The banquet hall of the Akaboshi’s castle was far more bustling and busy than that of the Nakazono’s. Where that had one table set up for the lord and his guests to eat at, Lord Akaboshi had more of a feast hall going on, with the lord and his direct relatives–or at least the lord, his wife, and several rather broad individuals of some type of importance–sitting at a table along one wall–lined with banners decorated with blue waves, red stars, and black boars–while those invited to eat sat at tables in rows stretching from one side of the room to the other.
And even now, the hall was bustling, filled with chatter and the noise of eating as a result of the tournament earlier that day. The competitors were guests of honor and those that sponsored and supported them, or otherwise had the favor of the daimyo, were enjoying the festivities alongside them.
Though in Michael, Vivian, and Amitiel’s case, they were standing in front of the lord’s table to present their case.
“So, if this lord understands matters correctly, the curse shop was being run by a shapeshifting leviathan, and that leviathan has a shapeshifting partner who has replaced someone of importance in our nation,” Lord Akaboshi reiterated as he sat seiza-style at the head of the dinner table, still large enough to tower over most, “Is he correct?”
“He is!” Michael replied, then thought for a moment, “You are, yes.”
“Even though Kyeon assured him and you that such a thing wasn’t possible?”
Amitiel bowed her head. “No offense to your spouse is meant, Lord Yataro, but the demon Labatu did let that information slip in a moment of weakness. We feel the possibility is too great to ignore.”
“And Lady Kyeon did say it would be hard, not impossible,” Vivian added, “Plus, Labby there couldn’t swear that her summoner hadn’t replaced the ‘person of importance’.”
Akaboshi looked to his wife, who was frowning in thought, before she slowly nodded. “It’s...possible, yeah. Though it would depend a lot on who you think she replaced.”
Vivian had a very wry and dry smile. “Someone of importance who Lord Akaboshi would personally know, but who doesn’t live in this city. To narrow it down, we’re sure it’s not the Empress or the Shogun.”
Akaboshi’s attention immediately snapped back towards Vivian, his eyes wide and his mouth open, though he soon schooled his expression, even as his courtiers looked confused. “...This lord understands your meaning, honored paladin. Though, still, he must ask. Lady Amitiel…?”
Amitiel bowed, fully this time. “This emissary of Nameless Lightning, Son of Light, King of Thunder, Host to Tiger and Friend to Rain, does solemnly swear that the words of Paladin Vivian and <Cardinal Michael> are entirely true.”
Michael nodded. “Yes, we–Wait.” They snapped their attention towards Amitiel as it registered that she’d just revealed their identity in front of–
“Hm. This lord will not ask why you spoke your companion’s name in the angelic tongue, though he could guess,” Akaboshi said, before crossing his arms over his chest and nodding, “There is a genuine problem then, and one not easily solved. You seek to make the Empress aware of this issue, correct? Then you’ll need to get there quickly…” He rubbed his chin. “A ship could be made ready, though it would need to be further down the river, at the coast properly. Riverboats and ocean ships are two very different breeds, but even moving from one to the other will be faster than overland travel.”
“Just to check, your lordship doesn’t have another, maybe not as well-regarded around here, method of travel available to us?” Vivian asked, adding a raised eyebrow.
“This lord could try wrangling some gulpers or mountain toads to see if they’d be faster mounts,” he replied, amusement obvious in his tone, “Though if you’re asking if he has a skyship, no. Our lands aren’t close enough to foreign land to bring the materials or buy a ship without notice, and we already have one massive ship hidden in the lake.”
“Erk-O-Oh lord, perhaps we should not be speaking of the Yamato III in front of–”
“It’s a joke, Inoshishi. One you shouldn’t be giving credence to.”
“Ah, o-one thousand apologies, oh great lord.”
Michael blinked at the byplay, then shook their head. “So we’ll have a ship to travel along the coast then.”
“You will. Though preparations may take some time. This lord will have his officials work as quickly as they can in readying matters, but it will take time. At best, we’ll have a ship ready to travel down river immediately, but the ship to travel along the coast may take until dawn at the earliest.”
“What? But we need to get there as soon as possible! We don’t know–”
“Thank you for your generosity, your lordship,” Vivian interrupted, before putting a hand on Michael’s back and pushing them to bow with her. They allowed it, if just to avoid causing issues, though they saw the purpose of it soon as Vivian spoke in a low tone, “Unless you want to break cover and fly there, you have to accept it takes time to get things ready. It’s already late, so it’s up to you which is more important: urgency or secrecy.”
“...” Blast it. Things were so much easier before I had to keep secrets…
Still, their nod of acquiescence did earn them another headpat from Vivian, so matters weren’t too terrible. “Besides, you don’t need to worry too much. I doubt they’re suddenly going to kick off all of their plans at once in one day.”
“...I have my doubts.”
“Then do as mortals do and drown those doubts in food and company,” she advised, patting Michael on the back before heading over to join the table where the rest of the group was seated.
They watched for a moment, noting Noriko still eating with her mask up, Anaya drinking and chatting merrily with the locals, and even Polina talking excitedly with one of the wrestlers.
<You should enjoy moments like these,> Amitiel added, giving them a small smile, <Mortal joys are a wonderful thing to experience.>
“...” They gave a small nod in return, then walked over to join the others. Though they weren’t quite feeling like eating after their bowls at the guard station...well, maybe one or two dishes. Small things. An angel shouldn’t be gluttonous, after all.
Some time later, Michael found themself walking through the halls of the Daimyo’s castle. They weren’t quite sure why that was. Last they remembered, they were grumbling about mortals and their need for sleep. Sure, beds were comfortable, but the consistent need for rest was annoying nonetheless.
They also had to consider the possibility that they were lost. They wouldn’t normally, because an angel didn’t get lost, but the physical realms of the mortal were, at times, confusing. It didn’t help that the hallways were dark, or that the decorations on the walls were all...wibbly.
That was a weird word, but it felt accurate? The tapestries–and there were a lot of tapestries, hanging like curtains all over every wall–moved strangely, almost shimmering. It felt like they were underwater. They didn’t remember the hallways looking like this earlier.
Michael paused. There was a figure standing further down the hall. In a hooded cloak, facing away from them.
“Hey! What are you doing here?” they called out.
The figure didn’t answer.
Michael scowled and strode forward, then stumbled as they felt something tug on their ankle. They looked down and saw a vine winding up around their leg. Then another around their other leg and then two more snagged around their wrists and they shouted–not yelped–as even more started winding around their torso, clinging tightly as the figure turned and let out a cheerful giggle as her hood fell back.
“A-Anaya?!” Michael exclaimed, their eyes wide with genuine shock, “What are you doing?!”
“Don’t be silly, Misha~ You know exactly what’s going on here~” the druid purred, sauntering forward with a lot of swaying to her hips. “You always knew, deep down, that I’m the one behind everything~”
They blinked. “W-What? That–What??”
“Mm, come on, silly~ It’s obvious, isn’t it~? Why I don’t help fight, why I’m always distracting you from the mission, why I act like I like you~ It’s all because I’ve been evil from the start, manipulating your every move~ You only found my curse shop because I let you get lucky, you silly little fool~”
They swallowed their first response, a weird...hurt feeling in their chest warring with genuine confusion as they tried to reconcile everything–The revelations at hand just didn’t make sense, but they did, didn’t they? Because what mortal could ever find them pleasant?
They shook their head, tried to find the words. “That...you’re lying to me.”
“Of course I am. I always have been~” She smiled as the robe slipped from her shoulders and everything suddenly felt far too warm as Michael stared at the druid. She was still clothed, in a sense, wearing strategically placed leaves and some vines that clung far too tightly and Michael felt their chest tightening too, and it had to be the vines, right? “I can see how you stare~ You’re so obvious~”
There was a glint in her eyes, a gleam of menace, condescension, smugness, or maybe what Michael was so very unwilling to admit could be desire as she laid her cheek in her hand. “So cute~”
“...” They swallowed. There was a vine tight around their throat. That had to explain it. “Y-Y-You…”
Logic crept through the haze. “W-What about the leviathans? Those-They’re not–”
“Aw, silly stupid Misha~ Isn’t it obvious~? I was always one too~ And you never noticed~” Her smile was bright and cheerful as there was a rush of water and Michael was positive they were underwater now because everything was swaying, wavy, and Anaya had changed…
No, wait, no she hadn’t. She looked the exact same. Her outfit had just changed, swapping to seashells, strings, and fishnets, her hair wet as she giggled and swam close. She was above Michael now, her hands on either side of their face.
“You like this, don’t you~?” she purred as their face felt like it was burning. The air was steamy, wasn’t it? Like the bathhouse, and they felt a shock as Noriko giggled, tugging on their wrist, her smile wide and sharp. She was wearing the leaves now, and Michael couldn’t stop staring. Her eyes were dark though, black like a demon’s. “You’re screwing it all up, you know~? Every bit of fun you have is more time wasted~ Everyone will be hurt or worse because you just couldn’t help yourself~”
Anaya was tugging on their other arm, smiling too as she floated. “Too late~ But you always were, weren’t you~?” And in her face were the faces of other elves from other centuries and their heart dropped as they saw the sneering contempt warping through.
And then they were up, ripped free of those grips as strong arms wrapped tight to them. They were in a crimson dress, a full gown made for a princess with a ruby-studded diadem wrapped around their head, glimmering in the night sky as a large knight in full white plate carried them atop a white, two-headed unicorn across the sea of stars.
The knight, gleaming in full white plate with bull horns curving from their head, gripped one of the horns and tugged the helmet off, before smiling lopsidedly down at them with the stupid blonde mustache and shiny silver gray eyes of that rat bastard Julius Goldforge– “Sup?”
Michael lurched upward in their bed, swinging a fist at the empty air before they managed to blink in the dark, confusion and alarm warring in their brain before their eyes adjusted to the dim lighting and they realized that they weren’t in the hallway or the bath house or the sky. More realizations came as they noticed their shirt was soaked with sweat and their breath was coming quickly, more quickly than it should and they genuinely thought, What the fu–
“Mrrmmgh...Mish? The hell’re you doin’?” Polina grumbled from the bed nearby–Right, right, sharing rooms, I was with Polina for the night. But then...what was that??
They didn’t reply, so Polina sighed and sat up, looking blearily over at them with one eye still closed. Because, right, glass eye, which was out for the night. “...You have a nightmare?”
“No.” Their reply was immediate, a prompt reaction against the implication.
“...sure. You have a bad dream then?”
...I dreamt? No, hold on, was I sleeping? They shook their head, trying to collect their thoughts. Though, rationally, that was the only conclusion to come to. They slept. They, an angel, went to sleep. “How?”
Ah, I said that outloud. “Never mind.”
“...” Polina stared at them, then shrugged. There was a pause as she seemed to collect her thoughts. “It’s not that strange. You’ve got a lot on the mind. All this business with leviathans, demons, and now apparently a daimyo’s been replaced. It’s not weird to be anxious after all that.”
“I don’t feel anxiety!” they snapped.
“Sure, I getcha.” Michael highly doubted that. “If it helps, my old instructor always said to consider that kinda thing like the Ancient Dream tryin’ to fu–ah, screw with you in your sleep.”
“...Yes, the Ancient Dream, the Death of the Mind, madness incarnate, origin of demonic kind, and Titan of the Broken Psyche, is specifically and deliberately ‘screwing’ with my mind.”
“See, I’d ask if you were bein’ sarcastic, but then I figured it’s you.”
They blinked. “What does that...I know how to be sarcastic.”
She made a noncommittal noise. “So, you wanna talk about it?”
“No.” They felt themself fidget, and scowled, trying to clamp down on their stupid body’s stupid responses. “No. I...it was a stupid dream.”
“Yeah, I get that. Dreams can be real stupid. Probably cause it’s comin’ from a stupid god.”
They felt their lip twitch. “...You shouldn’t call titans stupid.”
“What’s she gonna do? Poke me from magic jail? I’ll start worryin’ if we ever run into an ancient amethyst.”
That warranted a bit more of a smile. They could allow it. “...did your instructor have any other advice regarding ‘sleeping’?”
“Sure. His best advice for any problems, insomnia, any of that, was a simple ‘shut the fuck up and go the fuck to sleep’.”
They couldn’t stop the startled laugh. “That–And he’s a paladin??”
“Yup. Senior paladin of judgment, first order and everythin’. Still active duty too, though he’s definitely more focused on ‘raisin’ of brats’ as he calls it.”
“Nah, he fully called it ‘teachin’ each new generation of stubborn fucks too stupid to bend and too hardy to break’. So just a bit nicer.”
“Heh. It’s a shame I didn’t meet him then.”
“Eh. There’s always next time. Maybe you can go for a full tour of Sollamava next time? Assumin’ things work out.”
“Work out? With–” They paused, remembering the Archduke rebelling. Garoti… “Right. The secession.”
“Yup. What a mess.”
“...” There was that feeling in their chest again. “...I’m sorry.”
“Hm? No need to be. You didn’t tell Garoti to rebel.”
“I know. I…” The ache wasn’t going away.
“...You apologize pretty easy.”
“No I don’t. Just when I’ve done something wrong.” They allowed a smile, remembering a few times in the past. Some painful, some amusing, all dulled by history. “I wouldn’t be able to keep my job if I didn’t know how to apologize. Though Gabri was more of a back-up in many of those instances, so take that as you will.”
“Ha. Ah, I wasn’t much of a troublemaker when I was young, so I wasn’t usually in that position. I was mostly the one coverin’. I wonder if that’s just an eldest thing? Cuz Tiz was always a shit.”
“Pf–Really?” They considered that for a moment. “No, actually, she does seem like the type.”
“She did mellow with age, but yeah. Point bein’...I forgot the point I was tryin’ to make, but hey, I hoped this helped. You got anythin’ else on the mind?”
“Not particularly….” They considered the dream. The...mess, that it was. And an odd thought came to mind. “Which do you prefer? Leaves, or seashells?”
“Uh...seashells, I guess. We didn’t really live ‘round a beach, so they feel kinda exotic? Sides, they’re pretty and more solid.”
Michael frowned. “Really?”
“Yeah? It’s just what I think.”
“...hm.” They nodded, slowly, then sank back down against the far too comfortable bed. “...seashells, really?”
“Is there somethin’ I’m missin’ here?”
“No. No, it’s...hm.” They turned over, deciding to try...sleeping, again. Or at least pretending to.
Polina, meanwhile, stared in some confusion at Misha, before shrugging and laying down too, though she couldn’t help the weird feeling she had that Misha’s opinion of her just lowered, for some reason.
The morning started early, while the sun was just barely rising in the sky. It was better to be ready and gone earlier on, so the day wasn’t wasted just with travel, and that meant the six members of their group were all assembled to have an early and simple breakfast beside the Akaboshi’s koi pond.
Things felt...awkward. Michael was...having some trouble meeting certain individuals’ eyes, and while Polina seemed unphased as she ate from a bowl of rice, Vivian seemed to be having trouble interacting with Noriko.
Michael felt a vague sense of satisfaction at someone else having trouble with social interactions, but that satisfaction was overshadowed by their own inability to properly interact with Noriko either, so...feh.
“Just to confirm, we’re all going to Shiomi next, right?” Noriko–who was wearing perfectly normal clothing–said, drawing some attention.
“Yep, that’s the plan. I think it was the plan even without all the crazy leviathan stuff going on,” Anaya–also fully dressed–answered.
“Ah, neat. Okay, then this gal should mention she’s the Empress’s sister.”
Anaya blinked and Polina paused in her eating while Michael and Vivian stared in abject shock at the blatant admission.
“Huh. Neat,” Anaya said.
“What, really? No joke?” Polina asked.
“Yep, not joking, super serious. It’s pretty obvious once you meet her, but this gal and Eiko are pretty much identical. Twinsies ‘n all.”
“Huh. Right, that’s good to know.”
“Yeah, this gal figured she’d mention it before it became some big reveal thing.”
“I get that. Better to get it out of the way.” And then she went back to eating.
“...Are you serious?” Michael asked.
“Are you–She’s the empress’s sister! How are neither of you reacting more strongly to this?!”
“Mish, I’m a hero’s sister and I know the queen of my country.”
“YOU WERE STUTTERING WHEN I MET YOU!”
“Hey, I get nervous sometimes meeting new people, and I already know Nori by this point and, no offense, she’s not exactly intimidatin’.”
“No offense taken! This gal doesn’t try to be,” Noriko chirped.
Anaya also shrugged, also far too calm about everything. “It’s not that surprising to me either. She looks like her grandma.”
That earned a blink from Noriko while Michael stared, baffled. “...What?? What does that mean?!”
She waved a hand. “Stuff and things. Besides, everyone in our group so far has had some significant relatives. You and Vivian are related to important people in Zemava, Polly’s sister is a former hero, and Ami’s an angel. This seems pretty standard to me.”
“Well now I’m wondering what that makes you, Greenfall,” Vivian said, leaning on the table, “Is that name important at all?”
“Hmm, maybe~” She grinned coyly, and Michael felt their face heat involuntarily again at that teasing tone. “Why don’t you get to know me better~? I’m sure you’ll find out something fun~”