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Farms were a great deal larger than Michael had realized. Though perhaps it was simply a result of this particular farm being Sollamavan? Zemavan farms are definitely smaller than...hm. When’s the last time I’ve actually seen a Zemavan farm? There are those small ones, up in the hills, with the sheep and goats?

Regardless, the “Vlahos Ranch”–the apparent name as indicated by the sign above its archway–was clearly large. Michael wasn’t entirely sure what an acre was in terms of distance, but the farm certainly had many of them.

“Welcome to Vlahos Ranch,” Polina announced, rather unnecessarily, as she gestured up at the sign that Michael had already seen, “Though it’s actually more accurate to call it a farm than a ranch, since my family has more a focus on growin’ crops than raisin’ animals. Ah, though, we do still have animals, as you can plainly see.”

They could very plainly see, yes. Cornfields stretched across the plains far past where the large, main house of the farm sat, extending out into the distance, though other parts of the farm were closer to main road Michael currently had their carriage parked by. And while the path through the archway did lead directly up to the rather wide, two-story house, it split off to other parts of the farm, where they could vaguely see things like a stable and field for the rhinos Sollamavans used for steeds–I should probably bring the unicorns by there–and smaller gardens for what may be potatoes and peppers. And cacti? They weren’t entirely sure, but they did see what looked like an area for fruit-bearing cacti, which they were fairly certain were banned in Zemava. Not because the cacti themselves could cause hallucinations, but because the spines on the fruits tended to be a choking hazard.

"It certainly looks lovely, and also quite large," Anaya noted, rather redundantly, smiling as she took in the sights, “I’m a little surprised it’s all run by one family.”

"Ah, yeah, we definitely need a lot of workers, but having so many siblings certainly helps."

"Are they all farmhands?"

"Not all of them, but they all grew up helping around the farm so whenever they come back they know how to help.”

Michael huffed, glancing the opposite way for a moment. The farm wasn’t exactly isolated, as they could see other houses further down the road and the main city of the Titormo Province–Titolis–was visible southward, but it certainly had a great deal of space to itself. “Hmph. It’s natural for children to support their parents, and certainly more praiseworthy than galavanting off to foreign nations for ‘adventure’.”

“O-Oh, um...well, that...I-I suppose?” Hm? What’s with that reaction? I just complimented her for staying in her home country. Perhaps I wasn’t clear?

“Yes, it is far better to support your home, and your home nation, than let simple wanderlust drive your actions.” Polina still looked off-put. Michael raised a hand and patted her shoulder. “You are doing well.”

“Oh. Oh! Oh, you were-Ah, thank you kindly.” Hm, it seems the people of Sollamava prefer more direct compliments. "Well, with that settled, I think it's time to show you the place."

"Wouldn't you prefer to see your family first so you can say hi before you show us around?" Anaya chimed in as Polina led them in.

“Sure would, but I imagine most of them are gonna be in the main house to start with. That or by the fields. Or in the barn? Hm, now that I consider it, they could be just about anywhere…”

Which doesn’t help us at all. Still, the farmhouse did seem like the best place to start. The oddly skewed farmhouse, now that Michael really looked at it; whoever built it apparently intended the structure to be much smaller and had to expand outward for whatever reason, so there was a central portion–with a nice porch and glass windows under a tiled overhang and then another pair of windows on the second floor above–and then a large extension jutting towards the right of the building. Additionally, some attempt at counterbalance or perhaps symmetry, the opposite side appeared to be intended for an outdoor eating area under a canopy, where Michael could see a female minotaur and a few poorly dressed satyrs setting up wooden tables.

Not that Polina stopped to greet them, instead heading to the front door and ringing a bell that was set up next to it.

“I’ll get it!” a voice shouted from inside, and soon, the door opened–and Michael promptly averted her eyes. “Hm? Oh, hey, Polly!”

“Hi Agni–”

“Ooo, now who’s this?” the woman continued, before Michael saw a grinning, redheaded minotaur attempting to peek at their face. She did look remarkably like Polina, with similar freckles on her brown skin, similar brown eyes, and similar...horns. They were definitely just looking at her horns. “Heh, y’know my eyes’re down here, right?”

“...I am aware.”

“Ha! Well, no worries ‘bout bein’ shy, I know folk like me can be a little intimidatin’~” …I don’t know what she’s implying, but I resent the implication.

“Er, Agni? Could you move back?” Polina asked, and, thankfully, her family member did step back.

“Oh hey, didn’t notice you! What’s your name?” And Agni’s attention seemed to be on Anaya now. So Michael took a slight glance at the immodestly dressed minotaur to gauge what type of person they were dealing with.

“Anaya Greenfall, at your service, Miss Vlahos,” Anaya replied–quite politely–and curtsied, smiling up at Agni as Michael noted a few details about Polina’s sister. She looked...messy, her red hair tied back in a loose updo and a number of alchemical tattoos tracing from her left shoulder and up her neck in a labyrinthine pattern. They also clearly traced down more of her body, but Michael was reluctant to stare too much at the immodestly dressed minotaur, who was wearing a pair of overalls and little else, from what they could see.

“Aw, polite too! Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, ma’am. Agni Vlahos! My home is your home. Course, it’s more my ma and pa’s home, but you get my point.” She held out a hand and Anaya promptly took it, firmly shaking, before Agni looked at Michael again. “And I don’t think I got your name yet?”

“...Misha Centola.”

“Centola? Like the paladins–Oh, or not? Heh, sorry if I caused offense.”

Michael didn’t wince at their slip, but they were very careful to school their features back to a neutral expression instead of their immediate scowl. “...Yes, like the paladins. Because I am one of those. And Anaya is a druid.”

“I am that, yep!”

“Oh really? Huh, that case, do you have any–ah, wait, no, I’m bein’ rude here, come in!” She held the door open and Michael walked in first, aiming to avoid staring too much at Polina’s sister. Which was somewhat tricky to do since the house seemed to be full of Polina’s sisters. And like Agni, many of them were only wearing overalls. That appeared to be a consistent fashion trend in the household and Michael was having some trouble deciding where they should be looking as a result.

The living room they’d entered was rather cozy, if clear built for people far taller than them. That wasn’t a negative though; there were large couches around, a staircase leading to the second floor at the opposite end, open entrances leading into other areas of the house and another room past the staircase, where Michael could see a back entrance to the household.

“Come on, head in, sit where you want, I’m sure everyone would wanna meetcha!” Agni encouraged with a wide grin as the other occupants of the house noticed their presence.

“Oh hey, Polly brought guests!”

“Huh, that a high elf? Didn’t think they came down this far.”

“Oh they totally do, you can see them all over by the coast.”

“Well hey, welcome to our family home!” another minotaur greeted as conversation continued throughout the living room, too many to keep a complete track of–Michael shook it off and glanced to the nearest and newest speaker, another obvious Vlahos sister–the brown, freckled skin and dark hair was a decent indicator–who was at least dressed slightly more modestly in a checkered sundress. She did have a rather friendly demeanor, with her hair tied back in two long, braided tails. “Do you want anything to drink? We’ve got lemonade and iced tea already made, just over by the kitchen.”

“Er...I appreciate the offer, but no thank you,” Michael replied, then paused, “Ah, we came here with a carriage. And it has two unicorns with it, and I believe they should be stabled.”

“Oh, no worries then, I can get my hubby right on that.” She turned and called out, “DALTON! COULD YOU COME HERE A SEC?” then paused and looked back to Michael. “Oh right, my name’s Myrto, it’s nice to meet you!”

"Michael, ah, also, hubby?"

"Oh my, never thought a paladin would be this forward, but yes, I'm married, sorry to disappoint."

"Forward on what?"

“Alright, let’s not crowd the doorway, come on in!” And now they were being pushed forward by Agni, right.

Being a guest at a family’s reunion was an incredibly strange experience. There was a sense of familiarity in the air that Michael had no connection to as they found themself making multiple introductions to different family members in a very large family.

Not only were there apparently twenty-seven daughters of the Vlahos family total, but those daughters were, in turn, adults with families and friends of their own who they had brought along, and Michael felt incredibly out of place among them. And while it wasn’t unexpected for Polina to be able to easily and casually speak with her family, her nervous demeanor lessening somewhat as she interacted with people she was far more familiar with, it was somewhat displeasing to see Anaya quickly acclimate to all the new people, taking a seat right on the nearest open couch cushion and requesting a lemonade without a hint of awkwardness.

Michael felt neither jealousy nor envy towards the more socially competent druid, but there was a slight feeling of irritation. Only a slight one, they weren’t that petty.

“Hey Polly, I’m showin’ this one around!” Agni called out, and Michael paused as they felt an arm go over their shoulders.

“Oh, okay!” Polly called back, waving to them and following another sister into the kitchen as Michael side-eyed Agni.

“What are you doing.”

“Oh, sorry.” And the arm went off their shoulders as the red-headed minotaur smiled. “Probably shouldn’t be too familiar too quick, right? You’re from Zemava and all, so I should’ve guessed.”

“...How does my country of origin relate?”

“Well Zems are more modest, yeah? I wouldn’t call y’all meek, but you prefer more space, all that. Anyways! You’re new to the farm, Polly’s busy catching up, prolly goin’ to find Ma, say hi ‘n all, and that means someone else oughta show you around!”

“...I appreciate your offer, but I do not require–”

And so, Agni became their guide at the farm.

“–so Daph’s bound to inherit the farm as a whole, though she’s plenty open to anyone sharin’ in the ownership, and Lambri’s probably gonna stick around regardless since she loves this place, even if she’s keepin’ up with the pottery business,” Agni–who was an alchemist by hobby and trade and had a twin sister named Fryni who, along with her husband Saul, worked as teratologists, or monster researchers–explained as she led Michael around the exterior of the house, after showing them around the barn, the chicken pens, the stables, and just about every part of the front half of the farm aside from the main house, all while telling them about apparently every member of her direct family, “But plenty of us have that kinda travelust that keeps us goin’ around. You remember which one’s Pen, right?”

“Penelope, the sea captain who commented on knowing high elves when I entered, yes. Fourth daughter overall, younger than Tisma, who is not present as of yet; Daphne, who is married to Hristos Kelleas but retains the family surname due to its higher prestige and has two sons named Markos and Antonis; and Alexis, who works in Titolis as a mason and is called Lex to prevent confusion with your father, Alexander,” Michael recited in as even a tone as they could manage.

“Nice, you got that exactly! And yup, so, she’s been up and down the coast a few times, visited that holy city up in Zem and brought back souvenirs last she went–Are you from there, by the way?”

“Yes.”

“Oh sweet! You ever meet one of those cardinal angels then? They’re supposed to live round there, which always struck me as weird considerin’ they’re supposed to be Judgment angels and it ain’t like most Zems worship the Judge–Oh, speakin’ of, did I mention Polly’s only a year younger than Pen?”

Michael paused, trying to mentally catch up after yet another mention of how they apparently lived in the wrong country– “Wait, Polina is the fifth oldest?”

“Yup! Lessee, Tiz is forty-five, Daph and Lex are forty-three, Pen’s forty and Polly’s thirty-nine, though she’s definitely got Pa’s height outta all of us. I think the second-closest in height is Lia? Ah, that’s Thalia, you should see her round here easy enough, dyed her hair all gold on account of her opera job, though I think she just likes the color too. Works mostly in Gadri over in Perrako, got a damn good theater scene over there. You oughta visit while you’re in the country!”

No. "My apologies, but I won't be staying in Sollamava for long, so I don't think I will be able to." And Gabriel says I’m not good at being diplomatic.

"Aw, shame! Well maybe next time. Heck, butter her up and she can probably get you some free seats."

"I don't need to be given free seats. I can pay for things with ease.”

“Oh sure, but free things are always good, right? Speakin’ of, since you’re stayin’ the night here, do you want one of the guest houses?” She gestured out towards a set of smaller, yet still two-story houses nearby the cornfields.

“...We don’t need to stay the night–”

“Pffft, nah, you’re stayin’. Trust me, it’s much easier to just agree to stayin’ the night or else Ma’s gonna insist you stay a week or somethin’. She still might, but agreein’ to somethin’ smaller tends to mollify her, except when it comes to food because you are not gettin’ out of here without clearing your plate at mealtimes. Oh, and don’t mind it if you find anythin’ weird around the houses, we let the farmhands stay there around plantin’ and harvest seasons and while they’re all decent folk, y’know how young menfolk can be.”

...I have no idea what any of that means. “I see.” Oh look, a distraction. “Is that the sister you mentioned earlier-”

“Yeah it is! HEY LIA! KALLI!”

The two minotaurs who were walking together through the fields paused and looked over, and Michael took a step back as more greetings occurred, taking the moment to study the two minotaurs. One was, indeed, very close to Polina in height and was close to a full foot taller than Michael as a result, while the other was only half a foot taller; the former was also, indeed, very blonde–though specifically in a warm, amber shade and noticeably curled into ringlets–while the latter had dark brown hair tied back into a braid. Both had similar complexions to their sisters, and actually wore proper clothing; Thalia wore a cream blouse and a checkered skirt, while “Kalli” wore a yellow tunic and brown pants.

“–and this is the other elf, Misha Centola!” And now they were being introduced.

“A pleasure to meet you both,” Michael greeted, bowing to the two, then paused as Thalia tittered.

“Oh how cute! You really are quite the proper young gal, huh? Certainly better than the last Centola I met.”

They straightened, attempting to keep a neutral expression. “My apologies if one of my Order caused offense to you, Miss Vlahos.”

“Aw, that’s real sweet of you to say! But don’t worry, I won’t hold anything against you. Just tell your cousin Darius he’s a real prick if you run into him, kay?”

“I don’t think they’re cousins, Lia,” Kalli said, smiling wryly then giving Michael a very obvious once over, “Hm...well, it’s nice to meet you, Misha. I’m Kalliopi, and I’m sure you can tell who Thalia here is.”

“I am very recognizable, yes.”

“Sure you are, which is why Misha here never heard of you before,” Agni teased, earning a huff from her blonde sister.

“Well that’s not unexpected. You can’t really expect a Zemavan to-Er, right, sorry, I was about to say something very rude.”

“I take no offense, and I am very likely to agree with whatever you were about to say,” Michael said, then paused as Thalia broke into giggles and Agni laughed outright. Even Kalliopi cracked a smile, which was confusing. What did I say that was funny?

“Well well, nice to meet a Zem with a sense of humor.” Apparently, they just earned Kalliopi’s approval. Again, very odd. “...hey, are you actually doin’ okay?”

Michael blinked. “...Yes? Of course I am. Why would I not be?” What does she know?

“Look, you don’t need to put up some type of front with us.” What?? What in the world is she- “Those robes look real heavy, and the summers around here get really bad when it comes to heat. We’re used to it, but I’ve heard of high elves getting heatstroke before, so are you sure you don’t wanna change?” Oh.

“...My robes are sufficient–”

“Nah, I think Kalli’s right here,” Agni interrupted, “Those are what, wool? That’s gonna be sweltering, especially when the afternoon hits.”

“Regardless, I am unbothered by the heat, and I have no intention of changing out of my robes.”

And yet, somehow, Michael soon found themself in one of the “guest houses”, gifted with a set of overalls by Kalliopi and instructed quite firmly to change. Or, as Thalia had put it: “Right, either swallow your pride and put on something better for the weather or stay here while I get a cold stone to shove down your shirt.”

Apparently, she had a very low tolerance for foolishness. Michael could agree with such a thing, if only the minotaurs knew that the literal Cardinal of Fire wasn’t actually being foolish when they said they could handle the heat…

Well, I suppose I must be fair to them, Michael mused as they set the garment on the bed, I presented myself as a high elf in garb inappropriate for the environment. Their assumptions come from a place of kindness, and were I indeed who I said I was, they would be right in telling me to better adapt to the environment.

As it is though, they are still completely wrong. Still, the Vlahos sisters expected “Misha Centola” to change her clothing, so Michael would do so, if just to remain in the good graces of their hosts.

So, yes, they would change. In a moment. After they studied the garment, because they were not being hesitant, they were just...curious about the material.

It was denim. Very...exotic?

It was also quite large. It seemed that they only had sizes for either minotaurs and satyrs here, and as the other would be too small–at 6 feet tall, Michael was at a somewhat unfortunate middle ground between the average heights of both species–they decided to give them a large one. Apparently, it would breathe better, whatever that meant.

At least it covered them well enough. Though the fact that their arms and upper back were visible made them feel like they were being scandalous…

It does seem to be the style of the area though...hmph, the things I do to be polite. Really, they shouldn’t even be bothering with this place. They should be continuing southward, on their mission, but….well, Polina was meant to be their guide–a guide for a guide, what a strange occurrence–and they wanted to leave a favorable impression, right?

Yes, exactly. So they gathered up the physical items that they couldn’t simply dismiss into light like their robes and placed their pouch of gems in one pocket, before pausing as they looked at the small necklace Anaya gave them. And, well...it wouldn’t hurt to wear it.

Really, it seemed to complement the outfit quite nicely. The little ringed wing sat right on their chest, bringing the whole thing together. It wasn’t a bad look, not at all, though they did have to roll up the legs of their overalls somewhat to keep them from dragging over their feet. Their ankles were still wrapped, so it wasn’t much of an issue of modesty.

“Am I now properly dressed?” Michael asked as they stepped out of the guest house, showing a bit of annoyance to cover for any awkwardness they may be feeling.

“...” Agni stared at them.

“...What?”

“Holy hills you’re solid.” Michael stiffened slightly as Agni leaned closer, curiously looking at their bare shoulders. “How in the world are you this beefy?? Well, maybe not beefy, you’re a pretty lean gal, but damn are you solid!”

Is there a problem with that?? "As a paladin of Zemava, it's to be expected that I have the physical strength to protect it."

"If you say so, but I gotta say, you should ditch the robes if you're that well built, they're not that flattering for you at all."

...that's a compliment, right?

"Thank you?"

"Ha, no problem! Now come on, you took your time, so we should get a move on if we don't want to be late for dinner."

“Right, yes, dinner. That is...now.” It was still very light out, though they were apparently right in summer...Regardless, they followed Agni back to the house, and couldn’t help but stare as they saw the veritable crowd of minotaurs and satyrs all at the very long table set up under the outside canopy. No, wait. Multiple tables, just pressed together, right, they’d seen them being set up earlier and–

“Misha! Over here!” Oh, Anaya was waving. And it seemed she had a seat saved for them. Though she did stop and stare upon noticing the necklace.

"...Is something wrong?" Trying to sound annoyed, Michael sat down next to her, ignoring the faint heat on their face.

"Nope! Though I do think it's nice to see you wearing something else besides those robes."

Why is my outfit such a big deal???

"You have Agni to thank for that." Before they could continue, Michael was cut off by the sound of two large plates of food and two cups of lemonade being placed in front of Anaya and them.

"There you go, I was saving this plate for you!" said a cheery older woman, some slight gray in her dark, braided hair and some noticeable lines around her smiling face. She was wearing overalls like many of the other Vlahos’s, though she wore a checkered shirt underneath–and Michael was somewhat annoyed that they hadn’t realized that was an option for this form of dress–and an apron over it, along with a patterned bandana over her hair.

“Ah, thank...er, thank you, ma’am,” Michael replied, trying to avoid commenting on the fact that this was easily the shortest minotaur they’d met. She wasn’t especially small in comparison to other peoples, but at a little over 5 feet, she was almost tiny next to her relatives, and even her horns seemed somewhat shorter than the others–

Anaya’s voice cut through their thoughts. “Yes, thank you Missus Vlahos!” Oh, wait, is this–No, she couldn’t be– “Oh, and since you just missed each other earlier, let me introduce my bodyguard for my journey, Misha Centola! Misha, this is Io Vlahos, mother to Polina and pretty much all of the fine ladies you see around here!”

Michael stared at Anaya, looked at the beaming, stocky woman, then glanced at the chatting members of her family around, all finding their seats or setting down food for themselves or the children present. And all of the other adult minotaur present were at least a foot taller than her, with the average seeming to be somewhere around 6’8”. So… “How??”

“...”

“...Ah, I mean-” Michael caught the table, keeping their balance and shooting a glare at Anaya, who looked utterly unrepentant for just shoving their shoulder like that–

Then Io started outright laughing. “Gyahahaha! Well damn! I’ve never heard a high elf be that blunt before! And don’t worry, it ain’t the first time I’ve heard it either, especially when folks get a look at my husband.”

She grinned as she jerked a thumb over at what was clearly her husband: a tall, dark-brown skinned minotaur with a short, black beard, short hair, and warm eyes, who wore a similar checkered shirt and undone overalls as he balanced a grandchild on his leg and spoke with another one of his daughters. And...while it was a little hard to compare with everyone around, and the fact that everyone was sitting down, he did, indeed, look exceptionally tall. Polina and Thalia were close to his end of the table, and both of them looked about his height, so…

Michael looked back at Io. “...Would it be rude to ask why there’s such a height discrepancy?”

“Well I like tall men, and Alexander’s a sweetheart. Unless you mean my own height, which I’ll just tell you that my own pa was a halfling and he, gods grace his new life, was very fond of tall ladies himself. Now come on, don’t let me hold you up, you’re here for dinner, so eat up! Ah, or do you need to pray before?”

“No? Why–” Right, paladin. “Er...I thank you for your consideration, Madam Vlahos. I do not need to pray though.”

“Huh, thought you would...ah, don’t worry about it. Really, I oughta be apologizing here for not saying hi earlier, what with you being a new guest and all!”

“You don’t need to, ma’am. I would instead thank your daughters for showing me hospitality.”

“Heh, that’s nice to hear! Glad I raised at least some of these girls right!” She shot an amused look down the table, earning a laugh from another of her daughters.

“Sorry ma! But I just can’t help lovin’ the sea!”

“You oughta be loving the land your ancestors gave you instead of worrying your mama with all those adventures of yours!” Io huffed as she got more laughter in reply, before she nodded to Michael and Anaya, beaming again. “Now, like I said, eat up! Especially you, Miss Druid! You’re far too skinny for a woman of your age!”

Anaya laughed back, grinning wide. “Aw, okay, I guess I’ll just have to enjoy all this nice food you’ve prepared for me then~!”

Io nodded firmly, still smiling. “Good. Now, ask anyone if you need anything, anything at all. You’re guests, so our home is your home.”

Hm. While Michael did appreciate the sentiment, the plate in front of them clearly contained far too much food for one person. Well, unless they were of minotaur stature, they assumed. Either way, there were plenty of vegetables, chicken, and some weird white goop. And apparently Anaya found it funny that Michael poked at it.

"Never seen mashed potatoes before?"

“...No. These are potatoes?”

“Potatoes that have been mashed, yep.”

“Hm.” Michael stared distrustfully at the goop, then gave it a try. Then continued to eat, because it turned out it was actually good, and that experience wound up repeating itself quite a few times as the meal progressed. Corn, chicken, pork, cornbread, watermelon, carrots, cactus pears, crab–the foods provided were varied and delicious, and it was interesting trying each and every dish available to them, though Michael did try to be polite and use the silverware provided to eat even as they noticed most of the family seemed to enjoy using their hands to pick up the more solid foods as conversation filled the air.

“It’s all over the papers, just about everyone’s talkin’ about the scandal–”

“–baenas and stymphs are always a hassle, but Cotilla’s been dealin’ with a huge flock of them lately. Ah, stymphs, not baenas, think those are called a…”

“–apparently a whole hell of a lot of sheriffs and constables are gettin’ arrested–”

“A nest? Oh, or a cluster, I think.”

“-some weird shit down south. Nothin’ too crazy, but you hear rumors.”

“–a spoooooky caravan, selling mysterious items with horrible curses on them–”

“What kind of rumors?”

“Oi, no scaring the kids.”

“Some Gororan princess went missing, a daimyo has a new mistress, that sort of stuff.”

“–think the peace is really legit? I mean, sure, it’s been a couple months, but these darklanders, or Valondraki or whatever they’re callin’ themselves, they still pulled a lot of shi–ah, stuff, y’know?”

“Betcha she eloped with someone. Those folks are almost as bad as the Zems when it comes to restrictions–Ah, no offense.”

Michael paused mid-chew, glancing to the woman further down the table, and shrugged, waving it off. “Mmh, ah, that’s not offensive. Your statement is accurate.”

“Oh, huh. Thought you might argue.”

“Why would I? Zemavan culture is more based in the ideals of purity and modesty. Yours is...different, and I am finding it pleasant. Not due to the lack of modesty, but I appreciate the emphasis on hospitality.”

“Heh, well good to hear we meet your standards,” another dark-haired Vlahos teased with a grin, “Speakin’ of things that might be offensive though, how’d you wind up with this job?”

“The job of escorting Miss Greenfall?”

“Yup. Like, from my understandin’, this is sort of intended as an ‘angel and folk’ partnership thing, right? I think–yeah, Polly!”

Polina, further down the table, looked up from her own conversation, her plate already half-finished. “Yes?”

“Do you know the paladin that’s escorting the green angel?”

“Not personally, though I think it’s a senior paladin...Mitrologou, I think?”

“Right, that. So we have a paladin paired with an angel, right, but here’s a druid paired with paladin. Specifically a paladin of light. You see how that’s kinda weird, right?”

“...Why would it be?” Michael asked.

“Well it’s not like a light paladin equals an angel, right? And sure, I guess they can’t send one of their ‘cardinals’, but those are supposed to be Judgment Angels, right? So why’s it an angel from our faith isn’t–”

“Alright Cy, leave it,” another Vlahos requested, earning a frown from her sister.

“It’s just a question Tiz, I ain’t meanin’ any offense, but it’s somethin’ I’m curious about.” Cybelle Vlahos–one of many sisters mentioned by Agni; Michael was fairly certain she was the 17th born? And that she worked as a librarian–looked back at Michael, gesturing with her hands as she tried to find the words to what she was saying. “It just–Look, it just feels weird when it’s someone not even from our nation that’s representin’ the holy side of–Well, maybe not like that, but the sort of...gh, sorry, this isn’t somethin’ against you–”

“Could you tell me about your faith?” Michael tried not to wince as the question just came without any thought on their part. It was...Well, it wasn’t an inappropriate question, considering the topic, but it...felt awkward. How is it that I don’t know anything about my Father’s faithful?

Cybelle blinked. “Oh, uh...well, heh, uh, that’s...yeah, uh, I guess I can? Polly’s probably better at it–”

“She can join in then.”

“...Hey Polina! Mind movin’ over here?”

Michael took a small breath as Polina did exactly that, sitting with her sister across from them. Though, the breath wasn’t because they were angry. There wasn’t even the slightest bit of anger in them at the moment. It was a different emotion, and one they didn’t quite understand. Nor did they really understand why they felt more at ease around these people, or why they were suddenly so interested in religion.

“Would you mind if I join in?” They did notice Anaya’s smile though, the druid beaming as she scooted slightly closer. “I wouldn’t mind telling some facts and stories myself if we’re doing a big faith sharing.”

“Well sure! You feelin’ up to sharin’ too, Paladin Misha?”

Michael paused, then tried to think of what they actually knew about the Faith of Light. “...I accept these conditions, though I would prefer to warn you that I am not an especially good paladin of light.”

Their admission earned more laughter, for some reason–either the Vlahos family in particular or Sollamavans in general had a very strange sense of humor–but they didn’t particularly mind it. As for the discussion, Cybelle and Polina did prove to be decent teachers, explaining the historical context of the faith, its growth, its status as a faith essentially “under” the umbrella of the Faith of Light, and the rituals that grew as a result, such as candles lit during prayers to embody the warmth of home and hearth connecting to their god above, as well as private confessions made between the penitent and anonymous clerics to allow for judgment unbiased by position and power.

The faith did not encourage the full cutting of ties like others–such as the Faith of Purity–encouraged, but instead emphasized the recognizing of biases so they may be removed or countered. The pursuit of knowledge was also emphasized as important, as was the swiftness of decisions made; hesitation was to be overcome, and choices were meant to be made with confidence. Decisive yet informed; decisions made in ignorance were irresponsible, hesitation when facts were known was cowardly, yet acting in haste was negative as well.

A balance of confidence, wisdom, and patience were all required to act with righteousness; a difficult balance to strike for any mortal, though Michael could certainly understand it as a goal to strive for, and those who achieved such a balance in one life were said to be reborn not merely as mortals, but as those destined to be known as legends. There were also some smaller ceremonies that directly invoked the virtues of Michael and their siblings to bolster courage, encourage prudence, so on, which Michael did feel somewhat flattered by, even if they couldn’t say why.

Their discussion continued for quite some time, in between enjoying the lovely dinner prepared, and Anaya shared some tidbits of her own faith as well, explaining the offerings they left for angels and the overall emphasis on existing within nature, along with how that didn’t necessarily require pacifism. In fact, hunting was actually encouraged in Nalorivan culture over raising domesticated animals, which led to a broader discussion between Anaya and the present Vlahos siblings on the topic of taming versus hunting and which animals and monsters were acceptable to eat and under what circumstances.

Nalorivans, for instance, tended to only domesticate certain animals, such as hunting dogs, riding elks, and scouting birds, though some people did keep pets common to other regions such as cats or singing birds, while Sollamavans had an entire traditional occupation called “tamers” who actively sought to domesticate not only animals, but monsters. Which was actually achievable for many minotaurs, considering their large size and immense strength, and that topic led to suggestions that Michael and Anaya visit the zoo at Titolis, which one of the sisters–Zita–worked at.

"You ever come by and I'll show you around the place. Minus the back areas anyways."

"Back areas?"

"You know how it is. Even tamed, some of the monsters can get rowdy at times, so we got some medical areas for them that are special made, since some can get even wilder when injured. Oh also, as it is one of the main rules, please don't try to wrestle any of the creatures."

"...why would I do that."

"Lotta people take the whole ‘tamed creatures’ thing as a challenge to try and tame them themselves."

"...I take it they believe confidence is the most important part of their faith." Hm, more laughter. By that point, Michael was somewhat used to it. The Vlahos family had an odd sense of humor, but their laughter was never mocking or malicious. At least...they were fairly certain it wasn’t. But what if it is–?

“Oh good, you finished your plate!” Io said with audible cheer in her voice as she set another plate down in front of Michael, “Hope you saved enough room for dessert!”

What. “Ah. Dessert?”

“Yup! Zinovia and Katia worked on these with me, so I hope you enjoy it! I wasn’t sure what type of pie you’d like, so we just put together a platter for you!” And there were indeed multiple slices of various pies on the large plate in front of Michael. “Oh, and Katia should be by with that carrot cake for you, Anaya.”

“Aw, thank you!” Anaya replied, beaming as Michael tried to decipher just how many slices they were expected to eat...they were all arranged so they looked like one full, large pie, and that was making things somewhat difficult to discern…

“Er, thank you for the dessert–” Michael tried to say, attempting to explain that they weren’t a particular fan of desserts–and had never really tried any at all, due to the inherent ties to gluttony such dishes held–but Io smiled quite happily and, well…

...The pies were good.

That being said, Michael also learned one other thing about having a mortal form: it was entirely possible to eat too much, and doing so caused their stomach to ache quite painfully, as though there was a solid weight in it. Thankfully, it was easy enough to excuse themselves from the table once they had eaten all the pies, and Michael found themselves walking back to the guest house to lie down. Which was an odd feeling, actually desiring rest–

"On the plus side, now you know what pie to ask for so she doesn't give you all of them," came a voice behind Michael, prompting them to turn around to see one of the many sisters behind them. One with long, dark hair, currently tied back, wearing a sleeveless, midriff-baring white shirt and jeans. They’d seen this one a few times, they were sure, but the name wasn’t coming to them. "Though I will say, never would have thought you'd get a stomachache."

"...Paladins aren't trained to…eat an excessive amount of food."

"True, but you’d think bein’ a cardinal would make you better equipped for that." Michael couldn't help but momentarily curse themselves for going on edge the moment she said that, their mind immediately racing to the thought that everyone there had planned on tricking them to get their guard down– "Woah now, I don't want any trouble. Makin’ a mess of my family's farm is the last thing I want, and I hope it's the same for you."

“...My apologies. That was...You surprised me.”

“Yeah, I can get that, I did kinda bring it up outta nowhere. Thanks for not burstin’ into flame or anythin’ though.”

“Hmph. I have a better control of myself than–” They paused at a somewhat unpleasant noise echoing from their stomach and stifled a burp. “...You have no need to worry.”

“Heh, yeah, I was guessin’ that was the case.” The sister smiled; really, the whole family seemed to smile very easily. It was...oddly nice. Still…

“How did you know?”

“Hm? Ah, well, there were a couple of clues. Like Cy was sayin’, it was weird that they wouldn’t partner a druid with an angel. You also don’t act like any Centola I’ve ever met. Callin’ those jackasses elitist pricks would probably be offensive to the Elitsi.” Michael didn’t entirely get the reference–they were fairly certain Elitsi was a Sollamavan province?–but they allowed a huff of amusement, if just to show agreement with the sister. “Heh. Oh, and you introduced yourself as Michael to Myrto, that did give it away pretty easy.”

“...” Michael did not slowly sigh, even though they dearly wanted to. “...Please forget that I said that. I am...attempting to be somewhat subtle. The Faith of Light does not want it known one of their guardians is traveling with a druid.”

“Pff, seriously? Even though just about everyone’s heard of the ‘pilgrims’ travelin’ around?”

“Is that what we’re being called?” Well, it’s not the worst name… “And, yes. Call it a precaution, or paranoia, or some other type of caution. Regardless, know that I intend neither you nor your family any harm, and I only intend to escort my companion where she desires.” They allowed a smile, even as they kept their second mission secret. “I may have been ignorant of your faith’s tenets, but an angel of judgment should strive to embody the virtues of her culture, don’t you think?”

“Heh. Yeah, I can agree to that. Night, angel. May swift judgment keep your night free of fears.”

Ah, right, traditional greetings… “And may...righteous courage light your path.”

The sister smiled again, so they were fairly certain they had that right. Regardless, they still intended to lie down, and so that was what they did, heading to the guest house they were giving and lying in the bed provided to them.

And, curiously, for the first time in their very long life, they slept, feeling...satisfied.

And never remembering that they didn’t ask for that sister’s name.

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A note from redknight3996

Indi: And so we meet Tiz's very large family!

Red: But where could Tiz herself be? We clearly wouldn't leave her out of the chapter. Perhaps we should ask the unnamed minotaur at the end?

Indi: I'm sure that minotaur will have some idea on who Tiz is, unless the family is so big some have trouble remembering their siblings

Red: It could happen. It's tricky to keep track of so many names.

Indi: for now though, Michael has a stomachache to sleep off

Red: The price of being polite and diplomatic. Truly a deep mistake for our aggressive angel.

Indi: Clearly, next time they'll put their foot down and say they don't need a third serving.


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