As Alma enters the room, she catches Gwydion’s eyes and feels an electric thrill at his gaze. The stress of the questioning falls away for a moment, only to be replaced by the unsettling feelings about her fellow sergeant that she is still processing. Can she trust him? And perhaps more important, can he ever trust her?
Even so, as they pass each other, both move slightly to allow their arms to brush, and Alma feels a little smile curve her lips at this subtle flirtation, and then glances to see Sky just looking away from that; once again, as before when he caught them embracing on the veranda, the Inspector apparently trying to unsee what he has seen. She fights down a giggle.
As the door closes, though, Sky visibly relaxes, breathing out. He looks at her and smiles uncertainly at her expression, his face awash with concern for her, but also with apprehension. She realizes that she and he have not had a real conversation since they were trapped in that utility room in the Curia, the Sikari preparing to burst in and slaughter them. Much has happened since then. She vaguely remembers his arms around her after she took Nekh’s soul, remembers him handing her to Sage and arguing with the Commander, refusing to take her badge.
How fitting… Nekh sneers. The dog leaves you with the puppy.
For a moment she wonders if perhaps he, like Dion, is unsure about her, no longer trusts her, sees her as a murderer of gods.
Him? Look at him, just waiting for a signal to show his belly and lick your face! Pathetic…
In his poisonous, corrosive way, Nekh has a point. Alma can see it in Sky’s eyes, this god who, for all his secrets, has always been an open book when it comes to her. He is on my side, she thinks. How few have I ever been able to know that about?
She feels a wave of warmth for him wash over her, and she smiles and opens her arms, praying she is not wrong. And before she can take another breath, she is caught up in a powerful embrace, as the tall god wraps his long arms around her and lifts her a handspan off the floor.
Suddenly, all tension falls away and she laughs into his chest and holds him as tightly as he holds her. She expects his grip to slacken after a moment, but he keeps holding her, not so tightly as to be uncomfortable, and she relaxes into it, realizing he needs this as much as she. That he is as relieved at her acceptance of him as she is of his. Two lost souls, battered by the world, clinging to each other.
And yet there is still so much I don’t know about you, she muses. So much you hold close. What secrets will shatter all this…Azzageddi? She had vowed to forget his true name, but how could she?
“Are you all right?” he murmurs, finally putting her down.
“Other than having my ribs crushed to powder,” she replies sardonically, then the smile disappears from her face. “I am as right as is possible considering the circumstances. Sky – how are my Bunnies?”
“They are well,” he says. “Mayumi and Sage are quite tired, from all the extra work lately. And the younger ones drive them to distraction, while Merri and Cherry work to improve the bar. They all miss you. They would like to come visit, if possible.”
Alma hesitates before saying, “It is best if they don’t.”
Sky’s face clouds. “Alma…what is it?”
Are you a particular brand of stupid, worm? Nekh says, suddenly leaning against a wall. Gods, maybe they shouldn’t sentence you to Hell, Alma. An eternity with these idiotic civil servants might just be enough of a punishment.
She steps back. “It is best if they remain away from the attention of the Council. If anyone must fall for this, it will be me. Not the Bunnies, not Gwydion.”
He nods reluctantly. “I…understand. I will protect them first and foremost. But Alma, I will do all I can to help you. At the moment, however… I don’t know if they’ve told you what’s been happening in the wake of Nekh’s fall.”
“We have been mostly isolated in this golden cage.”
“Of course,” Sky says. “Well, after losing their leader, the Dukaines have shattered, and now the entire Fourth Ring is awash in internecine violence. And after the damage we inflicted on the Dukaine gangs in our escape from Three Rats, new shards of the Dukaines have moved in from other wards. In addition to the violence, I’m afraid we have slavers taking children that they believe won’t be missed. I would be devoting all our efforts to stopping that, but with the gang warfare it’s just impossible. We are overwhelmed and the Guardia have no more personnel to send. Or at least that’s what I’m told after repeated requests. We are holding our own for the moment, but I need reinforcements. I’m planning to attempt to recruit the local, non-Dukaine gangs, but I doubt they will be able to help.”
Margrave is involved, I’ll bet, Nekh comments, distractedly. I knew I should have crushed that conniving cockroach. But he was, oh, so useful…
Who is Margrave? Alma asks dryly, raising an eyebrow.
Nekh’s head shoots up. He looks at her, then shrugs. How on the Isle should I know? I’m just a figment of your imagination, remember?
“They will surely be too busy trying to survive and we are yet to conquer the trust of any of them…” She trails off into thought. Used to Math’s subtle servants, Alma accepts a glass of wine with barely a notice. “I wonder…”
Sky murmurs thanks as he also is handed a glass of wine. “What is it, Alma?”
“What we need, Sky, is precision in strike, but we don’t know enough about these Shards to know who to take down. We can’t move in this underworld yet, but others can. And I wonder if Saira would help us.”
Saira! Sure, bring in the bitch with the flying skewers that stole my Pearl! Nekh barks. Oh, I hope Margrave kills her!
“Saira!” Sky blinks at the suggestion, but he thinks it over for a moment, his expression changing swiftly from surprise to consideration. “How would I contact her?”
“The same way I did. Aliyah and Cala will help. But Sky…” she says, looking him in the eye. “Saira doesn’t trust easily.”
Sky nods. “But if our interests converge, she may be willing to work with us.” He grimaces, glancing around for servants. “We had better keep this between you and me. It wouldn’t help your case if it got out you had connections with an assassin.”
Alma takes a sip of wine. “It is war, Sky. Everything goes. If I must fall, then at least some good will come of it.”
If?! Ha! When!
Muttering under his breath about walls and ears, Sky asks aloud, “Did you get any hint of how the case looks from the Council’s Eye?”
Alma sighs. “Either very good or very bad. It is a political case, Sky. Our guilt will be decided by how the scales of influence tilt. Whenever the Council is involved, justice is more of a guideline than a rule.”
Sky looks frustrated. “And this Ewá Nanã? What is your sense of her?”
“I am sure there are other interests at play behind her, but in the end I have no choice but to trust her to make an honest report.”
Nekh snorts. She’s a damned rookie with a god-complex. Ring any bells?
“Other interests,” Sky repeats. “When I met her I sensed…a connection. To Three Rats. There is something there. She is part of the Candomblé Clan.”
“Candomblé,” Alma whispers to herself, searching her memory of the myriad religions, cults, and divine clans that divide and unite the populace of the Urbis Caelestis, mortal and immortal. “The dominant religious structure of Three Rats–”
“A hybrid of Candomblé and Hindu, descendants of the merged towns,” Sky finishes. At her raised eyebrow, he chuckles and says, “There are advantages to living outside the station. My neighbors tell me all sorts of things. Especially the ones trying to decide how I fit into the local divine structures.”
Alma shakes her head. “Be careful. You’ll end up with your own mystery cult.”
“Don’t I know it,” Sky says drily. “I’ve had several suggestions as to which Three Rats gods are my parents. You’d be surprised the number who think I’m the Oracle’s bastard son. My barber is insisting my father must be Brew. I think he’s just joking.”
She smiles at this and laughs silently. Gods, it feels good to laugh. How long has it been? And here she’s done it twice. But the smile soon fades as reality intrudes.
Sky gently takes her hand, causing her to look up. “Alma…it will be all right.” His words are filled with kindness, but he doesn’t sound convinced.
Don’t bet on it, Nekh counters.
She almost denies it, but looking at his face, full of worry and hope, she squeezes his hand instead and says, “Of course it will, my friend. Of course it will.”
“And at what point did you decide to use the Percussorem on the Archon, Sergeant?”
Dion pauses in thought at Ewá Nanã’s question. He wants to get his answer right, but his mind is still on Alma. The look that passed between them, her arm brushing his – the feel of her in his arms, her lips on his throat. Why her? Why does she disorder my thoughts so? He clears his throat and refocuses on the Eye’s question. “The Bunnies were lying on the floor, injured. Geryon was severely wounded, unconscious. Sergeant Alma was doing all she could to keep Archon Nekh at bay, but her attacks had little effect on him. And then he pushed her away and she fell against a table. Before I knew it, the Percussorem was there, around my fingers, infused with hatred. We had no other choice. I attacked.”
Ewá shifts in her seat, recrossing her legs and writing in her notebook. “With the Percussorem, do you believe you could have killed the Archon?”
What a lovely specimen, Dion thinks, glancing at the Eye’s long legs. But it is a mere observation, almost clinical. “I could have. But I didn’t.”
“You chose not to. Why?”
“According to my training, Observer, every criminal is entitled to a fair trial. I believed we could apprehend Archon Nekh and bring him to justice.”
Ewá looks at him for a long moment. “Were you sure he was helpless, and not merely faking, in order to make a final attack?”
Dion considers carefully. “I felt him weakened, as if something had broken within him. He lay nearly senseless on the floor, breathing weakly. I did not perceive him to be a threat.”
“You sensed that something had broken in him…through the Percussorem?”
“Interesting,” the lawyer says. “Then Sergeant Alma would not have known that.”
Dion shakes his head. “I do not believe Sergeant Alma was in full possession of her mental skills at the time. She looked as if she believed that there was no other course of action to take, other than Archon Nekh’s death.”
The Commander nods grimly at this answer, while Ewá looks down, thinking, as if mentally tallying her notes. Finally she raises her eyes to his again. “Thank you, Sergeant. I will be speaking with you again soon, I am sure. Commander, I believe we are done for today. I will need to investigate some things before I am ready for another interview.”
Dion stands and reflexively turns on the charm. “Please, do return whenever you please, Observer Nanã. Your visits will be much appreciated, as is your company.”
Ewá glances at him with a look he recognizes from long experience: on the surface, putting him in his place, but underlying that, considering his implied invitation. The Commander opens the door for her and Dion. As they enter, Tuma-Sukai and Alma are holding hands, the goddess looking up at the Inspector with a sad smile. Sky turns to face them, releasing Alma’s hand. Dion catches a hint of a snort from the Commander, and the way Sky shoots the Commander an annoyed glance in return. Ewá ignores all this, and Dion, still not quite sure what to make of Alma’s relationship with their commanding officer – Are they lovers? Is she manipulating him, as I fear she is manipulating me? – does his best to ignore it as well.
“The Commander and the Council’s Eye are leaving, Inspector,” Dion says.
Sky nods. “Then it is time for me to go as well. Sergeant,” he says to Alma, “is there any message you’d like me to take back to your progeny?”
Alma lightly touches his shoulder. “Tell them…that I am sorry I cannot be with them and ask them to take care of each other. I will see to it that, whatever happens, they are cared for.”
“I also will see to that,” Sky reassures her. “Until you are returned to them.” Then he looks at Dion and asks, “Do you have any messages you wish me to convey, Sergeant?”
Dion shakes his head. “Nothing more than, if anyone asks after me, please let them know I am well.”
Ewá Nanã says, “I will return within a few days. Good day to both of you.”
“Good day to you as well,” Alma says. Dion feels the soft coolness of her hand slip into his, and he gently squeezes her hand. “And may your investigations prove profitable.”
The Eye nods, and turns to leave, closely followed by the Commander. Sky glances back at them both, momentarily noting their interlocked hands, then with a slight smile he turns and follows, quickly catching up with the Commander to say something. But the door closes before Dion can hear what it is.