Well after midnight, long before dawn, Mayumi is making the most of her insomnia by catching up on work. The gas lamp on the wall is burning low. Her large, night-sensitive eyes don’t need as much light as humans in order to read. A light knock, and the door to Alma and Gwydion’s office opens. Mayumi looks up from her – well, Alma’s – desk, reports strewn all over it in a pattern that only she would be able to recognize. Tuma-Sukai’s shaggy head is peering in from the door.
“Sir?” she asks.
He glances around the office and then enters. “Um…” She sees his eyes catch the layered blankets in the space where the sofa used to be, thick enough to make a barely serviceable futon, and a small pillow. “Mayumi…are you sleeping here?”
She stands, taking a moment before she answers. “I…I know this is not my office, it’s just there is more light and air in here than in the records room and the desk is bigger and no one is using it at the moment–”
“That’s not what I asked.” He looks around, and she sees him noting the water carafe and glass, a bag with some clothes, the fact that she’s wearing the thigh-length football-logo t-shirt she uses for pajamas – and she sees his face break into mild dismay. “Have you moved out of Alma’s home? Why?”
She looks down, unable to meet his look, but remains silent.
He lets the door shut behind him and sits on the edge of Gwydion’s desk. Switching to Japanese, he asks gently, “Please. What’s going on?”
She turns away, hugging herself. “A few days ago. I had…a big fight with…well, it doesn’t matter who. I thought it was best to move out. For a little while.”
Sky sighs. “Mayumi, Alma has charged me with watching over you. All of you. If you’re fighting, I would like to know why.”
She can’t say it at first. She almost does three times before she finally does it, feeling as if she is jumping off a cliff when it comes out. “Alma killed a helpless prisoner, sir. Right before my eyes. It is my duty to testify to that.” Her voice sounds ugly and grating to her ears. The voice of a traitor.
Sky is silent for a long moment. Then, his voice firm and clear, comes “No.”
She turns to see him looking at her, his face difficult to read. “I saw it,” she insists. “I know what I saw.”
“Do you?” he asks. “Do you know what a god is? Do you realize how much more powerful we are than you? You saw that fight in the Curia. What those hired assassins did to me, how much destructive force I survived, and only because I was following the path set down by my divine sphere and by my vow to protect you all. If not for that, I might well be dead now – and I am a god. A minor one, it’s true. Still, I could walk into the Singing Cockroach and take down every mortal in there in less than a minute, if my powers were flowing properly. If I were following that path.”
He looks her in the eye. “Now imagine an archon. I’m a couple of centuries old. Nekh was at least ten times as old, and he had behind him a crime network that spanned the Fourth Ring. Essentially an enormous cult. Thousands of worshippers who every day had to give prayer to him, sacrifice their own power for him. That doesn’t even take into account his legitimate worshippers, who also numbered in the thousands. He could have made short work of me. Going up against him directly, no matter how righteous my cause, my own powers would have kept me alive for no more than a few breaths. The same is true of Sgt Gwydion, and of Alma. If they hadn’t been acting in concert, if Gywdion hadn’t been so skilled in magic, with so many tricks up his sleeve, and if he hadn’t had that weapon… If that gryphon hadn’t distracted Nekh… Mayumi, you and Sage and Chime and Rosemary and Kori and Tulip and Cherry, you’d all be dead now.”
“But he’d been defeated!”
“How do you know?” Sky demands softly. “Do you think gods can’t pretend to be defeated in order to get an advantage? I’ve done it. And I killed the person who was taken in by my ruse.” He waits for that to sink in. “Nekh could have recovered in a moment, and then what? And even if he truly was defeated…” He looks away as bitterness threatens to strangle his voice. “He had most of the Council on his side, willing to release him on the slightest technicality or no technicality at all. He was probably blackmailing half of them, bribing the other, and then where would we be? Alma and Gwydion sentenced to Hell for defying him, and the seven of you locked away briefly until the executioner came for you.”
“But…” Mayumi feels despair. She hates herself for arguing against all this, because she sees the truth of it. “But the law is the law. And we uphold the law without interpreting it. We must, or how can we be Guardia?”
“She did what she had to,” he states. “And I believe she did the right thing.”
“Would you have done it?” Mayumi asks. “Would you have killed him, unconscious and broken?”
He pauses. “I’m not sure I could have,” he says after a moment. “I’m not sure my powers would have been enough. But…considering the lives at stake – Yes. In a second.”
She looks at him in shock. “You don’t mean that. You’re an inspector! You’re just speaking up for your friend. And because you don’t want me against her.”
He looks at her sadly. “No. Mayumi… I’m not the kind of inspector your father is. I didn’t come up through the ranks of a normal Guardia Popula career path in a low-crime ward. Before this, I was the Commander’s personal tool, for fixing the problems that couldn’t be fixed in the normal way.” He shakes his head and almost whispers, “I promise you, Alma’s hands are far cleaner than mine.”
“Then…then why is she in trouble?” Mayumi’s head is swimming as she begins to realize this god she feels so drawn toward is not who she thought.
“Nekh was an Archon, pure and simple. If he had been merely a crime boss, there would have been little fuss. Under-equipped Guardia against a powerful god who had clearly stated his intent to murder innocents, a god already responsible for earlier murder attempts and, directly or not, untold murders and other acts of violence through his organization? Alma would probably have received a commendation. But she has shown that Archons can be killed. Even though most of the Archons who were under Nekh’s thumb are glad he is gone, she may be sentenced to Hell simply for showing they are vulnerable.”
His voice is tightly angry, though not at her, she knows – at those who control Alma’s fate. She feels the air go out of her, and she sits in Alma’s chair. She has always known that the Guardia harbors corrupt individuals, those who use their position for personal gain. But the idea that its very leaders, and those in positions of power who set policy for the Guardia itself, care so little for its rules and ideals, this shakes her to her core. This is not what she had been taught.
But even so, she would expect someone like Alma to adhere to those ideals, and it tore at her heart when that was not so, even though she knew Alma did what she did out of love. And now Sky, whose compassion for the people under his protection is so obvious, who she knows was willing to sacrifice his life for her and the other Bunnies, turns out to have even darker sins on his conscience? What has he done? Does she even want to know?
Her heart pounding, without thinking, she blurts out something she has been wanting to say for weeks, regardless of how much of a non sequitur it is in the moment. “I want to apply to the Academy!”
Sky looks stunned. “But…that would mean going away for six months, minimum. And most people take at least a year to graduate.”
“I graduated in six months the first time,” she insists. “My father’s ‘rigid adherence to the ideals of the Guardia’ prepared me well. This will be my second time through.”
He looks at her sadly. “Mayumi…”
Her voice is low but intense. “I can’t just stay here and be a clerk, Sky! I’m Guardia! I need to be out on the streets, helping people. And anyway…” She glances at the bedding. “Things would be better without me around for awhile.”
“That’s not true,” he says. “You’ve been holding your family together–”
“No! I’ve been splitting us apart! And if – when Alma returns…will it be even worse?” She puts her face in her hands and sighs heavily. “Things keep going wrong.”
She feels Sky’s hands on hers, and opens her eyes to find him kneeling before her. “Listen,” he says. “Maybe…maybe you do need to become Guardia. You were raised to be. In your dream-life you were Guardia for years. I understand. But don’t do it in order to run away. If there is a rift, you must heal it before you go.”
She shakes her head. “I don’t know if I can. I mean…they’re right. I’m a terrible person for not standing by Alma without hesitation. But I just can’t be something I’m not.”
“Will you do something for me?” Sky asks. He indicates the bedding. “Take that back to Alma’s home. Move back in. Find a way to start the healing.”
“And I will ask Corporal Lamore and Constable Kaur if it’s all right with them to take you along on simple patrols. Just to help prepare for going to the Academy. Eventually.”
He shakes his head. “I need time. You’d be the first Bunny to join the Guardia. I need to get permission from the Commander. And from Alma. Besides, the next term doesn’t start until the end of the New Year holiday.”
Mayumi slumps. “She’ll never agree.”
“I don’t know,” Sky says. “We’ll see, won’t we? If you prove yourself this way, she’ll be far more likely to agree, won’t she? Now, let’s get your things together and get you sleeping with your family again. I’ll be very surprised if they aren’t overjoyed to see you back. And sometime I really need to get a new sofa for this–”
The door is flung open by Constable Kaur. “There you are, sir!” She pauses for a moment to take in the sight of Sky kneeling before Mayumi, holding her hands, looking for all the world like he’s about to propose marriage to her. “Uh, I uh, um…”
Sky rises smoothly and turns away from Mayumi to face Aliyah. “Yes, Constable? What is it?”
“Somethin’ bad’s goin’ down at the Copper Pot, sir! We need you!”
He glances back briefly at Mayumi and nods, then says to Aliyah, “I’ll be ready in one minute.” Then he strides out to go equip himself in his own office.
Aliyah looks curiously at Mayumi for a moment, glancing over the Bunny’s mid-thigh-length t-shirt and lack of any other clothing. To break the silence, Mayumi stands and asks, “Is there anything I can do to help?” She goes to the bedding and starts rolling it up, neatly.
Aliyah nods. “Oh yeah! Chime’s super shook up! Some pantsless dog god was chasin’ him! Scared the heck out of him. Can you take him to y’all’s room?”
Mayumi turns pale, aghast. “Chime was attacked? Is he all right?”
“He’s fine, just he was real scared. Broke that jerk’s knee though! Ha!” Aliyah’s face sobers after a moment. “Chime’s downstairs. Uh…you been sleepin’ here, May?”
Mayumi nods as she finishes tying a cord around the bundle and lifts it.
“Yeah,” Aliyah says quietly. “Sage said somethin’ ’bout that.”
Mayumi smiles, knowing how much affection there is between Aliyah and Sage, and glad the Bunny would tell Aliyah about his problems. “Well I’m going to try to fix that. Inspector’s orders.”
Aliyah’s plain face lights up with her honest smile. “Awesome! Need any help with that?”
Mayumi shakes her head. “I’ve got it. You have plenty to do, it seems.”
“Right!” Aliyah glances behind her, and over the stair rail. “Oh, Inspector’s ready. Gotta roll!”
Aliyah stomps swiftly down the stairs, and Mayumi follows more slowly and quietly, barefoot, holding her bedroll and wondering what sort of reception she’ll encounter.