“…and Somrak will be trailing me as I make the meeting with Lucky Pete,” Gwydion finishes. “Thank you, Cherry,” he adds as the Bunny bartender sets his brown ale before him. She serves Somrak and Alma too, but pauses a moment to look at Alma questioningly before she puts the last one on the table in front of Saira.
Even as Alma nods, Saira complains, “Oh come on, Cher! She already said it was fine!”
Smiling, Cherry raises the pint glass to Saira in a toast, and places it before her. “To your health, hon.”
“That’s right,” Somrak says, raising his glass as Cherry fades back to the bar. “To your health. We wouldn’t have this lead without you.” His hair, including the single silver-blue lock he received from Starfax, falls over his eye and he uses his free hand to push it out of the way.
Saira sardonically raises her pint in return. “All hail my first ale!” She takes a deep quaff and sighs in contentment. “Ah, the taste of freedom.”
“Easy there now,” Alma cautions her. She feels almost sure Saira’s nerves are nearly back to normal, but she is still proceeding with caution. She wonders about her own nerves. Nekh has been strangely silent since the battle with the demon. After draining her Death sphere, she could no longer hear his voice, but now it has nearly returned to normal. Yet no Nekh. Mentally, she shrugs, and decides to be grateful for small respites.
“I know, I know,” Saira groans, reaching down to scratch Lexie’s back as the cat rubs her face against Saira’s leg. The assassin holds up the glass and looks at the dark contents. “Dang, Cher, this stuff tastes great! Is it just ‘cause I haven’t had a drink in forever?”
Merri answers while Cherry concentrates on adding a precise amount of vermouth to an experimental cocktail. “Breowyn put us onto that one. Called Bellhaven, from Little Falls. The brewer makes rum, too, an’ he ages the beer in oak casks that were used for the rum. Tasty, innit?”
“Hint of rum…no wonder I like it.” Saira takes another drink, only a single mouthful this time, then shoots Somrak a look as he again pushes his hair back behind his ear. “Will you stop doing that to your hair? Man, you look like a total girl.”
“I need a new hair tie,” Somrak mutters. “Always losing those things.” Then he looks at his hand, rolls his eyes, and holds his hand out to the others so they can see a few specks of glitter on his fingers. They laugh, and he says, “I’ve washed my hair twice. Still finding them.”
Sitting beside him, Alma shakes her head. “It’s amazing you can even keep one on for long.” She brushes her fingers through his hair, making Somrak smile like a cat getting its ears rubbed. “With hair so smooth, I’d imagine they would slide off after a few minutes.”
Saira reaches back to her own golden-brown hair and pulls free her hair tie. Shaking her locks loose, she holds out a silvery elastic band with two faceted black stones, onyx, dangling from it. “Here, you can have mine.”
Somrak takes it, looking amused and skeptical. “This seems…flashier than I would have expected you to wear. Those hard cases I usually work with – you’re just trying to get me killed, aren’t you?” Still, he spreads it on his fingers, draws his glossy black hair back with both hands, and twists the tie to make a ponytail. He turns his head to show it off. “There? Am I pretty now?”
Saira chuckles and takes another sip of her beer. “You’re a real prettyboy. Though I gotta say it looks better on white hair.”
Alma says, looking at Saira with fake annoyance, “That would be because it was originally bought to tie white hair.”
“Oh!” Somrak reaches behind his head to remove it. “I shall return it to you, Lady Alma.”
Alma laughs and matches his parody of First Ring dialect. “I bestow this favor upon thee, gallant warrior. May it serve as an amulet of good fortune in thine upcoming battles.”
Somrak smiles, but his voice becomes more serious. “My thanks…I shall keep it in memory of my all-too-brief time here, and my wise and gracious commanding officer.”
He holds Alma’s gaze for a moment, and Alma remembers Somrak’s babbling from when she was healing him. But he glances down, spotting Lexie slithering between his legs, and strokes the cat from head to tail as she moves back toward Saira.
Alma snorts. “Rosemary,” she calls toward the bar, “I think Sergeant Somrak has had more than his share of beer already.”
Somrak swiftly finishes the last gulp in his pint. “Yes, time to switch to whisky. If I know Sky, he has a personal bottle or twelve stowed somewhere. He likes the good stuff, I have to give him that.” And to Saira he says, jerking a thumb at Dion, “And he’s Prettyboy. I’m Ponytail.”
Dion sighs. “Prettyboy and Ponytail. It sounds like an adventure-comedy novel.” Somrak bursts out in laughter, but Gwydion suddenly looks confused, then seems to be experiencing a headache.
Alma, concerned, asks, “Everything all right?”
“I sense…no…” He makes a small mystic gesture with his right hand, then his eyes open wide. “The tracer spell–”
Cherry screams and points just as a fat, filthy creature the size of a large kitten leaps from the windowsill to land, skidding and scrabbling, in the middle of the table, knocking Somrak’s drink off the edge to shatter on the floor in an explosion of glass and foam. They take a moment to realize it is in fact a rat. Its fur is matted and pointing in every direction as if it hasn’t groomed itself in days, and the smell that hits them is that of a rotting corpse.
For a moment everyone freezes, leaning away from the rat as it turns its dull, dead eyes to each of them, as if memorizing their faces. It looks at Alma last, opens its chinless mouth to reveal long incisors, and out of its throat comes a voice.
“Death Clan…” the rat hisses. The voice is human and full of malevolence, one that could never have emerged from a rodent’s mouth.
Then it leaps. Straight at her face.
Alma is unmoving, eyes wide, time slowing. Something slams into her – Gwydion, tackling her, knocking her to out of her seat, but the rat is stopped, a swift shape slamming it to the tabletop, Somrak, a wild look in his eyes, standing over it, hand on the hilt of a dagger, the undead creature struggling where it is pinned to the table, suffering no pain from the blade.
There is a thunk as Somrak’s chair, knocked back as he stood, comes to a stop against the wall. Saira is holding an enraged cat, Lexie, apparently seized mid-pounce by the assassin. There is a moment of silence.
“Are you hurt?” Gwydion’s voice is a whisper in Alma’s ear.
She shakes her head, then convulsively grabs his forearm, holding tightly, and begins to shiver as the rat speaks again, slapping its tail against the table.
“Alma… What if I’d had a soul bomb strapped to me? Think what would have happened, Alma. But that would have been too easy.”
Gwydion raises a hand and begins to whisper a spell, but the rat squeaks and goes limp. Gwydion’s eyes glow golden and he concentrates, but after a moment he curses.
Somrak, hunched over the corpse, still gripping the handle of the blade, asks, “Connection cut?”
Gwydion nods. “Whoever was controlling it…I can’t track her.”
“Then can I burn this cursed thing?” Somrak’s voice is filled with a passionate loathing.
“Wait!” Gwydion helps Alma to her feet, looks at her with concern and makes certain she’s standing steadily, then turns to the rat and carefully teases his fingers at its belly, pulling away a glowing spider-like wraith. “My tracer spell.” His voice is grim.
“They know…” Alma moans, her voice shaking.
Staring at the rat, shoulder bunched, Somrak grinds out, “That merchant is either dead, or he’s been warned off from meeting us. Our only lead…”
Alma’s voice rises. “If it had had a bomb…”
If it had been a bomb, Nekh’s long-silent voice echoes in her mind, all these people you love would have been caught in it, dear Alma.
She takes a step back, looking around at Gwydion, Somrak, Saira with the cat still trying to get at the pinned rat – finally at Rosemary and Cherry where they are holding each other behind the bar. Her children. Her cherished, silly, loving, caring children. She remembers the shredded souls of Corporal Stathos and the prisoners after the first soul bomb was set off in their holding cells. Gibbering, ruined shades, insane, full of an unreasoning hunger for other souls in order to satiate their agony, never to be reincarnated, only to be returned to the Wheel with great effort and peril, and to be lost forever – a merciful annihilation. For these people she loves, for her own daughters to suffer such a fate…
And you couldn’t do a damned thing about it, could you? Useless! Nekh’s voice is gleeful in its taunting.
She cannot breathe. She cannot breathe! She wants to scream but she cannot breathe!
Nekh laughs. Just think about it! How Mayumi and Tulip and Sage and…the other two, whatever their names are – how they would feel, their older siblings stolen from them so horribly. Think about how Sky would feel, coming back to find that. How much would they blame the inadequate Death goddess who was the real target anyway?
Why isn’t everyone screaming?
All. Your. Fault. You broke the rules. Now the criminals don’t hesitate to go after Guardia, and Guardia families.
Without a sound, she flees out the door, into the night.