Alma sits on a short stone bench carved out of marble to look like a reclining, winged lion. Covering her shapely legs, the long folds of her white dress spill from the Guardia-blue satin belt that hugs and accentuates the goddess’ slender waist, the dress rising in a wide, blue wave across her chest to merge with the snowy drapes that cover her round, firm breasts, and end in a braided tail that coils over and around Alma’s right shoulder.
Behind and below her, an inner courtyard featuring an imposing stone fountain in which water nymphs gather to frolic and spread blessings among the servants that walk by busy in their daily affairs, offers coolness against the growing heat of the day’s sun. Barely any servants or guests spend time on the veranda, though, and this is why Alma has chosen it to gather her thoughts. Idly twining her pale locks in a long, loose braid that falls down her left shoulder in a cascade of white, she lets her mind wander.
A few days have gone by since the whole incident with Nekh. The Bunnies have since been ordered back to Three Rats and no word has spread about a possible elimination of their kind. On the other hand, hardly any words at all have reached Alma’s ears. Comfortable and grand as it is, Math’s estate has become as barren as solitary confinement when it comes to news from the outside world. Not two days after Nekh’s demise, the Commander himself stopped by to make the first enquiries about the events of that fateful day. Math was present for the interrogation.
Until that first interview, Alma was allowed no contact with Gwydion. Even Cherry and Rosemary’s request to visit Geryon in the infirmary before their return to the Fourth Ring had come through a messenger. Not that the goddess has been in any mood or condition to speak to anyone. The effort of releasing Nekh’s soul still burdens her reserves, draining her constantly, both physically and emotionally. Even now, her memories and emotions seem to her fragmented, barely held together by a single thread of rational thought.
Did it happen ten days ago? Or is it happening now? How long ago was that first debrief? For how many days since then has Gwydion been avoiding her, not daring to be in the same room or share with Alma anything more than a fleeting look?
Past and present mix in a hazy portrait of the world around her. She looks at one of the doors that lead into the manor and the dark, wooden door seems to open for her.
Suddenly, she sees herself running through the hallways of her childhood home, her steps echoing against the obsidian-black floors, the skirt of her black dress unfolding as she releases its hem, tucked into her silvery belt in an effort to not fall as frequently during her fencing lessons. Her father has sent for her with urgency and without warning, interrupting her daily routine for some unknown reason.
Now Alma struggles to make herself look presentable as she rushes to his presence, the poor servant that served as messenger struggling to follow and catch Alma’s sword, gloves and plastron as she discards them in her hurry.
She stops before the door to her father’s study, breathes deeply and smoothes the wrinkles in her dress one last time. The door opens to let her through.
Inside, Death awaits, dressed in his beautifully cut suit, his black hair falling loose over his shoulders.
“Ah, there you are!” he nearly hisses in irritation. “I was beginning to wonder where you were hiding.”
Alma breathes deeply again, looking to level her response as much as her breathing. She reaches for the silvery hairpin decorated with a rose-and-leaf motif that holds her hair up and pulls at it as she asks, as impassively as she can, “You called, Father?”
Death grins and somehow his gentle, attractive features seem distorted and repulsive for it.
“Apparently, I have,” he replies in a much more pleasant tone.
“Archon Arion,” Death says, still looking at Alma. “Meet my one and only daughter, Alma.”
He turns to his left and, for the first time, Alma notices that they are not alone in the room. By the window, a god fixes his gaze on Alma and smiles cordially at her. In his black trousers and well-trimmed black shirt, collar unbuttoned around his powerful neck, he looks handsome and statuesque, the strongly tanned tones of his smooth face framing his large, slanted eyes. Surrounded by the thin white rim of the scleras, black irises serve as background to steel-blue veins, drawn like rivers that pulse and merge before they dip into black pupils. His long hair, with its pitch-black inner layers surmounted by the pure white locks that drape over them, hangs plaited over a shoulder.
“Lyria’s child,” he says and his voice seems to reach Alma’s mind without going through her ears.
His eyes seem to flash for a moment as they look at her and she becomes intensely aware of the way her hair falls slowly down her shoulders, unravelled by its release from the hold of the hairpin that she has just removed. Time seems to freeze for a moment, before she manages to remember herself.
“My Lord Archon,” she greets, managing a curtsy graceful enough not to be embarrassing.
He smiles warmly at Alma, adding, unconsciously or not, to her discomfort.
“My congratulations, Senator,” he says without looking away, that strangely ethereal voice of his carrying through the room like the softest of whispers. “Her beauty is as outstanding as her descent.”
The compliment makes Death harrumph softly and break into a wry smile. “Yes but her temper still needs some…tempering,” he states as if speaking of someone not currently standing before him.
And yet, the empty, black pools of his eyes stare directly at her as he says, “Alma, I need you to entertain our guest while I attend to an urgent matter. Perhaps you could show him your mother’s gardens.”
Alma looks at her father, lowering her gaze in respect and subservience. She nods subtly, firmly aware of the unspoken warning to not make his name or his House a poor service by smearing a reputation of utmost dignity and perfection.
“It would be my honor,” she replies.
“Of course it would,” Death dismisses her. “I will join you as soon as I am done.”
He bows only slightly but sharply at their guest. “Archon.”
“Senator,” the Archon replies in much gentler tones.
Death leaves, crossing paths with Alma and glancing at her for a mere fraction of a second, his eyes carrying the veiled threat of his cold anger should she disappoint him. The door closes behind him and, suddenly, the air seems to become lighter and warmer for his absence. Archon Arion covers the distance that separates him from Alma with long, elegant steps that reveal neither hurry nor irritation for being dismissed in favor of unnamed purposes. Instead, it is with a friendly, peaceful tone that he approaches Alma.
“I am sorry if this distracts you from other responsibilities, Lady Alma.”
For the first time, she realizes that his lips remain still as he speaks. And yet, the goddess finds herself smiling at him, feeling strangely at ease in his presence. The aura that emanates from him is one of old, primal power, of calm, self-assured dominance, both protective and disciplining. He looks at her without malice or dishonesty, focusing his full attention, apparently and disconcertingly, solely on her.
“There is nothing that cannot wait, I assure you,” she responds, sincerely looking forward to spend time with this kind stranger. “And it will be a pleasure to be distracted from them to accompany you to the gardens, My Lord Archon.”
“I hear Lyria’s gardens are a thing of wonder,” he notes.
Alma nods with a twinge of pride. “They are. Many have said them to be absolutely breathtaking.”
“I won’t notice. I stopped breathing the moment you walked through the door.”
The words slip into her mind swiftly and smoothly, as if whispered under breath in a momentary loss of control. Alma’s voice dies in her throat, her thoughts rushing in every direction, escaping her and leaving her alone with the burning sensation that spreads over her cheeks and turns her pale hue a blushing bright-red. The Archon’s eyes widen in apparent disbelief at his own statement, the bright metallic rays in them disappearing almost completely into his dilated pupils. He too seems to struggle for words, his lower lip hanging only slightly, in a very subtle demonstration of his shock.
“Maybe the scent of Mother’s flowers will be enough reason to breathe again,” Alma offers weakly, sending a small prayer of thank you to the gods of clever remarks. “There is perfection in everything she creates.”
Arion’s expression softens and he smiles once again, obviously glad for the icebreaker. “Clearly, there is.”
Alma lowers her gaze, her lips parted in an uneasy smile at the unusual sensation spreading over her chest. She gestures and turns toward the door, inviting Arion to accompany her but feeling too embarrassed to look directly at the Archon. He nods in assent and follows, walking by her side.
The doors open before them.
And she finds herself alone in the veranda again, still sitting on the white marble bench, decades passed since that fateful hour. She sighs at how distant it all seems now, even if the memories still make her cheeks burn and her heart skip a beat.
How adorable! A familiar, raspy, impossible voice sounds, from somewhere closeby. Daddy pimping his daughter out for his personal gain. Turning you into nothing more than a mare.
Alma tenses and straightens up, looking around her in sudden, almost desperate attention. She sees him standing against a column not far away, his eyes shining with an evil, mocking glint as he looks at her. The powerful beak, the bare head and long neck, the vulturine features and light-brown feathered arms – he is unmistakable.
“You are not real,” Alma states, more to herself than to the vision before her.
Nekh snorts. Yes, you made sure of that, didn’t you? he says, and his accusing voice rings like a stray thought in Alma’s head as he walks towards her, spitting accusations as if they were poison in his mouth. Violating your oath as a Guardia. Murdering a helpless prisoner in your captivity. Proud of yourself?
“I did what I had to do,” Alma hisses, wondering if this apparition is as real and solid as it seems.
She decides to change her approach and answer with her thoughts. Is that why you are here? To taunt me? Am I to carry you inside my mind for the rest of my existence even if I no longer answer to your whims?
That’s the wonderful thing about immortality, Nekh retorts, leaning over the goddess and placing his taloned hands on her knees, causing her pain but leaving no mark. All your sins are never expiated. You just carry them around forever.
He looks deeply into her eyes. Yes, Alma, I’m your new conscience. I’ll be whispering in your ear for all eternity. Won’t that be fun?
It is Alma’s turn to snort, her nerves slightly more settled from knowing that this is no more than a figment of her own imagination. You? A conscience? How would you achieve such a status without ever having grown one yourself?
She turns away from him, feeling silly and slightly more worried to catch herself speaking to a hallucination than to actually find herself hallucinating in the first place. You were scum, Nekh, and I don’t have to listen to you now any more than I listened to you before. I make it my personal policy not to socialize with hallucinations.
Nekh’s long neck recoils like a snake.
Hallucination? Me? He grips her chin with force enough to draw blood, were he not incorporeal, and forces her to look back at him. No no no. What do you think happens when you consume the soul of an Archon, dear sweet murderous Alma? Do you think it passes through your necromantic digestive system without leaving behind some trace? I’m real, Alma. And I’m never leaving. Plug your ears all you want; it won’t muffle my voice a bit. I’m part of your soul.
Alma can’t help but grin at what seem like empty threats. Then you’d better get acquainted with all the other parts, my dearest patron. I am sure that the things that lurk in the deep, dark corners will love to get to know you better. Maybe you will even meet the one that decided you were to die.
Oh I look forward to it, Nekh says with a chuckle. I’m very good at taking a motley crew of evil malcontents and turning them into an army. You think I’ll be cowed by your petty insecurities? They’ll be my eager playthings.
What do you want from me, Nekh? Alma asks, feeling more exhausted than threatened. An apology? Guilt for having killed the dog that was after my children?
The former Archon lets go of her with a cackling laugh that makes his ugly, disjointed frame convulse in horrible waves. Do you really think I would be happy with anything short of endlessly torturing you, making your life miserable, invading your mind with the most twisted nightmares in both sleep and waking moments, for the rest of your pathetic existence?
Guilt? he says as he begins to fade away. That’s only the beginning.