“Such strange characters,” Dion notes, still chuckling from the sight of Becech and Babami arguing.
Walking by his side, steps silent but sure, Alma seems to glide over the dark floors, through hallways in which the decoration changes ever so slightly every now and again, indicating a different area reserved to another wife. Sometimes music plays as they walk, sometimes strange but pleasant scents waft in from an archway, sometimes the sound of voices speaking softly, too softly to make out the words.
“I am afraid that any large family comes with a few of those, my dear,” Alma replies in serene tones. “Would it help if I told you that Becech’s youngest son is also my oldest brother?”
Dion considers this for a moment. “Suddenly, I don’t want a big family.”
The reply has Alma laughing. “It is not all bad, I assure you.”
Her pleasant laugh, fresh like water running in a young river, echoes through the hallways and spreads warmth around her. Much different from her usual cold and dark humor that barely allows for more than a chuckle, it brings a smile to Dion’s lips. For a moment he thinks he is seeing a glimpse of a different, maybe younger Alma, one who can still find joy in the world. Her hair, pulled behind her left ear, reveals the ever-present earring shaped like a lily from which a silver rod hangs and a chain stretches up her earlobe.
“Alma…” Dion starts carefully, fearing for a moment to be stepping on forbidden ground. “I have seen you and your brothers wear those earrings. And now I have seen the one Becech wears. What do they mean?”
Alma doesn’t seem bothered by the question, speaking in the calm explanatory tones of one who is used to answering such questions. “They are clan marks, signaling our lineage. My father’s children and his wives wear the earring on their left ear. Each different flower is unique to each wife, indicating our mother. The silver rod is only meant for the progeny.”
“Why is there any need for marks?” Dion insists. “It almost looks like Death is marking his children like one would mark cattle for slaughter.”
“It is in fact, the other way around, Gwydion,” Alma continues with her explanation. There is no anger in her voice at Dion’s comment but somehow she seems to take great care to keep it level. “My uncle, Becech’s consort, had an unhealthy tendency to create new life forms by mixing and matching dead bodies and animating them with stray souls. Some were very clearly artificial – others could almost pass for completely viable. When the Council found out, there was a mandatory purge. The markings were instituted as an assurance that Father’s children were truly his own and each new child must be marked before witnesses.” She sighs. “Father’s political image was badly tarnished. It was our family’s greatest scandal.”
“Until the Bunnies…” Dion mutters under his breath.
If Alma hears him, she chooses to ignore his words.
“Family has its moments,” she states, looking at him. “Sometimes it pulls you up, sometimes it drags you under. I have never walked taller than when I walk these halls and yet…” She looks at the floor for a moment before looking back at him, a rebellious strand of hair falling over her left eye. “I didn’t really grow up until I left.”
They reach a simple wooden door. The goddess reaches for the knob and opens it to peek inside.
“Ah, good. Mother isn’t here. Her record halls are just beyond the gardens. Come.”
They enter an octogonal garden limited by high marble walls. In the center, a simple, almost inconspicuous stone fountain sends fresh water into a myriad of channels that irrigate countless vases and flower beds. The explosion of greenery that crowds the garden makes it seem both small and endless, cozy but gigantic. The plants grow and stretch from and into every little available patch of earth, space and light, and yet the stone paths that crisscross the garden are kept clean and open, as if the plants knew better than to occupy them. Strange, exotic flowers sprout side by side with cacti and rosebushes and even short, stubby trees that give more than one kind of fragrant fruit.
For a moment, Dion forgets the purpose of his visit and breathes in the perfect symphony of freshness and flowery scents. His eyes close to give way to other senses. The tireless buzzing of insects, the rushing of water, the electric feeling of life being intensely lived all around him, bring back memories of carefree summer days spent lying on his back and watching the clouds change shape while teams of tutors and servants looked for him in a panic. Dion inhales peace and exhales bliss.
“What a beautiful garden,” he whispers. Speaking louder than a whisper in this place feels to him almost blasphemous.
However, Alma’s voice sounds harmonious and gentle as she announces, “Welcome to Lyria’s garden! My mother’s garden.”
Before Dion, ivy and papyrus plants surround little islands of flowers that turn their petals away from the god, curling around their stalks as if trying to hide from him. From the sand around them, glass-colored leaves and spikes emerge in circles, into which innocent flies fall to their death.
“I don’t think I have ever seen some of these plants,” Dion comments.
“Some of them do not exist anywhere else,” Alma concedes. “As a goddess of Life, she is often asked to create new plants.”
Dion strokes the leaves of a rose bush that seems to chuckle soundlessly at his touch. “She is truly talented.”
“Yes,” Alma agrees with a smile. “There is perfection in everything she does.”
Dion looks at Alma as she walks just slightly ahead of him, beaming with joy for being here. The goddess’ long, pure silvery-white hair reflects the filtered light from the tinted panels of the skylight, now turning flaxen, like ripe wheat in the fields, now burning copper, now bathed in pale shades of green. She seems to glide among the flowerbeds, touching the occasional flower and murmuring soft words, slender and graceful, a goddess of life spreading blessings around her.
“I have no doubt about it,” he whispers.
It seems nearly impossible that she could ever have killed Nekh in cold blood, he thinks.
Almost as if replying to this dark thought, Alma looks at him with a smile and holds a finger to her lips, asking for silence.
“Listen…” she urges.
Around Dion, leaves start to rustle, moved by some unseen breeze. In the bushes, flower buds of all colors begin to move and open, revealing the slender winged creatures that lie sleeping within. Stretching lazily, they flap their dragonfly wings and take flight, their long dresses filling the air with flower petals and rainbow drops. Moving in perfect synchrony, the pixies gather in a circle high above the gods and begin to dance through the air, showering the whole garden in sparkling, colorful dust.
From what look like pitch-black hives hanging from the occasional tree branch and archway, hundreds of colorful dots of light emerge into the dance. Without warning, the garden begins to hum a soft tune, wordless at first.
And then, the colorful flying creatures join in, singing welcomes to their beloved guests.
“Come, now come where nature sings
In the glorious joy of all things
Where magic sets and life expects
The guests that Fate still brings
Where graceful hops of water drops
Make flowers bloom in rings
Where walls of vine on stone recline
And drink from the lips of the springs
“Come lady bright from the shadow of night
Rest your soul in the light of the day
In flowery beds where Lyria spreads
The gift that brings you her way
Leave now in our care the burdens you bear
Your ghosts now leave and let lay
Emerge new and warm from the eye of the storm
Be reborn from the arms of the Fey.”
Dion takes in the scene, each verse registering as beautiful and strange, like pieces of a story yet to be revealed. He glances at Alma, for a moment, to see her fully entranced by the song and dance, smiling like a child on the verge of a giggle, and the vision makes him smile as well. The last few days have been rich in her fresh, radiant laughter and he wonders if they can somehow salvage that and keep it once they return to Three Rats.
As he thinks of this, a firefly-pixie looking like a tiny young girl much smaller than the others, dressed in a short black gown striped yellow, with two pairs of delicate antennae and a bulbous abdomen that glows bright yellow, detaches from the singing swarm and lands on Dion’s nose, tapping it lightly with her four little feet. He opens a hand in invitation and she jumps onto his palm, her short wings flapping to ease her fall, so fast that he can barely see them. She sits looking at him, legs crossed, and starts singing, her head swaying and tilting with each modulation of her song. Her voice is so meek to his ears that Dion has to bring her closer to his face and strain to catch her words.
“Oh, Prince of Charms that ignorance harms
Be prepared for what you may find
The secrets inside that linger and bide
May hide the truth of your kind.
Now open your eyes for secrets and lies
Break ties that nurture and bind
Love set apart from a wandering heart
Be the start of fates intertwined”
She finishes her bit and waves goodbye at him. Before Dion can respond, she sets off and joins the others and, suddenly, the garden bursts into song, booming in a heavenly choir of flowery voices for the final encore.
“Oh come, now come where worries are none
And Winter dissolves into Spring
Where blackbirds fly and agonies die
And time goes by without sting
Bring shadow and light, bring fear and fright
Where hearts and souls learn to sing
Where hearts grow and soar and woe is no more
And life reveals everything.”
The song reaches its end, fading away softly, while the pixies return to their stems, hives and flower buds and return to their late afternoon sleep, leaving Dion and Alma alone once again in the middle of the garden, by the stone fountain. The goddess turns to Dion and beckons him to be still and quiet. Just before she covers his eyes with her hand, he notices for the first time a faint golden-red glow around her blue eyes. Her white dress has turned pale green, glinting with gold in the filtered light.
Her fingers touch his eyelids gently, keeping them lowered. He feels her moving closer to him, her cheek brushing against his for a moment. She moves away a few breaths later, uncovering Dion’s eyes as she does so.
“Here we are,” she states softly.
Dion opens his eyes to a large, dimly lit room. Clearly, they are not in the garden anymore. Bereft of any other decoration, the room features only ten altars set in a circle, each sculpted with different motifs, from plants and mushrooms to dragons and humans, on which large tomes lie. In the center, a thinner, taller altar sits and that seems to be where Alma is headed.
“A translocation spell?” Dion ventures. “Your skills do not cease to amaze me.”
Alma nods, looking at the altars around her. “I have had good teachers. However, this is not my spell.”
“Then how did you do it?” Dion insists, looking at the floor around him for signs of spells drawn on the stone floors. “A portal, perhaps? Triggered by a password or a gesture?”
Alma grins and looks at him this time. “I cannot go around telling you all my secrets, Gwydion.”
Finding no signs of spells or secret portals, Dion walks toward the goddess, a disarming smile at the ready.
“I do not see why not.”
Alma takes a tome from an altar sculpted with strange figures with human bodies and the heads of animals and of short, hairy men with two heads and goat horns. She looks intently at Dion before setting it on the taller altar.
“Because you might learn things you do not like. Or others you like too much.” She turns her attention to the tome. “Now, let us see… This should be the right volume.”
Placing her hand on the cover, she whispers a small incantation. Dion catches her saying his name. As she takes her hand off the book, the cover turns and pages flip until they stop in a chapter titled with the god’s name.
Alma’s soft expression becomes heavy with confusion. “Strange…”
Taken by curiosity, Dion peeks over her shoulder. What he sees has him frowning. “Why is the information blurred out?”
Before them, the pages pertaining to Dion’s lineage and most of his childhood appear as blurry lines of illegible text.
“I don’t know,” Alma replies, clearly as surprised as he is. “It shouldn’t be. I have never had this happen before.”
“The parts about my uncle are here.” Dion reads. “Why is the information about my parents gone?”
“Other records look fine. Let us try your uncle,” Alma suggests, closing the tome again. A few more whispered words and the book opens of its own volition again on a chapter named Math. “Math… It says here that he has a sister.”
“Has? Or had?” Dion asks, barely able to contain his curiosity.
Alma scours the book for answers. “I can’t tell, really. The information on her has been blurred out as well. All I can tell you is that her name is Eidon.”
Dion shakes his head, overwhelmed for a moment at the news. “I have never heard that name. Or even of a sister. I always assumed that it was my father who shared a blood connection with Math.”
His mind seems to spin with all the questions arising with the knowledge suddenly revealed. He turns away and places a hand on the altar left empty when Alma took the tome.
“I am sorry I cannot help you any further,” Alma states, moving closer to him. “I would need more information about her to access Father’s archives, and if it was Mother who blurred out these records, then I don’t stand a chance at an answer even if I ask her directly.”
Her words take time to register. Dion can barely feel the goddess close to him, so immersed in his own thoughts he finds himself. It is not until she places a hand on his, still clutching the altar for support, that he wakes up to her presence.
“You have given me what could very well be my mother’s name,” he says distractedly, almost formally. He turns to her. “Eidon… Words cannot express how grateful I am to you.”
Alma looks in his eyes for a moment, seems to read the chaos in his thoughts. She smiles sadly and empathetically at him.
“I am glad I could help. Now, come, or Pavia will start thinking we were foolish enough to escape.”