“I don’t know if they’ll all be in here,” Tuma-Sukai says as he opens the door and gestures for Ewá Nanã to enter. “Most of them have their own rooms upstairs now, but they often sleep in Alma’s apartment in the basement. This is Rosemary and Cherry’s bar. I don’t believe they’ve quite settled on a name yet.”
“A bar?” the Eye of the Council asks. “Isn’t this Guardia property?”
Tuma-Sukai frowns. “If you feel the need to ascertain the legality of it, be my guest. I’ve looked into it, as have Corporal Lamore and Sage, and according to the rules there is nothing wrong–”
Ewá waves this off. “Inspector, that is none of my business. I was merely surprised. Oh!”
Her voice betrays further surprise as she catches sight of the interior of the Bunnies’ bar. It is not the mismatched, scavenged furniture, or the clean but worn floor and bartop. It is that a shockingly pretty girl – no, woman, definitely woman, for all that she is short and lightly built – is suddenly standing before her, adorned with curly red hair, brilliant emerald eyes, and a milky complexion scattered with freckles. Her russet ears poke out of her mass of hair, perked to attention, and she looks Ewá up and down, grinning, before she turns to Tuma-Sukai.
“Inspector Sky, dear! Oh, ’tis good t’see ye! An’ ye’ve brought a friend as well. Ye’re always accompanied by such lovely specimens, ye divvil! Well come now, introduce us! I’m dyin’ t’make ’er acquaintance.”
The Inspector blushes as the Bunny prods him gently with her elbow. “Eh, Observer, this is Rosemary, one of proprietors of the bar. Rosemary, this is Ewá Nanã, Eye of the Council. That means–”
“Aye o’ the Council? Whatever does that mean? Call me Merri, Miss Ewá, everyone does.” She takes the Observer’s hands in hers and pulls her toward the bar. “Oh I’d give ye a kiss t’welcome ye, but ye’re near as tall as our Sky, I’d have t’hop quite a distance for that.” She leans forward a bit, looks left and right before looking up conspiratorially at the demigoddess, and whispers loudly enough to be heard throughout the entire bar, “Just between me an’ thee, if dear Sky were just a wee bit shorter, I’d be kissin’ ’im all the time. Oh, hahaha, look at ’im roll his eyes!”
“Merri, as I was about to say–” Tuma-Sukai begins.
“Who you talkin’ to, Mer?” a brash voice rings out from the kitchen. Another Bunny enters from the kitchen, her brown skin lighter than Ewá’s, her hair a halo of brunette ringlets bouncing slightly as she walks. “Did I hear you torturin’ poor Sky again? That’s my job! Oh, hello! Welcome to…our bar! I am Cherry. And who are you, beautiful?”
“I am Ewá Nanã. It is a pleasure to meet you both.” She sits carefully on a barstool, her eyes still a bit wide from the disorienting two-pronged flirtation. “I…have a few questions for you.”
“E-wa Na-nya,” Cherry says, savoring the name like a hard candy in her mouth. “Mmm, I like that. Questions, huh? You some kinda reporter, hon? Come to make our bar famous? Well have at it! But first, what would you like to drink?”
Ewá blinks. “I am not a reporter. Though I do need to prepare a report for the Council. Part of that report will be on you. All of you.”
“Huh,” huffs Cherry. “Does this have anything to do with Alma and Dion bein’ locked away up in hoity-toity land?”
“It does, yes,” the Observer replies. “The report will help the Council make their final decision in this case.”
Cherry crosses her arms. “What’s there to decide? They’re innocent.” Her voice is firm and far less warm than earlier.
The Inspector sits at one of the tables, apparently content to let the Observer handle herself. Merri’s ears go down as she purses her mouth, then quickly reaches behind the bar and sets a bottle of fine whisky on it with a thud. “Ye know what would be nice right now? A wee dram. Now I know this one is Inspector Sky’s favorite tipple – would ye no’ like t’try it, Miss Ewá?”
“I…I am working…” Ewá sees Merri’s lovely eyes narrow, and she gives in. Guessing at the meaning of some of the strange, non-Urbian slang Merri uses, she replies, “Very well. I shall have one of these ‘wee drams’.”
“Make mine very wee, Merri,” Tuma-Sukai says laconically. “I am also on duty.”
As she pours into mismatched glasses, Merri says with sincere concern, “Och, ye’re always on duty as far as I can tell, dear Sky. D’ye never sleep, love?” She hands his drink and stretches up to give him a quick kiss on the forehead, which brings a smile to his face. Then she whispers something in his ear that makes him blush.
“Merri…” he says, mildly scolding.
“I’m perfectly serious!” She manages to look serious for at least one second before she starts giggling. “All right, only imperfectly serious. Still, the invitation is always open.”
Cherry is still looking at Ewá with suspicion, but she lifts her drink. “Salud.” After she and everyone else sips their whisky, she asks, “So what are you gonna report about us?”
Ewá savors the alcohol for a moment, surprised at the fine quality, a warm explosion of complex flavors across her palate. She also takes note of who gave the toast. Among her own people, only the most senior makes the toast. Perhaps in the bar, that is Cherry?
“I do not yet know,” she replies. “But I think it is important that the Council understand just what you are.”
Merri, returning to lean against the bar next to Cherry, asks sweetly, “Would that be in the collective sense, or individually? An’ I must say, is it no’ more important t’understand who we are, rather than what?”
Ewá pauses to take in Merri’s sweet, guileless smile, topped by sharp and penetrating eyes, and reevaluates the redheaded Bunny. Ewá remembers an old colleague, often an opponent in the courts, who cultivated an air of bumbling confusion in order to be underestimated. It is a tactic occasionally employed by Voices of the Court. She hadn’t expected to find it being used by a bartender.
A bartender who is also a construct, a creation of a minor goddess of the Death Clan – the clan responsible for the Anubi, soulless automatons which had been the product of a far more powerful and experienced god than Alma.
“I think both are relevant,” she finally answers. “Who and what. And in both the collective and individual senses, as well.”
The corner of Cherry’s mouth curls up. “All righty then, sounds like you’re gonna wanna talk to all of us.” She sets her drink down and walks over to the stairs going up and calls, “Hey Tulip, leave poor old Geryon alone for a minute and come on down here!”
From upstairs, a high piping voice replies to Cherry, “I don’t wanna!”
“I don’t care if you don’t wanna, c’mere!” Cherry insists.
“Hold on a minute!”
Meanwhile, Merri zips across the room and shouts down to the basement, “Oy, Sage! Get up ’ere an’ bring yon scalliwags wi’ ye! An’ tell Kori t’put on a shirt!”
Grumbling from downstairs matches that from above, but shortly the Bunnies converge in the bar. From below come all three of the males. The oldest, a youthful adult, has black ears and tightly curled hair above a fine-featured face darker than Cherry’s, even darker than Ewá’s. The two younger males are hardly more than children, the taller one still pulling a shirt on over his brown-haired head with obvious reluctance, the other blond with long bangs. The taller grumbles, “You’re always telling me it’s rude to yell,” while the shorter says in a singsongy manner, “Being yelled at is no fun but if you’re nice, I’ll rush and run…”
“Feh!” Merri puts her fists on her hips and playfully scolds them, “Tha’ wisnae yellin’! If I’d’a been yellin’, the two of ye wouldnae be comin’ up them stairs sae brash an’ cheeky. Ye’d be tryin’ t’dig yersels a tunnel t’the next block, ye would, t’escape mean awl Rosemary!”
Their elder chuckles and shakes his head as he approaches Ewá Nanã, while the boys roll their eyes and try to pretend they hate it when Merri puts an arm around each of their necks and, kissing their cheeks one after another, drags them toward their visitor. The elder male gives her a slight bow and says, his voice naturally soft and comforting, “I am Sage. And these two are Kori and Chime. Please forgive any rudeness. As Cherry likes to say, they are full-time teenagers.”
Before she can reply, she catches movement on the other stairs, coming down. She has to bring her hand to her mouth to prevent herself from gasping audibly.
She should have caught the name, Geryon, but somehow it hadn’t registered. Besides, it’s not often one sees a gryphon padding carefully done steep, narrow stairs, huge forepaws taking dainty steps to avoid slipping, wings folded but nevertheless making a susurrus as they brush against the walls, and wearing a lady’s bonnet that would have been in fashion in certain Third Ring wards two centuries ago if it were not made crudely of folded and glued newspaper. And not, of course, worn by a male gryphon.
The little bunny riding his shoulders is red-faced from giggling. But the white hair, the big blue eyes, the pale – though flushed, at the moment – skin, are all quite recognizable, as she is Sergeant Alma in miniature, Alma barely at the beginning of adolescence, still very much a child and still able to thoroughly lose herself in laughter over silliness that would make jaded adults smile thinly and say, ‘That’s very cute, dear.’
Ewá cannot help but smile at the image of Alma laughing like that, and wonders if the death goddess ever has. Ewá tries to recall laughing like that herself.
Trying to recover her footing, Ewá attempts to speak. “It-it…it is…” Her eyes widen and her face burns as she realizes that, for the first time in decades, she is stuttering. It was an affliction she suffered as a child, one she fought with all her being to overcome, and now here it is again. She grits her teeth, and closes her eyes for a moment, desperate to defeat this hated, long-vanquished flaw. Why? Why now?!
Inspector Tuma-Sukai’s deep voice washes over her thoughts like a gentle ocean wave, causing her to open her eyes in surprise. “This is Ewá Nanã. She represents the Council, and she is here to ask you a few questions for a report that, we hope, will result in Alma and Gwydion returning to us soon.”
Ewá looks at him. He no longer seems to be laughing at her, but instead is looking at her with encouragement. Understanding? Looking back at the Bunnies and their feathery, furry friend, she clears her throat a little and says, almost perfectly composed, “It is a p-pleasure to meet you all. I very much appreciate that there must be things you would rather be doing, and I am grateful for allowing me to take up your time.”
“Och, we dinnae mind a bit, do we?” Merri says, glancing at the others. Looking back at Ewá with a wink, she asks, “So was it Sage’s pretty face that stole yer voice away, dear? Or p’rhaps mine?”
A perpetually amused and shockingly human voice issues from the beak of the gryphon, smooth as spider silk but with a sardonic undertone. “The sight of you would steal anyone’s voice away, darling Merri. Though I suspect our lovely guest is experiencing a bout of ‘more than what she bargained for’ right now.”
From his back, the youngest Bunny – Tulip, the Observer remembers, as Sky told her this morning – asks, “Is that dangerous?”
“Oh, nothing a tall glass of ‘let’s cut to the chase’ won’t cure, I’m sure,” Geryon says as he lowers himself to lie sphinxlike on the floor, fixing expectant eagle-eyes on Ewá. He lazily reaches up with a forepaw to scratch at his cheek, dislodging the paper bonnet as Tulip quickly dismounts and snatches it to prevent damage to it. “Oh, sorry my dear, I forgot I was wearing that.”
Meanwhile Tuma-Sukai takes Sage aside, kneels, and, glancing at Geryon, whispers him a question, at which Sage looks at the gryphon, smiles, and nods. Then the god asks another question, at which Sage’s smile disappears.
Taking a guess, the Observer asks aloud, “Yes, where is Mayumi?”
Sage looks apprehensively at Tuma-Sukai, who nods at him. “She is working,” the Bunny replies. “I…could go find her.”
His discomfort speaks volumes, but in just what language, she is not yet sure. Deciding to defuse the tension for now, she says, “No…I met her this morning and I will be happy to speak with her again when she is available. As Mr Geryon says, let us cut to the chase.”
Cherry suddenly asks, “Wait a second! Where’d Chime go?”
“Och, ’e’s probably off t’the Copper Pot again – I mean…” Merri covers her mouth guiltily and looks at the Inspector, who raises his eyebrows in question at her.
Chime picks that moment to reenter the room from the kitchen, cradling a bowl of vegetables and munching out of it. He glares at Merri and mumbles, “Snitch!” around a mouthful of carrot.
Cherry scolds, “Don’t you talk with your mouth full, young man!”
Even with his mouth full, Ewá can hear the beginnings of a song to his traditional teenager’s reply of, ‘You’re not my mom!’
“Chime.” Tuma-Sukai’s voice is deeply serious, and the sullen young Bunny’s ears go flat along the back of his head. “We will speak of this later.”
Seeing the stubborn look on Chime’s face, Ewá comes to his rescue. Using her courtroom voice, effortless yet room-filling, she half-questions, half-states, “I understand you were all present at the death of Archon Nekh.”
Tulip hugs Geryon’s neck, looking disturbed at the memory, while Merri says, “Oh yes, we were all there. That nasty old god!” She sounds almost as if she is spitting the last words. “He was screechin’ an’ laughin’ – ye ken like how villains laugh in stories, chortlin’ an’aw, sayin’ how ’e’s gaenta kill us and callin’ us abominations!” She shudders. Cherry puts her arms around her to comfort her, but even as she leans her head against Cherry’s shoulder, Merri mutters, “Sure an’ if that ain’t rude I cannae say what is.”
Sage strokes Merri’s hair and says, “He had attempted to have us killed numerous times. He claimed that he did not need the authority of the Council. He said that he was the Council.”
Cherry holds Merri tightly and snaps at Ewá, “I don’t get this! He wanted us dead and there was nothin’ we could do and Geryon got hurt bad and Alma saved us and Dion helped! You seriously want me to feel bad ’cause that buzzard-beaked bastard’s dead? ’Cause I remember him laughin’ and callin’ us monsters. One of his guys had a chain around Mer’s leg and was draggin’ her away from me and…and…”
Cherry breaks off, choking up at the memory, hiding her face against Merri’s neck, sniffling, shoulders trembling.
Everyone falls silent, until Geryon says, “I’m afraid you’ll find no sympathy or remorse here, Observer. These are not the kind of Bunny that will go meekly into the pot.”
Ewá says softly, “I would not expect them to. I have no desire for any of you to feel bad or good about Archon Nekh’s death. I merely need to understand what happened, from the points of view of all the witnesses.”
“And pray tell what were you expecting to observe here today, Observer?” the gryphon presses. He rises to his feet, hindquarters first, stretching with his shoulders low, then raising his forequarters and padding toward her. “Bunny-shaped Anubi? Cute, voiceless servants, perhaps? Or maybe misshapen pets? A pack of…what is the word? Abominations?”
Ewá sits silently as all eyes are upon her. After a moment, she sighs. “I tried to arrive without preconceptions, as befits an Observer. But I must admit that my knowledge of created beings, like the Anubi, did prejudice me.” She looks the Bunnies over. “You are all far more…real…than I imagined you could be.”
Sage touches her hand. “We appreciate your honesty more than we could resent your prejudice.”
Cherry wipes her eyes. “Yeah, don’t worry, sugarcube. You ain’t the first.” She shoots Tuma-Sukai a sharp look.
“It’s true,” he admits. “I was worse than you, Ewá Nanã. And you are coming around more swiftly than I did.”
Ewá feels a tug at her sleeve, and looks to find Tulip gazing into her eyes. “Miss? Do you know if Dion is all right? And our Mom?”
“Ah…yes…yes they are well. And comfortable. But they miss you. Alma…your mother…she told me to tell you that she misses you.” Ewá marvels at how shaken, how buffeted she has been in this short time. She has been knocked about by the best orators in the courts, and she hasn’t been this rattled since she was a brand-new Voice.
The Bunny’s voice is high and plaintive. “If you see them again, can you tell them we’re being good? And tell them they can come back? May’s not mad at them anymore.”
“Tulip!” Merri and Cherry cry out simultaneously, aghast.
“May?” Ewá asks. “Oh…Mayumi?” She puts her hands on Tulip’s delicate bird-bone shoulders. “They are not staying away because of Mayumi, or because of any of you. They want to come back. They would be here now, if they could. And they may be allowed to return, very soon.”
Tulip’s ears perk up and she smiles. “Really?! When?”
“I wish I could say, but that is up to the Council. They want this matter decided upon soon.” Ewá gives Tulip a slight, sad smile. “And the sooner I can make my report, the sooner they can decide, with a full understanding of who and what you all are. Collectively and individually. So. Let us begin again. One at a time, now…”