The magical glyphs fade as Sergeant Gwydion cancels his spell of warding, and shortly thereafter one of the doors opens, the one through which Sky and Saira, and later Alma and Gwydion had entered. Now Corporal Stathos cautiously enters, looking around at the interior, visibly relieved that, whatever he has heard from Constable Kaur and others, all fiendish creatures that had lurked within are gone now. Glancing at the mangled bodies of the Snatchers, he swallows nervously, then approaches the Dei and their prisoners.
“Inspector, I have six constables outside. There are twenty-eight children – ah, and here is a twenty-ninth – plus the two Bunnies, and the, er, gryphon.” Stathos stands at attention as he makes his report. “Oh, and a cat.”
Sky stirs, having been sitting cross-legged, head down, during this. He stands, steadier than before, straightens the remains of his armored Guardia jacket, assumes a position nearly as formal as Stathos’ and nods at him. “Thank you, Corporal. We shall need to bring all those children back to the station. We also have these two prisoners,” he indicates the old demigoddess in shackles and the moaning, whimpering sorcerer, “and a wounded ally,” he nods at Saira, whom Alma is still working to heal. “Please organize the children. And make sure none of them run off. I understand most if not all of them are of the street.”
Stathos looks uncertain. “Street children, sir… They may not wish to go to a Guardia station, regardless of how much we wish to help them.”
Sky relaxes fractionally and touches Stathos’ shoulder. “I know, Phillipus. Just get them all there. They’ve been through too much to spend this night in some alley.”
“Yes, sir.” Stathos pauses to take the hand of the child Sergeant Gwydion has been healing. “Sergeant, it is good to see you again,” he says warmly. Though there was rotation every two weeks, Stathos’ shift commander had been Gwydion most of the time since these Dei officers had arrived, until the two Sergeants had been taken away from them by unfortunate circumstances.
“Thank you, Corporal,” Gwydion says, formally but warmly. “It pleases me to see you as well.”
Stathos smiles, and turning to Sergeant Alma, he says quietly, so as not to disturb her at her work, “Sergeant Alma, welcome back.” The goddess glances up and smiles, but she is clearly focused on her healing, so he gives a small bow to her and retreats with the child.
Gods…his grandparents have so many tales of working closely with the gods. His family had been servants of one of the highest families of the First Ring, priests and priestesses, butlers, tutors, stable hands, gardeners – whatever needed doing, they did it.
Until the scandal.
He doesn’t even know what the scandal was. No one in the family speaks of it. Soon, no one who had been old enough to understand it at the time will still be alive. It will be forgotten, as intended.
And where are the gods his family had served? They have left the Urbis, it is whispered, something that is inconceivable to him. For even though he has never lived in the First Ring, though he had been born and has lived his whole life here in Three Rats, he will always picture himself as he has been raised to: a proud servant of an honorable family of gods, among the grand palaces and temples at the lofty peak of the City of Heaven.
No matter how many generations his family will have to live in the Fourth Ring, at heart they will always belong to the First – even those who, like Philippus Stathos himself, have never had the good fortune of seeing the First Ring with their own eyes.
But even living in the Fourth Ring is better by far than leaving this world for some other altogether. The Urbis is all, the only place worth living in. Everywhere else is nothing more than barbaric.
And so he smiles as he looks upon the little herd of children. Constable Kaur – silly, friendly Aliyah – has taken charge of them, and is currently getting them to play at being Guardia, Acting Constables, standing at attention and shouting their names for her. She is amazing with children. He wishes he were as good. He loves his own daughters, but he also finds solace in the long hours of his job. He’s not always the best at knowing what to do or say around them.
He sees the two Bunnies, Sage and Mayumi, talking. They look rather shaken, and Mayumi suddenly bursts into tears and embraces Sage tightly. Stathos looks away. He knows them better than any of the other Bunnies, because they work within the station itself, and he knows that May, in particular, tries to stay formal in public. Sage, while less formal, is always calm, even-keeled. Stathos respects that, having been raised to value axioprepeia, seriousness and dignity.
He has a word with the constables about the need to keep the children with them as they return to the station, and as he speaks he spots a face in the small crowd of the curious who have come to see what the commotion is. A man in a sharp suit, long hair slicked back and tied in a ponytail, except for one lock carefully twisted into a curl that hangs on his forehead. Sallow skin, pockmarked by the scars of acne, one eye drooping slightly. Stathos does not need to think to memorize that face. The way those eyes glare at him, the expression of quiet malevolence, tells him this is a man who wishes him and all those with him nothing but ill.
Stathos locks eye with the onlooker, silently daring him to do something worth challenging him over. But the man merely smirks and turns away, slipping off into the darkness.
Sky closes the door to Alma and Dion’s office, dampening the tumult of the crowded station, filled as it is with Guardia from three shifts, over two dozen children who range from terrified seven-year-olds clinging to the leg of anyone who gives them a kind smile, to stone-faced pre-teens who refuse to say a word to blueshirts just on principle, and two panicky parents whose child was the only one not an orphan.
Other than Sage.
Sky leans against the door, feeling lighter than air now that he has left his weapons and his armored jacket – fit only for the rubbish heap after what it has been through this night, giving its life for his – in his own office. He watches the Sergeants as they look around the office they haven’t seen in weeks. They have been prisoners amid luxury; what must they think of returning to this narrow office, barely larger than his own cramped room, but with both of them jammed in together?
Alma is looking at accounting receipts on her desk – the desk Mayumi has been using to take care of station paperwork. She extends a hand over the fish bowl that sits on her desk and absent mindedly imparts a blessing over the small cactus and tiny hydrophobic nymph that dwell within.
Immediately, “Hmm… this is new,” Dion says, looking at the sofa.
Sky glances at it. Inexpensive, simple, but comfortably functional, it was, until three days ago, in his own apartment. But then, he doesn’t use that apartment, it being merely a front for his secret, pocket-universe home. The sofa had been serving little purpose there other than camouflage.
“Well, after I broke yours…” he begins, then shakes his head. He steps forward and grips Dion’s shoulder, then Alma’s upper arm, grinning so hard it almost hurts. “It is so good to see both of you! I’m sorry…I don’t think I said it earlier. If I did, I’ve forgotten. All the fighting, the worry.” He inclines his head and sighs, now holding them as if they are the only thing keeping him on his feet. A wave of fatigue washes over him, making him wobble slightly.
Alma chuckles and takes his arm. “Maybe you should have a seat. You look exhausted.”
“As he should be, after trying to face a demon alone.” Dion takes the other arm, and together they guide Sky to the sofa, into which he sinks gratefully.
He lays his arms along the back of the sofa and lets his head fall back, so he is looking up at the ceiling. He has to admit, his eyes are burning from exhaustion. “Well I certainly wasn’t expecting a demon. You two couldn’t have shown up at a more opportune moment. I really thought…” He cuts off that gloomy thought and looks at Alma. “But I wasn’t alone, was I? Will Saira be staying with you?”
Alma sits on the edge of her desk, her slender hands gripping the corners. “I don’t see any other way of looking after her than letting her stay. Doctor Nataniel is a skilled physician, but something tells me that demonic venoms are somewhat out of his usual line of work.”
Sky nods sadly, ashamed, remembering the reluctance Saira expressed in helping him. “I would think so. I…rather pushed her into helping. But I could never have found that warehouse in time without her. Just tell me what you need. Anything.”
Alma smiles. “For now, just rest will do. I will let you know if there is anything else to be acquired.” She rubs her eyes. “I think we could all use some rest.”
“Yes, this isn’t quite the welcome party I had in mind,” Dion agrees.
Smiling weakly, Sky says, “We will have to make up for that, when things are a little calmer.” He pauses, looking from one to the other, then focuses on Alma. “So…you will be here for some time then?”
“Yes. I will be.” She glances at Dion, who is straightening his jacket, frowning at the stain of demon blood on the left sleeve.
“Is it all over, then? Are you back?” Sky asks. Desperation lends his voice a rough edge.
“We were acquitted,” Dion says. “Now we start anew. But perhaps Sergeant Alma could explain it, as the heaviest part of the sentence falls upon her.”
Alma tilts her head in confusion. “Gwydion, is everything all right?”
Dion looks at her, his expression of tiredness too perfectly held to be fully sincere. Beneath it, Sky can see the hidden signs of obvious discomfort and inner turmoil. “Pardon me. I just need a little air. My head is throbbing from the mana I used. Maybe I’ll just join the Popula outside and help interview any parents that may show up asking about a lost child.”
Sky blinks, confused, then says, “Certainly. But…Gwydion.”
“You’ve just saved my life,” Sky says with a tired smile. “And we’ve all done as much for each other more than once. I don’t want to make you uncomfortable, but…if it would please you to do so, call me Sky. At least when it’s just the three of us, though I wouldn’t mind it at any time or place. In fact, it would be a pleasure.”
Dion hesitates, then says, “Of course. Sky. Please call me Dion. I hope you don’t mind if I take my leave.”
Sky nods and Gwydion exits, closing the door behind him. Alma watches him go and is left staring at the door. She sighs after a moment.
Turning his head back to Alma, brow furrowed, Sky says, “He was uncomfortable. What is it, Alma?”
Alma looks at him with a strange sadness in her eyes, resignation and mild disappointment in it. She fiddles with a pencil, rolling it on the desktop. “The sentence. I was sentenced to stay here with the Bunnies, where I will be far away from more…important eyes. Gwydion, however, is not bound by such problems. He was offered a chance to return to the First Ring. And he is struggling with it.”
“Oh.” Sky leans forward, elbows on his knees, looking down and speaking slowly. “No one could blame him for leaving. Returning to his home.”
Alma crosses her arms. “I certainly wouldn’t. And I told him as much. He does not belong here, Sky. Of us three, he is the least prepared for all this.”
Sky stays silent for a time, looking at nothing. Then he rouses and looks up at Alma, half-smiling. “He may surprise me yet, but…I believe he will stay.”
“Then he is more of a fool than I made him out to be.” She breathes deeply, then moves closer to him, to stroke a lock of hair away from his eye. “And how are you, my friend?”
Sky’s smile broadens at her kind words and caring touch. He glances over himself. “Filthy. I must smell awful.” Rubbing the back of his head with one hand and then examining the soot on his palm, he asks, “Is my hair burnt?”
“When was the last time you slept?” Alma asks, ruthlessly.
He looks up at her, answering her question with his guilty expression. “I am very well, Alma. Now that you are out of danger, and here.”
“Hmph.” Alma crosses her arms, looking an accusation at him. “Well, I believe our close encounter with a demon somewhat disproves your assumption that I am out of danger. But yes, I am here and apparently, I can’t leave. So… You are stuck with me.”
“I could not ask for more. That unfair sentence is to my benefit, I’m sorry to say. I would be at a loss if you were to leave. And of course your leaving would mean the Bunnies would leave as well. As much as they have been in trouble recently, they have become very dear to me.”
Alma exhales deeply, running her hand over his hair. “Well, then I guess you won’t mind if I go and join them. It has been awhile since I have had more than brief moments with them.”
Sky stands slowly, like an old man barely able to rise. “Yes. You should be with them. And I shall clean up.” He steadies himself with a hand on Alma’s shoulder, then they lock eyes and move into an affectionate embrace, like that of friends who have known each other for years. He cradles her head against his chest, marveling again at how he bore years at a time with no one to hold, no one to hold him. The closest thing to friends he had since returning to the Insula and even decades before that had not really been friends. Allies, commanders, partners, but not like this.
After a moment they let each other go, and Alma smiles up at him, blinking rapidly. She lightly slaps his chest. “Go and get cleaned and do something about that hair. Your shirt is torn as well. The Bunnies and I will wait for you at the bar for a drink. Which,” she sighs, “by the look of it, will probably have to be milk, so as to not set a bad example for our little guests.” She opens the door to let him out. “See you soon!”
He chuckles, and walks to the stairs, descending back into the barely reduced pandemonium of the main floor of the station, on his way to his office.