Darkness falls across the land…and it’s already half an hour late. The nice fellow driving the sun around must have had a few too many to drink this time around. Took his time moving the damned thing across the sky. Which is funny, come to think of it, because no one in their right mind would take twelve hours to drag a massive ball of fire across the heavens. No one even remotely sane would think of strapping it to a wooden chariot either.
Daytime would probably last about three seconds if they gave the job to a mortal. And fireproof underwear had better be included in the deal. But darkness is a completely different matter. Darkness is good and steady. No need for a babyfaced god to sprinkle it over the place or for some heavenly lotto to decide who gets to drag it out of storage each day. It falls softly over cities and fields like a mother tucking in her child. In the wake of day, in the wake of light, darkness stretches from every corner, sometimes lazy and yawning, sometimes quick and pouncing. Always reliable. Always lying in waiting in its burrows, awake even during the day. Powerful even under the sun.
Light has to be sparked. But darkness is always there.
Night has fallen on Three Rats. To the untrained eye, of course, this may seem hard to notice. Many alleys in Three Rats see about as much light as a mole rat’s tunnel, after all. But the wider streets and plazas are a good place to start looking for nighttime. For one, they are dark now, sunlight replaced by the dim, buzzing light of the street lamps that spend more time going out than doing their job. Second, they are quiet. Well, quieter. Whoever thought of the expression urban jungle clearly knew what they were talking about. The traffic and babble of daytime have been replaced by hushed and drunken conversations (three words that don’t always fit together in the same sentence) that serve to build up the quiet of night in the same way a few noctivagous rodents, some very unlucky insects and the occasional romantically inclined frog band together to make jungle nights feel slightly less disturbing.
But the third thing about Three Rats nights… that is what makes them different here. Forget the stars and all that crap. Sure, they are pretty and shiny and distant and cold and you can get a great view of them on clear nights like this. But stars are like furniture in a landscape. Only ever miss it when you sit down and your rear end takes a bit longer to hit something solid. No, what makes the night in Three Rats is the breeze. That quiet, odorless breeze that brushes against the skin like lightning going by, that makes the heart rush, the blood pump, the brain think all sorts of crazy and dangerous thoughts. It carries the sounds of distant voices, the taste of different crimes. And on a good night, between all the things it brings, the unmistakable signs…of prey.
But not tonight.
Tonight the breeze wafts gently over the rooftop of the building annex to the Three Rats Guardia Station and curls around the sinuous figures that emerge from inside the building, through the access door. Instinctively silent by virtue of their trades, they cross the flat rooftop (not like there are huge downpours or blizzards on this part of the Insula) in the direction of the chimney. Against the coolness of night, the slightly warm bricks of the kitchen exhaust feel pleasant against their backs as they sit down against it. From here, the never quite sleepy ward sprawls away downslope, with its streetlights and with glimmers that go all the way to the Fifth Ring. On a clear day, the ocean would be visible, way down there. Now there is only blackness.
Somrak uncorks the whisky bottle he swiped from the bar downstairs and holds it up. “What do we do about glasses?”
Two whisky glasses clink in front of him almost immediately. He looks at his drinking buddy for the night with that typical male look of How on the Isle did you manage to hide that on your person? that men everywhere have used at least once when meeting a woman with sticky fingers.
“Here ya go,” Saira offers. “I was gonna swipe some ice but that might not have been a good idea…”
“Oh, this is fine whisky. We can have it neat.” Somrak replies, pouring a couple of fingers worth of the amberine liquid into each glass. Putting the bottle down, he takes his glass and raises it. “Cheers.”
Saira touches her glass to his. “Saúde.”
The first touch of the drink to her tongue is like a hot little wake-up call to her taste buds. She has to admit it, Sky does have good taste in the stuff. Smoky, peaty, with a strange hint of seaweed to it, the liquid sloshes happily against the roof of her mouth, on its way to her throat. Like an old friend come visiting.
If Saira had any of those left. She drinks in silence for a moment and so does Somrak. Truth be told, they hadn’t managed to be completely sneaky about this rooftop drinking thing. Damned Bunnies with their ears and noses had caught the jingle of the bottle or the smell of disturbed dust or something and nearly shut down operation Drunken Rat. But for some miracle or other, Cherry had apparently decided not to be a pain. Saira had caught her whispering a plea to Somrak not to let things get too out of hand. It’s equal parts sweet and unnerving for Saira, a self-made woman who hasn’t known a fixed address for decades and who has survived (and profited from) more gang wars than most high-class thugs can brag about, to be mothered by a Bunny. Times like this, it is even embarrassing, verging on humiliation.
She finds herself holding the glass very tightly between her fingers. A deep breath and she relaxes her grip. This kind of thing could be enough to set off another one of her…episodes. Glancing to her left, at where Somrak sits, she finds the god gazing at the landscape ahead of him, eyes half shut, whisky glass held lightly from a hand perched on his knee.
“Feelin’ better now?” she asks, more out of a need for a distraction than actual curiosity.
He looks at her as if he is just noticing her presence for the first time. The answer takes a while to come. “Mmm, yeah.” He turns his eyes to the greys and blacks of the sleepy ward. “I see why you like it up here.”
“I’d like it better if I didn’t have to worry about crampin’ up and fallin’ but that’s not gonna last long,” Saira replies bitterly. The feeling of entrapment in this cozy little home has been growing quickly in her over these last few days. She dismisses these thoughts and looks into her glass, twirling the whisky inside to release the scent stored in the drink. “You gonna tell me what that was downstairs or you just wanna enjoy the landscape?”
Again, that look like words are only barely registering for Somrak. He tilts his head in confusion, then straightens again. “Oh…you mean the rat and the fire and all that?”
Saira snorts. “Well, sure ain’t talking about glitter and goddesses stroking your hair, am I?” She catches him smiling at that.
Ha! Knew it. And totally oblivious to the fact that she’s taken, too.
She considers telling him about Alma and Dion but decides against it. It’s none of her business. All she’d manage to do is cause pain on an already bad night, anyway. Besides, gods are weird, always running around sleeping with cows and threatening people with long-range weapons until they fall in love. Who knows what kind of agreements they’ll cook up in these situations?
So she just sticks to the rat. “Face it, you went way overboard with the whole table burning thing. Looked possessed or somethin’.”
That one looks like it caught his attention. Somrak hangs his head a little and puffs out his cheeks, which makes him look just ridiculous enough for Saira to want to poke his face and make the air come out. But he releases the air before she gives in to that urge.
“Yeah… A long time ago, before I was born, there was a lot more necromancy going on all over the place,” he explains. “I mean, there’s still a little. There’s certain gods that have licenses to have, like, animated skeleton servants because it’s part of their…thing.” He sneers at this, looking disgusted by it. “But there were mortal wizards doing all sorts of crazy stuff, cultists who thought if you became undead you were immortal. And some of that stuff is infectious. The wards around mine, my homeland, got overrun by all sorts of undead creatures. The survivors vowed eternal enmity. I…because I have the power to burn such…abominations, to just destroy them, I was meant to be a sort of, well…holy figure. I mean, I’m a god so, naturally. But even more so.”
He shrugs, looking at her almost apologetically as if waiting for her to laugh at him. She doesn’t disappoint. “You…a holy man.” She pretends to appraise him, looking him up and down, then chuckles. “Love, you look like the devil come knockin’. Not very good marketing for holiness, if you ask me.”
Somrak smiles and sips his drink. “Anyway I guess the indoctrination didn’t completely fail to stick. Seeing that thing jumping at…” Words die in his throat, his eyes snap shut. He shakes his head, probably trying to dislodge an ugly mental image of rat teeth sinking into pale flesh. He takes a deep breath and opens his eyes again. “Well, let’s just say I want that necromancer more than ever.”
Saira nods, keeping her eyes on the rooftops, glass traveling to her lips almost without her noticing it. “Yeah, I know a thing or two about wanting someone like that. I know how it makes you blind. Of course–” She notices her glass run dry and sets it down by her side before leaning against the chimney. “–that’s not half bad when it’s just you. Keeps stuff in focus. Lets nothin’ distract you.”
Her voice trails off. Her thoughts get jumbled at her own words. They have been doing that lately, usually straight, simple thoughts getting all complicated and sticky like dirt mixed with water. She has been alone for so long… Of course there has been the occasional connection, the acquaintances she keeps and refrains from shooting at on a regular basis. But none of those have been friends as such, none have been companions, gang, family. She doesn’t know what that is like anymore. Really, she has never known. And just like anyone who is denied something like that, she has learned to disdain it.
But the last weeks with these strange people who have taken her in so eagerly, who accept new members into their group so easily, so openly, have dealt a hard blow to her resolve. She finds her own mind fighting to resist the old habit of rejecting bonds that might weigh on her. It’s frustrating. She knows how things go, she knows how it is like for her and people like her. Why on the stupid mountain would she now start thinking that it could ever change?
I’ve gotta get out of here. This place is messing with my head.
Like a sneaky echo of her treacherous thoughts, Somrak speaks softly, looking at her with what better be the empathy of a fellow rogue. “Do you want it always to be just you? Did you ever think about…joining a team again?”
Saira looks at him, wondering where this is going. “That sounds like a neat dream,” she says with a snort. She shakes her head, pushing back all those useless, distracting thoughts back to the deep dark spots where all doubts like to hide. Then, she takes the bottle that has been sitting by his right thigh to fill her glass and get her head to start moving in a straight line again. “No… I been dead since that day the Dukaines came. Dead people don’t dream.”
She takes a sip of the nicely warm drink and focuses her eyes on the rooftop ahead. This conversation is turning out to be a lot more uncomfortable than she imagined at first and she doesn’t want her eyes to betray her turmoiled inner thoughts should Somrak take a closer look. She is pretty sure he can’t read thoughts but faces are something that even mortals can read. Whatever it is he is looking to achieve with this line of conversation, she would rather be in control of what he gets. Through the corner of her eyes, she can see him looking at her for a moment. Then he looks to his side and she hears him refill his glass and very casually moving the bottle to his left, away from her. Had she truly been distracted, she would not have noticed it. She pretends that she didn’t. Somrak is probably just trying not to be too obvious about obeying Cherry’s soft-spoken orders.
“You don’t look dead,” he notes. “But there’s a lot of power in thinking of yourself that way. You can get a lot done. But you’re going to make yourself well and truly dead not much later, following that road.”
Ah… The you’re-throwing-your-life-away sermon. Settle down, find a bloke who doesn’t mind his wife being a heartless killer and raise a bunch of fat kids that are good for nothing except paying taxes and making more fat babies. Isn’t that the meaning of life according to most religions anyway? Honor thy god, make more worshippers to keep him rich and powerful? She has heard this so many times… When you’re a woman refusing to settle for that one-size-fits-all plan, you tend to hear it a number of times, usually as veiled criticism of your chosen lifestyle. How dare you be different from everybody else? It’s not even about wanting something more. Just, how dare you want different? Who are you to redefine happiness? How dare you question the rightness in settling for what no one actually wants in order to be what everyone wants you to be?
Ah, humans… No better than gods, really.
And it is not like gods even care if their worshippers are happy. But they do need them to be alive. Dead people don’t pray, either.
Saira turns her head to look at the fire god sitting by her side, her eyes half shut in humorless retort. “I’m mortal, hon. We’re all born to die, ain’t we?” The way he cringes ever so slightly at that almost makes her laugh. “And anyway, when did this conversation get to be about me?”
Somrak takes a deep breath, the former empathetic look in his eyes being replaced by a more serious, no-nonsense one. “Saira, I’d like you to join my crew. You’d be Guardia, with all the benefits that implies: backup, free healing, police powers. But Guardia with a difference, without some of the disadvantages.” He takes a sip of his whisky. “Many of the usual rules would not apply. You would have a rich array of targets, quite deserving of your expertise. And I’d make sure that you would mainly be sent after Dukaines. There are a great many of them all over the Urbis who need taking care of. More than you could ever track down on your own.”
“How tempting,” she replies dryly at the offer that sounds too good to be true. “What’s the catch?”
Somrak smiles at the question, his scar pulling it slightly off true. Come on, love, there’s always a catch. “The catch. Well, it would be a job. Responsibilities and such. But there would be pay, and a place to live.” He seems to think about it some more before shrugging. “Food’s not too bad.”
Saira snorts at that last bit. But there is something that he left out that she cannot afford to ignore. “And I can’t touch anyone the Guardia thinks is worth more alive than dead.”
Somrak hesitates for a moment, then nods. “There is that. And there’s been times I didn’t like it one bit. But I’m still serving, because I decided it’s worth it.”
Oh, man, this is almost too funny. Is he really trying to recruit her with all these worn-out lines? “Sure!” she exclaims, voice laced with so much irony that it could probably be picked up by a magnet. “Got nothin’ to do with what they’d do to someone like you if you decided to quit all of a sudden. I imagine no one would come lookin’ for you if you were to…” Her fingers flex and stretch like the flaring of an explosion blast. “Disappear?”
“I’ve thought about it. Now and then. But on balance, the things I do are necessary. They help people. They’re not always pleasant. But sometimes…they’re very satisfying.” He looks down and smiles that lukewarm, humorless smile of people coming to terms with a difficult truth. Recruiter or not, he truly seems to believe in what he is telling her. His eyes find hers again. “My Commander asked me to put the question to you, if I felt you would make a good addition to the team. But now that I’ve worked with you, I’d have asked him if I could invite you anyway. I want you on my team. Not just in the division. On my team.”
Saira looks at him, finding it hard to hold his gaze. Her doubts come rushing back. Of all the people she has met since the whole Pearl incident and now, after the demon, Somrak is the only one she has managed to feel a certain kinship towards. Sky is a nice guy but a bit too much of an idealist to her cynical, down-to-earth tastes. Dion is…well, Dion. Saira is still trying to figure out what Alma sees in the uptight, too pretty, always-looking-out-for-a-skirt-he-can-hop-into god of magic, in the first place. And Alma… Alma is a conundrum. The death goddess feels close and far all in one go, motherly and affectionate but distant and transcendent at the same time. It is like they connect on some deep level one minute and then a second later just pull apart for no reason. She can’t avoid caring for the goddess but it is like trying to reach for the moon with a piece of twine.
And the Bunnies…none of them could possibly begin to understand a life like Saira’s. Same thing for the Popula. But this guy, now… This fire god come out of nowhere, with his leathers and his loner ways, he has the best chance of understanding and being understood by Saira. She doesn’t need to learn very much about him to know the truth in that. She can see it, hear it, smell it on him. The emptiness of dark nights and empty days, filled with a purpose that almost no one can understand. Of all of them, Somrak is the last one she would expect to try to save her. Or hobble her. People like Saira can never be fully controlled. Sure, they can be steered but if their leash is too short, they will spend more time chewing on it than biting their intended target.
He knows that. Would he really make the offer if he didn’t know what it really means? What he is asking of her?
Too late, she realizes she has been staring at him through this entire internal ramble and swears. How much has he been able to catch of her digressions? He is looking softly at her again, almost as if she were a wild animal on the verge of dashing off. What has he seen on her face? No point in wondering. Too late to do anything about it. She tears her eyes off of his and points them at the distance and tries to find some way to gain some time. She feels tired. Mellow.
“Still one name on my list, love,” she says, taking a sip of her drink to hide the strain in her voice. “One guy I gotta send to Hell. Either that kills me or…” She exhales deeply at the not-completely-a-lie. “One name on my list.”
Somrak looks at her curiously at that, not even trying to hide the interest in his voice. “You mentioned him before. What’s the name? Who is this target?”
Saira shrugs, secretly grateful that he took the bait for a subject change. “I don’t know his real name. But all the Dukaines I put down knew about this guy. Famous among them, pretty high up in the gang. Called most of the shots, they said. And if they didn’t do what he said… straight to Hell with them. Everyone was afraid of him. Probably called him different names, dependin’, but here every gang member knows about a Mão Esquerda do Diabo.” She moves her glass to her right hand and raises her left, looking at it almost as if doesn’t feel quite like a part of her. “Devil’s Left Hand.”
Somrak glances off to the side as if thinking about it. Silence spreads for a pregnant moment. Then, “I’m heading back to my usual job tomorrow, after I rouse Tuma-Sukai. Figure he’s slept enough by now. And I can’t keep the Commander waiting any longer. I will look into this guy. We may have a cross reference connecting that nickname to a real name. Or another nickname, and that may lead to something. Anyway…I’ll share what I can with you. If you’ll promise to think about my offer. After all,” He sips his drink, “if you take this guy down and discover you’re not dead, you’ll need to figure out what to do next.”
Saira cannot help but chuckle at that. The reason why she has never made plans for the day after she catches that Dukaine bastard is simple enough: she has never planned to survive to see it. Someone like Somrak should know that.
“Confess. You just like my company, isn’ it?” she jests, turning her head to face him. “Other cops like you gettin’ to be too boring?” She looks at him and chuckles again. He actually looks embarrassed, like she just called him on his true intentions. But no, his expression changes quickly to one more serious. She lets her chuckle die off, empties her glass and nods. “I’ll think about it. Put my heart into it just for you, love.” She adds with a wink. “Now, don’t you be greedy! Lemme see that bottle!”
She stretches an arm and leans over him, almost lying on his lap to reach for the bottle he so badly tried to hide. He reacts and tries to fend her off with his right arm, while his left picks the bottle by the neck and stretches to keep it outside Saira’s reach.
“Hey, cut that out!” the god laughs when she nearly falls on his legs. “I’m not a pillow, you know!”
She twists a bit to grab his stretched arm and his bent one, the one pushing her away, hand still clutching his own glass, suddenly presses against her chest. He removes it immediately but the sudden release in pressure throws her off-balance and she falls, unsupported, onto his lap. She tries to use her hands to push herself upright but his body jerks with laughter just as she starts to push against the rooftop. Her hands slip and she falls again with a choked-up cry, making Somrak laugh even harder. She starts laughing too.
It really is a comic situation that would probably raise many questions, Saira lying full-length across Somrak’s lap, her chest caught between his torso and his left thigh, her knees pressing against his side, feet flailing uselessly. Get it on film and add some spanking and they could probably sell it as a really shady movie. But all they do is laugh, heartily and loudly and probably just a tiny bit drunkenly. Well, not drunkenly, they’re not drunk. Just a little buzz, maybe. Buzzily? Buzzily. If that’s not a word, then it should be. They laugh buzzily. For a long time.
Eventually, Saira manages to start breathing right again and tries to get up again. She manages not to fall this time. “Well, that was fun!”
That makes Somrak laugh a bit longer. “Yeah…” He rubs his eyes to clear a little laughter-induced tear and brings the whisky closer. “You really shouldn’t have any more of this. This is your first night drinking again and you’re already falling on me. Not that I’m complaining.” He adds that last bit just a little too fast for comfort and looks a little alarmed at the frown of irritation she is faking. That makes her chuckle which seems to reassure him. “Besides…I promised Cherry I wouldn’t let you have more than one and you’ve already had two.”
“Two?” She waves him off. “Nah, you counted wrong. First one was for practice. Besides, gotta drink to your impendin’ departure before everyone starts gettin’ ready to welcome Sky back from the dead.”
Somrak looks at her pensively for a minute, then tilts his head in agreement. “All right, but let’s let your body process it for a little bit, huh? Even I’m getting a little buzzed.” He holds up his glass to look through the golden-brown liquid. “Drinking Sky’s whisky with a woman while he’s asleep. Not the first time I’ve done that.” He glances at her as he lowers the glass to the floor. “How well do you know him?”
She takes a moment to think about this. How well does she know the guy? Huh…not much, apparently. “Can’t say I know that much. Shot some purple monkeys with him, fought some demons, saved some Bunnies.” She shrugs. “Standard usual, I guess. He’s nice an’ all but he’s usually too busy workin’ to hang out much. Worries too much. Bunnies like him. Cops like him.” Her hands go up in surrender. “Must be a good guy. You’d be better off askin’ Prettyboy. Or Alma. Definitely Alma.”
Somrak nods silently, eyes distant. Gods should be pretty much immune to alcohol but he doesn’t seem to have been kidding about that buzz. Melancholic drunk. Lovely… “She’s mentioned him a couple of times. And I saw the way they talked, before…when they were fighting to save the Bunnies. They’re close.”
“Oh, I heard a thing or two about some epic fights between them,” Saira assures him. Those rumors are a favorite among those Popula who have put some money on a Alma/Sky office romance. “But nothin’ like killin’ Dukaines to bring people together. Why are you asking?”
Again, a pregnant pause. “I’ve worked with him for decades. Longer than you’ve been alive. And he hasn’t had any connection to anyone in that time like he has with the people here. Including me. It’s hard to believe.”
He does not sigh at the end of that comment but he might as well have. His tone is sad, but more than that, like some part of it is glad for his friend but another is – what? remorseful? resentful? “You feelin’ jealous, hon?” Saira ventures in sweet tones that hopefully sound playful. “Gave him your heart and he gave it away?”
Somrak’s lowered head turns to look at her, and that lopsided smile returns. At her shrug and that universal facial expression of Hey! I ain’t judging! he just laughs and shakes his head. “No… It’s just hard to believe it’s the same guy. Then again…maybe he’d think the same of me.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Saira replies with a chuckle. She thinks about what to say next. “They like you here, you know? You’re gonna be missed.”
That doesn’t seem to fall too well with Somrak. “They’re going to miss all the chaos I brought with me,” he says bitterly, looking down. “Sure.”
“No, you idiot,” Saira scolds him softly. Self-loathing annoys her and normally, she would with be a lot less tolerant of it but his tone is broken enough to soften her tone. “They’re gonna miss their friend. You’re family to them.”
He opens his mouth but closes it again, seemingly lost for words. His eyes go forward and down to his glass, where it sits on the floor. He takes it, empties it down his throat and then stares into the empty glass as if he could read the meaning of life in the leftover drops of whisky. Saira looks at him for a minute and lets silence spread. Somrak is clearly fighting some internal problem of his own and she has no place getting in the middle of it. If only she had some whisky to keep her company…
After a while, he blinks and turns his head to look at the bottle. “Well, maybe a little splash to say goodbye for now.”
“Now, you’re talkin’!” Saira exclaims, nearly driving her glass up his nose so he will refill it.
“Hey!” A voice that is too Bunny-like to bode anything good suddenly rips through the night. “You said you’d keep her to one drink!”
Saira can’t help but cringe and Somrak even spills a bit of the whisky with the scare. “Ahh!” he complains, sucking the booze off his fingers so it doesn’t go to waste. “You Bunnies move way too quiet!”
Cherry looks at the two of them with a closed expression that is a scolding all of its own. Balled up hands on her hips, foot tapping the floor, she glares at them for what feels like a really long time. They wait for the mother of all lectures to start at any moment. Any moment now, a scolding that will leave their ears bleeding.
But all the Bunny does is sigh. “Just a splash, okay?”
She takes a couple of steps and sits facing them. A shot glass materializes in her hand out from…somewhere. They look at her, then at each other. Somrak looks a question at Saira, Saira looks a I don’t know at him. And, eventually, they both shrug and the whisky starts pouring again.