Hoisting Anaya up under their arm like a sack–on the opposite side to their satchel–Michael turned to face the minotaur.
"Lead the way."
“Right this way, ma’am.” Certainly a professional youngster. He led them inside without issue, and Michael took the time to glance about the mosaic-covered interior as Anaya hung limp under their arm, apparently content to just be a sack. They jostled her, checking to see if she was still awake, and earned a little groan in reply.
“Don’t shake me…”
“Don’t be a lump then.”
"Use your wings next time…"
"Train your body next time."
"Not to be rude, but I am surprised the companion of a paladin wasn't able to climb the stairs without a problem,” the attendant spoke up, “One would assume traveling with a paladin would train the body well enough."
"We only began traveling together recently." And it's not like Michael had any choice on who they would be traveling with. If they did...well, they wouldn’t choose to travel with anyone, so the point was somewhat moot.
“Oh, I see. Guess that just means she has plenty of room to improve?” he continued in good humor, though Anya huffed regardless, pouting. “Speaking of rooms, here’s where we have the guest rooms.”
He gestured to a set of doors all along one wall, all painted an oddly cheery yellow shade. “Is there any reason why your doors are so bright? And all have horseshoe knockers?”
“The latter’s because it’s polite to knock before you enter someone’s room. As for the former, it’s to ward off demons that might try to enter your sleep. It’s just sort of an old tradition by this point, based on some old color theory promoted by the philosopher Agapias, who proposed that each elder god, Rakuli and Ouzan, has their natural opposite, and the holy color of Light could ward off the dark temptations of the Dreamer.”
“Wow, you knew that immediately,” Anaya commented, now propping her head up on her hand to stare at the attendant, “Classical education?”
“Oh, uh...sorta, yeah, um…” He cleared his throat. “...do you want to rest in an available room?”
"Yes, please." It also appeared that despite being a castle, the guest rooms were rather simple, only containing a bed that seemed sized for minotaurs, a desk, and a wardrobe. "Oh, I don't think we've asked your name yet."
"Loukas, I'm an assistant to the queen."
"Pleasure to meet you Loukas, now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to pass out." And as soon as Michael put Anaya down on the bed, she immediately went to sleep, audibly snoring as she pressed her face into the pillow.
“Hm. That was faster than usual.” They glanced at Loukas. “May I meet the queen now?”
“Oh, you don’t want to wait for your partner to wake up?”
“She doesn’t need to be there for the meeting, and I assume she will be safe to sleep inside this room. I am safe in making that assumption?”
“Of course. We take guest right very seriously in Sollamava, ma’am. I solemnly swear that no harm will come to your partner while she is in our care.”
“Good, see to it.” It would look really bad if I let my principal be harmed in less than a month of knowing her. I already have enough to deal with, and something like that would only slow things down. I suppose I could heal her easily enough, though there’s still the issue of how my reputation would suffer…
Such were their thoughts as Michael left Loukas guarding the bedroom. It was odd that the minotaurs gave them so much free rein to explore the palace, but they did seem to treat the guest/host relationship as especially sacred. It was a good virtue to uphold, quite respectable.
They examined the surroundings as they traveled once more, noting the mosaics on the floor forming patterns of suns and open flowers, while those on the walls seemed to trace more of a history. Images of battles, historically significant moments, the union of the minotaur tribes under one leader, the teachings he imparted to them…
Michael paused as they entered a larger chamber and stared at the wall. It was a large one, stretching towards the ceiling, and it seemed to display what the minotaurs regarded as the creation of their race. Small images of clay figures rising from the young soil grew to a larger image of the figures splitting off into groups. Some turned to gold under a great beam of light. Others turned green and grew antlers amidst trees. Some grew fins and sank beneath waves. Others gathered in shadow and darkened. Some sprouted feathers and flew to tall mountains. Others took up plows and pitchforks, changing little in physical appearance.
And at the center was the image of a large, broad figure with horns, hooves, and a tail, raising their hand–palm upturned as though accepting some blessing–to an angel with bronze wings.
The mosaic was well crafted and it continued onward, showing the minotaurs’ history further, but Michael’s eyes lingered on that angel. The sight filled them with...a sort of empty nostalgia. As though they were remembering something they had never known.
“I guess they would be your older sibling, huh?” a voice said, not quite behind them. More towards the left.
Queen Beratia Molgari wasn’t the first royal minotaur Michael had encountered. Those they had always had a sense of presence to them, and this newest queen was the same. And like all other minotaur monarchs they had encountered, she looked completely different from her predecessors. Minotaurs put proven worth above blood and it was truly rare for a Sollamavan monarch’s successor to be a direct blood relation.
Molgari was tall and muscular, like most minotaurs, with pale, freckled skin, and closely cropped, dirty-blonde hair. Her sleeveless vest and loose, linen pants were somewhat more casual than typical for a royal, though the silver bands around her horns and the onyx ring on her right hand still displayed her position as Sollamavan royalty, while the bands of bronze around her arms did a great deal to define her muscles.
Bowing before her, Michael kept their tone even as they responded, "My apologies, Queen Molgari, but I am the eldest of my siblings."
"Hm…I suppose that would be right. Welcome to Sona Komottos, Cardinal Michael. I pray that the climb up wasn't too much for you."
"It certainly wasn't.” Michael straightened, staring the queen in the eyes. “Pleasantries aside, we have many things to talk about, perhaps somewhere without prying eyes."
"Of course, the letter I received from Routhra was quite distressin’. If it’s really true, then there’ll be quite a number of sheriffs who’ll need to be detained and replaced. And I imagine it’ll be the same for the paladins."
“...I would prefer to discuss this in a more secure location, your majesty.”
Molgari nodded, turning her back to them as she led the way to a red door with a single guard in–
“...” Michael stared at Loukas. They looked back down the hallway, but they’d made a turn, so they couldn’t see the bedroom Anaya was in…
“Nasos, this is the paladin. We’re goin’ through.” Nasos?
“Course, your majesty.” Nasos–Oh, they’re probably twins–took a key from his belt and unlocked the door, opening it to show a room with nothing inside it. No decorations, no mosaics, just solid stone and a large slab of yellow stone in the center of the floor. It was the only pattern in the room, showing a weighing scale in bronze.
Molgari stepped directly on it, pressing her hoof against the stone, then stepped back as it rumbled and slid open, showing a wide pit.
“...What is this?”
“A quiet place.” And without another word, she hopped into the hole.
Michael raised an eyebrow, but followed, resisting the urge to spread their wings as they dropped into the dark. Their feet touch the floor as a clap rang out, and the chamber lit up, lightstones along the curved walls activating to show another empty room with a door at one end, and a brown core placed into the opposite wall. There were more mosaics along the walls here, displaying symbols and heraldry from the noble families of Sollamava, while the core was framed by spikes. Almost like a sun or a flower.
“Alright, now we can talk,” Molgari said as she sat on the floor, a cushion forming under her from the stone of the chamber, “C’mon, sit. I prefer talkin’ on an even level.”
Michael huffed even as they sat on their knees, a cushion of their own forming as they raised an eyebrow at the queen. “I doubt we could even if we are both sitting. You’re taller than me.”
“Heh, good point. Well, as close as we can get then. Now, you have some documents for me?”
Michael nodded, taking said documents from their satchel and holding them out–...And laying them on the table that formed in between the angel and the queen. “I see you chose this room for its convenience.”
“That’s one reason, sure,” Molgari replied as she took the sheaf of papers and started reading from the top, “There’s some other significance to it. It’s more symbolic stuff though. I’m sure you know how most of my people pray to your...would you call him your father?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Right. So I thought it would be good to have this type of talk down here. You’re an angel of judgment, I’m a queen of Sollamava. It’s very theological, don’t you think?”
“...I suppose. Is there something more you want to ask me?”
“There are, in a few senses. I know Archdeacon Vitaleas would get real annoyed with me if I didn’t ask you a few questions. So, to start, why do we, as a faith, only have an archdeacon? All the rest in the Light Lands have a pontiff.”
Michael shook their head. “Not all of them. The leader of Faith of Purity is an archdeacon as well. As members of the Triarchy of Light, Father Iudex and Lord Purus have chosen that their faiths will owe their service to the Faith of Light.”
Molgari nodded, setting another paper down as she moved onto the next. She was still reading, keeping most of her focus on the documents. “Is that why we don’t have a temple either?”
“Yes and no. The temples are intended as places to test heroes, your majesty. The cores within them are imbued with the power of the divine and the spirit of an elemental to function properly.”
“I see. It would be tricky to get a ‘judgment elemental’ to exist, wouldn’t it? Still, I think that’s always been a sore point in our nation’s history. We minotaurs pride ourselves on our strength, but we don’t have any place to test a hero. We even built our palace on top of a dungeon, the ‘Trial Dungeon’, to make sure our rulers were worthy people. If they can’t prove themself worthy of ruling, why should they get to hold that power? It’s a gruelin’ process, and if you’re not worth it, you don’t get the crown.
Molgari smirked as she continued reading, her brown eyes flicking from line to line as she moved from one list of crimes to the next. “There’s twelve trials total, and all of them are brutal. Not just for testing strength, but skill, wisdom, intelligence, perception, and it’s not even a temple. It’s not meant to test heroes, but rulers. Queens, kings, monarchs. But in a weird way, it still rankles, knowing we don’t have what everyone else has.
“Do you remember that lightning elemental on Shioneri? She had a weird presence to her. It makes me wonder what it would really look like to see someone lose their body to magic. I had to pass an ethics test in one part of the trial, so I know even Throne here would hate it if I tried somethin’ like that just to give my country a temple, but even I have to wonder. Course, then another part of me wonders if the temples are just prisons, and it leads to even more questions.”
Michael was still. They were very carefully still as they stared at the queen, who still read through the documents, slowly and carefully. “...So you know I was on Shioneri.”
“I do. It’s not hard to put things together, especially when I know who the cardinals are and what their wings look like. You’re the only angels of judgment, so it’s not too hard to keep track.”
“...Then you know what I attempted there.”
She set another paper down, and continued reading. “I do. And I didn’t say anythin’, so don’t worry. I can keep the peace.”
“A false peace. I do not regret what I did at that meeting. Valondrac is a liar, a murderer, and a conqueror! You can’t reason with someone like that!”
“She held a peace conference, Cardinal. That does say to me that she’s different from most demon lords.”
“Then you’ve fallen for her lies too! I know she’s planning to take advantage of this armistice, and if even one monarch had been willing to stand against her, she wouldn’t have gained that victory!”
Another paper down. “Do you know how far Sollamava is from Ebkai, Cardinal?”
“...Around two thousand miles, depending on where, specifically, you are starting from and what your destination is.”
“Good answer. Now, what that means is that if we did sabotage those peace talks, if we did take a stand against a lie intended to protect Zemava from retaliation–”
Her eyes raised. “It’s not polite to interrupt, Cardinal.” Then went back to the next paper. “The facts Valondrac laid out were a load of legalese and worming to say how the trespasses she made weren’t quite that and how we should all just get along. The lies told to help sell that was that the ‘Sky Lands’ were involved, and from what I can tell, that was to keep it from getting out that Zemava did some nonsense with Goldforge and the heroes did somethin’ stupid in retaliation. I don’t know specifics, and I’m not sure I want to know specifics. From what I know though, Valondrac was right that if she just decided to pack up her toys and go home, that was it. The war is over.
“And nothin’ would change for Sollamava either way. We’re on the exact other side of the continent from where the fighting would take place. We have Tramontava and Luceneva right in our way when it comes to any invasion and retaliation. My people are proud and hearty and there are plenty that would relish a chance to have a genuine, glorious battle against an evil foe. There aren’t many that actually know what that would mean though. Throne demands that a queen knows what war is. And in the moment, I decided I wouldn’t subject the people of the East to that when I had an opportunity to make peace.”
“...And is that acceptable to your people? If they’re willing to march to war, then why would they follow a queen who refuses to act?”
“I acted. You shouldn’t misunderstand that part. I acted just fine. I acted in favor of peace, not in favor of a war no one wanted. Your sister, Gabriel, agreed to peace at the time too. Sometimes, fightin’ for peace means talkin’ things out, not actually fightin’. Sollamava has marched to war in the past. You’ve probably seen us, right? You’ve lived long enough. So you’d know the problems that show up when you have big armies of people that eat a lot, or the issues that come from people as big and strong as us tearin’ up everythin’ when we get goin’.
She laughed, setting down another paper. “I almost wonder if half the problems Naloriva wound up goin’ through was because all the rest of us came chargin’ in to ‘save the day’ back then. It’s probably why Rosiava doesn’t like the rest of us too...that aside, I made my choice, and I’m not budgin’ from it. If Throne disagrees, I’ll probably wake up one mornin’ at the bottom of the hill, covered in bruises and with no idea how I got there. Happened to at least a couple shit rulers in our history.”
Michael stared at the queen, then took a slow breath. They weren’t quite sure what they were feeling. Angry? That was there, but they weren’t sure who it was directed towards...The unfortunate fact was, they could remember the issues the “Light Land Army”, in all its various forms, inevitably faced in its formation. For all they claim to be a part of the same land, these blasted kingdoms barely know how to get along…
"...So, you are simply going to play at peace then? Even if this is all one giant ploy?"
"If it is, then I'll claim her head myself, even if it costs me my life. But for now, this is the best option for everyone." Placing another paper down, Molgari let out a sigh. "Especially since I have all this corruption to deal with. I'm sure you can tell tryin’ to go to war while several key figures in my lands are potentially sabotaging me is a bad move to make."
"...You are not wrong there. If you send your armies out before things are settled, these traitors could attempt to seize Sollamava while it is defenseless."
“That’s more a worst case scenario, but I’ll admit the point there. I can’t say I like these weapon shipment missives...Hm. Gonna need to have a long talk with the Garoti family...Speakin’ of, I have one more question for you. What do you think I oughta do with these documents?”
“What? Isn’t it obvious? Arrest the corrupted officials mentioned within.”
“Sure, that’s one option. I do need to think about things here though. A queen suddenly tramplin’ over a number of sheriffs, potentially arrestin’ the members of major families...well, it’d be real disruptive, wouldn’t it?” She set another paper down, and looked Michael in the eyes. “Wouldn’t it be better to keep the peace?”
“What?! No, of course not! This is corruption, rooted in your own nation! You can’t let it lie like this!”
“But it’s not just my nation here. It’s yours too. And I don’t have any authority to make arrests there. So there’s another point to consider. If I rip out the root of corruption over here, I leave my tree weak and faltering, and yours stays untouched. So what’s the best move here?”
Gods, it’s a miracle any mortals get anything done if they’re constantly worrying about such inconsequential things! “Publish all of it then! Let everyone know of what crimes have been committed! Yes, I suppose I can accept there’s a time and place to...to keep peace, but this isn’t one of them! A peaceful rot is still rotten, and it needs to be cut out, wherever it may be!”
Molgari grinned. “Funny, that’s exactly what I was thinkin’. Glad to hear you agree.”
Michael blinked. They had the distinct feeling they missed something… “I...am glad too. Is that all?”
“Oh no, not in the slightest. See, I need to make sure all this looks properly valid. Yeah, it is evidence you found and handed over to me, but you never know what type of people might start lyin’ just to keep their positions. So, do you have any kinda seal with you? Somethin’ everyone would recognize as your mark?”
“...Er...of a sort?” Michael raised their thumb, forming a miniature halo of fiery light above the skin. “Whenever Gabriel insists–Whenever I am required to do paperwork, I use something like this as a print.”
“Great! That makes this real easy then.” She passes the stack of already read papers to Michael as what looked like an ink well and an oddly shaped stamp formed on the table. “You get that stack, I’ll keep readin’ through these, and we can trade off as needed.”
“Oh. Uh...alright.” ...Something just happened here. I have no idea what it is, but...well, if it removes the corruption from Sollamava and Zemava, then that’s a step that needs to be taken.
Besides, what could possibly go wrong?