“Welcome again to my meager abode, Sergeants.”
Pak is again seated, legs under him, on the woven-straw mat of the dojang, looking up at Alma and Gwydion with a solemn expression. His posture perfectly aligned, back very straight, deep lines on his face tracing flexible features that can go from ire to laughter in a moment, rather like a particularly sage monkey, the short, going-on-fat old man looks in everything like the perfect stereotype of an aging master of martial arts. Almost as if it is a carefully crafted façade.
Except for his awful grooming habits (or lack thereof) that always leave his long white hair looking rather unkempt, even oily near the roots, and his long beard full of pastry crumbs. Not conducive to veneration of the master at all. Still, his words are often spoken as if they were a weapon on their own and the last cordial sentence could just as well have been used as a bamboo sword to whack the two gods into sitting down and making it quick. Seems that the master is keen on starting tonight’s lesson.
“It is our honor to be here,” Dion replies, bowing respectfully and lowering himself to imitate Pak’s sitting position.
Alma, as usual, seems allergic to bowing. She nods her head with a pleasant smile at the master before sitting as well. “Good evening, Master Pak.”
Amazingly enough, Pak does not seem the least bit affected by her less-than-formal attitude. Instead, he nods his head back at her, unsmiling but not at all unpleasant.
Ah… It seems we have a case of differential treatment here, Dion thinks sourly. Wonder if it has anything to do with that box of Kyri’s pastries that Alma is carrying.
In fact, the master is looking at the string-wrapped box with the winged-pot logo of Kyri’s Copper Pot with ill-disguised anticipation.
“Would you like some tea?” Pak offers.
“That would be lovely,” Alma replies, already busy untying the string.
Dion bows his head, out of habit. “Thank you.”
He can barely suppress a chuckle. Bribery…must remember that for next time.
Pak looks above their heads, in the direction of the door, and nods at…someone? Dion turns his head to see who it might be but the door is closed by the time his eyes focus on it. A very meaningful noise of someone intent on clearing his throat of what sounds like soot and tinfoil forces Dion to turn his head back to Pak, straightening instinctively as if he had been scolded.
“It is a pleasure to see you today,” Pak speaks warmly to Alma while still managing an irritated glance at Dion. “I am sure Dion will be kept quite busy with today’s exercises, however.”
No joint lessons yet. Pity.
Not that Dion or Alma had been expecting one. The master has made clear before that this is Dion’s scheduled time slot under Pak’s exclusive attention. No distractions allowed. Still, a friendly confrontation on the straw mats could potentially become very…stimulating.
The engaging mental images sparked by these thoughts almost make him miss the rest of the conversation going on outside his dreamful mind. “Oh, I will not be staying long,” Alma announces. “My other duties await. But my children are planning a Year’s End picnic and so I am here to invite you and your ward to join us before we start tallying how much food and drink will be needed.”
Ward? Dion cannot keep his confusion from his face. What ward?
A very discreet sound behind them. A door has opened.
“We would be delighted to join!” Pak suddenly says, grinning like a trickster god at whoever is now standing behind the Dei. “Won’t we, Kumiko?”
Dion turns back to look at the young girl standing there, holding a tray with a small ceramic teapot and three cups handpainted with a motif of lotus flowers. She is reedy, just about as tall as Pak, long black hair tied back in a ponytail. Dressed in simple, silken, light-grey pants-and-shirt pajamas, she looks only vaguely familiar as she stands glaring daggers at Pak through her almond-shaped black eyes. Those black eyes… He would know those eyes anywhere.
He watches her move to Pak’s left side, closer to Alma. It is as if she were actively trying to avoid the god. Her eyes are no warmer when she glances at him than when she was staring at Pak.
“The kunoichi…” Dion can’t help but murmur, eliciting a questioning glance from Alma.
Tray already safely placed on the floor, the girl – Kumiko? Isn’t that what Pak has called her? Kumiko starts serving the tea with a now very blank expression. Sitting opposite the girl, Alma smiles a greeting at Kumiko and places the now-open box of pastries in the middle of the assembled group.
“You have found her,” Dion breathes, somewhere between a statement and a question.
Alma looks a question at him again before turning her confused gazed toward Pak.
“She found me,” Pak replies laconically, looking more interested in the peach-flavored pastries than in any of his guests. “And she is here, and can explain herself if she so desires.”
Kumiko narrows her eyes at this but finishes pouring the tea and serves both master and pupils with well-honed manners. Pak makes a point of ignoring her as he picks a pastry from the box and bites into it with clear delight. That beard will be fresh full of crumbs in just a few minutes, Dion can tell. Alma accepts the cup of tea with a progressively more worried expression. There is a tension in the air that makes the hairs on the back of Dion’s neck rise in anticipation of something unpleasant. The girl does not seem to be happy with him at all. And then again, she had tried to kill him on their first encounter. And then kissed him the next morning.
Oh well…opinions can change.
“I met this young lady at the Singing Cockroach on my first night in Three Rats,” Dion explains as Alma offers him the box of pastries so he can choose one. He glances at Pak before indicating the goddess with a subtle jerk of his head. “It was Sergeant Alma who recommended I go there.”
At this, Alma’s eyes dart up and to the right, her lips twitch ever so slightly into a mischievous smile. She lets her gaze fall on Kumiko and the young woman looks at her intently, almost appraisingly. Is that a wink that Alma dispenses her?
The goddess lowers the box and takes a pastry herself. “You found Master Pak there. I would say it was a good recommendation.” She pauses, looking straight into his eyes, pastry halfway to her lightly curved lips. “One you very much deserved.”
Dion snorts, holding her gaze. “The reward I get for being friendly.”
He bites through the heavenly mixture of fine, crackling dough and glazed peach. Through the corner of his eye, he can see Pak happily finishing his pastry, making a show of not looking interested in an exchange that is very clearly capturing his full attention. The only thing keeping Dion from bursting into laughter is the unhealthy amount of powdered sugar that Kyri tends to sprinkle her pastries with.
“As my father would say: one should never trust others to play one’s game by the same rules,” Alma states as if reciting from a book, clearly amused.
“Sound advice,” Pak intervenes, breaking the chain of lighthearted conversation that was threatening to make the gods forget about the other people in the room. “Ah, there are many things that Three Rats lacks, but Kyri’s pastries make up for a great deal.”
Pastry gone, Dion reaches for his cup while trying not to lose his staring match with Alma. As he brings the cup to his lips and takes a sip, he tastes…water? But he saw Kumiko pour tea for all of them. Huh.
“How odd…” he mutters, looking down at his cup.
“Everything all right?” Alma asks.
“I could swear my tea is suddenly lacking in, well, tea.” He tilts his cup so that Alma can see the clear liquid that should definitely not look as colorless as it does.
Pak looks half amused at this. “Interesting. Why, if someone had wanted to poison you, that would have been considerably easier than entirely replacing your tea with water.”
He glances meaningfully at Kumiko, who is preparing another pot of tea and doing her best to look like the most innocent person on the Insula. She is not exactly succeeding at it.
“This is why I always keep my magical defenses against poisons active,” Dion replies, grinning slightly at the trace of irritation that crosses Kumiko’s face.
“And who would want to poison Gwydion?” Alma asks, making a point of not looking at the girl.
Pak’s expression suddenly darkens. His words carry the edge of a blade with them. “Again, that is her story to tell, not mine.”
His tone sends ice down Dion’s spine. He thought he had been able to dispel tension with his lighthearted banter with Alma. But no. For a moment, he is barely aware of his own heartbeat. He sits, staring at his master, blood drained from his face. The previous moments of tension in the room were nothing compared to the leaden silence that now falls over the four people gathered here. His skin feels uncomfortably cold, riddled with goosebumps. He becomes painfully aware of how afraid he is of the next few minutes. A treacherous thought has him wondering if Pak manufactured this moment to force him to learn a bitter lesson on the consequences of his actions. It seems that beating some weeks ago wasn’t enough.
Alma looks at him with an unspoken What did you do? in her eyes. Dion cannot help but hate Pak for doing this in front of her.
From where she sits, Kumiko glares at him. There is an almost palpable sense that she is about to attack him with deadly force, so strongly does her posture convey a murderous thought. Dion cannot help but visualize a sudden strike.
He sighs. Best to accept some level of responsibility and get it done with. “I am sorry for my behavior that night, Miss Kumiko.”
He can see her legs tensing muscles wound like springs around a light frame. Still, all Kumiko does is glare at him before she speaks, her voice barely above a whisper. “My mind is my own.”
“It was a reflex, a moment’s choice,” Dion insists.
Why are you defending yourself when she’s clearly not sorry at all for trying to cut your head off? his inner voice counters bitterly.
“You used a mind-altering spell?” Alma’s voice cuts straight into his internal monologue, level and incredulous.
It is her choice in words that awakens him to the real matter being discussed. Kumiko’s apparent hatred is then based on his choice of spell to subdue her, to stop her from attacking him. He had interfered with his mind to confuse her into submission. And in doing that, he had – he had toyed with her emotions. Something he has made a point of never using love spells for. If he has been so successful in his past conquests, it is due to his own skill at seduction, not his magic abilities. Whatever his lady friends have felt for him, it is a product of their own eager and bored imagination.
Dion cannot help but feel ashamed as he nods in confirmation. “A love spell.”
“Oh Gwydion…” Alma’s murmured disappointment plunges into him like a knife, all the more painful for being so quiet.
Still, what he did was in self defense. How can that be so crudely dismissed? He raises his head to look at Kumiko with as much dignity as he can muster, keeping his tone sincere but firm. “I used that spell only as a defense. Nothing more was intended. Either way, I am sorry for any harm I may have caused and beg your forgiveness.”
Kumiko stares at him for some time, her expression and posture changing little. “You have lived longer than I ever will. And yet you try to justify using a spell to make a person fall in love with you. How can that seem justifiable to anyone?”
She closes her eyes and shakes her head in exasperation as if this is impossible to understand. Still, some of the tension in the room dissipates, much to Dion’s relief.
“One can be a fool at any age, Kumiko,” Pak tells her. Dion can barely hear him muttering to himself, “This I know well.”
“Some are fools at all ages,” Alma adds with a soft sigh.
She rises to her feet and Dion reflexively rises with her, unable to hide his concern at her reaction. Still, she smiles at him with what seems to him like a mixture of disappointment and tired resignation. “I should go. I will return at the end of my harvests.”
A glance down at her hand finds repressed anger in her clenched fingers. Dion moves instinctively to accompany her, wanting to explain himself or at least lessen some of the damage, but Pak speaks, freezing him in place.
“These two have much to teach each other,” the master says in a voice that allows no doubt. Dion is to stay and endure the rest of this ‘lesson’. “If they are both wise, your healing arts will not be in much demand on your return.”
Alma nods at Pak. “Hopefully, they can resolve their differences with minimal injury.” She smiles at Kumiko, pleasantly but without warmth. “It has been a pleasure. I hope to count on your presence for our Year’s End picnic.”
Kumiko looks at her, unsmiling, but not unfriendly. “It seems I am to attend.” She bows her head at Alma, keeping her eyes fixed on the goddess. “Thank you for inviting me.”
Alma nods in reply. “Your choices are your own. As is your heart.” She merely glances at Dion as she turns to leave. “I will see you later.”
He could swear he can see her exerting considerable effort to resist storming out of the room. As soon as the door slides quietly behind her, the god’s head whips to glare at Pak, accusatory and enraged. His muscles are taut, ready to strike. These strokes of sudden, boiling anger are rare to Dion, invested as he is in maintaining self-control at all times. But the calling of more primal forces, of less-civilized times in his youth can be hard to resist at times. It is all he can do to keep from letting the reddish-grey haze of full-blown rage from blinding him.
Pak seems unphased, almost amused by his reaction. “Well this may be one of the more interesting lessons I have given. Let us begin…”
The walk from Master Pak’s dojang to the station is an uncomfortable one. The silence between them is like a wall which both fear ramming their heads against. Gwydion walks with his eyes fixed on the ground ahead of him. A slight tilt to his shoulders indicates discomfort, possibly from a particularly strong blow. His bruised and swollen right eye also makes for a sign of an intense practice session. Kumiko must have been intent on showing him what a magic-free combat against her would have been like. And, in spite of Alma’s best efforts, the god has so far refused to be healed. Could this be some sort of self-punishment for his actions?
Alma struggles to find words to start a conversation. The revelations of the previous hours were unpleasant but…they should not have been shocking, should they? After all, Gwydion is a known player of the seduction game, to no shame of his own. But, to use love spells… Love spells interfere with the mind, intoxicating the part of the brain that takes care of such pesky things as emotions so that, temporarily or permanently, the person affected comes to believe he, she or jy is, in fact, in love. Although not considered a crime, they should have long ago been forbidden. Taking someone affected by a love spell to one’s bed is no better than getting someone drunk before having sex with them. It is, for all purposes and intentions, rape. Unfortunately, love spells usually leave their victims confused about the whole affair, their effects commonly lingering for awhile after the spell is cancelled if there was even mild attraction to begin with, so the victims seldom complain, thinking themselves prey to bad judgement. Of course, people permanently affected by love spells don’t complain at all. So love spells are a sort of legal grey area, more limited by goodwill and common sense than by any sort of legal apparatus.
Hearing that Gwydion had no scruples in casting such a spell on a young, mortal girl was extremely disappointing. Mortals are so frail when it comes to magic! But he would not have needed to use a spell to seduce this girl, would he?
“I am sorry you had to see that,” he says, finally breaking the icy silence formed between them. He does not look at Alma as she walks by his side, his eyes kept low, expression guarded.
“Are you truly sorry for what you have done to that poor girl?” Alma asks, almost afraid of the answer.
Gwydion sighs, shaking his head. “I am. Even if she was trying to cut me into pieces at the time. You must understand, I used it as a defensive spell to stop her from wanting to attack me. I cancelled it as soon as it was safe to do so, just before I left the tavern.” He stops walking, looking tired as if the issue leaves him exhausted. “I had never been forced to deal with the aftermath of such spells.”
Alma looks at him in silence for a moment. He seems sincerely upset by all this, his shoulders hanging low, his hands hidden in his trouser pockets. His right eye nearly swollen shut, he keeps his left one focused on some point just at the tip of Alma’s boots.
The goddess exhales deeply and lays her hands on his upper arms. She was angry before, when she left Pak’s dojang to do her harvests. She was very, very angry. Disappointed. Her mind was racing to create all sorts of unpleasant scenarios. Even if Nekh is now gone from her thoughts, it is so easy to think the worst things about people… Especially when we don’t want them to disappoint us, when we fear they might hurt us. It is as if our minds suddenly decide to sabotage us.
But thinking those things without knowing the whole truth hurt her even more and so she has made a great effort to wait and get her thoughts to settle.
“What I don’t understand is, why love spells?” she asks, trying not to sound accusatory. “Of all people I have met, you are the last I would expect to need them.”
“Once, I thought I did,” Gwydion answers, slowly, subdued, eyes looking above her shoulder. “Then, I would not have been able to attract even a moose in heat.”
Alma’s hands stroke his arms as they move down to his wrists. “You? Can I even imagine smooth, charming Gwydion being unattractive?”
Gwydion snorts derisively at her attempt at comedy and finally looks at her. “Well, it was a long time ago. I was desperate.” His hands move to hold hers. “But I could never do it. My mentor…let us say he knew how to put things into perspective. I assure you, that I have never used love spells to bring anyone to my bed. I am not completely amoral.”
He releases her hands, his arms hesitantly encircle her. She holds him in return and his embrace tightens. She can feel his heart pounding in his chest. Whether embarrassed by the faults he is being forced to admit to, or afraid of what she might think, his body speaks of truth. And she is deeply relieved by it.
“I am glad,” she breathes, relaxing in his arms, feeling his heartbeat – not slower, for his heart always feels like a hare rushing through a field – but with less force. He is relaxing as well.
“I have never used them on you either,” he murmurs in her ear.
Alma cannot help but chuckle at that. It had never even crossed her mind. Gods are not as easy to manipulate and they remember magic cast upon them. “My dear, had you done so, Kumiko would have found nothing left to be angry at.” She calms down and pulls away from him to look into his eyes. “This has been unpleasant but necessary.”
He nods, cupping her cheek, stroking her neck, a small smile on his lips. “I must say I half expected you to be rather angrier at me for this one, though.”
“I was,” Alma concedes. “Angry and disappointed and afraid of finding some horrible fault in you. But…harvesting often helps bring things into perspective. It forces me to think of other things. Reminds me that we all have our sins.” She looks down, remembering the darkness in her own life. “I have done my fair share of awful things, after all.”
Gwydion says nothing but touches a finger to her chin, raising her head and her eyes to look at his. He smiles sweetly at her and she smiles back at his temporarily deformed face, wondering how she could ever have thought him so cruel or amoral to be a magically-assisted rapist. “Well, I do solemnly swear I have not cast a love spell since that night nor will I cast another in the future…” He grins. “Unless absolutely necessary.”
Alma slaps his chest in irritation. “Gwydion!”
“We can never know when it may become imperative to do so!” he argues with an edge of amusement to his voice.
Alma shakes her head and starts walking again, muttering, “You are incorrigible! What will I ever do with you?”
“You have to admit, it does make for a powerful defensive weapon,” he insists, catching up to her. “An attacker is much less likely to keep attacking if they suddenly start to like you. The shortest moment of confusion can be enough to save your life.”
“True…” Alma concedes. She has to admit that except for a few exceptions, Gwydion’s tactics do seem promising. If only the aftermath wasn’t so ugly. “Is that why you never stopped using love spells?”
“Pretty much, yes,” Gwydion admits with a nod. “They are a little unorthodox but they get the job done. They work on males, females, states in between. Even on animals and on other less…rational opponents.”
“It seems like a strange weapon to keep in your arsenal,” Alma notes.
“For a long time, I forgot it was there,” Gwydion explains. “And then one day, in the middle of a skirmish, completely lost for ideas, the spell just…pops to mind. I didn’t even realize what I had done until it was all over. And then I thought ‘Hmm, this works wonders!’”
The story, along with the god’s funny facial expressions, made all the more hilarious by his wound, has Alma laughing. “Very well. I guess I’ll have to agree with you.” She resumes more serious tones.“But…please try to refrain from casting such spells? You have seen what it does to people.”
Dion nods. “I promise. Does this mean I am forgiven?” he asks in hopeful tones.
“It is not I who must forgive you, my dear,” Alma replies in more serious tones, slipping her hand into his. “But I am not upset with you. Shall I he–”
Her words are suddenly cut by a gasp as he pulls her by the hand into the shadowy recess of a doorway, a long, secluded outside vestibule of an abandoned building. The station is just around the corner. He pulls her into the shadows until his back is against the wall, his hands on her waist. Thankfully, no one else has had the same brilliant idea as he tonight. Alma’s eyes, adapted to darkness, take a moment to adjust before focusing on his grinning, welcoming face.
“Sorry. You were saying?” he inquires.
“I was going to ask if I you will let me heal you now and spare you some uncomfortable questioning by the Popula,” Alma says, feigning annoyance.
“Ah, true. Soon my shift will begin and you will be taking some much-needed rest,” he starts in a soft, whispered voice, gently pulling her closer to him. “Maybe we can negotiate something that will make me worthy of your care and leave us both going about our lives with a smile?”
She grins back, entering the game. Her arms drape over his shoulders, her fingers playfully stroke his scalp. “A bargain, then? And what are you trying to tempt me with?”
The tip of his nose rubs against the side of hers, his words are breathed against her lips. “What would you like?”
Alma’s thought processes freeze at his kiss. “Hmm–”
She does her best to prolong it, releasing her power into him to restore his bruised body, feeling him respond to the thrill and intoxication of healing that is sure to leave an almost addictive aftertaste in his mouth. She opens her eyes at the end of it and smiles to see him fully restored. What was the question again? Oh, yes…a trade.
“How about…” Another kiss, deeper than the first, almost begging for more of her magic but not wavering when she refuses to dispense it.
He is too close, too distracting to her senses. Gods, let me think! Too much…of you…and your–
“Your scent,” she finds herself saying.
Gwydion looks as surprised as she is at her own words. Thankfully, considerably less used to seeing in the dark, he cannot see her all that well. “My cologne? It would smell wonderfully on you but…” His lips course to the curve of her neck. The pleasure of the healing must have sparked other ideas. “There is the matter of application.”
Alma shakes her head minutely. Her brain is just starting to make sense again, although severely hindered at the moment. The strangely enticing scent that is part of Gwydion’s charming arsenal, the one that only a few months ago she found so cloying for its exaggeration, is due to his cologne and he always seems to be wearing it. And even if it has become alluring for being so very tangled in her mind with the memory of him, the emotions he sparks in her, how much sweeter would it be if he would just be his true self around her? “I mean your real scent. The one underneath all those exotic oils.”
“My dear, you make some of the strangest requests I have ever heard,” Gwydion says with a slightly nervous chuckle, straightening to look at whatever it is he can see of her face.
“Will you humor me?” she asks sweetly.
I want to know the you that hides under all those ruses. Isn’t that what she has been trying to do, little by little?
Gwydion looks at her in appraising silence for a moment, then shrugs. “If that is all it takes to please you, how could I refuse?”
A whispered word and Alma’s nostrils become acutely aware of a sudden change, an absence of scent. At first, it is as if all scents have disappeared but slowly she realizes that the more mundane scents of stale urine and rotting trash are still very much part of this doorway’s bouquet. The cologne is so engaging, imposing even, that its absence comes almost as a shock to the senses. And this means that Gwydion’s natural scent is much more subtle, closer to the skin.
She leans to sniff his neck, pleasantly surprised to see he has also cancelled the lemony smell of the soap with which Pak’s students shower after practice, at the master’s training hall. Her nose breathes in a spicy, warm, primal scent, only very slightly musky, pleasant and subdued. Much better than its artificial camouflage. She touches her lips to his skin, as much in sampling as in revenge for his taunting, tongue tasting this unadulterated delicacy as air travels to spark receptors on the roof of her mouth. A memory of dark forests and old books comes to mind.
“Hmm…” the goddess murmurs in pleasure, savoring the merry chorus of her senses against the quiet background of Nekh’s still too-striking absence.
“Does this mean you like it?” Gwydion asks with a strange edge in his voice.
She nods. “If only I could bottle it up.”
Gwydion chuckles. “You are strange!”
Suddenly, she feels him relax. Only now does Alma become aware of how tense he was against her, his arms still around her but barely moving with her as she took her whiff of his scent. Was he afraid she might not like it? No…that would have been too adorable to bear.
“For liking you better without cologne?” she replies, poking a finger at his chest. “Are you strange for liking me better without clothes?”
“Oh, straight through the heart!” Gwydion exclaims with a chuckle before his arms snuggle comfortably around her. “I surrender.”
One last kiss and Alma slowly pulls away from the embrace. “I wish you a light, peaceful shift.”
“If it is light enough, maybe I could join you in bed?” Gwydion suggests with a mischievous grin that has Alma chuckling.
“Don’t push your luck,” she jests, taking a step back. “Good night.”
He sighs. “Good night.”