Gwydion walks with his hands clasped behind his back, looking down at the ground in front of him, feet idly kicking loose pebbles and the occasional piece of discarded trash.
“I know this is not a perfect situation but how else are we going to find that demon market?” he asks.
On their way over to Master Pak’s place of residence, they have been discussing Rio Novo and Somrak’s new mission. They have taken several approaches to the issue already, always returning to the same conclusion: what other choice did they have?
“You are right,” Alma concedes for maybe the third time. Her voice is low and rings tired with an edge of disappointment. “Just… I wish you had spoken to me first. Or at least stayed for the conversation with Somrak.”
Gwydion glances at her but his eyes do not dare hold her gaze. “I take it it could have gone better. On the other hand, I was half expecting a little more bloodshed. Or at least some bloodshed.”
Alma snorts derisively at the weak attempt at comedy. “Maybe I am losing my edge.”
“If you are, I don’t see it.”
He stops walking and Alma stops as well, turning to face him. Although this is not a busy street, they are under one of the ill-maintained gas-fueled street lights, where anyone could see them. For the sake of professional decorum and of space to figure out how they truly feel about each other, they have chosen to keep their relationship in as much secrecy as can be had with seven Bunnies with good noses around. With exception of Sky, Saira, Geryon and, of course, the Bunnies, no one knows, with any degree of certainty, about the sergeants’ growing romantic attachment. By joint agreement, and a number of reasons on both sides, not a word or gesture is exchanged in public that could reveal their private affections.
Still, tonight, Gwydion seems to need her touch too much to care about keeping secrets. He places a hand on the small of her back and pulls her closer, stroking her cheek with the other. His forehead rests against hers. Alma’s hands find their way around his chest to the middle of his back, holding him in return. She could not care less about being seen with him.
“I am sorry for my impulsiveness,” he says. “And I am sorry I didn’t stay. I should have. If Somrak hadn’t insisted on speaking to you himself, I would have stayed. This doesn’t leave me any more at ease than you.”
Contrary to what she had expected when she had left the station for her harvests after speaking to Somrak, Alma does not feel angry at the magic god for the situation he has put her in. The hours have weakened her initial irritation, given her enough time and peace to process the entirety of the day’s events so far. She is troubled and frightened, but not angry anymore. And maybe because he looks tired and miserable and has already confessed to a poor night’s sleep spent dwelling on the issue, she cannot help but see in him an empathetic partner and not a traitor, like Nekh had suggested. He would never sabotage her, she knows. No, not her Gwydion. He had tried to spare her from making a hard decision about Somrak. She just wishes it had not propelled her into the middle of a decision about Saira.
“Do you…think I made the right decision?” she hesitantly asks.
Sure! Nekh volunteers. Anything that gets her killed is a good call.
Alma ignores him, firm in her decision of not letting him win another round.
Against her, Gwydion stutters a response. “I…I don’t know. It was my idea, I know, but how can I be sure?” He sighs, straightening up to look at the sky above them. “This uncertainty…this is what keeps me faithful to protocol. But, let’s face it, this mission…” He looks at her again. “Isn’t this what he does? Isn’t this what he is good at?”
Alma nods. “Yes. I worry but I don’t quite fear for him. Now, Saira…”
“She has been surviving in these streets for much longer than we have been here,” Gwydion points out. His hands reach behind his back and take hers, bringing them to his chest. “Look, in the end, all we can do is trust them both to be good at what they do, right?”
Alma gently squeezes his fingers with hers. “It’s the first time I have given such orders. Before, it was always my neck on the line and I prefer it that way. If I fail, it is on me.”
“Well, I rather like your neck. I would prefer it to remain whole.”
He releases one of her hands but holds on to the other as they start walking again. He keeps her close, trying to maintain physical contact, but Alma can tell how unusual and uncomfortable this is for him, to walk with fingers interlaced like a teenager flaunting a first romantic conquest. She holds his arm instead, and he moves his hand into his trouser pocket with a grateful glance at her. The position is no less compromising but he seems to feel better about it.
Baby steps, Alma thinks, smiling slightly at him. It is a journey, not a race.
Ugh. Do you want to be any sappier? Nekh complains.
You might as well leave, Nekh, Alma warns him. You have had your fun. You will get nothing more from me tonight.
Wanna bet? Nekh challenges her.
Want to see how much sappier I can get? Alma replies.
Nekh grumbles and moans but she feels the welcome release of his departure soon afterward. She can only hope he will stay away for awhile.
By her side, Gwydion is looking more certain of his steps. “I know it must be frightening,” he notes in a soft voice. “I have never worked with lone agents, either. They are not exactly abundant in the First Ring.”
“They are not abundant anywhere,” Alma states. “I have met a couple of them before. Briefly. Always briefly. Somrak is not the worst of them.”
“How did you meet them?” he asks.
Alma shrugs. “I am a death goddess. Because of my harvests, I am often the first one on the scene. One night, I arrived too early, I guess. Politician’s house, older gentleman just deceased. It was my night off. No badge, no Dei-blue clothing. He was not keen on leaving witnesses.” She grimaces at the memory. “It was…interesting.”
She feels Gwydion cringing ever so slightly. Imagination can be a terrible thing. “And the other?”
“She was Melinor’s love interest,” Alma explains. “But it didn’t last. Mostly because she didn’t last either. Missions go wrong sometimes.”
“Dangerous lifestyle,” he says with a nod.
“Yes. The constant danger makes it all look very exciting and lone agents tend to be quite enticing but…short-lived.”
Gwydion seems surprised at this. “Someone like Somrak…looks enticing.”
Alma chuckles and shakes her head, reminding herself that she is walking with a notorious womanizer whose whole act is based on looking as good as possible. “Oh, almost every bad boy does. Especially if he has good looks to go with the bad attitude.”
“Good looks, huh?” he wonders, seemingly processing all this. “With that scar?”
“Just adds to the charm,” Alma insists. “How did he get it? Why won’t he heal it? It weaves mystery around him. I’m sure you know ladies love mystery…and the prospect of diving into it.”
“That is true,” Gwydion concedes. He holds his silence for a moment. Then, fearfully, he asks, “Do you…find him attractive?”
“Are you asking that because I did not bite his head off before?” she inquires in sweet tones.
“I shouldn’t have asked,” he grumbles.
Alma chuckles. “I will admit he has his charms. I may be celibate but I am not dead.”
She should not be taking so much pleasure in this, but it is too rare an opportunity to see the smooth conquistador off his hinges. Besides, she is not lying. Somrak is strangely attractive. Not in the romantic maybe-I-can-change-him way in which most well-behaved girls would look at a badly-behaved rebel. Much like Melinor and his lover, it seems to be the detached audacity of a condemned soul that calls to her.
“Lovely,” Gwydion mutters, stopping in his tracks.
Alma releases his arm and tilts her head at his complaint. “Is that jealousy I hear in your voice?”
“My dear, I have not been jealous of anyone or anything in over a century. I am the one that others are jealous of,” Gwydion responds in mild annoyance. He sees the grin that his obvious discomfort brings to her lips and sighs. “But I certainly didn’t expect you to be looking elsewhere for company.”
Alma lowers her gaze to his chest as she strokes it, knowing she cannot bring herself to keep a straight face while speaking her next words. “I seem to recall our little agreement of non-exclusive romance going both ways. You are free to pursue others. And so am I.”
A cornerstone of their relationship. After a more detailed explanation about the Bunnies and how Alma can never be sure if a new being will result from having sexual intercourse with any being more powerful than the average demigod, the gods agreed that no exclusivity should be expected on either side. Gwydion is free to satisfy his urges wherever he pleases and Alma free to seek release in any safe partners she may find.
Not that Alma currently wishes to be with anyone but Gwydion or that the god has lost interest in her. Their frustration in not being able to consummate their intimacy keeps climbing exponentially. But the deal was struck to minimize this problem and so it is there for both of them to exploit.
Her eyes find his. “Or was it supposed to benefit only you?”
“No, I…” he protests weakly. With another sigh, he wraps his arms around her, letting his gestures speak instead.
Alma drapes her arms around his neck, bringing her face closer to his. “I must say my attention is very much turned toward a single gentleman. Magic god, quite attractive. Bit of a playboy but what can I say? He is a sweetheart when he wants to be. Helps me feel better when I am down.”
Her words make Gwydion smile. “I guess he’ll just have to keep your attention well away from any…distractions.”
“I hope he does,” she replies, brushing her lips against his in an invitation for a kiss that he gladly accepts.
They break from the kiss but remain embraced. She holds him around the shoulders. Gwydion’s arms tighten their hold around her. Her face hides against his neck, breathing in his strange cologne and blowing gentle warmth on his skin. They both need this moment together, to find peace in each other. She does not want to let go of it.
“Suddenly, I don’t want to attend this practice anymore,” she whispers.
Gwydion chuckles. “That is unfortunate, because we are here.”
“We could come back another day,” she offers, laying her head on his shoulder.
He makes the most of her braided hair and kisses her exposed neck, usually covered by her long, silver-white locks. For a moment, it seems like he will take her offer. Then, he loosens his hold on her.
“It will be fine,” he says, turning her head and kissing her cheek.
Dion knocks on the door, a sliding one which is not fully shut, an opening the width of someone’s head allowing a breeze the flow in and through the house, one which must have been built to its resident’s specifications as it does not match the Three Rats mix of Earth cultures on two continents. “Master Pak?” Dion calls.
From deep within the house, the teacher’s voice replies, “Yes, yes – come!”
Alma looks at Dion. “Not one for social calls, I see…”
Dion grins. “I don’t think he gets that many visitors.”
They both walk in. Just inside the doorway is a small tiled space with shelves for shoes. Dion automatically removes his, so used to it that he doesn’t even need his hands, just using his right toes to slide down the heel of the left shoe, and vice versa, then stepping out of them before stepping up onto the wooden floor of the hallway, turning and picking up the shoes and putting them on one of the low shelves. Alma glances down at her boots and, suppressing a sigh, sits on the edge of the wooden floor to slip her boots off by hand. They are too tall to be placed on a shelf, so she just leaves them on the tiled floor, glancing at Dion to make sure she’s doing it right. He smiles encouragement but reaches past her to place them facing the door.
There are slippers in a basket, but Dion doesn’t put them on, so Alma doesn’t either. They look rather old and worn. As they proceed down the hallway, Alma notices that Dion’s feet move in an irregular pattern, almost as if he is placing his feet for a dance. Alma realizes that he is moving in silence while she is finding the floor quite squeaky. She adjusts her movement and tries to put her feet where Dion has put them, and there are no squeaks. A purposeful defensive system?
There are doors on either side of the hall, some open, some closed; one leads to a kitchen. Dion passes it without a glance, but Alma looks within and sees a young woman, long black hair tied back in a ponytail, glaring at Dion as he passes, remaining still so as not to attract attention. In fact, Alma is struck by how very still this woman is, how much she is able to deflect attention merely by the way she fades from thought through her stillness. Though the woman stands in plain view, Alma almost missed her as well.
The young woman looks at Alma, sees that she has been noticed, and takes a smooth step back into shadow, then turns and disappears around a corner.
“Does Master Pak have a daughter?” Alma asks.
Without glancing back, Dion says, “None that I know of.”
“And no other female wards? That you might know especially well?” Alma asks slyly.
“My dear, not even I would be reckless enough to pursue any female related to one such as Master Pak.”
Despite the low volume of their conversation, Pak’s voice rings out from down the hall, “And what behavior of yours would cause me to be protective of my daughters, Gwydion?”
Dion almost audibly gulps. “None whatsoever, Master Pak.”
Alma chuckles. “These old halls do seem to carry sound thoroughly well. You should be more careful about what you say.”
Opening the door to the dojang itself, they find themselves in a large high-ceilinged room, one wall open to a lovely garden, the floors covered in woven-straw mats. The walls feature racks of swords, spears, and other weapons, along with wooden boards for practicing punching. Pak is sitting roughly in the center of the room, legs folded under him, looking impatient.
Dion bows. “Master Pak, I bring you your new student, as promised.”
Alma bows as well, though it is more of a nod than a bow. “How are you, Master Pak?”
His hands on his thighs, Pak bows slightly to them both. “I am well, thank you, Sergeant. Gwydion, you may go. I will see you tomorrow.”
“Already? I thought–”
Pak holds up a hand. “This new student needs a lesson free of distractions. Teaching you and she to work together comes later. For now – tomorrow, Gwydion.”
Dion looks as if he is about to object, but finally says, “As you wish.” He bows again, doing his best to hide a disgruntled expression, then says to Alma, “Good luck. I will meet you outside once you are done.”
Alma smiles in sympathy. “That would be nice. I will see you later.”
At that, Dion withdraws, closing the door to the dojang behind him.
Pak shakes his head and sighs, allowing a slight expression of concern appear for a moment before turning his attention to Alma. “Sit,” he says, indicating a spot in front of him.
“With your permission,” Alma replies. She sits before him, observing protocol as best as she remembers, sitting with legs folded under like him, an uncomfortable position for someone not used to it.
She notices Pak paying close attention to how she moves, taking note of her balance at every moment, hardly moving his eyes but looking as if he is filing away notes for later. He asks, “Did Lee teach you ‘sticky hands’?”
“In the interest of honesty,” Alma says slowly, “I will admit that Master Lee’s class was not, by far, one of my strongest subjects in Academy training. My fencing skills were what allowed me to get enough credits to pass my martial arts section.”
Pak nods as if this is expected. “Yes, Fencer had good things to say about your sword skills.” He grunts in amusement. “Good things, if you read between what she says and does not say.”
“She has told you about me?” Alma feels mildly astonished that her aunt was complimentary of her ability, even if not directly.
Pak shrugs. “Good things…bad things too.” He raises his right hand, extends so the hand is held vertical as if to strike with the edge, but not in an aggressive sense. “Block this. No need for speed now. Use your forearm.”
Alma puts her forearm to his wrist, moving to deflect the motion outward. She is unsure where this is going.
He slips his arm under hers, slowly, now blocking her. “All attack is defense. All defense is attack. It changes from one to another as naturally as water flowing. This is chi sao, which sounds more dignified than ‘sticky hands’, it must be admitted. The meaning is ‘sensitive contact’. That’s right, keep going. Notice your spine. Your hips. Don’t let me push you off balance, like this–”
Alma finds herself, with but a slight adjustment from Pak, shifted off one hip, and has to recover.
“Do you see?” Pak asks. “Ah yes, that’s better. Now… “ He brings his left arm into play, the shifting interplay of attack and defense becoming more complex, but never so quickly that Alma fails to keep up. It is as if Pak senses exactly how fast her mind and body can absorb this training, how quickly she finds a different sort of balance than she is used to.
She moves her weight from one hip to the other, finding herself losing balance as she thinks about it, remembering why she hated Master Lee’s classes in the first place. Mysterious training that makes no practical sense – at the time. But now she senses how it meshes with that more direct training she received from Fencer. To distract herself from thinking consciously about her balance, she asks, “Who was the young girl in the kitchen?”
“Someone who tried to commit suicide by attacking me. I convinced her to cook for me instead.”
Alma grins. “Someone you saved from a meeting with me, then. I see why she was not very pleased to see me.”
Pak chuckles. “She was not happy with the company you keep.”
Alma falls silent for a moment, then says, “Interestingly enough, not many are. He is, however, good company to keep when one needs someone to trust.”
Pak nods, his expression becoming serious. His arm movements increase in speed until Alma begins to sweat. Alma goes silent, focusing most of all on being a good student, like she learned to be with her aunt. But her arms start to burn with fatigue.
Pak continues to give her subtle pushes and pulls that nearly cause her to go off-balance again, but as she adjusts, she realizes they are causing her to correct tiny flaws in posture and in the nexus between power and pliability, so that even as she grows tired, she finds her balance with greater perfection that she has in a long time. Just as her arms begin to slow with exhaustion, however, he stops, slowly lowering his arms, breathing smoothly.
“Tea?” Pak indicates a small lacquer tray next to her, with two cups and a small ceramic pot with steam rising from the spigot, that seems to have appeared while they were practicing.
Alma breathes deeply but slowly, mastering her breath. “That would be lovely, thank you.”
Pak leans forward and hooks the raised edge of the tray with two fingers and slides it to him. He raises the teapot and swirls it a little to mix the tea and leaves inside, then pours a little into one cup, a little into the other, back and forth until both are about three-quarters full, so that they both have the same strength of tea. As he pours, he says, as if speaking to someone unseen past Alma’s shoulder, but not looking, “Someone has forgotten to bring the sweets.”
Alma, feeling a strange sense of comradery for Pak’s mysterious servant, asks, “Do you like Kyri’s pastries?”
Pak smiles, surely remembering the night they met and the bag of pastries he was carrying. “Very much. But I am not a fan of dancing unless I can choose the music.”
Alma smells the tea, which has an earthy, spicy hint to it, and as she sips finds it is almost toasted in flavor. “I haven’t danced in years,” she says, smiling back. “I will bring you some pastries for my next session.”
“Not too many. There is a reason Miss Kyri is so delightfully round, but I am afraid it would interfere with my style. I would have to take up something less graceful.”
Alma laughs. “Just enough to sweeten your day and a treat for your ward. How does that sound?”
“You know how to make an old man smile. That is a good technique in itself. More useful than most things I could teach you. And your balance improves quickly. You started out turning it into a battle, but you learned that it was a dance, chi sao. Faster by far than Tuma-Sukai did.” Pak shakes his head. “Took days with him to get as far as you did today.”
“Stubborn?” Alma asks after another sip.
“Aggressive. But not trusting his aggression. Not trusting his peace. Not trusting anything. And still…that one learns well, but the wrong lessons.”
“He puts himself in harm’s way with such ease,” Alma says, her voice soft and worried. “But my experience with his trust is different. Sometimes, he trusts too much. No walls.” She shakes her head, looks down. “I would not trust myself the way he has trusted me.” And as she says this, she wonders why she trusts this god enough to say these things.
Pak nods. “He trusts few, but completely. And he has no fear of death. This is not always appropriate, in Guardia work.”
“It is not appropriate anywhere.” Alma sighs. “But some things, I cannot change. I can only keep your words in mind and act accordingly. Keep an eye on him.”
Pak drinks, eyes closed, smiling at the taste. “She improves. When she first came here, she made tea with anger. How can one drink angry tea?” Again Alma senses the words are not meant for her ears alone.
Alma chuckles. “Angrily, of course.”
Smiling, Pak says, “Sometimes anger is appropriate. Sometimes, trust.” He opens his eyes. “And now that your arms have rested, sword work.”