The old school was crumbling, dilapidated. Dinner-plate-sized creatures like horseshoe crabs adapted to life fully on land scuttle swiftly away from Sky as he approaches, their armor dully reflecting the light of Tsuki-no-Usagi, the Rabbit Moon Goddess, as she makes her way slowly on her circuit far overhead. The moon goddesses, and a few moon gods, take turns, and tonight being her night she shines proudly. Sky takes it as a good sign, and takes a moment to pray to her for the safety of the Bunnies. He knows he needs all the help he can find, from any quarter, and does not begrudge the sacrifice of mana, though he rarely prays.
And Moon deities seem to look more kindly on changeable, unstable, in-between creatures like himself, after all. All those phases.
Acquiring help from the most unlikely quarters is why he is here, well past midnight. He knows he is being watched. If their positions were reversed, he too would have arrived ahead of time and set up in the perfect spot, checking for others following him, making sure he was alone, as demanded. He tries to ignore the feeling of being in the sights of a master of the crossbow, and comforts himself that at least he will prove harder to kill than the assassin might imagine. She will surely have more of that demonblood ichor smeared on the razor-sharp heads of her crossbow bolts. Such poison can kill a god, at least a relatively young and weak one like Sky.
But not when that god was formed in an environment suffused with the very same ichor, and a thousand other poisons.
He wonders, as he has many times, how long he spent in Hell, being trained, prepared to go into the Urbis to become the perfect spy, the traitor to be activated at the right moment and pave the way for the return of the forces of Hell. Only he was far from perfect. Something went wrong. The devils and demons of Hell needed him to be something they could not: empathetic. Able to relate to others. Otherwise he could never have succeeded in fulfilling their goals. But they had succeeded too well there.
Now he looks at this school, abandoned, and instead of reveling in the downfall of the mortal servants of Hell’s hated enemies, the gods, he promises himself that as soon as this current crisis is under control, he will find a way to start a new school. The children of Three Rats must go off to school in neighboring Little Falls, and most cannot afford it. They are being taught by their parents or by kindly neighbors, if at all, untrained and often barely less ignorant of letters and numbers than the children themselves. More likely they are being taught to help around the shop, or even how to break windows quietly and where to sell stolen goods.
Will Alma and Gwydion ever return? he wonders. Even if they are freed, why would they come back here? Won’t Alma just pack up her progeny and return to somewhere safer and saner, if she can? And Gwydion – whatever mistakes got him sent here will surely be forgotten by then. Most likely he’ll be offered a place back in the First Ring, or Second at worst, and he’ll return to his philandering ways. Or perhaps he is serious about Alma. I hope so, and that he is worthy of her.
And what about me? Is the Commander going to leave me here, or pull me out when he needs his tool again? It would be a comfort, returning to his direct service, being given missions and fulfilling them. But this place…I would miss it. In the Commander’s service, I bring death or imprisonment to the worst of the worst. But here I have a chance to help people, to bring happiness. To create instead of destroy.
And yet the thought of being left behind, of losing Alma, who has become a true friend, and losing the Bunnies as well, who have all become quite dear to him, almost a family – it makes him want to retreat fully into that shell he has only lately begun to timorously peer out of.
Just the barest whisper of a breath behind shakes him free of these pointless, clamoring thoughts. Slowly, making no threatening movement, he turns and sees a shapely, hooded figure, crossbow pointed slightly away, barely visible in the shadow of a wall.
“You let me get any closer, I could’ve tickled your ribs with a dagger, Guardia.” Her voice is low, amused, almost but not quite breaking into a raspy chuckle.
“It’s a pleasure to finally meet, Saira,” Sky replies. “I am Tuma-Sukai.” He bows very slightly.
“I know who you are,” the assassin replies. “And I know you’re alone. But what I’m not quite sure of is why.”
Sky moves a step to the left and sits on a broken wall. “Knowing your reputation and the brains required to gain it, I would be surprised if you haven’t already figured it out.”
Saira shifts her stance so that she can more swiftly swing the crossbow around to bear on him if need be. She studies him. “Aliyah didn’t say, but that’s only because she didn’t know. She’s a good kid, but I can’t say I was surprised she got busted back down to constable.” She pauses, but Sky merely looks at her. After a moment she says, “Fine! You’re not here to arrest me or kill me, and you’re not here to buy my services – which aren’t for sale anyway, right now. I have too much on my plate as it is.”
“Open season on Dukaines,” Sky says flatly, crossing his arms.
“You got that right, love,” Saira replies, just as flatly. “I have quite the collection of trophies, too.”
“I know of two. And maybe one more.”
Saira laughs. “Less than half. But then, you lot have been distracted lately. The other bodies must be getting ripe, though.”
Sky looks at her, stone-eyed. “Tell me where they are. I wouldn’t want some children stumbling on them.”
She snorts. “And incriminate myself? Besides, it’s not like many children in Three Rats grow up without finding a few dead bodies.”
“Saira, you can take as many Dukaines down as you want. They declared war on us. They tried to murder innocents, some of them children. Tried to murder Guardia. As long as you stick to Dukaines, I will always be looking the other way, as far as you’re concerned.”
She steps closer, and leans in to put her face close enough to his that he can see past the hood, see those intense light-brown eyes. “What if I don’t want you looking the other way?” She lets that sink in for a moment, then laughs mockingly, still staring into Sky’s eyes. “You’re here for help, Dei. That’s why Alma didn’t come – you don’t have her, or Pretty Boy, and you’re this desperate. But what could you possibly have to offer me?”
“Information,” he says, trying to ignore her stunning beauty. Mortal, of course, certainly not approaching the ethereal loveliness of Alma, but then mortal beauty has always affected him more than divine. And after centuries, surfaces matter far less to him than what lies beneath. It is her very darkness, the wounds and scars within, that draw him, for unlike Mayumi, this is someone who might, in some small way, understand his own wounds.
His eyes flick away from hers. Ever since coming here, his mind has been running away, his thoughts out of control. And he has spent so very long keeping a tight grip on them. Losing that control disturbs him.
“Information,” he repeats. He looks back and sees her still gazing at him, a smile curling her lips. She knows what he was thinking. “By exchanging information we can make each other’s jobs easier. And if a situation arises in which more direct action is necessary – well, we can discuss that when the time comes.”
Saira leans forward and for a moment he freezes, thinking she’s about to kiss him. But she tilts her head at the last moment so that her mouth is next to his ear. “You think I’m going to be your pet killer, Guardia, you’ll find out that this kitty claws her masters.”
Sky keeps his voice carefully under control. “No pet. No master. Partners, working together toward complementary goals.”
She chuckles softly. Her breath tickles his ear, her cheek lightly touches his. “It’s good to remember that our goals are not the same. And what exactly is your goal, ‘Sky’?” She straightens and looks down at him, amused.
He returns her look, his face serious. “I want these people to have a sense of security. I want some stability in Three Rats. To get that, we have to end this chaos.”
“You must be new here,” she says, deadpan. “This place was always a hellhole. It always will be.”
“Was it ever this bad? Really?”
She hesitates before speaking. “…no. Not quite this bad.”
He stands. “I won’t appeal to your love of this place. Whether you have any or not, I know what your goal is. Vengeance. But by achieving that, you will help Three Rats.”
“Fine,” she says, now having to crane her neck to look up at him. “You share what you learn, I share what I learn, and Dukaines disappear. Just know that the ones you send off to prison? I’ll meet them later, when they get out. You’re only putting off the inevitable.” She takes a half-step closer, so her chest brushes against his torso. “And if you ever decide that I’m another element of chaos that you need to remove for the good of the Urbis, you’d better take me down swift and hard. I do not take betrayal lightly.”
Sky crosses his arms. “How about the disappearance of children? How lightly do you take that?”
Saira frowns, playfulness gone. “‘The Snatchers’, people are calling them.”
“Have you heard anything more?”
“What do you care?” Her voice is cold. “Kids disappear all the time around here. Unless they’re from an important family, the Guardia have never done much about it.”
Sky locks eyes with her. “I care. I just need a lead.”
Saira stares back, then glances away and shrugs. “I’ll let you know what I hear.” Then she points at the wall near his knee. “You want to contact me, stick one of your Guardia crossbow bolts in that crack right there. I’ll come here to say hello a few hours later at most.” She grins and slings her crossbow over her shoulder as she turns away. “And I’ll let you know when we need to talk again. G’night, Sky. Say hi to Alma for me.”
He watches as she strides into the shadows once more and disappears.