Ch6.41 Trust

The first day of Year’s End, and the Sun overhead seems well aware of it. The Urbis is awash with clashing traditions, but most of them agree that this day, the first of five, is a day for eating outdoors. Perhaps somewhere over the Insula, storm gods are mischievously ruining someone’s fun, but here in Three Rats they have stayed away, and today’s Sun seems determined to make the residents know that She is there with them.

She? Mayumi pushes her hair back from where it has fallen across her face and wipes the perspiration from her forehead with the back of her hand. Everyone around here thinks of the Sun as male, and it’s true, the greater portion of those gods are. But where she grew up, in a quiet dream-district that had once been part of a land called Nihon, the Sun was worshipped as female. Mayumi, her knowledge of the nature of the Urbis Caelestis limited to little more than the people and the handful of gods of her ward, had not even realized that there was an entire clan of sun gods until her recent arrival in the waking world, suddenly finding herself in daily contact with people from very different cultures and beliefs and levels of knowledge about the nature of this bizarre mountain-universe. The fact that many of those people are members of her own family left her for some time even more off-balance, but she has, after many difficulties, come to a degree of peace with it.

And just in time to upend it all by leaving. As she unpacks the wicker basket filled with delicious rye sandwiches, empanadas of various kinds, still-warm potatoes wrapped in foil, fat triangles of onigiri riceballs, deep-fried acarajé, bowls filled with cut-up chunks of fruit, savory vada donuts, and more, she pauses to watch Kori and Chime kicking around a worn-out ball with their bare feet, Merri dashing between them to intercept and giving them a surprisingly good run for their money. Sky arrives through a magical portal that has been set up, wearing dark-green shorts and a flowery shirt, bearing with ease two huge watermelons, one on each shoulder. He smiles at her and she returns it, but that only provides a contrast to the melancholy she feels at the thought she will soon be leaving all this for six-tenths of a year, in pursuit of a dream of becoming Guardia.

Then as she watches the ball shoots right between Sky’s legs, closely pursued by Merri, Kori, and Chime. Sky spins like a drunk trying to dance, actually going up on one leg as Chime dashes beneath him. Mayumi bursts into laughter as the tall god barely recovers enough so as not to drop a melon.

“I have a feeling we could feed a small army with all we’ve brought.” Mayumi turns to look at Alma, bent to help her unpack the food and lay it out on a sheet. The goddess grins at her, with a brief glance toward Sky. “I’ll take care of this, Mayumi. It looks like Sky needs some help.”

Mayumi looks gratefully into her mother’s eyes. She knows what Alma is doing. Despite the goddess’ misgivings about her mortal child being involved with an immortal, she wants Mayumi’s happiness, and the Bunny doesn’t have much time before she leaves. Still, she hesitates until Alma insists. “Go on!” With a smile, Mayumi obeys.

“Need some help?” she asks Sky as she approaches.

The tall god looks happy to see her. “Just trying to figure out where’s best to put these. In the water?”

Mayumi nods. “If we put them there,” she says, pointing to the edge of the falls, where two rocks create a miniature pool big enough for the two melons, “they won’t float off and they will be cool until we’re ready to smash them.”

He follows her toward the waterfall. “Smash them? Not slice them up?”

“Oh we can slice them,” she says. “But when I was a child, we always took turns wearing a blindfold and trying to hit the watermelon with a stick to break it open.”

“Sounds messy,” he says, “but fun.”

“It is a little messy,” she agrees. She pulls her lightweight dress off over her head, folding it simply and setting it on the grass. The grey bathing outfit she is wearing underneath is not the one Cherry picked out for her. That one was tiny and…well she was going to keep it for some other time, when it is just family. Though as Cherry reasonably pointed out, why bother wearing anything at all in that case? But no, today she has on a more reasonable swimsuit, with a top more like a jogging bra and a bottom that provides a bit more coverage than the strings-and-a-scrap-of-cloth that Cherry favored.

She steps into the pool and reaches up to take the melon. Sky looks doubtful – each melon is almost as long as her torso – but he slips the first one off his shoulder and, bending to the side, lets her take it. Something about the way their muscles connect makes Bunnies stronger than humans of a similar size would be, especially in the legs, and while she does grunt with the effort, she manages to lower the melon safely into the water. The next one is easier, as Sky can use both hands.

As he helps her out of the water, her ears catch Cherry’s arrival through the portal, the Bunny complaining about the weight of the cooler full of beer and ice she is carrying. But Cherry is the strongest of them all, and isn’t really having trouble.

Suddenly a webbed hand grasps her ankle from beneath. A moment of childhood fear about the kappa, a carnivorous water spirit like a cross between a turtle and a duck, flashes through her, but surely the Oracle would not let such a creature live in her waters. Resisting the urge to kick, she looks back and sees a familiar face rising from the water.

“Boo!” Doria, half-naiad priestess of the Oracle, laughs and releases Mayumi’s leg.

“Priestess!” Mayumi is delighted to see her. Doria had been briefly a guest in Alma’s living quarters, back when all the Bunnies lived there together.

“Please, May – call me Doria. Hello, Inspector!” She smiles flirtatiously at Sky.

“A pleasure to see you again, Doria.” Sky’s voice is warm. “Is the Oracle joining us?”

“Of course she is.” A penetrating voice unfamiliar to Mayumi, bearing echoes of centuries that make the light fur on Mayumi’s forearms stand on end, emerges through the falls. A tall otherworldly figure follows it, her eyes white but not seeming the least bit blind, her skin showing fine iridescent scales at the curve of her jawline and on her temples, blue-green hair falling down past her shoulders and concealing her breasts. A diaphanous, scaly wrap skirt hanging loosely on her hips is her only clothing, aside from jewelry of gold and gems on her forearms and throat. “It seems we are late already.”

“The Oracle, late?” Doria asks with mock astonishment as she smoothly mounts the shore. “Impossible!”

“Oracle…” Sky’s voice is filled with respect. “Thank you for letting us hold our picnic here.”

“Oh, Tuma-Sukai,” she says with a laugh. “After what you did for me, and this ward? I owe you far more. And who is this?”

“This is Mayumi,” he replies.

Mayumi bows. “It is an honor to meet you,” she says humbly. She has heard that this is one of the most ancient goddesses still active on the Insula. Although she had heard that the Oracle took the form of a fish-tailed siren.

The Oracle must have caught Mayumi looking at her legs. Or perhaps Mayumi’s thoughts are easily snatched from the air by such a powerful goddess. In an amused voice, the Oracle says, “Taking on more form than one is not a rare ability for such as we.” It takes a moment for Mayumi to realize that the Oracle is speaking to her in the language of her childhood, with an easy fluency and a somewhat archaic dialect.

Sumimasen,” Mayumi says with a bow to apologize, though exactly for what she was not entirely sure. It’s just…how she was raised. When in doubt, apologize. Cherry makes fun of her for it, but Merri thinks it’s sweet. Mayumi herself sometimes finds it annoying, how easily she does it.

“Such a polite young woman,” a creaking, sardonic voice calls out. She turns and sees a face she has noticed on the streets of Three Rats more than once, but she has never done more than nod to this wizened, scraggle-bearded elder. She has noticed, however, that he resembles less a native son of Three Rats – as variegated as the residents of Three Rats are – and more a wise man straight from the ancient scrolls of her own ward.

He is approaching in the company of Alma, and shadowing them is a young woman who does not look happy to be there. She certainly looks like she could have grown up with Mayumi. Indeed, they are roughly the same age, though the woman is taller and lacks Mayumi’s non-human ears and tail. But the face is similar, and the woman is looking toward Mayumi with a similar curiosity.

Sky turns and says with a moderate bow, “Master Pak, welcome.”

Alma introduces the Oracle and Doria. Before she can introduce Mayumi, Pak interrupts her. “Ah, who does not know of Nevieve, the Oracle? It is a privilege to meet you.” He bows to her, but Mayumi cannot shake the feeling that his amused tone speaks of a shared joke between Pak and the Oracle, as if they have really known each other for quite some time.

She feels a cool hand on her shoulder. The Oracle says, “I might well say the same of you, Pak. But let me introduce my new-met acquaintance, Mayumi, who I believe will soon be a student at your old Academy.”

Mayumi’s eyes go wide. How does she know…? She dismisses the thought. Of course the Oracle knows. Mayumi bows and expresses her sense of honor at meeting a Guardia Academy instructor.

Pak smiles and then looks annoyed at Alma and Sky. “Why did you not tell me you had a recruit for the Academy? I could have trained her. Well, this is Kumiko. The Sergeant and the Inspector have already met her at my home. I believe she and Miss Mayumi speak the same tongue. Perhaps they would enjoy conversing in their native language.”

And with that the gods begin talking about the current state of affairs in Three Rats – though is Pak a god? It is hard to tell. Mayumi is tempted to stay nearby to listen in, but she can tell when the mortals are being dismissed. It is annoying but…Pak is right. She and Sky speak her language together sometimes, but he is rusty and inelegant, though his mistakes are often hilarious. It would be nice to talk with another native speaker.

She and Kumiko go off a little way, and Mayumi bows and introduces herself politely, to which Kumiko gives the correct response, her voice low. “Have you met any of the others?” Mayumi asks. When Kumiko shakes her head, Mayumi takes her toward the sheet of food. “How long have you been in Three Rats?”

“A few years,” Kumiko replies.

She seems uncomfortable, her words blunt, so Mayumi does not press for more information in that direction, instead opening the cooler. “Like something to drink? A beer?”

Kumiko looks at her quizzically. “You’re old enough to drink beer?” She has a rough way of speaking that makes Mayumi think she grew up in more difficult circumstances than herself. Her accent, too, is different from Mayumi’s. She adds ‘sa’ to the ends of sentences, something Mayumi has never heard before. A dialect of some kind.

“I’m not a child. Just shorter than most humans. Here.” She hands Kumiko a bottle after lifting the cap off with an opener, and opens one for herself. “Kanpai.

Kumiko raises her bottle in salute. “Kanpai.” As she takes a drink, Kori and Max, a human boy Mayumi knows from helping out at the orphanage, go running past them both, laughing, and leap into the water, making huge splashes. Ewá Nanã, smiling in the way she only smiles around the children under her protection, watches as she walks past Mayumi to go speak with the other gods nearer the falls. Merri and Cherry are prying Tulip away from Dion, who seems to want to join Alma, and getting her to join them in swimming. Sage and Aliyah are off to one side, kicking around Kori’s football and taunting each other.

Mayumi’s ears twitch back toward the waterfall. She turns her head a little to glance that way while sipping her beer. “Nothing better for a child who has grown too fast than a child who is yet to grow,” she hears Alma say. The goddess has left the little knot of immortals and is talking with Ewá Nanã, the two of them watching Kori and Max splashing around. “You look happier yourself,” Alma says to the tall lawyer-turned-foster-parent.

“I am,” Ewá replies. “But tired. I am glad we could place all the children with families just for a day or two of the New Year, and I’ve already heard that two will not be leaving those homes to return to us. Well, the family who had agreed to take in Max changed their minds… He has had a difficult time.”

“It cannot be easy at times, to be looking after so many children. But what you are doing is important.”

Ewá looks at Alma with a small smile. “It is the hardest thing I have ever done. But at moments like this,” She looks back to see Max and Kori clambering out of the water and joining in on Aliyah and Sage’s game of ball, “it is the most satisfying.”

Alma squeezes Ewá’s hand. “I must return to the station now. We can’t leave it without a Dei presence for too long. But please enjoy yourself, and I will be back in a couple of hours.”

As Alma breaks away to walk toward the portal, the Bunny sees past Alma’s shoulder. Ewá is watching the goddess, knowing Alma can’t see her. Not aware she is being observed, Ewá gives a little sigh of longing and a rueful shake of her head. Oh… thinks Mayumi. Well. She manages to keep her giggle internal as she turns back to Kumiko. “Like to swim?” she asks.

Kumiko looks at Mayumi’s swimsuit. “Didn’t bring anything to wear.” She has on a loose blouse and a pair of shorts.

“We could go back to the station and get you something,” Mayumi suggests. “Merri has something that might–”

“No. I don’t want to swim.” Kumiko pauses for a moment and adds, “Pardon me,” though it does little to soften the abruptness.

“That’s all right.” Mayumi’s voice is a little smaller. But she feels a kinship with Kumiko that goes beyond language. The woman’s discomfort and resentment at having to be here reminds Mayumi of how she felt for weeks after waking in Three Rats – a feeling that has never entirely disappeared, though the love of those here have made it less painful. If that kinship will ever be more than a feeling… “Kumiko-san, this is the first time I’ve met anyone in this world who speaks my language as a native. Please…where do you come from?”

Kumiko looks at her as if evaluating, measuring. Mayumi wonders if she will measure up. But before Kumiko can decide how to answer, if at all, the gods from near the falls are returning. Gwydion says, “Excuse me, May,” as he reaches past her to fish two beers from the cooler, handing one to Sky and the other to Pak.

“Oh!” Mayumi grabs the bottle opener and hands it to him, then gets two more beers, giving one to Dion. The Sergeant tips it towards her in thanks as he, Sky, and Pak walk off, continuing to talk.

She offers the other to the Oracle – Nevieve? – who wraps her hand around Mayumi’s on the bottle. The Bunny feels a mild jolt, like a buzz passing through the goddess into her. She looks up to see the Oracle’s eyes glowing white.

Doria sees this and chuckles. “It’s normal to ask the Oracle a question, after giving her a gift.”

Mayumi cannot look away from Nevieve’s captivating eyes. They seem to fill her whole world, and she cannot think about what she wants to ask. So she simply asks without thought.

“Will I be with my family, after the Academy?”

As she hears her own words, she realizes that they spring from her fear that she will be assigned far away. But Three Rats needs Guardia, desperately, and the Guardia command usually honor requests to be stationed at hard-luck assignments like Three Rats, where nobody but a local would ask to be assigned.

Nevieve seems to enter a trance, her eyes glowing brighter. When she speaks, the words carry a deepening of that otherworldly, alien quality than before.

“You will be separated from them, but one will go with you. You will not return home until his child arrives.”

The light fades, and Nevieve blinks her white eyes as if she was unaware of her own prophecy.

Mayumi gapes at her. Then she remembers to breathe. “Ch-child?” It’s not possible. The Bunnies are all infertile, by order of the Council. And…separated? But someone…Sky? Am I going to have a child with him? It is not something she has seriously considered. They haven’t even made love, no more than kissing and cuddling and napping together on his sofa. Cherry and Merri couldn’t believe it when she told them, but going slowly has been a pleasure, infused with frustration though it has been. Agreeing to wait until after her graduation from the Academy – that has been harder. But there is a pleasure in delaying gratification as well. The lip-biting frustration, the restrained passion, has been, in its way, excruciatingly delicious.

She looks for him. There he is, Sky, laughing with Gwydion, practicing some kind of combat block while trying not to spill his beer, while Pak observes. He doesn’t seem to have overheard. Only the Oracle and Doria have heard…and Kumiko. The human woman is looking more uncomfortable than ever, her carefully neutral expression not quite successfully covering up a look of despair at being an unwilling eavesdropper.

The Oracle nods. “A child, yes. I am afraid I know no more than that. There were no details other than what I told you.”

It seems like a boilerplate answer that she has given thousands of times before. She must be used to seekers of prophecy who demand explanations. And so Mayumi holds her tongue, though she feels about to burst with questions, harsh, angry questions. Instead, she chokes out a thank you, then turns and ascends a slope to a ridge that leans almost over the water, little more than a body-length above it.

She sits, putting her forearms on her knees, resting her chin on her arms, staring out over the water where Merri and Cherry and Tulip are playing, but seeing nothing really, her thoughts in turmoil. Just as they escape one prophecy by fulfilling it – “In the hands of a Bunny, death looms for an Archon” – now here is another. Granted, it is much smaller. It will not get them executed. Or will it? A chill freezes her heart. A Bunny having a child without the permission of the Council…that could be enough to cause the Archons to vote for extermination. She groans and hangs her head, putting her forehead on her arms.

“Want to finish your beer?” The words are in Japanese. Mayumi lifts her head to see Kumiko, offering a half-finished bottle of beer with her left hand, holding her own in her right. Kumiko makes a subtle gesture, asking for permission to sit. Mayumi nods, and the woman sits beside her, putting a hand slightly behind her on the grass, legs stretched out straight.

They sit in silence for a time, taking the occasional sip. Then out of nowhere Kumiko says, “A Fourth Ring ward, far from here. About a quarter of the way around the Insula, maybe, to windward. My father refused to pay the gangsters.” She shakes her head and whispers, “Baka…” Fool. “They made an example of my family. Only reason I’m alive is I wasn’t home.”

Mayumi stays quiet, listening, watching. Kumiko isn’t looking at her. She takes another drink of beer, draining the bottle. For a moment she looks as if she’s going to throw the bottle, but she drops it next to her, on the grass.

“Then they did it again.” Kumiko’s voice is as neutral as she can make it, but the rage is there, like a roaring blaze hidden on the other side of a locked door. “Here, in Three Rats. Another gang. Killed my friends. Almost killed me.”

“Is that why you’re with Pak-sensei?”

Kumiko nods.

“I’m going away,” Mayumi says. “In a few days, I’m leaving.”

Kumiko looks at her, her eyebrows slightly raised to ask why Mayumi is mentioning this.

Mayumi shakes her head. “The people here…they care.”

“I don’t want anyone to care.”

Mayumi says nothing to this. She knows that Kumiko knows it is not entirely true. That she is here, sitting with her, gives the lie to it.

She finishes her beer. To Kumiko she asks, “Okawari?” Another? The woman looks a puzzled for a moment. Perhaps they don’t say that where she comes from. But she seems to understand after a second, and she shakes her head. Mayumi nods.

They remain next to each other, listening to the joking and the laughter and the playful screams, around and below their island of now-comfortable silence.

Ch6.40 Trust

“All right, that should take care of your gift problems,” Lyria announces cheerfully.

“Yes, and of the carpeting problems I did not know I had,” Alma notes, looking down at her bedroom floor.

Where there once was good, solid stone, now there is fresh green grass just tall enough to make a soft, fluffy mat that covers most of the floor. The scent of it must have captured Lexie’s attention, because she has woken up from her daily nineteen hours of sleep and is now trying to stretch herself all the way down to the floor without actually leaving the safety and warmth of the bed covers. Both forepaws on the edge of the bed, the cat sniffs suspiciously at this strange, new green thing that was definitely not there this morning. Hopefully she will not interpret this as an extension to her personal little litter box.

“Well, you needed some way to practice, did you not?” Lyria counters. She takes a deep whiff at the certainly fresher, greener scent in the room. “Oh, that smells wonderful! All that vibrant new life! Ah… Bare stone floors are a thing of mausoleums, if you ask me.”

Alma chuckles and grazes her sole of her bare foot against the grass. The sensation she gets is that of walking barefoot in a lawn, without the unsavory effects of getting one’s feet covered in dirt or rubbed against slithery creatures. Maintaining it will be a slight extra drain on Alma’s mana reserves, but not so very much. In fact, Lyria’s little lesson has been mostly about teaching the young goddess how to use her life sphere more efficiently, spending less mana to achieve the same results. And some of the things Lyria has shown her… Alma had never even considered such things were available to her, let alone attempted them herself. There will be hours of practice to follow up with it, that is certain.

“It is…strange. But not at all unpleasant,” she concedes. “If the Bunnies like it, I just might keep it.”

Lyria’s face lights up at the mention of the Bunnies. “Oh yes! Time to go see my grandchildren!” She raises an eyebrow. “Or do you have another project to keep me stuffed away in here?”

Poor little Lyria… Alma thinks as she chuckles. “But I thought you were too busy with the Dawning to stay for long, Mother,” she notes in sweet tones, a grin blossoming on her lips at Lyria’s obvious look of irritation. “Come, let us go see what your grandchildren are up to.”

A short pause to put her shoes on (Alma had discarded them at Lyria’s command) and the young goddess guides her mother to the door. As soon as they open it, they hear a commotion of voices from above. Cherry’s voice…and Rosemary’s as well. Alma and Lyria exchange a confused glance and swiftly climb the stairs, past the bar and straight to the first floor. Whatever is happening, it is happening in one of the Bunnies’ bedrooms. They can hear Tulip’s voice now, annoyed and whining. Cherry’s and Rosemary’s are distorted with laughter.

What on the Insula is going on?

The goddesses arrive in Tulip’s room just as the youngest of the Bunnies is darting out the door. Her head turned back to glare at her siblings, caught between laughter and cries of “Aww, is nae so bad!”, Tulip nearly rams into Alma as she stomps her way down the hall.

“Careful, little one!” Alma exclaims, gently holding Tulip by the shoulders. “What is going on here?”

“Oh, you gotta see this!” Cherry cries, looming by Tulip’s bedroom door. “Look at her face!”

Alma looks down at Tulip. “What is wrong with your face, dear?”

But Tulip just lowers her head further and looks away, seemingly hiding her visage from Alma’s sight. With a confused look at Lyria, the goddess kneels and cups the Bunny’s cheek with her hand, gently bringing Tulip’s face up toward her mother’s. The sight is something between shocking and hilarious. Tulip’s face is covered in makeup of all types and colors, everything spread and blended so chaotically that the Bunny looks like a canvas for an abstract piece of art. Dark rouge is spread along her pale forehead, eyeshadow is smeared in various shades across her eyelids and the bridge of her nose. Bright red lipstick is pretty much everywhere. There is even some makeup on her ears!

Surprise quickly gives way to an almost overwhelming urge to laugh. It takes all the self-control in Alma’s body to keep her amusement down to a smile. “Oh Tulip…”

She tips Tulip’s chin up so that Lyria can see what is going on. A soft gasp and almost immediate giggling fill the hallway.

“I just wanted to see if it’d make me look better!” Tulip protests, frowning and nearly crying, her hands clenched in fists, her long ears plastered back in anger at being laughed at.

Alma strokes the Bunny’s soft, white hair to soothe her. “Well, you may have overdone it just a little bit. Where did you get all that makeup, anyway?”

Tulip looks down, ears drooping, shoulders hanging low, all of the anger gone from her frame and replaced by a different type of nervousness. This is clearly an uncomfortable question and Alma already suspects the answer. Even if she does not wear makeup with any level of frequency, the goddess has always somehow felt an urge to keep a box of it close. Just a silly instinct, as if it were almost expected of her to do so. Tulip must have taken it. She could have kept it for months before Alma eventually found it missing.

“I’m sorry…” Tulip whimpers.

Alma cannot help but smile and wrap her arms around the Bunny, careful to keep all of that makeup away from her clothing. “You could have just asked me, little one. Now, why don’t you go wash your face and I will show you how to do it, if you like?”

She feels Tulip’s hug tighten around her before the Bunny releases her and steps back. A quick kiss from Lyria to Tulip’s forehead and the young Bunny dashes off happily toward the bathroom. Cherry and Rosemary are just now moving closer, having witnessed the exchange from Tulip’s bedroom. Eyes held down, ears at half perk, they look abashed before the goddesses, probably as much from witnessing Tulip’s anger and hurt feelings as from the scolding look Alma is giving them both. The oldest of her Bunnies can be rather childish in some respects. This is one of those times that puts forward so clearly the fact that, albeit being twenty-four years in age, the twins have only been awake to rationality for half of that time. They are grown-up children. And children can be so cruel…

“You two…” Alma whispers, shaking her head.

“Oh, don’t be too harsh on them,” Lyria intervenes. “It’s clear they already feel bad enough about it.”

The older goddess opens her arms to her granddaughters and the Bunnies rush to hug her tightly in a double-sided embrace that brings a warm, contented smile to Lyria’s face.

“Why don’t the three of us go downstairs and you can meet us there when little Tulip is done washing?” she asks.

Alma nods. “We will be right down.”

Cherry and Rosemary do not follow Lyria right away but pause to hug Alma. She holds them tightly. “Silly Bunnies” she whispers. “Go on, now.”

That earns her two bright smiles and soon she can hear Lyria chatting happily with the twins as they move downstairs. Done with the herculean task of removing all that makeup from her skin, Tulip eventually joins her mother, and looks at her expectantly. Alma tells her to go fetch the box of makeup. She could have easily gotten it from the little Bunny’s room but a childhood spent in a house where privacy was something that happened to other people has taught her the value in respecting some boundaries. Tulip’s room is meant to be her little haven and, without a proper reason or the Bunny’s approval, invading it would feel a bit like breaking and entering.

Makeup kit safely held in her hands, Tulip follows her mother downstairs, where the lighting is better. Cherry and Rosemary seem to have disappeared into the kitchen. Lyria already sitting on the sofa, apparently caught in the middle of a lively chat with Nataniel, who is sitting with Syron, at a table nearby. Alma catches but the end of that conversation but it seems to be about some sort of plant extract. The way Syron is paying such close attention to it has Alma wondering what exactly the extract is meant to do but she does not get a chance to figure it out. As soon as they notice her presence, goddess and mortals fall silent and turn to look at her.

“Ah, much better!” Lyria cries, putting her hands together. “Ready for your first makeover, Tulip?”

Tulip nods and takes a seat at a table, halfway between the sofa and Nataniel’s table. She opens the makeup box, spreading all the pencils and brushes and the various pull-out drawers of compressed powders and waxy pigments with great care. Then she waits, looking intently at Alma as the goddess picks a chair and brings it closer to the Bunny’s. Cherry and Rosemary choose that moment to leave the kitchen carrying trays with juice glasses and pieces of a delightfully fragrant carrot cake. Tulip’s head shoots to glare at them but Alma gently brings the Bunny’s face to look straight ahead. The older Bunnies serve Nataniel and Syron with soft-spoken words of friendliness and, with glances at Tulip and Alma, sit down by Lyria, one on each side of the goddess and holding a treat for their grandmother.

Alma picks a soft, wide brush from her array of tools and strokes Tulip’s cheeks with it, making the Bunny giggle with its tickling touch. Then she dips it in a faintly tan powder and starts applying it close to Tulip’s jaw, to accentuate her delicate frame, still too round and childlike.

“Tell me, dear, why the sudden urge to experiment with makeup?” the goddess asks, picking a slightly different shade that will go on the cheeks.

“I don’t want to look like a kid, anymore!” Tulip replies with an energy that nearly has her headbutting the brush off Alma’s hand. “I want to be pretty.”

Alma tilts her head at this. At her young age, Tulip is already stunning. Of course, she is a stunning child but her features are all promising of a budding beauty that will probably capture many a man and woman’s fantasies. Almost an exact copy of Alma at the beginning of her transition into adulthood, even prettier for the healthy light and warmth that radiates from a child never burdened with chronic, life-threatening fevers, Tulip has nothing to complain about in the beauty department. “But you are pretty. You are, in fact, quite beautiful.”

Tulip scowls at that. “I’m pretty sure you have to say that, being my mom and all,” she mutters

Lyria’s laughter erupts at the swift response from the Bunny, bringing to Alma’s mind some old conversations from her own childhood, around this same issue. For as much as Alma is aware of her beauty and form now, this was not always the case. Lyria is probably enjoying seeing the proverbial shoe being shoved over the other foot.

With a slight glance at her mother that has both goddesses rolling their eyes and smiling in sympathy with each other, Alma stops applying the powder meant to highlight the softness of Tulip’s forehead. “Don’t scowl, please.” She looks intently at Tulip as she waits patiently for the Bunny to relax her face. “Why would I say it, unless it was true?”

“And it is true, guapa,” Nataniel volunteers.

Tulip turns her head to shower him with a bright smile. The soft-spoken mortal doctor is a favorite among the younger Bunnies, doting on them and spending time showing them some of the more mundane wonders of nature whenever his work-filled schedule allows. Although extremely careful not to step over his limits, Nataniel has thus far revealed a talent for storytelling, using old tales to teach the Bunnies important lessons about life and mindfulness of others. If spoken in the right tone, his words carry the weight of law with them.

So Alma does not take it amiss when Tulip seems to accept his comment so readily after dismissing hers with barely a thought.

“Did you look like me when you were my age?” the Bunny asks, turning back to Alma.

“No, I looked much younger at age 13,” the goddess replies, glancing at Lyria. “Mother?”

“Oh yes. Much, much younger,” Lyria confirms with a nod. “Why, it took her decades to look like you, Tulip.”

Not turning so that Alma can apply the eyeshadow, Tulip nevertheless narrows her eyes, making Alma exhale in mild frustration. “How old were you, then, mom?”

Alma tries to remember exactly how long it has been since she last looked that young. “Hmm… I had probably seen a little over thirty – maybe forty turns of the year by then.”

Tulip’s eyes widen in shock. Alma can barely avoid poking her in the eye with makeup brush. “Forty?! How old are you now?”

“Tulip!!” Cherry cries, fanning her face in simulated shock over a background of Lyria and Rosemary’s laughter. “A proper lady don’t ask those things!”

“It’s fine,” Alma replies, chuckling herself. “I am one hundred fifty-three years old, little one.”

“Wow…” Tulip whispers, making the goddess smear the lipstick she was trying to apply on the Bunny’s lips.

“Tulip…” Alma breathes, licking her thumb to wipe the peachy pigment off her daughter’s cheek.

“Sorry…” Tulip apologizes. “Just, that’s really, really, really old.”

That makes Alma chuckle. She looks at Lyria intently. “I am really, really, really old.”

“Oh, dear me!” Lyria jests, the back of her hand pressed dramatically against her forehead. “I do not dare think how many more reallies I would warrant at my age.”

“Och, but ye two look so young!” Rosemary coos.

“Yeah, how do you manage?” Cherry asks.

Just as Alma is about to answer that, she hears a soft mutter from her left. She looks a question at Nataniel, who very subtly jerks his head in Syron’s direction. The technician-slash-scientist is not even looking at Alma or at any other person in the room, for that matter. His eyes are distant, as if he was thinking about something else and simply happened to react at some word that caught his attention.

“Syron?”

He looks at her, seemingly returning from so faraway place. “Species-linked metabolic divergence.”

Silence spreads around the bar. Six pairs of eyes focus on the man, all probably waiting for him to start to make sense.

Syron rolls his eyes and breathes deeply. The kind yet often cluelessly dangerous genius is used to speaking to audiences that do not understand him.

“If I may, lady,” he starts. “The prevailing theory around that is of species-linked metabolic divergence. It is quite a fascinating comparative work on the life expectancies of different species. Imagine a…” He seems to hesitate for a moment. “A rat! And a man. Anyone will rush to say that the average man lives longer than the average rat. But take that man and that rodent and count the number of times each of their hearts beats in a minute, an hour, a day. Now, multiply it by the number of days their lifetime lasts. You will find that the final number you obtain is similar.” His fingers tap the wooden table, punctuating his words. “Conception, gestation, birth, growth, mating, reproduction, aging and death, they all fit in a rat’s two years just as well as they do in a man’s seventy. So it is my understanding, and that of some esteemed colleagues, that rats don’t live shorter lives. They live faster lives, exhausting themselves in less time than men. The same happens between men and gods, where men are the proverbial rats. Gods only seem to live much longer lives than us, maturing slower, aging slower, effectively living slower.” He looks meaningfully at Alma. “Is this not what happened to you, lady?”

Alma smiles at him. The mortal scientist can barely be bothered to treat anyone by their Guardia rank titles, usually addressing his fellow mortals by their first names. But when it comes to gods, and especially to Alma, the inveterate atheist has always shown a delicate reverence, all the more charming because he barely seems to be aware of it.

Sadly, she cannot confirm his strange theories. “Not entirely so, I’m afraid. Gods age pretty much at their leisure. Some never do. Some are created fully grown. To a god born of gods, age does not necessarily link to maturity or physical appearance. We may age overnight, go from young to wrinkled in minutes.” She turns to face Tulip again. “I looked very much like you for a long time. And younger than I look now until Cherry and Rosemary were born.”

“What happened?” Tulip asks. On the sofa, Cherry and Rosemary are looking expectantly at Alma, hanging from her every word.

The young goddess looks at them, lowering her gaze as she moves from one to the other to avoid locking eyes with Lyria. With a sigh, she replies, “I realized that I was not a child anymore? There was no pregnancy, no time to adapt. Suddenly, I had two babies in my arms, whose safety and well being depended on my being able to take good care of them.” She puts the makeup brush down. “I was forced to grow up, and so I did. My face soon followed my mind in that aspect. In a few months, I was looking years older.”

“Oh…” Tulip’s ears droop at the melancholy in Alma’s voice.

Cherry and Rosemary are both holding Lyria but Alma does not look at her mother. Lyria was there, the day Arion left the Insula. She knows better than anyone about the original deals struck to ensure the Bunnies’ safety, about Death’s anger at knowing that his daughter had once again created forbidden life forms. And Alma knows what she will see in her mother’s eyes if she looks that way: empathy, regret, disappointment and a bitter, hardened pride.

The young goddess smiles softly at her youngest child. “I am very glad I grew up. It brought me here.” Her smile widens at the sight of Tulip’s ears slowly perking up. Alma strokes her cheek to remove a little speck of misplaced makeup. “There, all done.”

Tulip’s eyes widen and she rushes to pick up the makeup box so that she can see herself in the mirror. Her jaw drops, making Alma chuckle. “Wow… I look…”

“The way you will look in a few years, most likely,” the goddess completes the sentence. “And those years will pass in the blink of an eye, little Tulip. There is no point in rushing them.”

“But I look…beautiful!” Tulip insists, turning to look at Lyria. “Don’t I?”

“Gasp! How lovely!” Rosemary gasps.

“Dang, you look gorgeous, girl!” Cherry chimes in.

“Ah, little one, you have always been beautiful!” Lyria exclaims with a giggle at the Bunny’s enthusiasm. “Even without the makeup.”

“Well…” Tulip hesitates, looking at herself in the mirror again.

Alma strokes the Bunny’s hair, wanting to freeze this moment in time, to keep her little Tulip always this age, always this innocent and sweet. And yet, at the same time she is curious to take the rest of the journey with the young Bunny, eager to watch Tulip blossom into her early adulthood. What will that be like? Who will Tulip become? She catches movement at the edge of her sight and looks in the direction of the kitchen to sees Gwydion entering the bar, coming from his room, looking like someone still trying to drown away the sweet sirens of slumber.

“Ask Gwydion if you don’t believe us, little one,” the goddess suggests, jerking her head at him. “I know you treasure his opinion.”

Tulip’s head shoots back to spot Gwydion, nearly turning 180 degrees in the process. The young Bunny dashes off to stand just in front of him, hands clenched behind her back, face looking up at him with intense anticipation. “Hi…”

Gwydion smiles pleasantly at her, although Alma detect some hints of uncertainty in that smile. “Hello, flower.”

“Notice something different?” Tulip asks, standing on tiptoes to bring the god’s attention to her face.

Gwydion’s expression freezes suddenly. Any man who has ever interacted with women for any given amount of time will know and dread moments like this. He looks at her appraisingly for a long time, inspecting her clothing, apparently sniffing the air around her. Alma tries to signal to him but he seems too focused on his inspection to notice her.

Finally, he speaks, “Hmm… is it the hair?”

Alma cringes even before Tulip’s cry pierces through the room. “No! I’m wearing makeup!” Her ears droop in a most heart-wrenching fashion. “You don’t think I look better than before?”

Gwydion glances at Alma, who smiles and shrugs helplessly at him. “I can’t quite tell. You have always looked absolutely stunning.” He recovers with barely a pause. “However…”

“Yes?” Tulip squeaks, beaming at the compliment.

“It is never pleasant to kiss a cheek that tastes of makeup,” Gwydion notes. “You look older than your years. It seems to me that the makeup robs you of that vital part of your natural beauty, your youth.”

“But I look like a kid!” Tulip shrieks, flailing madly.

“No,” the god states firmly, placing a hand on her shoulder and raising her chin with the other, so that the Bunny focuses on him. “You look like a young lady. And soon, you will look like a grown woman and then like an old woman. I would understand it if you tried to look younger then than older now.”

Tulip’s eyes move down. “Well…”

“You already know what you will look like,” Gwydion notes in those soft, charming tones of his as he guides the Bunny’s face to look at Alma. “Look at your mother. It will not be long before you look like her without need for any makeup.”

“Yeah, but…How old will you be by then?” Tulip argues meekly.

Gwydion seems to consider this. “Hmm… Not much older than I am now, it seems. A decade, maybe?” He looks at Alma for confirmation and she nods at him. “It may seem like a long time to you but it will go by in an instant to me.”

Tulip looks somewhere between confused and slightly hopeful. “Oh…” She shrugs. “Well, this all seems like too much trouble to put on every day, anyway.”

“Now, there’s a smart girl!” Cherry quips.

“You’re just saying that because you don’t wear any makeup either!” Tulip retorts.

“Does it look like I need it?” Cherry replies. She immediately adds. “Don’t anybody answer that!”

The room explodes with laughter. In a glance, Alma catches Gwydion looking inquisitively at her and makes a little mental note to reward the god later for his outstanding performance.

Ch6.39 Trust

It is the day before the Year’s End week and all around the house…

Everyone seems possessed! The bar is decorated like something out of an interior designer’s worst nightmares. Everywhere, ribbons and garlands and banners of all colors and tablecloths painted with flowers and stars and, for some reason, sheep. Scents clash in a battle for dominance of the bar and the station. All sorts of holiday drinks and sweets are being prepared. No ward on the Insula should be able to unite so many different seasonal recipes and traditions. Everyone seems to have a different song to hum at all times of day or night.

In their attempt to bring together all of their traditions and mix them into a single one, the Bunnies have created such a rich and diverse plan that Sage and Mayumi have spent the last two days organizing all their different activities into a color-coded schedule. They will probably need an egg-timer just so that everything they want to do gets, in fact, done.

But Alma is determined to give them whatever they want for this first Year’s End together, even if it is sure to drive half of the station into exhaustion. Of course, the Dei will have to take shifts to balance enjoying the festivities and keeping the station and ward under close watch. With the ever-present threat of this psychopathic necromancer and his soul bombs and zombie rats, they cannot afford to let their guards down completely. The same for the Popula. But everyone, absolutely everyone is looking forward to tomorrow. This is a precious celebration to them, all of them, Bunnies and Popula and Dei and all of their friends. Just months ago, their lives were so different… And in Alma’s case, so lonely. So empty. So…

Hopeless.

But all of that is behind her now. She has her Bunnies, new friends who would, literally, put their lives on the line for her and her children, some rather pleasant mortals to work with and a ward that shows all signs of actually starting to appreciate her presence, albeit with a little cringing at her non-Guardia activities. Bones of the trade. And… Nekh is gone from her thoughts! How wonderful it has been to taste every new event without his poisonous words ringing in her ear. She has found herself filling in for him at times, especially when her insecurities attack, but Sky’s return to active duty has relieved much of her stress and left her with more time to be with her children and her – dare she call him? – her boyfriend?

It just sounds so strange, calling Gwydion by that title. Boyfriend is not a word of gods. Gods have lovers, often more than one and often involving some way of stretching such a complicated, mortal thing as love through an eternity of whether passionate physicality or undying memory. Gods get bored easily. And then again, gods can love forever. One of the problems of becoming involved with mortals.

Boyfriend…The word rings almost childish in her ears. Alma is young for a goddess, her maturity and adulthood recent things. She was only in late Transition, what in human terms could be called the late teens, when she met Arion, a quarter of a century ago, after all. It had taken her over a dozen decades to reach that point. Now, only twenty-five years later, she is well into her Ripened Age. A century and a half…to reach where a human gets in little over thirty years. Some gods don’t take half as long. Others take much longer. Some never get there.

Either way, Gwydion is her lover, her companion and a very dear one indeed. She had forgotten how sweet that could be. And even though there have been other lovers, safe, trusted, occasional, rare lovers, and even with this unexpected attraction toward the deadly but curiously comforting and broken, Textbook-Example-of-a-Bad-Decision Somrak, the last person she has felt this close to was… Arion. The distant father of her children. Her dreams haven’t taken her his way in quite a while. She feels awful for it but… wasn’t he the one who left? Who kept their love on hold for so long, asking her to accept their impossible situation? He cannot return permanently to the Insula and she would not survive in the Void and maybe – maybe her heart has managed to understand what her mind still has such difficulty conceiving: that their dying love must change in order to survive. She loves him still, she knows, but differently now, no longer with the dreams and hopes of his return. It is not with him she would choose to share a future but there is still room for him in it. At her side. But at a distance.

As Cherry would say, gods are weird. All these thoughts go through her head as she hides one more gift from the Bunnies’ eyes in one of the many hidden recesses in her room. She shakes her head, grinning at her own silliness. Such a strange time to be thinking these things…

Especially when she is only one present short of a fully checked list: Gwydion’s present. And for as much as she has been struggling, she has failed to find the perfect one for him. Everything feels too shallow or too…binding? She sighs for the fiftieth time at the silliness of all this secrecy around their affair. All the Bunnies know, after all. Sky and Saira know as well. And a few other people probably suspect. But it had seemed like a good idea at the time and they had both agreed to it from the start. Now she just cannot find it in her to bring it up with him. It would feel like she is pressuring him into it. Like she’s not scared of what comes next. Of all people to fall in love with, she had to pick a philanderer. Stupid heart with its wants and needs.

What on the Insula will she give him?!

I give up.

She walks up to her vanity mirror and places a hand on it, conjuring a mental image of her mother. The mirror, which doubles as a portal attuned to Lyria’s essence is, like many things in this room, an old companion, one of those intrinsically magical objects that are independent of Alma’s magic even if she must recreate them every time she relocates. Considering how many times she has relocated already, some of these items have created and recreated so often that she can no longer remember how she came to own them in the first place.

“Mother,” the goddess calls in a whisper.

“What is it, little soul?” Lyria’s voice replies after a few seconds of unnerving silence.

“I need your help.”

A sigh from the mirror. Moments later, Lyria is standing in front of Alma, looking flustered and impatient.

“I am rather busy with the Dawning, Alma,” she announces in warning tones that say This better be important or at least amusing.

Alma hangs her head. Suddenly, the idea of asking for her mother’s help does not sound so attractive. After all, Lyria is major life goddess regardless of the internal quarrels generated by her choice in husband and part of the responsibilities for organizing the Life Clan side of the Year’s End ceremony, as long as the annual get together of the two usually estranged clans, falls heavily on the older goddess. “I know and I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have–”

“Is life in the Fourth Ring making you forget how to pronounce words properly?” Lyria interrupts, her naturally warm and amiable voice sharp as a blade.

Alma curses inwardly at the pompousness of upper ring speech and sighs. An irritated Lyria makes for a particularly stern one when it comes to proper etiquette. “Forgive me, mother. I should not bother you when you are amidst preparations for the Year’s End ceremony but I am on the verge of desperation.”

This seems to hit a nerve with Lyria. She tilts her head at Alma, suddenly looking very concerned. “What is wrong, Alma? Please, do not tell me this is about that terrible necromancer your father has you chasing.” She starts pacing around the room. “I asked him and asked him to keep you away from–”

“No, mother!” Alma cuts her off in a panic, holding her mother by the upper arms to stop her from pacing. She guides Lyria to sit on the bed and, as the older goddess looks at her quizzically, breathes deeply, feeling utterly silly for all this. “No, it is nothing like that. I am afraid my motives for calling you are far less…noble in nature.” She fumbles with her fingers. “My children are set on fabricating their very own Year’s End traditions.”

Lyria’s face lights up in joy as she puts her hands together in delight. “Oh, but that sounds wonderful! For a moment there, you looked like you were about to announce the end of the world.” She notes, looking at Alma in utter confusion. “Why are you so desperate?”

“Well, the celebrations include a gift exchange,” Alma explains.

“Ah…” Lyria nods in knowing sympathy. “Exchanging gifts was never something your father endorsed.” She taps Alma’s hand in dismissal. “Still, you love to shop for gifts! I seem to remember very good ones.”

“Yes, it is usually easy to pick,” Alma concedes. “But in this case, I just keep hitting a wall. I need your advice.”

Lyria leans forward in expectation, a sly grin dancing on her lips. “And who is at the receiving end of this gift giving conundrum?”

Alma breathes deeply and braces herself for what comes next. Stupid, stupid, stupid. You should have asked Sky instead!

She closes her eyes, cringes slightly and says, “Gwydion.”

She can feel Lyria remaining very still. “Math’s nephew.”

Alma opens a fearful eye. “Yes.”

“And why is it so difficult to shop for him?” Lyria asks with horribly fake innocence. “A nice shirt, a tie are all simple, easy choices. Unless…” And here her grin stretches into a wide smile, soon followed by a giggle. “Oh, I see…”

Ah, there it is, the triumphant giggle.

“Mother…” Alma sighs, rolling her eyes.

Still, Lyria is having too much fun to let go of the easy prey. “You do not want an easy choice, you want one with meaning.” She pats Alma’s hand with obvious pleasure. It feels odd, this fast acceptance of Gwydion, the god fled from the First Ring for his promiscuity, as a proper companion for one’s only daughter, but Lyria has always seemed to operate on a different scale of sane as everyone else. “Math was right in saying the two of you were getting to be very close.”

“You are just torturing me now,” Alma mutters.

And in that light, smiling, icecold way of hers, Lyria jabs the dagger in. “You lied to me before.”

It always hits home.

“I did not lie,” Alma argues, dismissing the shiver that is shaking her spine. “I merely…postponed telling the truth. Things were rather confusing at the time.”

“And now?” Lyria prompts her, her voice sweet again.

Alma shakes her head in frustration. No way out of it now… “Fine. We have been together romantically. For weeks. Just not publicly and not…” She glances at Lyria. “Exclusively.”

“Because of Arion?” Lyria asks quietly.

Alma shakes her head again. “Because of my tendency to create Bunnies and of Gwydion’s tendency to pursue multiple lovers.” She considers the question again. Arion had not been the first of their concerns when the deal had been struck. “And because of Arion as well, I guess.”

“You guess…” Lyria echoes in a whisper. “Has he even been in your thoughts lately?”

“Mother, my life has been hectic lately–” Alma starts.

“Still, you have found time to date someone new,” Lyria cuts her off with surgical precision. “Have you found time for Arion?”

She hasn’t, of course. Still, admitting it before her mother, who was always against their relationship, is a fat toad to swallow. “No…”

“Finally!” Lyria cries out in joy.

“Mother!” Alma hisses.

“Oooh, kitten!” Lyria suddenly coos as she seems to notice Lexie for the first time.

Lounging in a ball of fur on Alma’s bed, as has become her habit, the cat opens an eye to look at Lyria and stretches languidly, twisting her spine in a sinuous shape, paws stretched and lazily unsheathing their curved claws. Then, she turns, rises and stretches again, yawning at her own feline leisure before approaching the life goddess and rubbing against her side, purring like a bear snoring in a cave. Lyria dotes happily on the friendly animal, completely ignoring Alma as the cat rubs and paws and tosses herself onto the sheets and plays every existing card in the feline handbook to captivate Lyria’s attention. All animals are friendly to life gods. Of course, Lexie is usually friendly to begin with, apparently seeing each new person in her world as another source of petting and adoration. She is a queen, after all, and a queen can never have too many subjects or servants.

Feeling like this has gone for too long, Alma clears her throat, startling Lexie. Lyria looks blankly at her for a moment before realization dawns.

“Anyway, gifts…” the older goddess says as if the conversation had never been interrupted. “Something meaningful but not too meaningful. That will remind him of you but not scare him away with commitment.” She glances at Alma. “Although I will bet he is a lot more committed than you realize…”

“And why would you bet on that?” Alma asks, petting Lexie by way of apology for startling her.

“Because, you fool, he keeps coming back even though he knows you cannot give him what he is used to wanting,” Lyria states as if this is the most obvious thing on the isle. “But enough of that. Is there something he desires? Besides you, that is?”

Alma thinks about this for a moment. There in not much lying beyond Gwydion’s reach in terms of material possessions but their private conversations have brought to light deeper, more metaphysical desires. “Knowledge about his parents? His past?” She looks a plea at Lyria. “You knew them, didn’t you?”

“Alma, I was sworn to secrecy,” Lyria warns her. “I cannot reveal any more than you already know. For your beloved’s sake, do not ask me to bend the limits of my vow any further.”

“He has no memory of them,” Alma insists.

Can I even imagine what that must be like? she wonders.

“He was very young when it happened,” Lyria concedes with a nod. “Old memories get buried easily. But who knows? Maybe something will light up a spark.” She rises suddenly, making Alma hope for a change in her mother’s mind. “Hmm…maybe jewelry? Something he can wear?”

The suggestion rings disappointment. For once, Alma had hoped for one of Lyria’s careful slips of information.

“I thought of that but buying something seems a bit…impersonal,” the young goddess notes.

By her side, Lexie has decided that a warm spot on the bed is not something to be disdained and is already curling up where Lyria once sat.

“Then why not make it yourself?” Lyria suggests. “Did I not offer you something like that a few years back?”

Try half a century, mother, Alma snorts.

“Do you mean, my living bracelet?” she inquires. And then it hits her. Of course! That bracelet is not just a pretty thing that plays songs from her childhood, it is also deeply infused with Lyria’s essence, connecting the goddesses with a link made of memory. “Oh, that would be perfect! Could you make one for him?”

Lyria bobs her head pensively. “I certainly could but…it is such a personal gift, Alma. You should make it.”

Alma’s eyes widen in a mild panic. She has learned to create, of course. Against Death’s wishes, Lyria has managed to nurture Alma’s Life sphere with simple, often secret lessons that the young goddess has since used to develop her skills in a self-taught kind of way. But this is much more advanced than anything she has ever been taught. “I…I don’t know how.”

“Well, it is about time you learn, then,” Lyria, replies slightly flustered. “You are an adult, after all. No one can forbid you from learning to use a sphere properly anymore. And besides, you already have some experience with plants.”

Lyria gestures at Starfax’s verdant cage. The sight of the phoenix perching quietly among the leaves sparks a sudden, treacherous memory in the goddess.

“Ugh…” she mumbles. Somrak…

“What is it now?” Lyria asks.

“Make that two gifts I will need you to help me with,” Alma explains, rubbing her eyes to hide her discomfort.

Lyria’s eyes widen in amused surprise. “Oh, another meaningful gift, you mean?” She giggles. “I want to hear all about it! But first… I want to see my grandchildren.”

“Oh no!” Alma exclaims. “First, you help me, then you can go frolic with the Bunnies.”

Ch6.38 Trust

A door creaks open and in walks a pair who might be seen by those unfamiliar with them as opposites in nearly every way. One is tall and ethereal, so pale as to seem almost ghostly, her long snowy hair flowing in waves over her shoulders and down her back, her arctic-blue eyes capable of hypnotizing or terrifying depending on her mood. Unless she is purposefully suppressing her divine aura, any citizen of the Urbis Caelestis will recognize her instantly as a goddess, and even if she were to encounter some visitor who has stumbled by chance through a crack in the walls between worlds, the new arrival would be agape at her breath-stopping, immortal perfection.

Her companion, standing beside her and appraising the dusty room, is shorter and darker, her jet-black kinky hair forming a halo around a face that is a study in browns: soft fawn skin that looks warm to the touch, large darkly mischievous eyes that shine like highly polished gemstones of hazel shot through with red and gold striations, and tempting full lips that look as if kissed they might taste of chocolate. It is a face that would not stop breath but rather quicken it, cause a heart to race rather than skip a beat in awe. Her mortal body appears fuller and more voluptuous than goddess’, but only because she lacks so much stature, the tips of her midnight-furred Bunny ears barely topping the shoulders of the alabaster deity.

Yet a closer, deeper look will reveal similarities beyond the way both are, at the moment, dressed for menial labor, in simple clothes and aprons, bearing buckets and cleaning rags and gloves. Despite the goddess’ initially cool and forbidding appearance, a warmth shines through in her smile that matches that of the mortal, as does a lurking potential for mischief. Those whose perceptive vision have taken them this far will find themselves only mildly surprised to learn that these two are mother and daughter, though the taller looks barely older than her child.

Cherry, the Bunny, sets down her bucket with a slosh of water spilling over the side and onto the floor. “Well will you look at this place! Used to be full of old boxes, and now it’s almost ready for paintin’. Geryon’s gonna love it. Especially that balcony, now we got the railing removed.”

Alma places her bucket on the floor more carefully and walks across the room to the wide glass-paned doors, working the rusty latch. “I could change it a bit more. Unh! Add some greenery, some space.” The recalcitrant latch comes free and she begins to fold the doors open. “Are you sure you want it as is?”

“Way you explained it, makin’ a room bigger on the inside than out sucks away your whatchacallit-mana stuff. Your god-juice.” Cherry laughs. “You got enough of that goin’ on with your room, don’tcha?” She goes to help Alma with the doors as fresh air begins to flow into the room. “Cleanin’ these windows is one of the first things we need to do. But hey, you sure you wanna help with this kinda thing?” She looks up at Alma, reaching up to touch a slight shadow under the goddess’ eye. “You’re lookin’ tired. You need more rest.”

“I’ll be fine,” Alma says with a smile, tenderly cupping her child’s face. “Especially now that Sky is back, I can resume my usual schedule. Rest more. Be with you more.”

Cherry smiles broadly, her eyes almost squeezed shut in pleasure. “That’s good to hear.” She looks around. “Naw, all this place needs is a little more elbow grease. And some paint. But first we gotta get it squeaky clean. Then Geryon can have his own place.”

“Hmm.” Alma begins to clean the filthy window panes. “Are you and Rosemary finding your room a bit too small to share?”

“Oh it wouldn’t matter if we had ten times as much space. Our place is ours. Cuddly Birdy-Kitty’s welcome to stay over now and then, but we ain’t keepin’ his toothbrush in the bathroom.” She giggles. “Not that he has a toothbrush. Or teeth. And not that we have our own bathroom.” The Bunnies’ rooms are all on the floor above the bar, in rooms that were used as storage and were considered for use as temporary sleeping quarters for constables. Only a small dressing room and its attached shower are still communal, however, and even there the Bunnies mostly prefer the far more luxurious bath in Alma’s magical garden-filled room in the basement. “But you know what I mean. Merri and I love him to bits, but he ain’t movin’ in.”

Alma chuckles almost inaudibly. “And what’s next after these windows?”

“I figure let’s tackle the baseboards. So much dust…” Cherry pauses, opening her mouth and shutting her eyes, then sneezes. “Dang! Speakin’ of dust. But this won’t take long with two.”

“Baseboards it is,” Alma says cheerfully. “This is still so much better than paperwork…”

Cherry laughs. “Guess you ain’t got as much now Sky’s back. And Mister Smokin-Hot Trouble-on-Two-Legs is gone.”

A single laugh bursts from Alma’s lips. “What does that mean?”

“Well…” Cherry pauses in polishing a pane of glass. “I got the impression – surely mistaken – that he was havin’ a little bit of trouble fittin’ into the way things’re supposed to be done round these parts.”

Alma, not looking at her but smiling, says, “Oh well… It would be asking too much from someone like him to know how to work in a station. His type usually operates alone or in very small teams. Not like our little team, here.”

Cherry nods. “Mm-hmm. Still, he sure did seem to like it here. Or maybe it was a certain someone he liked.” She grins.

Alma looks at her quizzically. “Hmm? Who?”

Cherry stops cleaning and looks at Alma conspiratorially. “Like you don’t…” She cuts off at the honestly confused look on Alma’s face. “Well bless…you don’t! You really don’t, do you?”

“Are we talking about Saira?” Alma looks thoughtful. “He did seem quite interested in her… And then again, they are very much alike.”

Cherry’s mouth opens for a second, then she shuts it and shakes her head while muttering, “And people pray to gods for wisdom.” Louder, she continues, “Girl, you didn’t notice the way that guy was lookin’ at you? Or not lookin’ at you, all on purpose? And the scent of him…woof! Made me quiver.”

Alma seems to be looking inward, as if remembering. “I’m afraid my nose isn’t that sensitive…” She gives her head a quick shake of ‘no’ and says, “He was just…friendly. True, much more than I would have expected from someone like him but…” She smiles a little, her cheeks turning slightly pink. “I didn’t think more of it.”

Cherry looks skeptically at Alma, feeling sure that the goddess is, now at least, protesting too much. “Every time you come into the room when he was there, I’d get a blast of ‘I want that’ offa him so powerful that I was about ready to drag him into bed myself. And I woulda, if it’d been directed at me. And then when you’d speak, blammo, there it was again. How the hey did we get such good noses when yours is missin’ out on so much?”

With a shrug, Alma says, “You must take after your father in that department.” She pauses, thinking. “I guess… I see why Gwydion was so worried about Somrak. Maybe his nose is better. All I could sense was this great loneliness. Constant sorrow even when he is laughing. Just…broken.” The goddess becomes downcast, her sympathy obvious.

Cherry rolls her eyes. “Bad boys and sad boys…I never could resist ‘em either.” She sighs. “For a joker he sure does have a lotta dark goin’ on underneath.”

“Bones of the trade, I guess,” Alma agrees.

Cherry grumbles, “Me and Merri already got Geryon for ‘happy on the outside, sad on the inside’.”

They are both quiet for awhile, cleaning in silence. But after a few minutes, Alma asks, her voice soft, “So…what else does that nose of yours tell you?”

Cherry stays silent, thinking, until she finishes her last windowpane. Then she sets down the rag and looks at Alma. “Y’know, havin’ some sharper senses than y’all, sometimes it’s hard for us to figure out what we’re gettin’ that you guys ain’t gettin’. And then we go too much the other way, like when Tulip was always shoutin’ ‘cause she thought all the ‘small-eared people’ couldn’t hear hardly at all. But, well…I guess we all knew for awhile that you and Dion were a thing. I dunno, maybe even before you two were sure.”

Alma’s smile is small and fragile. “It was that obvious, huh?”

Cherry returns it in half-apology, half-sympathy. “Sorry, sweetie. ‘Course, none of us can keep secrets from each other, either. Sage and Aliyah, May and Sky. Well, not like Sage was tryin’ to keep that a secret. But you know what I mean. It can be annoyin’ for us, too.”

“It is as it is.” Alma takes a deep breath, her reluctance to ask the next question showing. “Anything else I should know about currently wafting scents?”

The look Cherry gives Alma is akin to that of a psychologist to a patient, a hairdresser to a client, a bartender to a customer. “Thing is, it ain’t just Sommie who’s puttin’ out puffs of ‘oh-my-goodness’ when you two are in a room together. You’re kinda doin’ that yourself.”

Alma looks away, the delicate flush of pink returning to her face. “I guess…I hadn’t thought of it that way. Well, I’ll admit he is attractive in more ways than one but… Something in him just makes me want to help. To heal.”

Unable to resist, Cherry takes three steps to Alma and touches her fingers to the goddess’ fine jawline, to encourage her to turn to look into the Bunny’s eyes. “All that and he looks great in leather pants, too, huh?” She giggles softly when Alma smiles sheepishly at that. “You don’t have to worry about why. It happens. Ain’t no need to feel embarrassed or nothin’. Heck, I fall head over heels for, like, at least, uh, twice as many people as I let on. Just ‘cause it’d be borin’ to mention it every dang time.”

Alma’s breath snorts out and she stands, stroking Cherry’s cloud of curls before putting her arms around her daughter’s shoulders. “Well, I think I’ll stick to Gwydion for the time being. We seem to go well together. Unless you’re smelling something strange on him?” The final sentence starts out joking but ends as a half-serious question.

Cherry laughs and puts her arms around Alma’s waist. “Oh boy. I am startin’ to think us Bunnies got a responsibility to act like, uh, y’know them kinda priests that some folks think they gotta tell all their secrets to. Which come to think of it would be a great racket…think of all the blackmail potential! Anyway, I don’t think you got anything to worry ‘bout there. Dion’s Dion, so he notices everybody in a skirt and most of the ones in pants. But that don’t mean he’s gonna chase ‘em. He is really wild about you! But, um…” She sighs. “There’s, like, some frustration comin’ offa him? It’s cause you’re worried about goin’ all the way, ain’t it?”

Alma bends down to kiss Cherry’s forehead. “For as much as I love all of you, I cannot risk creating any more Bunnies. The Council would come for me if I did. And for all of you. And if I lay with him, there is a very real possibility that that would happen.” She sighs, holding Cherry closer. “Which, yes, is a terrible source of frustration on both sides. But…he is free to be with others who don’t have to worry about such issues.”

Cherry rests her cheek against Alma’s chest. “Listen, if anything starts seemin’ off, y’know, I’ll tell you.” But she looks up at Alma, on the verge of saying something more.

Alma looks down at her, a look of curiosity stealing over her face. She strokes Cherry’s cheek. “What is it, dear? You look like you are thinking very loud thoughts.”

It takes a moment for Cherry to compose the words she wants to say. “It’s weird… I’m still havin’ trouble gettin’ used to some things, and…” She takes a deep breath. “Look, can I just do this? Probably gonna make you laugh. Ahem.” Embarrassed, she forces herself to gaze into Alma’s eyes. “Mom,” she states. Just that. Then again. “Mom. Mother. Mommy.” The last one comes out at a higher pitch, and she grimaces. “Mama? Meemaw. No that one’s right out. Maw. Mom. Mom…yeah…Mom.”

Where earlier it came out flat, almost unnatural, as something she was unused to, now the word contains the depth of warmth that is so often present behind Cherry’s speech, no matter how cynical or sarcastic it might be on the surface. “Mom…Mom?” In her vision, Alma’s face, the cheeks and now the tip of the nose flushing, begins to waver and blur. “Oh man…Mom…” Cherry presses her face against Alma’s chest as tears start rolling down her cheeks. Into Alma’s apron, she mutters. “Sorry, I’m sorry… I didn’t see the tears coming…”

Alma holds her closely. “You have nothing to be sorry about.” Her voice is thick with emotion. “I am still getting used to it myself. But whatever you feel comfortable calling me, I already love hearing it.”

Cherry sniffles. “I just… I guess I had to figure out what felt right. Little kids don’t have to do that, right? Or maybe they do – they just don’t have to think about it. But wow…didn’t think I’d start bawlin’!” She looks up at Alma. “Sayin’ it wasn’t just sayin’ it, y’know? It was like I was really gettin’ it through my skull that, ‘Holy moly, you’re my Mom!’ And I…I’m a daughter. It feels…really good.”

Looking at her tenderly, Alma says, “I have waited for so long to be free to be your mother… Wondered so often about all of you, how you were doing, would you like me, would you be able to forgive me, would I be – was I being a good mother to you… And now we can figure all those things out together and I can still barely believe it is true.” Abruptly she embraces Cherry tightly. “No lover could ever mean to me as much as you. You will always be more important to me than anyone else.”

Cherry returns that almost desperate clasp, her cheek against Alma’s chest, breathing out and just relaxing against her. “I know anything you did that was hard, you did it so them bastards wouldn’t just kill all of us before we hardly knew we were alive. You did what you had to do, Mom. I’d like to say we don’t need to forgive you, but I guess we do ‘cause it did hurt. But we do forgive, we all do. We have. ‘Cause we understand why it had to be that way. And we all love you, y’know? We really do.”

A drop of liquid falls on top of Cherry’s head, followed by another, and by the slight hitch of Alma’s chest, Cherry can tell her mother is crying. “I know. And that alone makes everything worthwhile.” Alma’s tight hold relaxes, becomes more gentle. “My beautiful daughter…”

Cherry, in a very small voice, says, “Awwww,” and she snuggles against Alma, holding her for a full minute in silence. Then sighs and looks up. “Shoot. We ain’t never gonna finish this cleanin’ job at this rate.”

Alma laughs and releases Cherry, quickly wiping under her eyes with her wrist. “Very well…back to work?” She tries to make her voice normal, but the tears still live in her throat.

“Back to work!” Cherry shouts, making a gesture of cracking a tiny invisible whip at Alma while making a ‘Sh-kow!’ sound.

Ch6.37 Trust

The First Ring. Around the portal, streets radiate away, some lined with shops, others with restaurants, others with temples so that visitors to this smallest and yet least densely populated ring of the Urbis Caelestis can feel close to their gods. For the gods who live here are almost exclusively those who are worshipped, and worshipped intensely, often by millions of mortals across the City of Heaven, and in some cases millions more on worlds beyond. Some gods have entire planets where not a single soul knows of the existence of any god but one, and pour their mana-generating prayers into that one single god.

And so the gods who reside here do not live in ramshackle apartments or tiny dens or even stately mansions. They live in palaces surrounded by miles of wilderness, plots of land the size of entire wards, shaped into whatever forms their imaginations desire. Even setting aside the astounding amounts of power delivered to these gods by prayers, mana lines built into the nature of the Insula channel magic upward, so that the zones of the First Ring are the equal of the most high-magic regions of the Celestial Mountain.

There are no real cities in the First Ring. Instead, the portal stations dotted across it are surrounded by little trade villages, mainly catering to visitors, but usually with a few shops and restaurants that tempt business from the nearby residents. Few of these highest gods ever visit any of those businesses, of course. But they have servants – often beloved members of ancient lineages born to serve their gods and, not uncommonly, bearing at least traces of divine blood in their veins as a result – who go in their stead, to purchase goods even beyond the imagination of one who can create nearly anything. For gods, though powerful, are limited when it comes to subjects beyond their spheres, and the more powerful they are, the more focused they become. And so one of the great Solar Clan deities might be capable of shattering the Insula itself with the heat of a sun focused into a tight beam, but such a god may be unable to grill a filet of tuna to perfection with the skill of a mere mortal chef.

Mortals and gods are not the only residents, either. Sky looks up to see a wingless dragon sinuously swimming through the air. And on the wide, clean street there trots a creature that at first he mistakes for a unicorn. But it is more goat than horse, smaller but imperious in stance, its eyes flashing as it glances suspiciously at those it passes. Is it perhaps some sort of private Guardia? he wonders. For he recognizes it now, despite not having seen one in decades. A xiezhi, a being obsessed with truth, to the point that those who tell lies in its presence are in great danger of being impaled by its single straight horn.

It stops and stares at Sky. He pauses, looking back at it, allowing his companion, Gwydion, to walk ahead. Sky and the xiezhi lock eyes, and the creature lowers its horn. For a moment Sky wonders if it is about to charge, ruining this unexpected shopping trip with Dion before it can begin. But the xiezhi apparently cannot puzzle out just how Sky is a walking lie, and swinging its head away, it stiffly trots on.

Sky breathes out with relief and hurries to catch up with Dion. “I feel like I should’ve worn a black tie for this shopping expedition. Where’s this special place you have to drop by?”

Dion smirks at the comment, glancing at Sky. Though they both wear the same indigo-blue Guardia Dei uniform, Dion’s is custom-made of finer material, fitting his body comfortably and never bunching or pulling tight as he moves. It is very nearly formal dress despite being everyday wear for him. Sky, on the other hand, wears a standard-issue uniform, designed to be long-lasting and easy to clean more than any concerns over fashion.

“It is just around this corner,” Dion replies. “In fact, here it is.” He gestures at an elegant yet discreet-looking shop with a small iron plate engraved with the name Tamandoo’s. “Can’t go wrong with scent, can we?”

Sky laughs briefly. “Ohhh, I can think of a few ways scent can go wrong. But probably not in a high-class place like this. I’ve spent some time in the First Ring, but I’ve rarely bought anything all the way up here.”

“Ah, that is a shame, my friend. Only the best of the best can stand to be sold here. And this master scent-maker is a god devoted to scents and – whatever they use to make scents. He has never let me down.” Since Sky has known him, Gwydion has almost always sounded reserved, aloof, but here it is as if that reserve has fallen away. Is it being back in the First Ring? Anticipation of the upcoming celebrations? Or perhaps a happiness that things are now back to whatever passes for normal, with Sky returned from his much-needed rest? Or perhaps things are simply going well with Alma.

The door opens. A plump young woman, with a thick waterfall of wavy two-toned blue and gold hair and glossy black skin like that of an orca, holds it open and stands aside for them. She smiles at Dion familiarly. “Welcome back to Tamandoo’s, sir,” she says, and nods also to Sky. “I will notify the master that you are here.”

“It is good to be back, Vasilka.” Dion gestures for Sky to go first. “Shall we?”

Sky gives him an appreciative look and says, in an attempt at an upper-crust, First Ring accent, “But of course.”

He enters and pauses to take in the elegance of the room, comfortably appointed and perfectly balanced in terms of layout, color, light, and most especially smell. Not overpowering in any way, hints of perfume drift through the air, somehow not interfering with each other, discreetly entering his nose to call to him, like sirens beckoning in the waves.

After a murmured exchange at the doorway, as the god and the mortal servant quickly catch up with each other, Dion comes into the center of the room and breathes deeply, smiling. Vasilka disappears, only to return moments later bearing a tray with two delicate glasses of wine and a plate of hors d’ouvres, which she places on an elaborately carved table. “The master has been informed of your arrival and will join you and your friend in a moment, Master Gwydion.”

Sky looks at Dion surreptitiously. “Wine, huh?”

“Oh, most First Ring shops will offer this type of courtesy to their clients. Most of their clients won’t even be caught dead visiting the stores themselves, so a little special treatment can go a long way.”

Sky sips his wine. It is, of course, almost staggeringly delicious. He has long known that he simply doesn’t have the vocabulary to describe the taste of wines. ‘Piquant’ and ‘floral’ just sound ridiculous to him. He’s eaten flowers when he was starving – there is nothing ‘floral’ about the flavor of wine. All he knows is that he likes this very, very much. After savoring it for a moment, he says, “Must be a bit strange, being back in places like this after so long.”

Dion nods, but seems less overwhelmed with his wine. “It is a pleasant place to visit.” He looks down into his glass, pensively. “But all of this strikes me as distant when compared to Three Rats. More and more so each time I visit. It’s a bit…difficult to explain. It is as if there is something missing here.”

Sky is about to agree, organizing his thoughts as to exactly why, but the curtain slides open. “Dion! My dear, did I hear you talking about rats? How lovely to see you after so long! And oh, who’s your friend?”

Gods that do not conform to a human shape are not terribly unusual. Additional arms or legs, animal heads, wings, exotic colorings, all are barely considered strange even by many mortals, and not at all by gods. And some go well beyond that, even going so far as to wear amorphous, shifting forms, bodies made of light or electricity, even having no body at all. This deity, then, does not shock Sky, and indeed his form makes perfect sense. For he is, to an initial look, an upright anteater.

That is not quite accurate, Sky realizes as he looks a little more carefully. The body is covered in long, coarse hair, a light brown on the sides, white on the upper chest, and a darker brown on the back of the neck – although much of this is concealed by elaborately embroidered silk clothes, an outfit reminiscent of a kimono. The head is also very like an anteater’s, essentially scaffolding for a long, narrow nose. The snout’s nostrils are larger, however, and the eyes are as well, as large as a human’s and very human in appearance, pale brown and quite amused and appealing. And the paws are much closer to the hands of a primate than…whatever family of animals that anteaters belong to. Sky realizes he has no idea, but vaguely remembers they are distantly related to sloths.

But Gwydion is speaking. “My faithful Doo, allow me to introduce to you Inspector Tuma-Sukai of the Guardia Dei, Breaker of Chains, Shadow of Freedom. We work in the same station together. Sky, this is master-parfumeur Tamandoo, Suzerain of Scent, the best detector and creator of perfumes in the whole of the First Ring.”

“A pleasure to meet you,” Sky says, extending his hand.

Tamandoo closes his eyes. His long, slightly prehensile downward curving snout twists, the nostrils flaring as they suck in air, and a slender round tongue covered in pink buds slithers out to wave in the air. “Oh, what an exotic scent. Tamandoo cannot place it but… Inspector, you are from far, far away, are you not?” Before Sky can answer, the god takes in a lungful again. “And both of you have recently come from the Fourth Ring, have you not? What a bouquet of smells, so variegated. So decadent! Tamandoo loves it!” He takes Sky’s hand delicately.

For the second time in less than an hour, someone is finding a way to probe tiny flaws in Sky’s disguise. It is this rather than any discomfort with the god’s flamboyancy that causes Sky to smile uncertainly and, after releasing Tamandoo’s hand, take another sip of wine rather than reply.

Dion chuckles, clearly at ease with this character. “You are right as usual, my dearest Doo. None can fool that nose. Maybe you’ll consider joining our forensic team someday.”

Tamandoo’s eyes go wide. “Tamandoo? In the Fourth Ring? Would Tamandoo not be murdered? Ah, but you are safe, and dear Inspector Tuma-Sukai is safe, so surely Tamandoo would be safe. It must not be as dangerous as silly people say with their silly little rumors, hmmm?”

Dion, though joking, hastens to assure him. “You know that I would never allow something as terrible as murder to happen to you. And who knows? You might find your new scent muse there? I have been hearing you have grown bored of privileged skins.”

The god of scents raises his palms in a gesture of despair. “Ah, everyone here smells the same, Dion. And they all want the same things. They say they wish to smell unique, but in the end they always play it safe. It is dull, yes, so dull.”

“I am sure,” Dion replies, appearing now to take the idea seriously, “these upslope people would adore the novelty of more rustic scents. Alas, you do not need to reply now. The invitation stands open and awaiting your decision. For now… I bring you a challenge.”

“A challenge?” The god clasps his hands together in excitement. “It has been long since Tamandoo has had a challenge.”

“I’m sure it will please you.” Dion looks to Sky apologetically. “Would you mind waiting here a bit while I tell Doo what I’m looking for? This will only take a minute.”

“Oh, of course,” Sky says. “I’ll, uh…” His hesitation at trying to decide what to do while waiting is cleared up when Vasilka reappears to refill his glass. “I’ll be fine right here.”

As Sky and Vasilka share a smile, Dion chuckles. “Shall we step over to your workshop, Tamandoo?”

“Ah, a personal matter.” The hirsute god puts his hand on Dion’s back and ushers him through the curtain. “Come come, let us go through here… There, now tell Tamandoo precisely what it is your heart desires.” The unctuous voice fades as a door beyond the curtain closes.

“You don’t wear any scent,” Vasilka says to Sky, the first thing, indeed, she has said directly to him. Her smile is friendly, however.

“I don’t,” he replies. “I can’t remember the last time I did. It’s just…not my kind of thing.” He shrugs.

“How do you know?” she asks. “Have you ever tried?”

“You not going to spray me with something, are you?” he asks suspiciously.

She laughs. “Not unless you tell me to. But…may I?” She takes his wineglass and sets it aside, then comes closer to him. “My nose is not as long-range as the master’s, but…”

He does not stop her when she stretches up on tiptoes to sniff deeply near his throat, her chest momentarily brushing against his jacket. Her clothes are perfectly tailored to fit her curvaceous body, and Sky cannot help but wonder at the texture of her glossy skin, how it would feel to touch. She settles back onto her heels and considers for a moment, then goes to a wall covered in small shelves on which rest hundreds of crystal bottles, each holding just a tiny amount of liquid. She runs her hand along from left to right, pauses, then goes down two shelves to lift a bottle with forefinger and thumb. She brings it to him, then opens it, the stopper having a thin rod of glass projecting from its bottom, onto which clings a drop of perfume. She sniffs it and smiles, her white teeth brilliant against her obsidian-black skin.

“You can just sniff this, but to get the proper effect, it really should be on your skin. How about your wrist?” She gives him a playful look.

“Well…” Spending much of his time in the field on Earth and the Insula, in situations where wearing added scent would be more likely to make him easier to detect, or would leave behind evidence, he has avoided perfumes. That, and they have always seemed, well, luxuries. And while he values certain luxuries highly – a long hot bath, a perfectly grilled steak, a glass of rare whisky, a handcrafted guitar – he eschews most of them. Life is complicated enough without adding more to it.

Still, he holds out his arm, wrist up. Vasilka takes his hand and applies the drop of scent, then uses her middle finger to spread it across the sensitive skin. “Wait a moment,” she says. “Wait for it to warm from your body heat.” She looks into his eyes, and he begins to suspect she may be flirting with him. “There, now smell.”

He holds his wrist up to his face and sniffs. It is subtle, not like he expected. Nothing sweet about it. Verdant, like a forest, like…oak. And just a hint of the sea. Seaweed.

A memory of England, the coast, with a team of six commandos, good men, preparing to depart on a mission. Only two survived.

He feels moisture behind his closed eyelids, a tingling in his face. He holds onto the memory for a moment, then lets it go, breathing slowly, regaining control. He opens his eyes and sees Vasilka looking up at him in concern.

“Thank you,” he says. “That was…”

As he hesitates over the choice of words – lovely, exquisite, heartbreaking? – the curtain is swept aside. Sky and Vasilka both look toward Tamandoo and Gwydion’s return as if they’ve been caught in an illicit act, but the two gods take no notice, seeming quite preoccupied. Dion’s face carries a slight frown.

“Tamandoo is so sorrowful that your principal request cannot be ready in time. But my dear, might Tamandoo recommend this?” Without a glance, he plucks a miniature bottle from one of the shelves and, smoothly whipping the stopper free, passes it momentarily past Dion’s face with a flourish, so that Dion passes through the scented air. Dion takes a sniff and he looks thoughtful. “It is a familiar scent, is it not? One that has proved successful in the past? Just until the true scent is ready to give at the next occasion for gifts.”

“Ah, this… I wonder if this would be the best choice. Maybe something a little different would be more appropriate. What does your nose say?”

Immediately Tamandoo puts the sample he is holding back and his tongue slithers out to lash the air before the wall of bottles, soon zeroing in on another one. “Ah, with her scent… This one. Most certainly.”

Dion takes a whiff as Tamandoo once again wafts the scent through the air. His face lights up with pleasure and surprise. “Heavenly. Almost perfect. Is this a new blend? I don’t recall ever encountering this one.”

The long-nosed god gives a shrug. “New…not new, precisely. Tamandoo came up with it some time back, but no one has yet purchased it. As Tamandoo says, the people of this Ring are not in search of the new and adventurous.”

“Well, this First Ringer is going to be the exception.” Dion takes the stopper and waves it in the air near Sky. “Don’t you agree that Doo is the best?”

Sky inhales and blinks at the sensation of lilac and…willow? It’s just a soft note, Sky knows the smell well, having stripped the bark and brewed willow tea in the past, to relieve the pain of…no. Now is not the time for those smell-evoked memories.

And after clearing those memories away, he realizes how well the blend of smells speaks of peace, serenity. Though he cannot recall Alma wearing scent, he can imagine that this would, indeed, suit her. “Oh…yes. That is exquisite, Tamandoo.”

The shaggy god clasps his hands in pleasure. “And can Tamandoo provide the Inspector with anything today?”

Sky looks to Dion for help. “Oh, uh…I really don’t know…” Despite the wonder of the scent Vasilka shared with him, he is reluctant to buy such a luxury for himself. He has a comfortable accumulation of savings due to forty years of spending very little on himself, but after speaking with Alma about the orphanage that Ewá Nanã has started and the school she hopes to start, he has decided to put the bulk of his savings toward that project which will be such a benefit for Three Rats.

Also, he does not want to buy a scent for Mayumi. The Bunnies’ noses are very sensitive, and he doubts she would wear it. And in any case she will not be allowed to, at the Academy. Not to mention the potential for undercutting the uniqueness of Dion’s gift to Alma.

Dion smoothly comes to his rescue. “I think my esteemed commanding officer has a slightly different gift in mind for his…special interest.”

“Ah,” sighs Tamandoo. “The Inspector has a paramour! Well remember, Inspector, you cannot go wrong with scent. It is the pathway to the most primitive structures of the brain. Scent creates and evokes memories. Please do return.”

As Sky muses on how well he has learned that lesson this day, Dion says, “Oh, I am sure we will.” He turns his head to regard Sky. “Shall we go hunt for our other gifts?”

“Yes.” Sky takes Tamandoo’s hand. “A very great pleasure meeting you. I hope it will not be long before I have that pleasure once again.”

Tamandoo puts his other hand on top of Sky’s. “So kind! Good fortune in your quest.”

As they leave the shop, Dion asks, “Is everything–”

The door opens behind them and Vasilka steps out. “Inspector?”

As Sky turns, she takes his thick wrist and places a small package on his open palm. She interrupts his protest by saying, with an impish, dimpled smile, “The first one is free. Come again soon.” Then she turns and slips back into the shop, giving a quick backward glance before the door shuts.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“There is nothing going on between us!” Sky insists, exasperated.

“Very well, very well,” Dion says playfully. “But I’ve known her for years and pretty Vasilka’s never given me any free samples.” He pauses for a moment. “Let me rephrase that. All I’m saying is, you must have made quite the impression on her.”

Sky grimaces. “Well… It sounds like you’ve ordered something unique for Alma.”

Dion’s smile persists but becomes slightly fainter, almost shy. “Hopefully something that will not displease. Unfortunately, it will take time to be ready. Something about the influence of the moons and an uncooperative fey of some sort.” The attempt at jocularity disappears as he gives Sky an intent look. “It is, however, a surprise.”

“Of course. My lips are sealed.” They walk in silence for a moment. “I, however…am terrible at choosing gifts. Once in awhile I stumble across something that cries, ‘This is the perfect gift for’ whoever, but that is rare, rare. And…the pressure when it is the first gift for someone you care deeply about.”

Dion is quiet at that. Sky glances at him and sees a still, anxious expression, but holds back from saying anything.

They go past a stall selling the sort of delicacies that visitors can purchase and give to family and friends to say, ‘I visited the First Ring!’ and turn down an alley past that. “This is not the tourist area,” Dion says, breaking his silence. “Well, that part of the street we were entering was, but back here is a little market mainly for the mortals who actually live here. The prices are considerably more reasonable, and the quality just as good, if a bit less…baroque.”

“Thank you,” Sky acknowledges. “I’ve spent time in all the Rings, but I have never really gone shopping in the First. Everything is beautiful. But I worry about it how it would play in Three Rats.”

Dion nods as they arrive at the collection of clean and orderly stalls. “It is important for the gift to fit the recipient. So…you’re having trouble choosing for May?” His voice, earlier mocking in a good-natured way, is now gentle.

Thinking back to how distant they had been with each other so recently, when Gwydion, with Alma, had been under house arrest and accused of deicide. The dismissal of charges followed by weeks of hard, dangerous work getting the gang warfare under control in Three Rats, have, however, led to greater closeness. Sky accepts this intimate question as sincere and warm-hearted, marvelling at the change. “I was thinking of a necklace or a bracelet, but I worry about how strict the Academy is about such things.”

“Ah yes. Alma told me that she has been accepted.” His eyes soften. Sky knows that Alma is distraught but resigned over the thought of her her most troublesome child’s impending absence. “May doesn’t strike me as a jewelry enthusiast,” Dion continues after a moment. “Maybe something more on the practical side?”

Sky nods glumly. “I thought about a bow. And arrows, you know. It’s what her name means actually. But again, she can’t take it with her. Might make a good graduation present though. In six months.” The thought of six thirty-six-day months with Mayumi separated from her family continues to fill him with dread.

As if sensing Sky’s thoughts, Dion suggests, “Maybe something to help her keep in touch with her family and friends? It seems to me that that’s where the greatest challenge will lie. And we both know what the Academy’s postal service is like.”

“Slow and no privacy, yes.” Sky warms to the idea. “Could she use…some kind of enchanted crystal? But you know, I really do like letters. Nobody sends letters anymore.”

Dion seems to suppress a chuckle. “How romantic of you. Well, I think we can adapt something for quick and accurate mailing that ensures privacy as well. Geryon and I used to have a little communication system back at the Magic Academy that should prove efficient enough if we can stabilize it for greater distances. I will leave the choice in stationery to your discretion. But–” He holds up a finger. “–it must be handmade. Don’t ask me why. I just know that if it isn’t, things can go very wrong.”

“That sounds like you are speaking from experience,” Sky comments with a smile. After a eye-rolling nod from Dion, Sky asks, “Do the letters just appear near her?”

“Yes. You may not want to mention to her that the transportation is imp-dependent. It might dampen the romantic atmosphere a little.”

“Oh,” Sky says. Though Sky is not nearly as skilled at spellcasting as Dion is, he knows a fair amount about it, and in particular knows about the nature of imps. In the popular imagination, they are demons, summoned from Hell to deliver messages, act as trackers, draw pictures very swiftly, and so on. Wielders of magic, on the other hand, know that imps are not demons at all, but simply an ephemeral life form, called from nothing, returning to nothing, usually lasting no more than the few minutes it takes to accomplish their reason for existence.

Mayumi, having grown up with virtually no knowledge of spell working, might find the idea of a creature showing up at her bedside to be disturbing. But messenger imps are shy, and try to deliver their messages when the recipient is not looking. “Yes, probably best not to tell her,” Sky agrees. “And it is circumventing the rules, but…everyone has to rebel against the rules in some way, don’t they? Thank you, Dion.”

“Oh I’m happy to help.” Dion picks up a filigreed brooch.

“Do you have any ideas yet for the other presents?” Sky asks absentmindedly as he looks over a display of finely wrought globes of glass.

“Personally, I was planning to get well-tailored outfits for each of them. Sage does such a good job with turning spare fabric into clothes for them, but I thought they’d like something special and festive. What do you think?”

“That’s an excellent idea,” Sky answers. “And it’s good to know, so I don’t get them something too similar. I was planning to get Kori a nice football.”

Dion nods. “That sounds like a good plan. And we all know how Tulip is so engaged in arts and crafts. I don’t think you would be mirroring anyone there if you were to pick something along those lines.”

“Oh yes, a set of pastels, and some good paper. Perhaps brushes and watercolors, too.” After receiving a nod of permission from the proud craftsman, Sky picks up a slightly blue-toned sphere, using his fingertips. It is about the size of an average cantaloupe. “And for Cherry and Rosemary, I was thinking of a wooden sign. For the bar, now that they’ve finally settled on a name for it.”

Dion raises an eyebrow. “You realize you will have to design it.”

Sky chuckles. “I’ve been making sketches, with Sage’s help. Of course he’s keeping it a secret.”

“Even Bunnies find it hard to keep secrets from Bunnies,” Dion says, shaking his head. “There is actually a woodworker’s shop not far away from the station where you could have it made.”

Sky smiles. “I think I know who you mean. Mr Mendonça, right?”

“Yes. Many artisans here would kill to have half of his skill. Well that leaves Sage, Chime, and,” Dion pauses for effect, “their mother.”

Sky laughs, still looking at the globe, examining the glass carefully for flaws. “Well Chime is easy. I have a small collection of musical instruments, and I thought I’d give him a ’ukulele.” A look of confusion from Dion prompts him to explain, “A kind of small guitar. I can teach him to play it, though I suspect he’ll surpass my skill in a day. And Sage, some tailoring tools. Though I’ll need to do a little research for items beyond needles, pins, and scissors.

“As for Alma…” Sky shows the bluish globe to Dion, holding it balanced on the spread fingers of one hand. “This is perfectly made.” The dealer looks pleased and a little smug.

“Made for what, if I may ask?” Dion sounds intrigued.

“When I was much younger,” Sky explains, “I was…attached to a pantheon of ocean gods. The new guy. One of them showed me how to make a glass orb into a microenvironment, by apporting seawater and life forms and so on into it. I haven’t done it in ages. I think it would appeal to Alma’s Life side. And perhaps Death as well. Balance.”

Dion peers into the orb as if he can see the finished result already. “You can fit an ecosystem in there? Interesting. I seem to remember a group of wizards who were very intent on that type of research but they only managed to use relatively simple life forms.” He straightens. “I think she would love it. You know, you said you were bad at choosing gifts.”

Sky laughs at Dion’s mock-scolding. “Maybe I’m having a good year.”

Ch6.36 Trust

“Welcome again to my meager abode, Sergeants.”

Pak is again seated, legs under him, on the woven-straw mat of the dojang, looking up at Alma and Gwydion with a solemn expression. His posture perfectly aligned, back very straight, deep lines on his face tracing flexible features that can go from ire to laughter in a moment, rather like a particularly sage monkey, the short, going-on-fat old man looks in everything like the perfect stereotype of an aging master of martial arts. Almost as if it is a carefully crafted façade.

Except for his awful grooming habits (or lack thereof) that always leave his long white hair looking rather unkempt, even oily near the roots, and his long beard full of pastry crumbs. Not conducive to veneration of the master at all. Still, his words are often spoken as if they were a weapon on their own and the last cordial sentence could just as well have been used as a bamboo sword to whack the two gods into sitting down and making it quick. Seems that the master is keen on starting tonight’s lesson.

“It is our honor to be here,” Dion replies, bowing respectfully and lowering himself to imitate Pak’s sitting position.

Alma, as usual, seems allergic to bowing. She nods her head with a pleasant smile at the master before sitting as well. “Good evening, Master Pak.”

Amazingly enough, Pak does not seem the least bit affected by her less-than-formal attitude. Instead, he nods his head back at her, unsmiling but not at all unpleasant.

Ah… It seems we have a case of differential treatment here, Dion thinks sourly. Wonder if it has anything to do with that box of Kyri’s pastries that Alma is carrying.

In fact, the master is looking at the string-wrapped box with the winged-pot logo of Kyri’s Copper Pot with ill-disguised anticipation.

“Would you like some tea?” Pak offers.

“That would be lovely,” Alma replies, already busy untying the string.

Dion bows his head, out of habit. “Thank you.”

He can barely suppress a chuckle. Bribery…must remember that for next time.

Pak looks above their heads, in the direction of the door, and nods at…someone? Dion turns his head to see who it might be but the door is closed by the time his eyes focus on it. A very meaningful noise of someone intent on clearing his throat of what sounds like soot and tinfoil forces Dion to turn his head back to Pak, straightening instinctively as if he had been scolded.

“It is a pleasure to see you today,” Pak speaks warmly to Alma while still managing an irritated glance at Dion. “I am sure Dion will be kept quite busy with today’s exercises, however.”

No joint lessons yet. Pity.

Not that Dion or Alma had been expecting one. The master has made clear before that this is Dion’s scheduled time slot under Pak’s exclusive attention. No distractions allowed. Still, a friendly confrontation on the straw mats could potentially become very…stimulating.

The engaging mental images sparked by these thoughts almost make him miss the rest of the conversation going on outside his dreamful mind. “Oh, I will not be staying long,” Alma announces. “My other duties await. But my children are planning a Year’s End picnic and so I am here to invite you and your ward to join us before we start tallying how much food and drink will be needed.”

Ward? Dion cannot keep his confusion from his face. What ward?

A very discreet sound behind them. A door has opened.

“We would be delighted to join!” Pak suddenly says, grinning like a trickster god at whoever is now standing behind the Dei. “Won’t we, Kumiko?”

Dion turns back to look at the young girl standing there, holding a tray with a small ceramic teapot and three cups handpainted with a motif of lotus flowers. She is reedy, just about as tall as Pak, long black hair tied back in a ponytail. Dressed in simple, silken, light-grey pants-and-shirt pajamas, she looks only vaguely familiar as she stands glaring daggers at Pak through her almond-shaped black eyes. Those black eyes… He would know those eyes anywhere.

He watches her move to Pak’s left side, closer to Alma. It is as if she were actively trying to avoid the god. Her eyes are no warmer when she glances at him than when she was staring at Pak.

“The kunoichi…” Dion can’t help but murmur, eliciting a questioning glance from Alma.

Tray already safely placed on the floor, the girl – Kumiko? Isn’t that what Pak has called her? Kumiko starts serving the tea with a now very blank expression. Sitting opposite the girl, Alma smiles a greeting at Kumiko and places the now-open box of pastries in the middle of the assembled group.

“You have found her,” Dion breathes, somewhere between a statement and a question.

Alma looks a question at him again before turning her confused gazed toward Pak.

“She found me,” Pak replies laconically, looking more interested in the peach-flavored pastries than in any of his guests. “And she is here, and can explain herself if she so desires.”

Kumiko narrows her eyes at this but finishes pouring the tea and serves both master and pupils with well-honed manners. Pak makes a point of ignoring her as he picks a pastry from the box and bites into it with clear delight. That beard will be fresh full of crumbs in just a few minutes, Dion can tell. Alma accepts the cup of tea with a progressively more worried expression. There is a tension in the air that makes the hairs on the back of Dion’s neck rise in anticipation of something unpleasant. The girl does not seem to be happy with him at all. And then again, she had tried to kill him on their first encounter. And then kissed him the next morning.

Oh well…opinions can change.

“I met this young lady at the Singing Cockroach on my first night in Three Rats,” Dion explains as Alma offers him the box of pastries so he can choose one. He glances at Pak before indicating the goddess with a subtle jerk of his head. “It was Sergeant Alma who recommended I go there.”

At this, Alma’s eyes dart up and to the right, her lips twitch ever so slightly into a mischievous smile. She lets her gaze fall on Kumiko and the young woman looks at her intently, almost appraisingly. Is that a wink that Alma dispenses her?

The goddess lowers the box and takes a pastry herself. “You found Master Pak there. I would say it was a good recommendation.” She pauses, looking straight into his eyes, pastry halfway to her lightly curved lips. “One you very much deserved.”

Dion snorts, holding her gaze. “The reward I get for being friendly.”

He bites through the heavenly mixture of fine, crackling dough and glazed peach. Through the corner of his eye, he can see Pak happily finishing his pastry, making a show of not looking interested in an exchange that is very clearly capturing his full attention. The only thing keeping Dion from bursting into laughter is the unhealthy amount of powdered sugar that Kyri tends to sprinkle her pastries with.

“As my father would say: one should never trust others to play one’s game by the same rules,” Alma states as if reciting from a book, clearly amused.

“Sound advice,” Pak intervenes, breaking the chain of lighthearted conversation that was threatening to make the gods forget about the other people in the room. “Ah, there are many things that Three Rats lacks, but Kyri’s pastries make up for a great deal.”

Pastry gone, Dion reaches for his cup while trying not to lose his staring match with Alma. As he brings the cup to his lips and takes a sip, he tastes…water? But he saw Kumiko pour tea for all of them. Huh.

“How odd…” he mutters, looking down at his cup.

“Everything all right?” Alma asks.

“I could swear my tea is suddenly lacking in, well, tea.” He tilts his cup so that Alma can see the clear liquid that should definitely not look as colorless as it does.

Pak looks half amused at this. “Interesting. Why, if someone had wanted to poison you, that would have been considerably easier than entirely replacing your tea with water.”

He glances meaningfully at Kumiko, who is preparing another pot of tea and doing her best to look like the most innocent person on the Insula. She is not exactly succeeding at it.

“This is why I always keep my magical defenses against poisons active,” Dion replies, grinning slightly at the trace of irritation that crosses Kumiko’s face.

“And who would want to poison Gwydion?” Alma asks, making a point of not looking at the girl.

Pak’s expression suddenly darkens. His words carry the edge of a blade with them. “Again, that is her story to tell, not mine.”

His tone sends ice down Dion’s spine. He thought he had been able to dispel tension with his lighthearted banter with Alma. But no. For a moment, he is barely aware of his own heartbeat. He sits, staring at his master, blood drained from his face. The previous moments of tension in the room were nothing compared to the leaden silence that now falls over the four people gathered here. His skin feels uncomfortably cold, riddled with goosebumps. He becomes painfully aware of how afraid he is of the next few minutes. A treacherous thought has him wondering if Pak manufactured this moment to force him to learn a bitter lesson on the consequences of his actions. It seems that beating some weeks ago wasn’t enough.

Alma looks at him with an unspoken What did you do? in her eyes. Dion cannot help but hate Pak for doing this in front of her.

From where she sits, Kumiko glares at him. There is an almost palpable sense that she is about to attack him with deadly force, so strongly does her posture convey a murderous thought. Dion cannot help but visualize a sudden strike.

He sighs. Best to accept some level of responsibility and get it done with. “I am sorry for my behavior that night, Miss Kumiko.”

He can see her legs tensing muscles wound like springs around a light frame. Still, all Kumiko does is glare at him before she speaks, her voice barely above a whisper. “My mind is my own.”

“It was a reflex, a moment’s choice,” Dion insists.

Why are you defending yourself when she’s clearly not sorry at all for trying to cut your head off? his inner voice counters bitterly.

“You used a mind-altering spell?” Alma’s voice cuts straight into his internal monologue, level and incredulous.

It is her choice in words that awakens him to the real matter being discussed. Kumiko’s apparent hatred is then based on his choice of spell to subdue her, to stop her from attacking him. He had interfered with his mind to confuse her into submission. And in doing that, he had – he had toyed with her emotions. Something he has made a point of never using love spells for. If he has been so successful in his past conquests, it is due to his own skill at seduction, not his magic abilities. Whatever his lady friends have felt for him, it is a product of their own eager and bored imagination.

Dion cannot help but feel ashamed as he nods in confirmation. “A love spell.”

“Oh Gwydion…” Alma’s murmured disappointment plunges into him like a knife, all the more painful for being so quiet.

Still, what he did was in self defense. How can that be so crudely dismissed? He raises his head to look at Kumiko with as much dignity as he can muster, keeping his tone sincere but firm. “I used that spell only as a defense. Nothing more was intended. Either way, I am sorry for any harm I may have caused and beg your forgiveness.”

Kumiko stares at him for some time, her expression and posture changing little. “You have lived longer than I ever will. And yet you try to justify using a spell to make a person fall in love with you. How can that seem justifiable to anyone?”

She closes her eyes and shakes her head in exasperation as if this is impossible to understand. Still, some of the tension in the room dissipates, much to Dion’s relief.

“One can be a fool at any age, Kumiko,” Pak tells her. Dion can barely hear him muttering to himself, “This I know well.”

“Some are fools at all ages,” Alma adds with a soft sigh.

She rises to her feet and Dion reflexively rises with her, unable to hide his concern at her reaction. Still, she smiles at him with what seems to him like a mixture of disappointment and tired resignation. “I should go. I will return at the end of my harvests.”

A glance down at her hand finds repressed anger in her clenched fingers. Dion moves instinctively to accompany her, wanting to explain himself or at least lessen some of the damage, but Pak speaks, freezing him in place.

“These two have much to teach each other,” the master says in a voice that allows no doubt. Dion is to stay and endure the rest of this ‘lesson’. “If they are both wise, your healing arts will not be in much demand on your return.”

Alma nods at Pak. “Hopefully, they can resolve their differences with minimal injury.” She smiles at Kumiko, pleasantly but without warmth. “It has been a pleasure. I hope to count on your presence for our Year’s End picnic.”

Kumiko looks at her, unsmiling, but not unfriendly. “It seems I am to attend.” She bows her head at Alma, keeping her eyes fixed on the goddess. “Thank you for inviting me.”

Alma nods in reply. “Your choices are your own. As is your heart.” She merely glances at Dion as she turns to leave. “I will see you later.”

He could swear he can see her exerting considerable effort to resist storming out of the room. As soon as the door slides quietly behind her, the god’s head whips to glare at Pak, accusatory and enraged. His muscles are taut, ready to strike. These strokes of sudden, boiling anger are rare to Dion, invested as he is in maintaining self-control at all times. But the calling of more primal forces, of less-civilized times in his youth can be hard to resist at times. It is all he can do to keep from letting the reddish-grey haze of full-blown rage from blinding him.

Pak seems unphased, almost amused by his reaction. “Well this may be one of the more interesting lessons I have given. Let us begin…”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

The walk from Master Pak’s dojang to the station is an uncomfortable one. The silence between them is like a wall which both fear ramming their heads against. Gwydion walks with his eyes fixed on the ground ahead of him. A slight tilt to his shoulders indicates discomfort, possibly from a particularly strong blow. His bruised and swollen right eye also makes for a sign of an intense practice session. Kumiko must have been intent on showing him what a magic-free combat against her would have been like. And, in spite of Alma’s best efforts, the god has so far refused to be healed. Could this be some sort of self-punishment for his actions?

Alma struggles to find words to start a conversation. The revelations of the previous hours were unpleasant but…they should not have been shocking, should they? After all, Gwydion is a known player of the seduction game, to no shame of his own. But, to use love spells… Love spells interfere with the mind, intoxicating the part of the brain that takes care of such pesky things as emotions so that, temporarily or permanently, the person affected comes to believe he, she or jy is, in fact, in love. Although not considered a crime, they should have long ago been forbidden. Taking someone affected by a love spell to one’s bed is no better than getting someone drunk before having sex with them. It is, for all purposes and intentions, rape. Unfortunately, love spells usually leave their victims confused about the whole affair, their effects commonly lingering for awhile after the spell is cancelled if there was even mild attraction to begin with, so the victims seldom complain, thinking themselves prey to bad judgement. Of course, people permanently affected by love spells don’t complain at all. So love spells are a sort of legal grey area, more limited by goodwill and common sense than by any sort of legal apparatus.

Hearing that Gwydion had no scruples in casting such a spell on a young, mortal girl was extremely disappointing. Mortals are so frail when it comes to magic! But he would not have needed to use a spell to seduce this girl, would he?

“I am sorry you had to see that,” he says, finally breaking the icy silence formed between them. He does not look at Alma as she walks by his side, his eyes kept low, expression guarded.

“Are you truly sorry for what you have done to that poor girl?” Alma asks, almost afraid of the answer.

Gwydion sighs, shaking his head. “I am. Even if she was trying to cut me into pieces at the time. You must understand, I used it as a defensive spell to stop her from wanting to attack me. I cancelled it as soon as it was safe to do so, just before I left the tavern.” He stops walking, looking tired as if the issue leaves him exhausted. “I had never been forced to deal with the aftermath of such spells.”

Alma looks at him in silence for a moment. He seems sincerely upset by all this, his shoulders hanging low, his hands hidden in his trouser pockets. His right eye nearly swollen shut, he keeps his left one focused on some point just at the tip of Alma’s boots.

The goddess exhales deeply and lays her hands on his upper arms. She was angry before, when she left Pak’s dojang to do her harvests. She was very, very angry. Disappointed. Her mind was racing to create all sorts of unpleasant scenarios. Even if Nekh is now gone from her thoughts, it is so easy to think the worst things about people… Especially when we don’t want them to disappoint us, when we fear they might hurt us. It is as if our minds suddenly decide to sabotage us.

But thinking those things without knowing the whole truth hurt her even more and so she has made a great effort to wait and get her thoughts to settle.

“What I don’t understand is, why love spells?” she asks, trying not to sound accusatory. “Of all people I have met, you are the last I would expect to need them.”

“Once, I thought I did,” Gwydion answers, slowly, subdued, eyes looking above her shoulder. “Then, I would not have been able to attract even a moose in heat.”

Alma’s hands stroke his arms as they move down to his wrists. “You? Can I even imagine smooth, charming Gwydion being unattractive?”

Gwydion snorts derisively at her attempt at comedy and finally looks at her. “Well, it was a long time ago. I was desperate.” His hands move to hold hers. “But I could never do it. My mentor…let us say he knew how to put things into perspective. I assure you, that I have never used love spells to bring anyone to my bed. I am not completely amoral.”

He releases her hands, his arms hesitantly encircle her. She holds him in return and his embrace tightens. She can feel his heart pounding in his chest. Whether embarrassed by the faults he is being forced to admit to, or afraid of what she might think, his body speaks of truth. And she is deeply relieved by it.

“I am glad,” she breathes, relaxing in his arms, feeling his heartbeat – not slower, for his heart always feels like a hare rushing through a field – but with less force. He is relaxing as well.

“I have never used them on you either,” he murmurs in her ear.

Alma cannot help but chuckle at that. It had never even crossed her mind. Gods are not as easy to manipulate and they remember magic cast upon them. “My dear, had you done so, Kumiko would have found nothing left to be angry at.” She calms down and pulls away from him to look into his eyes. “This has been unpleasant but necessary.”

He nods, cupping her cheek, stroking her neck, a small smile on his lips. “I must say I half expected you to be rather angrier at me for this one, though.”

“I was,” Alma concedes. “Angry and disappointed and afraid of finding some horrible fault in you. But…harvesting often helps bring things into perspective. It forces me to think of other things. Reminds me that we all have our sins.” She looks down, remembering the darkness in her own life. “I have done my fair share of awful things, after all.”

Gwydion says nothing but touches a finger to her chin, raising her head and her eyes to look at his. He smiles sweetly at her and she smiles back at his temporarily deformed face, wondering how she could ever have thought him so cruel or amoral to be a magically-assisted rapist. “Well, I do solemnly swear I have not cast a love spell since that night nor will I cast another in the future…” He grins. “Unless absolutely necessary.”

Alma slaps his chest in irritation. “Gwydion!”

“We can never know when it may become imperative to do so!” he argues with an edge of amusement to his voice.

Alma shakes her head and starts walking again, muttering, “You are incorrigible! What will I ever do with you?”

“You have to admit, it does make for a powerful defensive weapon,” he insists, catching up to her. “An attacker is much less likely to keep attacking if they suddenly start to like you. The shortest moment of confusion can be enough to save your life.”

“True…” Alma concedes. She has to admit that except for a few exceptions, Gwydion’s tactics do seem promising. If only the aftermath wasn’t so ugly. “Is that why you never stopped using love spells?”

“Pretty much, yes,” Gwydion admits with a nod. “They are a little unorthodox but they get the job done. They work on males, females, states in between. Even on animals and on other less…rational opponents.”

“It seems like a strange weapon to keep in your arsenal,” Alma notes.

“For a long time, I forgot it was there,” Gwydion explains. “And then one day, in the middle of a skirmish, completely lost for ideas, the spell just…pops to mind. I didn’t even realize what I had done until it was all over. And then I thought ‘Hmm, this works wonders!’”

The story, along with the god’s funny facial expressions, made all the more hilarious by his wound, has Alma laughing. “Very well. I guess I’ll have to agree with you.” She resumes more serious tones.“But…please try to refrain from casting such spells? You have seen what it does to people.”

Dion nods. “I promise. Does this mean I am forgiven?” he asks in hopeful tones.

“It is not I who must forgive you, my dear,” Alma replies in more serious tones, slipping her hand into his. “But I am not upset with you. Shall I he–”

Her words are suddenly cut by a gasp as he pulls her by the hand into the shadowy recess of a doorway, a long, secluded outside vestibule of an abandoned building. The station is just around the corner. He pulls her into the shadows until his back is against the wall, his hands on her waist. Thankfully, no one else has had the same brilliant idea as he tonight. Alma’s eyes, adapted to darkness, take a moment to adjust before focusing on his grinning, welcoming face.

“Sorry. You were saying?” he inquires.

“I was going to ask if I you will let me heal you now and spare you some uncomfortable questioning by the Popula,” Alma says, feigning annoyance.

“Ah, true. Soon my shift will begin and you will be taking some much-needed rest,” he starts in a soft, whispered voice, gently pulling her closer to him. “Maybe we can negotiate something that will make me worthy of your care and leave us both going about our lives with a smile?”

She grins back, entering the game. Her arms drape over his shoulders, her fingers playfully stroke his scalp. “A bargain, then? And what are you trying to tempt me with?”

The tip of his nose rubs against the side of hers, his words are breathed against her lips. “What would you like?”

Alma’s thought processes freeze at his kiss. “Hmm–”

She does her best to prolong it, releasing her power into him to restore his bruised body, feeling him respond to the thrill and intoxication of healing that is sure to leave an almost addictive aftertaste in his mouth. She opens her eyes at the end of it and smiles to see him fully restored. What was the question again? Oh, yes…a trade.

“How about…” Another kiss, deeper than the first, almost begging for more of her magic but not wavering when she refuses to dispense it.

 

He is too close, too distracting to her senses. Gods, let me think! Too much…of you…and your–

“Your scent,” she finds herself saying.

Gwydion looks as surprised as she is at her own words. Thankfully, considerably less used to seeing in the dark, he cannot see her all that well. “My cologne? It would smell wonderfully on you but…” His lips course to the curve of her neck. The pleasure of the healing must have sparked other ideas. “There is the matter of application.”

Alma shakes her head minutely. Her brain is just starting to make sense again, although severely hindered at the moment. The strangely enticing scent that is part of Gwydion’s charming arsenal, the one that only a few months ago she found so cloying for its exaggeration, is due to his cologne and he always seems to be wearing it. And even if it has become alluring for being so very tangled in her mind with the memory of him, the emotions he sparks in her, how much sweeter would it be if he would just be his true self around her? “I mean your real scent. The one underneath all those exotic oils.”

“My dear, you make some of the strangest requests I have ever heard,” Gwydion says with a slightly nervous chuckle, straightening to look at whatever it is he can see of her face.

“Will you humor me?” she asks sweetly.

I want to know the you that hides under all those ruses. Isn’t that what she has been trying to do, little by little?

Gwydion looks at her in appraising silence for a moment, then shrugs. “If that is all it takes to please you, how could I refuse?”

A whispered word and Alma’s nostrils become acutely aware of a sudden change, an absence of scent. At first, it is as if all scents have disappeared but slowly she realizes that the more mundane scents of stale urine and rotting trash are still very much part of this doorway’s bouquet. The cologne is so engaging, imposing even, that its absence comes almost as a shock to the senses. And this means that Gwydion’s natural scent is much more subtle, closer to the skin.

She leans to sniff his neck, pleasantly surprised to see he has also cancelled the lemony smell of the soap with which Pak’s students shower after practice, at the master’s training hall. Her nose breathes in a spicy, warm, primal scent, only very slightly musky, pleasant and subdued. Much better than its artificial camouflage. She touches her lips to his skin, as much in sampling as in revenge for his taunting, tongue tasting this unadulterated delicacy as air travels to spark receptors on the roof of her mouth. A memory of dark forests and old books comes to mind.

“Hmm…” the goddess murmurs in pleasure, savoring the merry chorus of her senses against the quiet background of Nekh’s still too-striking absence.

“Does this mean you like it?” Gwydion asks with a strange edge in his voice.

She nods. “If only I could bottle it up.”

Gwydion chuckles. “You are strange!”

Suddenly, she feels him relax. Only now does Alma become aware of how tense he was against her, his arms still around her but barely moving with her as she took her whiff of his scent. Was he afraid she might not like it? No…that would have been too adorable to bear.

“For liking you better without cologne?” she replies, poking a finger at his chest. “Are you strange for liking me better without clothes?”

“Oh, straight through the heart!” Gwydion exclaims with a chuckle before his arms snuggle comfortably around her. “I surrender.”

One last kiss and Alma slowly pulls away from the embrace. “I wish you a light, peaceful shift.”

“If it is light enough, maybe I could join you in bed?” Gwydion suggests with a mischievous grin that has Alma chuckling.

“Don’t push your luck,” she jests, taking a step back. “Good night.”

He sighs. “Good night.”

Ch6.35 Trust

Sky looks up from reading reports and other paperwork, catching up on a week’s worth in one double shift, to see the sunlight brightening through the window. Dawn. In two hours or so, Alma will be returning from her harvesting and Dion will probably be meeting her for breakfast, before the charming god of magic turns responsibility for the station over to the lovely goddess of death. Sky has worked almost through Dion’s graveyard shift, but he’s kept quietly to himself in his office, not wanting to bring down the ire of his sergeants who, protectively, don’t wish him falling back into old bad habits of skipping sleep. And they are right.

So he stands and stretches, but quietly. He is not, after all, alone. On his sofa, Mayumi is wrapped in a blanket, her eyes closed, breathing slowly. He pauses to look at her face, which in repose looks so at peace it brings a small smile to his face.

After the little welcome-home party, Mayumi had gone back to work while Alma and Dion had brought Sky completely up to speed. It wasn’t until later, after Sky met with Sergeant Machado and Corporals Lamore and Kaur for additional catching up and discussion of directions for the Popula, that Sky had settled into his office to go over reports.

Mayumi had brought those to him. And he had taken a break, and they had talked. She had told him, with sorrow-tinged excitement, that she had received word back from the Guardia Academy. She had been accepted. Sky had been silent at first, but simply embraced her and held her for a long while before he congratulated her, serious but heartfelt. As fast and efficient as the Academy’s training was, they both knew it meant a separation of six months. Six long Insula months, meaning six thirty-six-day months, six tenths of a year.

Sky is far more worried about Mayumi being apart from her family than about himself. Loneliness is something to which he long ago grew accustomed. In fact, he fears this love he feels for her more than the separation. He almost hopes she will find someone else at the Academy, someone more suitable than he. Liaisons between mortals and gods inevitably feature an imbalance, and by his nature, and hers as well, such an imbalance cannot be tolerated. It must be constantly corrected for, and this resistance makes such a relationship a source of great stress.

And he is not exactly a god. Or perhaps he is, in a way – he has been worshipped as one, and is able to function as one. But his origins…he feels wrong to become so close to her without sharing the truth of what he is.

She would be better off with another mortal. But she made clear, again, that she wants him. And he had given up resisting his own desire to be close to her following the murder of Stathos and his family. Life is for living. No matter how difficult that is sometimes. He will, he knows, have to tell her. Somehow.

And so after words and kisses, Mayumi asked if she could sleep in his office, and he agreed. She made sure he knew she wanted more, without pushing. She has accepted his explanation that, though affairs between subordinates are not explicitly prohibited – the privileges accorded to gods are naturally only barely restrained – that he wanted to wait until she graduates from the Academy and the matter of which station she will join is settled. If she returns to Three Rats, as is her preference, well, they will have to work things out somehow. Having her be an actual cop under his command will be even more awkward than the current situation. And if she’s sent elsewhere…the very thought makes his heart sink. Hopefully she will be nearby and he will be able to provide a portal she can use to reach the station here quickly and easily, living here and commuting to work each day. The very idea of the Bunnies’ family being broken up so soon after finding each other is enough to cost him sleep. But if she is assigned to one of the neighboring wards, such as Little Falls, that should not be too much trouble.

Speaking of which, he does not wish to wake her. But he needs to refill his kettle if he wants tea. He takes it and, conscious of Mayumi’s sensitive ears, slips out of his office.

The main office is early-morning quiet. Corporal Lamore is behind her desk. She looks up and gives him a nod and a smile, but returns to her work immediately. As he moves toward the canteen, Sky hears voices from the stairs that lead to the holding cells, and notes that the yellow rope has been unhooked and laid on the floor. The words are confusing at first, and then he realizes he is hearing Zwergen-ur, the language of the dwarves. He is not fluent, and it has been years since he had to learn it for a counter-assassination mission with Somrak, but knowledge of the language comes flooding back to him.

He sets the kettle on the counter in the small canteen, with its sink and small cooking range and single table jammed in the corner. Hmm, someone hasn’t been washing their coffee cup… He turns and follows the voices downstairs. It sounds like an argument about whether to wait or just go in and explore a little. Telling male and female voices apart is difficult with the Zwergen, but Sky is almost certain the one who wants to go into the hole is male.

Entering the room, the conversation abruptly halts, the two dwarves looking at him expectantly. Both have such advanced states of calcification that they find certain articles of clothing unnecessary, the female going topless, the male bottomless. Sky briefly wonders, as he has before, how reproduction and elimination of waste are managed in the male’s case, but he knows better than to ask. Tempted to greet them in their own language, the caution he has developed over two centuries of hiding his true nature and four decades of being one of the Commander’s ‘off-blues’ makes him reticent to reveal such an unusual skill. Questions about how a non-dwarf happened to learn Zwergen-ur would surely follow.

So instead he greets them in Urbia, extending his hand. “Mister Dwalkee, is it? I am Tuma-Sukai, Inspector of this station. I understand we have an unexpected development down here.” He looks at the large irregular hole in the floor, thinking grimly to himself, I’m going to have to squeeze through that, aren’t I? It looks just big enough.

The dwarf’s hand is like flexible stone, with a powerful grip to match. “Lad, if that’s what you wanna call it… If it’s up to me, we call it a hole and that’s settled.”

Sky shakes hands with the female dwarf as well, who gives her name as Metla Dwalkee. To them both, Sky asks, “Have you had a look inside yet?”

“Ya know, we tried?” the male says, annoyed. “Got the stuff ready, ‘bout to jump in and…zip! Other lass with the white hair said we better wait on you. I told her before you needed a sub-basement in here! Where’s the other lass, by the way?” He leans toward Sky and stage-mutters, “She’s nice in more ways than one, if you know what I mean.”

Mrs Dwalkee rolls her eyes. “Bruhn Dwalkee, you better not be bein’ permiscuous in front of me!”

In his normal volume, which is rather loud indeed, Mr Dwalkee replies, “No, shnookems! You know I always go ‘round your back when I can! ‘Cuz I’m sensitive like that.” Again he leans close to mutter to Sky loudly enough he could probably be heard upstairs, “She’s usin’ all them random long words she knows I can’t speak now but just you wait ‘till we get home and I get my hands on a dictionary. She’s gonna be cookin’ soup for a week!”

“I HEARD THAT!”

“No, Honeypie! I was just talkin’ to the Inspector ‘bout them new illustrated encyclopedias that just came out.” He mutters to Sky, “Eesh! Of all things to take outta her pappy, had to be them ears.” And resuming his louder voice, he says, “Aaanyway, wanna have a look in your hole?”

My hole. “Yes, let’s.” Sky is beginning to remember how noisy his and Somrak’s mission in the mines of the Zwergen was, and Mr Dwalkee seems to consider himself a comic who has found himself a straight man. “Is this room structurally sound?”

Dwalkee nods. “Provided you don’t expect the ceiling to stay where it is. Should be. Hey, can’t go any lower than that!” He jabs Sky in the hip with his elbow. “Ah, just kiddin’! I’m sure we can go in with a minimum of cave-ins. Here’s your hard hat.” He hands Sky a yellow helmet made of thick plastic, which Sky dons. “Here’s your light.” He gives Sky a lantern powered by compressed gas. “And here’s your rat on a stick to keep your teeth busy.” He hands Sky a grilled rat impaled on a stick.

Sky looks at the rat with a mildly nostalgic look on his face. Skinned, gutted, and grilled, but with the feet and head still on, and the tail traditionally wrapped around the skewer. He ate many a rat in his time with the Zwergen. “Looks delicious, and seeing as I haven’t had breakfast yet…” He takes a bite from its haunch. Ah yes, a proper Zwergen rat, bred for flavor. Delicious. “Speaking of which,” he says after swallowing, “why are you here so early?”

Mrs Dwalkee answers that. “Dwalkee is itchin’ to get in there. Came down here at sunrise.”

Dwalkee looks impressed that Sky took a bite, but says, “Hey, ain’t you gonna have that with ketchup?” He takes another out of a steel lunchbox that looks like it could survive a dinosaur stampede, squirts some red sauce from a small bottle, and offers the bottle to Sky while taking a bite. “Letsh hhwo, then?”

Sky indicates the hole before taking another bite and swallowing. “Lead the way, Mister Dwalkee.”

Using a harness and a pulley attached to the ceiling, Mrs Dwalkee lowers her husband into the hole. Moments later the empty harness is pulled back up and Sky is lowered as well. Mrs Dwalkee grunts with the effort of lowering Sky’s bulk, but dwarves regardless of gender are strong, and she is no exception.

He lands without incident on the floor of the room, strewn with rubble from the broken-through floor above. The ceiling is tall here, half again as tall as Sky, which is a relief for a god who has spent so much of his life ducking, or failing to duck and cracking his skull on doorways and rafters. He shines his lantern around, noting racks and shelves, barrels, an upright piano, and many, many bottles, all covered in a layer of dust as thick as the first joint of his index finger.

Their presence is kicking so much dust into the air that both spelunkers sneeze. Motes of dust dance fairy-like in their lantern beams.

“A wine cellar,” Sky says. “I wonder how long it’s been sealed away.”

Dwalkee picks up a bottle at random from a rack, wiping a blanket of dust off it. He twists the cork, pops it up, and takes a deep sniff, then opens his mouth wide. “Ah…Ah…ACHOO! Ugh, dust… Well this ain’t wine, lad. It’s whisky!” He holds the label in front of his lamp. “Balrog distilleries?! These bastards ain’t been around for over a hundred years!” He takes a swig. “Ah… The old stuff always holds better!”

The light from the room above is nearly eclipsed by a head and shoulders looking in. “BRUHN DWALKEE YOU BETTER NOT BE DRINKIN’!”

Crash! The bottle smashes to the floor, exploding, sending shards of glass and a bottle full of precious amber liquid across the floor and over both Dwalkee and Sky’s boots. “Gods damn it! Look what you made me do, you cross-eyed hag!” He murmurs loudly to Sky. “Can you turn her into a frog?” Even more loudly, he finishes, “At least she’d look right for her species!”

Sky kicks the broken bottom of the bottle off his boot, dismayed at the loss. The smell of whisky, a smell he quite enjoys but usually in less dizzying volumes, reaches his nose. “I can’t transform people into animals. I can attempt to damn something for you, but the effects are pretty subtle.” He squats down and picks up a large piece of glass that has the label on it, finding the date in fine print. “Over a hundred years?” Three Rats only became part of the Insula a bit over a hundred years ago. Or perhaps two hundred. There is disagreement. The confusion resulting from the parts of two cities breaking away from another Reality, fusing, and then crashing into the Insula – a strange process that is going on slowly but constantly – has left the exact time of Three Rats’ arrival in question. Whenever it happened, the locals must have very quickly started importing alcohol from other wards. And perhaps they even have bottles from their world or worlds of origin. Whether they came from the same Earth that he lived on has been a long-unanswered question.

“You know what you need here?” Dwalkee asks. “A bar! Got the booze, the tables, the piano, the rats. Add a few half-dressed barmaids, a fat barman, drench the floor in beer and let the red sauce run free and BAM! Old time tavern! Don’t say Dwalkee don’t help his clients.”

Sky drops the label, the glass backing it making a tink sound on the floor. “We have a bar on the property already, as a matter of fact.”

“You do?” Dwalkee shakes his head. “Then why the Hell didn’t you blow things up over there instead?”

“Mr Dwalkee, we did not blow up our own holding cells. That was an attack.” Sky goes to the piano and lifts the fall board to reveal the keys, which are almost dust-free. He presses a key and hears a deep, badly out-of-tune note. “Amazing.”

Above, the light is once again blocked. But a very different voice pierces the gloom, not quite as loud and far cheerier. “Mmmm, smell that whisky!”

Sky looks up. “Merri?”

Another voice, just as cheerful but with a slightly more cynical tone, adds, “I knew I heard a bottle shatter. Heard enough of ‘em. Can tell a dropped bottle from a mile away.”

At the same time that Mrs Dwalkee starts scolding the two Bunnies, Mr Dwalkee shouts, “Son of a bitch, I almost dropped another one! You gotta warn people before you scare the daylights outta them, lassies!”

Sky’s voice, backed with a hint of mana, rings out through the aural chaos. “Quiet!” In the absolute silence that follows, he calls out in a more normal voice, “Merri! Cherry! What are you doing here?”

The response to that is a slim body dropping down from above. Cherry lands easily next to Sky, her powerfully springy Bunny legs – looking quite human to anyone but a trained anatomist, other than the soft fur on her shins and the somewhat longer feet – easily absorbing the energy of the fall. She looks up and says, “Careful, baby! There’s some glass and rocks and stuff down here!” In a moment, Merri is next to her, straightening and looking around curiously. Cherry says to Sky, as if nothing is out of the ordinary, “Like I said, dropped bottle. Followed the sound.”

“An’ the smell hit us as we was comin’ down the stairs!” Merri finishes. “Oh goodness me! Look at all this!”

Mrs Dwalkee’s less-dulcet voice calls down from above, “Don’t you think you’ll be going down there without a hard hat, missies!” She extends an arm holding two helmets by the chin straps, and Sky, as by far the tallest in the room, stretches up and takes them from her.

“Oh gosh, sorry ma’am.” Cherry takes the hardhats from Sky. “Here, Merri, put one o’ these on.” She lays her ears back and crushes down her afro with the hat.

Merri laughs at her, but takes a hat herself. “How cute! GASP! A PIANO!”

Dwalkee looks at Sky. “Help clear somethin’ up for me here. Am I seein’ two young lasses with bunny ears? And did one o’ them actually say ‘GASP’ when she gasped? Balrog’s was famous for inducin’ hallucination.” He looks at the bottle, shrugs, then starts to open it.

“Hey!” Cherry cries. “Ain’t you on the clock? You already dropped one bottle! And how much is this stuff worth anyhow? You put that back where you found it, mister!”

Sky sighs. “Mr Dwalkee, these are Rosemary and Cherry. They are the proprietors and bartenders of the bar I mentioned. And–” He gives them a stern look. “–they are not supposed to be here. This could be dangerous.”

Cherry grins at him. “Dangerous? It’s a liquor cellar. We’re in our natural environment! This is like…our paradise!”

Merri’s voice drifts from behind a rack near the wall. “Oh aye! An’ look, Cherry! These are imports from all over the Insula. An’ beyond, I ken. We got wines, whiskies, bourbons, gins, cognacs, ports, sherries…”

“Sounds good, sweetie,” Cherry says, then turns back to Mr Dwalkee. Only instead of the stone-skinned, wisecracking dwarf, there is a hideous face, a crimson, twisted visage with tusks and a porcine snout, tufts of hair surrounding it. “UGA BUGA BUGA!” it shouts.

Cherry screams and, springing into the air, grabs onto Sky, her arms around his neck, one pretty brown leg hooked around his back, the other folded against her chest. The god had turned to see the horrific face at the same time as Cherry. He automatically puts an arm around her, and though he feels a momentary chill pass through him at the sight of such a hellspawn, he subconsciously knows it is no demon. If it had been, he would have sensed it much earlier.

Then the demon starts laughing. “Sorry, couldn’t help it! Ah, look on your face! Can’t breathe!” He slaps his knees, then looks up at Cherry with the mask still on. “Oh, don’t look at me with that tone o’ voice! Think this is scary, should have seen my mammy. Used to kill rats just by lookin’ at’em. Ah… good ol’ days…”

Cherry slowly climbs down from Sky and shakes her finger at Dwalkee. “You think you’re havin’ trouble breathin’ now, just wait’ll I get my hands around your neck! Now get that stupid mask off before you run outta air from laughin’!”

Merri calls out, “Cherry! This place is full o’ stage goods! Costumes an’ props! Oh, some of it’s fallin’ apart though…but some of it’s good! We could knock up a wee stage outta lumber an’ add it to the bar, don’t you think?” She emerges from behind the racks, dusty but smiling.

“A stage? Well, we were thinkin’ of havin’ musicians in… And this ward don’t have any decent theater. Pretty much just that place over in Jardins, and they hardly even try. Mostly just naked women dancin’ like they’re bored.”

“Oh, Cherry love, we’re gaenta put on plays!”

Sky puts his hands on both their shoulders. “That all sounds wonderful, but we really should get you two out of here.”

“But! But we gotta check out all this booze!” Cherry insists.

Merri nods her head rapidly, making her ginger curls bounce. “Oh yes! Can ye imagine how valuable it is?”

“Mr Dwalkee?” Sky asks.

The dwarf waves his hand casually. “Sure, we can take it all out while we make sure this place is safe. Need a staircase? We’ll throw in a staircase. Real beauty. Hardly been used.” He calls up through the hole, “Rest of the crew here? Hey, Jojy! Go get the spare staircase from the wagon!” He drops his voice to only its usual loudness. “Only one guy died on it and didn’t even leave any blood! Maybe that’s worth a coupl’a bottles? Don’t wanna add to your expense budget, an’all.”

Sky considers the possibilities. “The Guardia does own this land. I think these belong to it.”

Cherry pats his arm. “Listen, hon, let us figure out how much this stuff is worth first. Then we can figure out how much Mister Booga Booga Rockypants gets, huh?”

“An’ if we sell it in the bar,” Merri suggests, “little by little, we can be sellin’ it on commission like! Part o’ the money goes to the operatin’ expenses o’ the station!”

Sky shakes his head. “I’d better consult Sage and Cala on this. Anyway, for the moment, you two get out of here until we’re sure it’s safe.”

“Oh, all right.” Cherry looks up at the hole, then giggles when Sky puts his big hands on her waist, easily lifting her up until she can grip the edge of the hole and pull herself up.

“Oh! Me next! Me next!” Merri cries, bouncing in excitement. Sky lifts her up as well, and Cherry helps pull her up.

“Now that might come in handy,” Dwalkee says. “You wanna work for me, lad? You’d make a damn ugly dwarf but you’re a good ladder. Just uh… keep the helmet on, mind ya.”

Sky grabs a single bottle in order to investigate the age of the whisky further – which will naturally involve tasting it – then puts on the harness and is pulled up slowly by the dwarves. Dwalkee is soon back in the holding cells room as well. He sees two dwarves bringing in a disassembled set of wooden stairs. “What’re you bringin’ the staircase for? Take that back to the car! Didn’t you hear the man?” To Sky he says, “Sorry, ‘bout that. Hard to find good scholars to work construction nowadays.”