Morning on the streets around Three Rats Station is often a time of peace. Crime and accident most often find their expression in the depths of the night, when overindulgence in alcohol and other drugs anaesthetize the wiser angels of the mind and set free their inner demons. It is in the night that the sneak-thief, the assassin, the gang out for vengeance are most likely to conduct their sociopathic pursuits. Crime and ‘hey, watch this’ foolishness can occur at any time, but those most likely to commit such acts are more probably to be found peacefully asleep in the early hours after sunrise, soon to be waking and feeling the effects of the previous night’s imprudence.
Thus Corporal Cala Lamore finds it her favorite time to be on-shift. Her promotion has brought with it a considerable increase in paperwork and meetings, but under Sergeant Machado and ultimately Inspector Tuma-Sukai, the meetings are at least productive and usually brief. There has been a spike in late-night emergencies during Sergeant Alma’s temporary leadership, but Cala is not one to lay blame. She rather finds herself identifying with the immortal sergeant who has suddenly found herself thrust into a position of greater responsibility. That she has not handled it perfectly is only to be expected, but Sergeant Alma’s character has shown through in the way she has managed those momentary fumbles.
Cala snorts as she remembers the previous morning, and Alma’s silliness. These immortals, these so-called gods – among monotheists like Cala, there is still much disagreement about what they really are: devils, djinn, spirits of temptation sent to test the faith of true believers – have turned out to be far different to work with than Cala had imagined. In the Academy, Popula cadets did not mix with Dei, and since then the rare Dei officers sent from other wards to deal with some problem were all aloof. She cannot say she is truly friends with any of the three here – after all, they are her superior officers, and no matter how much she has grown to like them, she does not believe in blurring those lines – but under them the station has regained the family feeling that it had when it was much smaller up to a few months ago, when they relocated from the old, cramped station near the border with Little Falls, when it was just Corporal Machado in charge, and when Cala and Aliyah and poor Phillipus Stathos and a few others were constables together, before the Dei arrived along with so many new recruits and transfers. She had been afraid that familial feeling, that camaraderie would be lost forever, but it has returned. And with immortals! And not only that, but with Bunnies!
And now, wonder of wonders, Saira, she who Cala had long thought dead, has returned to them. Their friendship had ended years ago, and bridges had been burnt, but the two women have been cautiously, almost unintentionally rebuilding them, a plank here and a nail there, in the time Saira has been staying at the station.
Cala shakes her head at her reverie and returns to planning. With the worst of the gang wars dying down, she has had time to move patrols to parts of the ward that have hardly seen a Guardia presence in months. At the same time, however, she must not allow areas that have seen the worst violence to feel that they are being forgotten by the Guardia. Some there would bemoan that forgetting, while others would celebrate.
With a creak of door hinges, morning sunlight slants across the main room of the station and over Cala’s paper-strewn desk. She looks up to see a statuesque form silhouetted in the doorway. Though the backlighting obscures the visitor’s face, Cala immediately recognizes the outline. Dismissing a momentary stab of unworthy envy at immortals and how they always seem to be as tall, slender, and full-breasted as they desire to be, Cala stands and, doing her best to stop being suddenly conscious of her far more ordinary, mortal shape with its extra pounds that have refused to depart no matter how often she has made it clear to them that they are not welcome, she approaches the reception desk.
“Voice Ewá,” she calls out. “Good morning! And how are the kiddies?”
Ewá Nanã, bearing the title Voice because she speaks in defense of those accused of crimes, is currently taking care of nearly a score of orphans, runaways, and castaways in a house she acquired with the intention of starting a law office. Legal representation is something out of the reach of most in Three Rats, but sorely needed. The more pressing need of children who had been snatched by slavers has diverted her, and Cala, along with Aliyah, and several of the Bunnies, has been lending a hand.
The demi-immortal takes a step closer, but a rope she holds in her hand draws tight, preventing her from moving all the way from the door to the desk. The rope, Cala sees, looks strong, and leads out the door from Ewá’s hand. Whatever it is attached to is out of sight from the reception desk.
“Pardon me, Corporal,” Ewá says, “they are well. But I wonder if anyone has reported a lost cat.”
Cala thinks. “A lost cat?”
“The children didn’t want me to bring the cat here, but…we really cannot afford to feed it.”
“Well, might be a stray but let me – Wally, did anyone report a missing cat?”
Freezing as if he’s been caught in the act of something nefarious, or at least embarrassing, Wallace Longshot, a walking collection of knees and elbows, tall, redhaired, and legendarily clumsy, responds, “Uhm…there’s Mrs Patel’s shorthair.”
“Which one?” Cala asks. “She only owns Urbia shorthair cats.” To Ewá, she continues, “Anyway, could it be that one?”
“I am not much familiar with domestic breeds, but I suspect it is not.” The lead begins to slacken, and Ewá loops the rope around her hand, taking up the slack until a large head with golden eyes looks around the door frame.
“Ya Allah!! Is that a–?” She gulps. “Definitely not an Urbia shorthair. I…I think I’ll call a Dei to take care of your case, if you don’t mind.” She mutters to herself, “They can always heal if they get bitten…”
Through the door, Somrak hears a muffled exchange. Alma’s voice. “Good morning, Corporal.” Finally.
“Good morning, Sergeant!” Ah, that’ll be Lamore. Wonder if she’ll spill the beans?
But the Popula corporal doesn’t say anything more as the slight creak of the stairs signal Alma’s approach. The door handle turns, swinging open, and Alma enters her office and takes a step toward her desk before she stops at the tap of something against her knee. She looks down and her attention is caught by a tail, a tail furred in greyish-blue with white markings, that sleepily curls against her leg. Her eyes follow along it to see, lounging across her sofa, an exotically colored tiger, snoring gently, its forepaws and head on Somrak’s lap where he sits at the far end of the sofa, holding a folder in one hand, the other gently scratching the tiger’s neck.
“Thank goodness you’re here!” he whispers in mock urgency. “This vicious cat has put my leg to sleep!” He smirks at her look of astonishment, but holds in his laughter, not wanting to wake the tiger.
However, Alma barely glances at him. She cannot stop staring at the tiger. She whispers, “Is that–?” She moves closer and kneels by the sofa.
Somrak snorts quietly. “It had better be the same one. If there’s another one wandering around the ward… I didn’t want to wake him up, poor thing, but seriously, I’ve read this same report ten times, and it’s getting a little dull. I can’t reach my desk. Well, your desk.”
Alma starts scratching the sleeping tiger behind the ears. He sees glimmers of green around her hand, and a breeze out of nowhere carries a hint of jasmine and a momentary susurrus of leaves. The tiger opens a lazy eye, the golden eye with its round pupil focusing on her. “Hi,” she says again. “Remember me?” The tiger lifts his head, yawns, and then bumps his forehead against hers. “Oh, you do. Where have you been?”
Watching them, not wanting to move despite his earlier words, Somrak strokes the soft fur on the back of the tiger’s neck. “Don’t suppose you need another cat around the station? Just in case those dwarfs dig up some really big rats?”
“Oh, I’d love to keep him.” The tiger licks the back of her hand with its almost painfully rough tongue. “He’s so gentle. But…I can’t.” She presses her forehead against the tiger’s cheek. “I am so sorry.”
“Don’t worry,” Somrak says. “I’ll take him with me. We’ll find someplace for him. Maybe the Commander will fall for him. Or, oh! Mrs Finch! She can feed the more annoying visitors to him.”
Alma laughs. “Well, you can always try my aunt. She loves big cats like these. She’d love you, wouldn’t she?” She buries her face in the softness of the thicker fur around the tiger’s neck, her voice becoming muffled as she talks to the feline. “Of course she would. And then maybe I could visit you. Just don’t let her bite you.”
Somrak opens his mouth, then closes it. “So many things I could say to that. Well, I can make this a peace offering. Might change the nature of the bites… Now…” With a grunt he slips out from under the tiger’s paws, stands and brushes at the shed fur on his trousers. “I wish I could claim that I found him, but one of our local demigods brought him here. It seems Ewá Nanã grew up having jaguars and other jungle creatures all around her as playmates, so she didn’t bat an eyelid when she found this guy in her garden.”
Still dispensing caresses to the tiger, Alma smiles at the name. “Just shows how smart he is, going to her for help. Ewá is far from a defenseless target. She pled my case with the Council. And won.”
“I thought the name seemed familiar,” he says. “And she settled here? Interesting. Well, at least I closed the case of the missing tiger, so my stay here hasn’t been a total loss.”
Alma gets up and looks at him, about to say something, but she stops as she notices something next to the desk, earlier blocked from her vision: his duffel bag. “Somrak…your bag.” She looks at him, a shadow crossing her face. “You’re going now?”
He nods. “My week is up. I have to return to my usual duties. And Sky is awake. He will be back with you later today.”
She tilts her head to the side. “I will miss you.” She laughs as he looks up at her. “Don’t look so surprised. I was about to say that you sound disappointed with your accomplishments here. You shouldn’t be. Your stay here was…a bit bumpy, and please forgive my initial reactions, but I am very glad Sky called you. Even with everything that did not quite work as planned, you helped us get a different grip on the case.” She looks up at the ceiling for a moment, smiling. “And it was fun, playing off-blue.”
“You’re a natural, Alma.” He leans against the desk, crossing his arms and looking down. “I am sorry about last night. I was…angry. At the loss of the lead. The taunting from that…abominable rodent. I have one of those divine-nature things about the undead. I had tunnel vision and didn’t even notice how badly it had affected you.”
Alma’s expression becomes heavier but not angry. She looks away, focusing on the tiger. “You don’t need to explain. Too much has happened in too little time. Since Nekh, I… My mind has not been given a chance to rest, return to its normal axis. I responded disproportionately. Anyway, what is done, is done.”
After a moment, Somrak says, his voice low, “You’ve been under a great deal of stress. On trial for your life, the Bunnies’ lives too, the bomb, now suddenly in command…I haven’t made it any easier. I am sorry for that.”
A moment later he feels her arms around him, embracing him tightly. He hesitates, surprised, and puts his arms around her as well. “You tried to help,” she says. “That is all I would ever hope for coming from a friend. Thank you for coming.”
A friend. Somrak holds her more tightly, feeling her cool body against his, refreshing like a dive into a stream. In the past few days he has experienced more affectionate physical contact – touches on the arm, caresses, hugs – than he normally does in months. It is not something he is accustomed to from growing up. He feels a surge of emotion and to his embarrassment finds he must blink back tears. He realizes his fire-god body temperature must be rising, and he releases her before that becomes uncomfortable. She moves back slightly, sees his expression, and a look of concern comes over her face.
She touches his hair, giving him an encouraging smile. “Feeling better?” she asks.
“Ahem, yes, yes I do.” He smiles weakly. “I could get used to all this hugging.”
Alma laughs softly. “I have to admit, I wasn’t much one for it myself until I got here. But seven very huggable Bunnies make a difference. Them and, well, some friends.”
“Don’t tell me Sky…” He feels shocked when she nods. “Uh…well like I said, I woke him up and got him caught up on what’s happened. He should be back in a couple of hours, after he’s fully awake and recovered from the shock of all I told him.”
Alma nods. “We will be ready to welcome him.” She lays a hand against his cheek. “I am sorry you have to leave. Maybe you would consider coming back?”
“Yes. When I can. You know how the job is.”
“Is Year’s End week a bad time in the off-blue schedule?”
Somrak feels surprised again. “Year’s End? Well, sometimes it is…but I’ll try.” She gives him an insisting look, serious but with an edge of amusement. “I’ll really try!
“I would like a solemn promise, please. Doesn’t have to be the whole week. Even just a day. We will time the gift-giving to accommodate you.”
Somrak takes both her hands in his, looking down, thinking for a moment, then looks her in the face solemnly. “I promise, if it’s at all possible, if I’m not putting a mission at risk, I will attend. But I think it’s best if you hold Gift-Giving on the usual day. I’ll aim for that. I don’t want anyone being inconvenienced if I can’t say until the last minute when I’m coming.”
A sudden memory jolts him, causing Alma to look at him strangely. “I almost forgot to tell you. I, um, well when I was looking into the flames last night…I can sometimes see visions, minor prophecies, in the flames.” He feels embarrassed. True prophecy is a vanishingly rare talent among gods, and even such weak ability as his own is far more fraudulently claimed than real. “I tried to see something to help us. And I did learn something.”
Alma looks at him curiously. “What is it, Somrak?”
“This is, of course, unreliable. But the flames tell me that we will not find this necromancer until after the year has died and been reborn, and after one of those searching has vanished and another returned.”
Alma absorbs this. “Perhaps you are the one who vanishes, and Sky returns.”
Somrak grins. “I was thinking the same thing. All the more reason for me to disappear before Sky gets back.”
“Very well. We will be wait–”
A sudden crash, accompanied by a slight tremor, interrupts her. For a moment the two deities just stare into each other’s eyes. Alma stops breathing, and he sees a flash of terror in her eyes. Oh no, he thinks. The soul bomb…another one?
She turns and rushes to the door. Somrak follows. Distracted by sight, from the corner of his eye, of the tiger climbing off the bed, ears back at the commotion, he almost runs into her when she stops in the doorway. A young male voice shouts from the stairs, “The dwarves! They found a cellar downstairs, below the cells!”
Somrak sees Alma slump in relief. “I will be right down.” Then she turns to find him just behind her. She puts her cool hand on his cheek again, cupping it, and gives him a quick peck on the other cheek. He feels his skin become suddenly much warmer – he had thought for just a moment she was going to kiss him on the mouth. She pulls back after the kiss with her eyebrows raised at his flash of heat, and says with a smile, “I have to go. Stay safe, yes?”
He tries to cover up his fluster with a smirk. “You sure you don’t need me in case something comes out of this hole the dwarfs have discovered?”
Alma shakes her head. “Silly… I’ll see you again!” Then she turns and rushes down the stairs.
Somrak feels a bump against his thigh. He looks down at the tiger which, after a nudge, is looking up at him expectantly. “Right, time for us to go, friend.” He reaches past the cat to lift his heavy bag and shoulder it. Then he pauses. Ghosting in and ghosting out is his normal mode of operation. Goodbyes make him uncomfortable. Of course he had to let Alma know he was leaving. She was briefly his commanding officer, after all. But he feels bad to leave without word to several others: Dion, Saira, and Cherry and Merri. But the prophecy, tiny though it is, says one must vanish. Better not push it.
He retrieves the rope and loops it around the cat’s head again. “Come on now, no more scaring the locals. Be nice and there’s a juicy steak in it for you.”