The air has a different quality here. Instead of whiffs of rotting garbage and urine-filled gutters as in Three Rats, the breeze carries a heavy scent of flowers that leaves Mayumi almost dizzy. And the people: most of them slender and pale, dark-haired, eyes with epicanthic folds. They look like me! Well, except for the ears. For a moment, she thinks she is in the place she grew up, in her dream-life. The flowers everywhere – but no, they are not sakura. Though many are pale pink, they are flowering from vines that cover nearly every surface.
Still holding her hand, Sky leads her away from the portal – just in time, as someone appears behind them. She looks back and sees an androgynous figure of unearthly beauty, crimson-skinned, a halo of light outlining – his? her? – curly-haired head, two hands folded in prayer, two others holding shopping bags. The god glances at Mayumi and smiles beatifically, reaches a hand toward her, and strokes one of her ears with two fingers. She feels the power of a blessing fill her.
Sky tenses and shifts, pulling Mayumi behind him as he simultaneously steps in front of her. The crimson god flinches back as a sound of a roaring ocean fills the air, and the feeling of a storm about to break prickles her skin. The crimson god looks surprised, and Sky relaxes slightly, and bows formally. The god also bows and smiles again, then walks off into the crowd, serene. Sky watches the deity go.
“What was that about?” asks Mayumi. She squeezes his hand to remind him that he’s still gripping hers, a bit too tightly in fact.
He releases her. “What you said about Alma before. I…guess I’m rather protective, too.”
She looks at him curiously, as the stormy aura around him fades away and he looks once again like a mere mortal. “Are you all right?” she asks after a moment.
With a small smile, he says, “I’m fine. But how do you feel?” He starts walking into the crowd, signaling for her to follow, glancing back to make sure she’s keeping up.
“I feel fine!” she calls to him over the rising noise of the people. They’re speaking Urbia peppered with words she doesn’t recognize. “Where are we?”
“This is Geumjeong Ward, Third Ring. Like Three Rats, it broke free from another world, maybe even the same world as Three Rats, but it’s been part of the Insula much longer. And it’s in a higher-mana area. Magic works more freely and easily here. Almost everyone can do minor spells as a matter of course.”
As he is saying this, Mayumi gasps to see two small children laughing as a taller child, perhaps a sibling to them, gestures over a handful of matchsticks and makes them assemble into two stick figures that begin to fight in unarmed combat.
She has to tear herself away from watching it in delight, but fortunately Sky is so tall that he cannot be missed among these people, who are on average a bit shorter than most residents of Three Rats – though still taller than she. Dodging between people, she quickly catches up to him, impulsively sidling up next to him so that on his next glance back, he doesn’t see her. Before he can stop and start searching for her, she takes his hand again, causing him to look down at her. He smiles and she smiles back, and she feels that familiar feeling from him – that warmth, that feeling she is becoming sure is a mutual attraction. She feels her heart speed up.
“I almost lost you in the crowd,” she lies, and squeezes his hand. “So why are we here?”
He holds her hand comfortably and gestures at the flowers and the crowd with his free hand. “The Mugungwha Festival. When these flowers blossom, the whole place turns out every year. And gods and mortals visit from all over the Urbis. Would you like something to eat?”
The aroma of grilling meat and vegetables comes from the food stalls they are passing. It evokes memories of her dream life, similar smells, yet very different. Stronger, more garlic and other ingredients. She chooses roasted corn on the cob, dripping with butter, and gasps when she sees one stall selling bowls of red pickled cabbage. “Kimuchi! I haven’t had it in so long! I love it!” Sky buys one bowl to share, and two bottles of tea.
They mount some steps and find themselves next to a wall overlooking a dropoff down the holy mountain on which the enormous Urbis Caelestis is built. The view is incredible: clouds drift by above and below, small rivers flow down and spill over as waterfalls, and variegated swaths of forest, field, and city wind their way down as well. Sky sits on the wall and helps her hop up to sit beside him. Not that she needs any help, but she enjoys feeling his big hands on her waist. Still, she resists the urge to lean against him as she uses a pair of disposable chopsticks to dig into the kimchee, as the locals call it.
Sky chuckles as her face turns red, but she chokes it down. “It’s…a lot spicier than I remember!” She forces herself not to gulp her tea, drinking slowly. Then she has more kimchee, eating more cautiously.
Looking back at Geumjeong Ward, she sees floating balls drifting along, and wonders if they are normal balloons or some kind of magic. She hears music coming from a nearby stage. She catches a glimpse of a food-stall owner starting a fire in his grill with a gesture, and a street performer juggling balls of water that spring to life and swim off through the crowd in the shape of fish, prompting laughter and applause.
“Everyone looks so healthy and happy here,” she says, and a sadness fills her, thinking of Three Rats.
“It’s a prosperous place.” Sky agrees. “The crime rate is very low. No one here goes hungry, or uneducated, or homeless. These people have a strong sense of the need to work together, provide for each other. A person without a home would be front-page news and cause for soul searching and demands for explanation from the ward mayor.”
“Could Three Rats ever be like this?”
Sky shakes his head. “I don’t know. This place would seem like a utopia to the people of Three Rats. But there’s no real reason it couldn’t be done. We just have to change people’s minds about what is possible. And defeat those elements that profit from misery.”
“Both of those are much easier said than done,” Mayumi points out.
“Anything that’s worth doing is easier said than done,” Sky counters. “Now tell me again, how do you feel?”
She looks at him, to find him staring at her curiously. “Why do you keep asking that?”
“I’ll tell you later. For now…humor me?”
She realizes he’s quite serious. She looks down, and mentally examines her physical state, and begins to narrate it to him. “I feel much as usual. No fever, no tiredness. My heartrate is a bit fast, from excitement I suppose. I’m a bit overwhelmed with all the beauty around me, the sights and smells and sounds. The air here feels…charged? Is that the magic? I feel…happy. Quite happy. But also…well, that’s not important.” She shakes her head, her ears flapping against one another.
“What is it?” he prompts.
She looks at him in silence, then says, “Remember what I told you, that night you gave me the ball of mana for Alma, in case of emergency?”
“About your father?”
She nods. “That neighborhood I lived in was not so very different from this. The people and the architecture, and the way they celebrate festivals here, remind me of it strongly.” She reaches out and takes his hand again. “Sky…I’m going to find it. I know it exists in this world. I…I met my father again, in a dream.”
He looks shocked. “When?”
“A couple of weeks ago,” she says. “I don’t remember all the details, but I was there, in the same dream-place, and my father – Sky, he’s not just some dream character my head makes up! He’s alive, in this world, and he misses me! And since then, I’ve dreamt of him again. I have to find him!”
He puts his free hand over hers, his face solemn. “All right. We will. I promise. But Mayumi…be patient. Now is a very bad time for that.”
“Trust me. I’ll explain. But not here.” He slips off the low wall and stands before her. Though she doesn’t need his help at all, again she lets him lift her, but before he can set her down she strokes his cheek, in a manner she only realizes later is just like Alma’s. He pauses, holding her by the waist, as she looks into his eyes and says, “Soon?”
He nods, his eyes seeming almost afraid of her. “Soon. We’ll find him. Now come – we have other places to go.”