Ch6.51 Trust

Alma arrives at her family’s estate and says her farewells to Pavia. She is already late for the ceremony, she knows, but her presence there is only essential to one person: herself. So, after scheduling her escort back to the portal for three hours later, Alma rushes through seldom-used but well-known halls to reach an apparent dead end.

The hallway here leads into the shadows. Inside them, framed in black metal, small pieces of black glass meticulously arranged in intricate patterns would reveal the most delicate glyphs stretching in a spiral, drawing a portal that would fill the world with awe, if ever a light were to shine through them.

Alma reaches into that darkness and touches the glass, allowing the magic in the symbols to sense her essence, to recognize death in her. In the blink of an eye, the darkness engulfs her. She appears inside the sacred hall, a massive underground cavern lit only by the narrow skylight that pierces through the ceiling to allow the light of the sun in. The hall is still part of Death’s estate but the ground, up there, is part of the Life Clan’s property in the First Ring. All the life gods in the Urbis will be standing under the sun, around that opening in their ground, just as all the death gods in the Insula are standing down here, in the darkness cast around that single pillar of light shining on the circular platform in the center of the room. With all of them gathered here, not a creature will die, not a being will be born today.

But something is wrong. The ceremony should have started already. The sun needs to be aligned perfectly with the platform, shining directly on it to activate the Wheel. The Wheel Spinner, only goddess of the Wheel in the whole of the Insula, should be standing at the center, serving as its body, filtering the souls collected by the death gods throughout the year and resetting, renewing them so that the life gods can send them on their next incarnation.

The sun is shining. But the Spinner is nowhere to be found. The death gods are mostly just standing around, waiting for something to happen. Alma takes advantage of this and moves into the throng of brothers, cousins, uncles, aunts and other family members, looking for the place where her father will be standing. He will not be standing on any platforms or sitting on any thrones. In this most sacred of rituals, all death gods stand as equals.

A wheezing voice by her left rings familiar with spite just as she spots Death’s second wife, Macana and her son, Molochai. “Oh look… brothers. The… prodigal daughter… returns.”

Alma stops and turns to look at Clochol, the Death by Asphyxia, stretching his many, powerful arms. His large hands, fit for holding a mortal neck as its owner kicks and flails in suffocation, are open in mock surprise. Even if his blueish-purple face with bulging, bloodshot eyes smiles at Alma, she knows that he is not in the very least pleased with seeing her.

By his side, Sudic, the Weaver, Death by Hanging, taps his eight, spidery legs, with which he is said to hold the ropes that encircle the necks of his victims. The countless eyes that cover his torso blink at the goddess, one by one, while his voice scratches against his silk-filled windpipes. “If you are going to infiltrate a ceremony, at least be polite enough to be on time.”

And just behind Sudic, Narec, Drinker of Souls, scratches his sickly bluish-grey skin with yellowed, sharp talons and runs his tongue over his pointed fangs while he whistles derisively, “Or else take the door.”

Without a lower jaw, for this is how his worshippers envision him, he is forced to speak through slits on both sides of his neck. Seeing these three of her brothers always reminds Alma of how lucky she is to not have her sphere allocated to a specific type of death.

“Ready… to pick… sides,… this time?” Clochol wheezes, one finger mockingly twiddling with the earring nailed directly into his skull since he was created without a left ear.

The joke sends both his monstrous brothers into maniacal laughter, making Clochol laugh too at his own poor excuse for a witty sense of humor. Soon, however, his wheezing frame is shaking with breathless cough and he walks away, closely followed by Sudic and Narec, who prop him up so that he doesn’t fall. Alma sighs at all this, wondering if it is her taint or their divine nature that keeps the brothers despising her so even in spite of the obvious bonds connecting them all.

“Don’t pay attention to them,” Molochai says, gently hugging her hips.

Alma puts a hand on his head and strokes his hair. “I won’t, little brother. Not this time.”

Not far away, the gentle Macana nods and smiles reassuringly at her through soft, wrinkled features and waves a delicate hand in greeting. Alma smiles and nods back at her, in gratitude for her constant support. Macana has always been there to help her deal with unfriendly, bullying brothers like Clochol and his siblings. Her family is riddled with such characters.

“They do, however, have a point,” someone says from the vicinity of Alma’s right thigh. “You are late, sister.”

Alma looks down at Supa, the short, bulky, heavily armored death god with long frizzy hair that barely allows for the clan mark dangling from his left ear to be visible and a fiery beard that the dwarven people living in caves and tunnels all over – actually, under the Isle, have created for themselves. Rough-mannered and ill-tempered, he has never been affectionate toward his only sister. But he has never stood against her either.

So it is without animosity that Alma replies, “I was detained elsewhere. Why is the Wheel not turning yet?”

A carrion bird, black as night, lands on Supa’s helmed head. The creature’s exposed skull and spine sway as it crows, its mother’s silver chrysanthemum poking through the feathers of his left wing, while the fine chain of the supposed earring rattles softly against its vertebrae, “The Spinner failed the first attempts. She stepped out to regain her strength.”

Alma stares into the hollow orbits of Panai, Harbinger of Death and Cleaner of Corpses, as she processes the words he has just spoken. The Spinner is old and grows weaker every year but she has never failed to activate the Wheel.

“Yes, at this rate, we won’t have a ceremony next year,” Lwal echoes her fears as he enters the conversation.

Guardian god of cemeteries that lurks among the graves of mortals, Lwal is another of those unfortunate gods shaped too strongly by the feeble, fearful minds of Man. Created with a knack to tolerate few people and like no one but gravediggers, his otherwise noble spirit is trapped inside a hideous, chimeric body. Pale and sickly, his muscular human torso covered in short dirty hair that always smells of death and decay, he walks on strong, lupine legs balanced by a long, scrawny tail. His weaselly, elongated face crowned with bat-like ears, the left of which pierced as law demands, always seems to leer at everyone.

“Where are your pets?” he growls in question. “I thought you didn’t go anywhere without them.”

“They have no business being here,” Alma states, ice building in her voice at hearing the Bunnies being called pets.

“And you do?” Panai inquires, casually scratching his polished skull with a skeletal foot. The sound it makes would be blood curdling if Alma weren’t so used to it.

Alma’s eyes shoot back to Panai. If her gaze were a blade, it would pierce through steel right now. “Last I checked, we still shared a father, Panai. Unless you know something I don’t about that.”

“Oh, my little sister is developing a sharp tongue, I see!” the good humored tones of Imset’s voice ring suddenly as he drapes a cloaked arm over her shoulders. “Long time no see, Almy.”

Alma chuckles at the rarely used pet name. Imset, the Darkness at the End of Life, is the twin of her oldest brother. Always draped in the cloak that shapes his body entirely made of shadows, he is also one of the most good-natured of all of Death’s sons.

“The First Ring is too rich a prowling territory for the likes of me, Immy,” Alma greets him with a hug. “But it is always a pleasure to see you. Where is Lum? You two are never apart.”

Imset jerks his head to the left. “Look behind me.”

Closeby, Luminus, the Light at the End that guides souls into the afterlife salutes Alma by touching two fingers to his forehead. His body made of light where Imset’s is made of darkness, Luminus is the oldest of Death’s sons, born from Becech’s chest, three days before his twin. Though he keeps very much to himself, he is the gentlest of them all. He seems to be busy entertaining their easily bored cousins, Namka, Orcal and Ghedibo, three tiny, colorful and cheerful fairy-like goddesses in charge of collecting the souls of little babies. So Alma just smiles and nods back at him, not wanting to impose.

A fearsome bark puts an end to the conversation.

“Back to your positions, the lot of you! Sharia is returning. Alma, get out of the way!”

Alma looks into the distance to see Varah, the Fencer, glaring at her through a crimson eye. It is obvious that Alma is performing badly by not obeying her aunt’s shouted orders immediately. But there is also wild pleasure there, hidden deep in that glare. After all, is Alma not doing what her aunt had told her to do, in her very own special way? Does the Death by Blade see the spine that she has always urged her niece to grow finally stretching into existence?

Just as Alma is about to move, the tip of a cane taps her shin.

“Excuse me, young lady,” a withered, slightly cackling voice speaks from somewhere behind the goddess.

Alma twirls on her heels to face Sharia, Spinner of the Wheel. Old and wrinkled, her spine bent and shrunken by the weight of the centuries, Sharia is the only known goddess of the Wheel alive, charged with guarding the ever turning spiral of death and rebirth and summoning it into the material realms, where the living dwell, once a year so that the souls of the dead may be wiped clean of their memories and readied for a new life.

But the Wheel is a demanding master and Sharia bears its mark. Life flees swiftly from her grey hair and cloudy eyes. Every year she looks thinner, weaker, more worn. And without a successor in sight, the day may soon come when the Wheel no longer turns for the souls of the Urbis.

Alma tries to keep these worries away from her mind as she smiles pleasantly at the ancient goddess. “Do you not recognize me, Spinner?”

Sharia squints at her for a long moment. Eventually, her face brightens in recognition.

“Little Alma! How you have grown!” she cackles. “Why, you were just a little girl last year.”

Alma chuckles. “I am afraid it has been decades since I was a little girl.”

Much to her surprise, Sharia’s eyes narrow in irritation at her reply. “I am old, not daft, little girl!” the Spinner scolds her. “And I know what I say. Help me, please. I could swear this place gets bigger each year.”

“With pleasure, Sharia.”

Alma takes the arm that the old goddess proffers and does her best to steady the Spinner’s steps as they walk toward the platform in the center of the room. The sun will not be shining over it for much longer. At their passing, the assembled death gods move aside to let them through. Alma catches a glimpse of Melinor standing by her father, both looking at her with badly hidden curiosity.

“Is this the year you finally join us, dear?” Sharia’s voice interrupts her thoughts.

Alma sighs. “I would love to but where would I stand? Every year, I fail to answer that question.”

“And yet, every year you return,” Sharia notes, glancing up at Alma with a strange expression on her parchment-skinned face. “Even when you are invited not to.”

“This is still my clan,” Alma states firmly, bitterly. “Unless they cast me out, I have every right to be here. I have seen some uglier faces than these, lately. I will not be bullied out.”

She hardens her heart against the criticism and accusations she fears, but expects, from the Spinner. For all her sins, her taint, her weakness, Alma now knows that she does not deserve the treatment she has many times received from her family. For maybe the first time in her life, she allows herself to feel what she has been denied all these years: anger. At being discriminated againt, mocked, used, rejected by those who should be her safe harbor in a storm. Now, with the loving support of the new family she has been trying to build for herself, Alma is beginning to let go of the fear of rejection from her clan to embrace the reassuring knowledge that her friends and children await her return back home. Home… Where they are.

“Yes… You have grown,” Sharia whispers softly. “And not a moment too soon.”

Surprised by the Spinner’s words, Alma grins like a child receiving an unexpected compliment.

Still, she holds on to the simmering revolt that tempers her tone. “My father’s daughter may be weak, wise one, but my children’s mother cannot afford such luxury. Nor can my friends’ friend.”

Sharia nods thoughtfully and stops walking. They have arrived at the center of the platform.

“And where will she stand this year?” the Spinner asks, sweeping the room with her cane.

Alma snorts and looks up at the disk of sunlight coming through the ceiling and that falls so deliciously warm on her face. The answer to that question eludes her still.

“Is there some place halfway up?” she jests.

Sharia tilts her head to one side. “Funny you should mention that.”

She beckons for Alma to lean forward, as if she were about to reveal the secret of a hidden platform or room. Alma complies, entranced by the beautiful, vibrant, nacred blues and greens that suddenly surge through the Spinner’s eyes like rays of pure energy. Sharia stares into Alma’s deep blue eyes for a moment and slowly raises a hand to the young goddess’ forehead.

“Brace yourself,” she says. “This won’t be entirely pleasant.”

By the time her words register, it is already too late. At a touch of Sharia’s fingers, Alma’s soul seems to explode. The young goddess stumbles, taken by surprise as new energy, a new calling awakens in her. Her soul breaks from its bindings, rejecting its previous shape.

Alma throws her head back as a scream dies in her throat. The sensation is breathtaking, thrilling and painful. She feels her essence being stretched to impossible lengths, spreading as if it had the whole world to fill, her soul being pulled in opposite directions by her opposing spheres until it is but a thin strand of spectral mana. No longer the same shape as her soul, her body refuses to obey her command. And then, it refuses to hold her at all. She sees more than hears or feels it thumping onto the floor, lifeless, empty as the shell any body ever is to its precious cargo. She rises in the air, levitating until floor and ceiling are both halfway away. So strange… She can still feel herself, still find a shape to her essence. She can see and hear and feel the world around her but everything is so distant…so alien to her. The room feels flimsy, wavering as if it were just one of many possible rooms that could ever exist in this very same place of space and time and probability. Her family feels solid, though, shimmering like stars against a dull sky, all of them as certain and real as only death can stand at the edge of life. Family…but they are not like her. Not like her at all. How could they ever understand? If they can’t feel this…this… paaaaiinnn! Her back arched in pain, her spectral eyes open in an agony that is somehow mixed with pleasure, Alma watches powerless as the Wheel awakens and pillars of light shoot up from the ground all around her, twisting and converging to join the guiding light of her soul.

Below her, the room is silent with the astonishment of hundreds of death gods.

“What are you lot waiting for?” Sharia yells at them. “The Wheel is turning!”

Awakened by her words, Death gives the order and the ceremony begins. With a deep breath, each death god and goddess in the room calls forth every soul collected throughout the year to leave the realm of the dead, acting as a channel through which the souls by them released are brought back from their restful, biding sleep in the spectral realms and guided into the Wheel. One by one, the souls converge to the center of the room in a beautiful, eerie aerial dance, attracted by the alluring call of the Wheel, swarming to its heart, Alma.

“Don’t fight them, child!” Sharia advises her. “Let them through. First time is always the worst.””

It feels like the Soul Bomb all over again. The young goddess is like a beacon to these souls and they race to tackle her, enter her, move through her. But this time…

They race to leave her as well, to shoot in all directions through the gaping skylight above. None of them tries to hold on to her, none tries to steal her core. Instead, they each leave something behind and take something away, melting into Alma and then out of her, slightly different, slightly changed, clean and renewed.

It is all Alma can do to keep hold of herself in the swift, chaotic trade that threatens to completely rearrange her soul.

WhatWhat is? she manages to think. Speaking is completely out of the question. Throat and lungs are needed for that and she left hers on the floor, down there. Will she get them back?

She is confused, scared and yet, something in her core tells her that she is safe, that nothing of what she is will be lost. It is a knowing, wizened piece of her that was not there before.

“What’s happening?” Sharia guesses her question as if she could hear her thoughts. “You found your place in the Wheel. Now… let it turn!”

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Ch6.50 Trust

Finding words, that is the difficult thing. What do you say to the man who raised you for twelve years, who you are meeting for the first time today? When you were a stranger to him, a foundling, washed up on the shore of his dream, taken in and loved, but all this time you were another’s child? And he has had a life without you. He has known you to be nothing but a recurring dream, and now here you are, no longer the child he remembers, grown, with a family. A family that does not include him.

How do you tell him that that snow-haired goddess who just healed his heart has been your mother all this time, and now you are back with her, leaving him abandoned, as if all this time he had been nothing more to you than a landlord giving you a place to stay?

And here he is before you, aged and worn far beyond what you remember, his face a map of lines drawn by pain and loneliness, lines that spell out the weight of years on him, and the paucity of years remaining. But still that powerful jaw, those eyes that could go from bright with merriment to a piercing severity as the moment called for, eyes that could elicit cheerful affection from those over whom he stood guard, eyes that once made a madman drop a bloody knife and fall to his knees, sobbing for forgiveness. Those eyes are on you know, and full of wonder at your presence. Your existence.

What do you say?

All these jumbled thoughts, contradicting and jamming up against each other like logs in a river, course through Mayumi as she walks around the living room, touching the things she remembers: the wooden carving of a bear smacking a fish from a river, the alabaster figurine of a dancer in mid-flourish, the pair of porcelain cups. This last she lingers over. The two cups, one slightly larger, glazed in a beautiful pattern of flowers, primarily blue but with yellows and reds and greens, the smaller one with a larger proportion of reds among the other colors. Both cups have a little lid to keep the tea warm.

The larger cup was his. The smaller hers. She remembers being so happy when he told her that. Drinking tea with him, quiet at the end of the day, his eyes closed, watching the cares drain away because he was home, with her. The joy that she felt, being part of that, especially when he would, as he always did, look over at her with a pleasantly tired smile, and just say, “Iin desu, ne?” Good, isn’t it? And it was.

Those cups are here, in the waking world. The world in which she did not exist until so recently. She looks back over her shoulder at him, where he sits, watching her, trying to think of what to say himself. She turns, goes into the kitchen and quickly finds a kettle. Lighting the burner takes a moment – it was always a bit tricky – and soon the water is heating while she finds the little pale-green teapot, a lacquered tray, and a cylinder of green tea.

Minutes later she brings the tray, bearing the squat teapot, a wisp of steam rising from its chipped spout, and sets it on the table near his knees. She goes to fetch the two cups and returns, to find he’s kneeling on floor at the table, a smile beginning to touch his lips. She kneels next to him and removes the lids from the cups, picks up the teapot by its handle that juts straight from the side, places the fingers of her other hand atop its lid, and gently swirls the water and leaves before pouring, a little into his cup, a little into hers, back and forth so the quickly-steeping tea is no stronger in one cup than the other. She sets the teapot down and hands him his cup with both hands, bowing slightly, and he accepts it the same way.

As they drink, the infinite distance between the world of waking and the world of dreams drifts away like steam, and they are together on familiar ground. There is no more searching for words. The silence is perfect. And when the words come, they come with ease.

Iin desu, ne?

Sō desu, ne.” Mayumi pauses a moment, looking at her cup. “Did you dream of these first and then seek them out? Or did you dream of them after you bought them?”

“They were a gift,” Sueyoshi says, looking at his own cup. “From Constable Nakamura. I spoke at her wedding, and she gave me these.”

Mayumi smiles in memory. “I had forgotten her. So much fades away, but today so much that was lost is returning.”

He begins to agree, but there is a knock on the other end of the house, followed immediately by the rattle of the front door sliding open. “Gomen kudasai!” comes the standard apology for disturbing the residents. Mayumi almost laughs. In Three Rats, nobody would open the door when coming to someone’s home, but rather wait for the person living there to open it. “Is that Inoue-san from next door?” she whispers. Her ears pick up additional murmurs and the sound of multiple shoes being removed to tell her this is a group of visitors.

He looks at her in wonder. “You know her, too…” Then he calls out in welcome, with a hint of annoyance at the visit in his voice, “Irasshaimase!” He looks back at Mayumi, uncertain. To see anything less than a firm confidence in his eyes brings a pang to her heart. She knows he must have no idea how to explain all this – the goddess, the profuse flowering and fruiting of his so recently dying garden, and now this…rabbit-eared girl.

Mayumi is, herself, uncertain. Will he call her his daughter? Does she have the right to tell these visitors that he is her father? But seeing his hesitation triggers a decision in her, one with no thought but years of learning by imitation behind it. As her father has always done when it was needed, she steps up.

She lays her hand on his, reassuringly, then smoothly stands and moves to the door of the room just as Mrs Inoue and the others, three more neighbors, peer within. They are bearing lacquered boxes and trays bearing fruit and seasonal dishes. It is traditional, in the days before the five days of the New Year arrive, to clean house and to cook mountains of dishes that will last the entire time, so that no one has to cook anything other than a little steamed rice or toasted mochi rice cakes during the holiday. And with an old man living next door with no family, it is only natural to bring some food over.

Mrs Inoue starts to say, “Inspector! We–” She breaks off, startled at the sight of Mayumi standing before her, a smile on her face, ears perked forward. The old woman, overweight and older than Sueyoshi but in rough good health, cannot quite close her mouth as she stares at Mayumi.

Akemashite omedetō gozaimasu. Dōzo oagari kudasai,” Mayumi says as she bows to the guests, wishing them a happy New Year and bidding them to enter, her hands on her thighs and her voice pitched higher than usual, as befits a young woman in the presence of her elders. She straightens and reaches out to take the huge circular tray, laden with all sorts of delicious-looking food, from the woman. “Please allow me to take that, Inoue-sama. I will prepare tea. Or would anyone like coffee?”

Mrs Inoue gapes for a moment longer before recovering her manners. She allows Mayumi to take the heavy tray, then bows in return and says to both Mayumi and Sueyoshi, “Akemashite omedetō gozaimasu. Yoi otoshi wo omukae kudasai.” Not to be outdone, she makes her New Year greeting even more elaborate and formal. “T-tea is fine!”

She stares as Mayumi sets the tray on the table and then moves to the kitchen to boil more water. The Bunny twitches her tail slightly, to show them it is real, and has to clench her jaw to keep from laughing as she hears them all jump very slightly. A square-faced, broad-shouldered man whispers to Mrs Inoue, “How does she know your name?” but he receives only a smack on the shoulder in answer. “Ow! Ma…”

“Welcome!” Sueyoshi bellows, laughter at the edges of his voice as well. “This looks delicious, Mrs Inoue. Ah, are you carrying sake, Daisuke? You know I’m not supposed to…but I think today, I can survive one cup. Come, sit, sit!”

By the time Mayumi returns with the steaming kettle, the guests are all seated, looking from one to another, except for one man in his thirties, Daisuke, Mrs Inoue’s son-in-law, who is kneeling with Sueyoshi and pouring sake from a huge brown bottle into a small porcelain pitcher on the table, surrounded by several delicate cups, almost like small plates, really, barely curved enough to hold a liquid. Mayumi sets the kettle down on a cork pad to protect the table from being scorched, and puts a hand on Sueyoshi’s shoulder. He looks up at her.

“One cup,” she says, gently but firmly.

His smile makes her heart swell. “Hai,” he replies with an affectionate chuckle, holding her gaze. “Would you like serve?”

She smiles back and kneels, bowing to Daisuke and placing the lid on the pitcher, then handing a cup to Sueyoshi and pouring the sake in three short pours for luck, then doing the same for Mrs Inoue, and then the rest. Finally, Sueyoshi himself pours for her. He raises his cup and toasts, “Akemashite omedetō gozaimasu!” and they all sip once, twice, and then drink all that remains in their cups with the third.

The shared sake is delicious, and all the better for binding them together in the New Year ritual. Mayumi begins to prepare the tea while Daisuke pours out more sake, not bothering with delicate little mini-pours but actually sloshing a little onto the table. He freezes, looking at Mayumi, eyes wide, and she gives him a look that could be admonishing if she did not immediately smile and playfully say, “That was not enough to get you drunk!” He grins and stammers out an apology, as she serves tea and he serves the harder stuff, and they both make sure that only the former goes to Sueyoshi.

It’s not until Mayumi is serving out dishes piled with holiday fare that Mrs Inoue finally asks the question that has been trying to explode from her throat since seeing this Bunny. Only she doesn’t quite ask it, instead saying, as if holding back a flood behind a dam, “You are a very proper young lady. Where did you learn to serve sake like that? Hardly anyone pours like that these days.”

Mayumi bows her head for a moment. “Thank you. Of course, I learned everything from…” She pauses, looking at Sueyoshi. He smiles at her, but she can see that he is not certain what she will say next. “From my father.” She feels her heart pound against her ribs. Did she say the right thing? She sits back on her heels, eyes cast down, but she glances at Sueyoshi and on seeing his enormously pleased expression, she feels a warmth suffuse through her body.

“Father…” Mrs Inoue whispers, looking at Sueyoshi. He merely smiles, as if this is the most normal thing in the world to him. The rumor-mill will be grinding fast and coarse by tomorrow, but for now, he returns her stare with catlike contentment.

Her son and the other two guests keep their eyes locked on Mrs Inoue as she looks back and forth between Mayumi and Sueyoshi. The anticipation from the three underlings fills the room with tension and a gleeful dread. One would not need Mayumi’s superior senses and her dream-time Academy training in reading body language to be able to nearly read their minds: Is she going to explode? Is she going to demand an explanation?

But after a pair of silent blinks, the old woman recovers herself. “I see… What a polite daughter you have, Inspector. Try these daifuku cakes! My daughter-in-law made them.”

The visitors seem almost deflated by Mrs Inoue’s reaction, but also relieved. For the moment, a potential confrontation has been avoided. But then as she leans forward to serve the sesame-coated mochi cakes, she asks, her voice as sweet as the bean-paste-filling, “Where did you go to school, Mayumi?”

Mayumi feels her heart sink. There will be no avoiding the interrogation, will there? Shall she explain that she went to school here, in Sawara Ward, at the same school Mrs Inoue’s grandchildren attended? That Mrs Inoue’s oldest grandson had made fun of her ears and tail, and the old woman herself had dragged him to this very house and forced him to apologize? Such an explanation would cause nothing but confusion.

“Mayumi has come a very long way, Inoue-san.” Sueyoshi’s voice is firm, but not at all cold. “She is tired. And, I must admit, I am as well.”

Mrs Inoue pulls back. For a moment she looks like she might argue, but then glancing again between father and daughter, her eyes soften. She cannot know the history behind their relationship, not yet at least, but she seems to understand that there is much there, that the two of them have been apart for who-knows-how-long, that there is some mighty strange magic involved, and that interfering in the matters of gods is unwise. Mayumi can almost hear the gears turning, the conclusion of I will find out everything eventually, and then the smile.

“You must take care of yourself, Inspector. And you, Mayumi…” She pauses, and Mayumi tenses. “Take care of him.” The woman’s voice is full of honest concern and warmth. “He is important to all of us around here.”

Mayumi’s heart melts toward the woman. If it were Three Rats, she might well have seized Mrs Inoue’s hand, or even embraced her. But it is Sawara Ward. Instead she places her hands flat on the floor, index fingers touching, and bows low from her kneeling position, until her head is a handsbreadth from touching the floor. “I will,” she promises.

And after a few more polite phrases, the guests are gone, and Mayumi is closing the door behind them.

She turns and leans on the door as if blocking it from allowing anyone else entry, and smiles at her father, who is standing a step behind her. He snorts in amusement. “She is the neighborhood busybody,” he says. “But she is also like a mother to us all.”

Mayumi’s smile fades, and she pushes herself off from the door to put her arms around him, her head resting against his collarbone. She holds him silently for a moment, hearing his heart, and feels his hands on her back, holding her tightly, as if she might disappear at any moment.

I am holding my father, she thinks in wonder. I am holding my father. And my father is holding me. I am in his arms. Not since the first time she called Alma ‘mother’ has she felt such happiness.

“I know you must leave,” he whispers. “But while you are here, I wish to know everything.”

She nods against his shoulder. “Of course. And I’ll have questions for you, Father. Come, let’s sit down now.”

Ch6.49 Trust

The trip back to and through the portal is a bittersweet one for Alma. There is happiness in granting Mayumi the joy of meeting her adoptive father for the first time since the Bunny’s awakening into the realm of vigilance. Mayumi’s reaction at seeing the ward she remembered from childhood, the wave of joy her nimble body spread around her, as palpable and seering as heat from a flame, distorting the air around it, had been very close to overwhelming for Alma. And the meeting of that old man, whose years will not stretch much longer, had left the goddess glad to give Mayumi the chance to know him and be with the real him beyond the frail, fraying edges of her childhood dreamworld.

That the man is older than his dream version, Alma already knew. She had sensed it before, when Arion had arranged for their first meeting. But his condition is worse than the goddess had expected. The passage of time has taken a heavy toll on him. The risks of a life spent in the Guardia Popula and mostly likely resisting the idea of turning to gods of healing for help resolving minor problems of youth that have now degenerated into near-crippling illnesses of old age. Alma knows that for all her skill at healing, she cannot keep the man alive indefinitely.

It is not a matter of skill, really, not to her. Ageing is no more than the accumulation of tiny mistakes, and bigger ones as well, that little by little band together and force the body to adapt to their presence, straining its ability to cope, making it injure itself to sustain itself until, eventually, it is too damaged to function. Such mistakes do not afflict gods much, because the memory their bodies have of themselves is strong and detailed and capable of shifting of its own accord so that they may look different but be no less healthy for it. Unless they will it so. And the gods of healing have such memory of other bodies, of other races and species. And they can remind bodies of what they once were and truly are and drive them into changing to stay true to that memory. Healing is sometimes no more than sparking the memory in a body of what it felt like to be whole.

To be young. If done correctly, even age can be healed. But eternal youth hinders mortality. If mortal lives lasted forever, ending only through sudden trauma or untreated illness, the Insula would be far more crowded than it already is. And considering how much more plentiful mortals are, compared to gods, this would pose a serious threat to the latter. For the gods need worship to sustain their power and existence but mortals can adapt to a life without gods. They might even realize their full power, these creatures once created to entertain the whims of bored divinity. It is only by sheer dumb luck and carefully crafted politics that they have not done so yet. If mortals were to enslave their gods, keep only the ones they needed and feed them just enough worship to keep them functional but too weak to fight back…

And they could, in theory. For a while, at least. Nature knows its own doing. It is not out of cruelty that it allows mortal bodies to degenerate and weaken. Mortal minds were not made to endure the ages. Mortal souls are not stable enough to last the eons. Immortality is not just a thing of the flesh. A god’s soul is a self-sustaining force, constantly shifting and reshifting the balance of its energies, of the eight thick elemental layers surrounding its core, flexible but stable. Many mortal souls would need be consumed to forge even a minor, single godly soul. With their flimsy, simpler levels of energy, the souls of most mortals are not even strong enough to sustain themselves for more than a century or so.

And so, even if their bodies remained unmoved by the stretching decades, their souls would age still. And with them, their minds. The gods would soon have found themselves slaves at the hands of more than half-mad masters. Death would become something to pray for. And the gods would listen and grant mortal prayers, be eager to do it for once. Balance would be re-established, things returned to the time when gods had no one to pray to them, their divinity weakened but not erased. Everything would start all over again, with Hell taking the opportunity to break free and make the whole fine mess even worse and plunge things back into the Age of Nothingness for another few millennia. New mortals would come, new prayers to keep evil at bay uttered, another war against the devils. The Wheel of Fate turning endlessly and happily around its unshifting spokes.

So laws have been passed to stop this from happening, laws kept hidden from the mortals, who might take offense at them and not understand the long-term consequences (mortality tends to come with tunnel vision), and known only to gods of life, death and healing, to gods skilled enough to prolong life beyond the limits drawn by nature. No one is to heal damage caused by the natural progression of organic degeneration. Better not to tempt Fate.

And that is why Alma cannot save Mayumi’s father from his impending death. Even the healing she performed on him, unclogging some of the blood vessels feeding his heart and setting proper pace to one of the little energy-pulsing units that keeps the muscle contracting in proper order, was a bit of a stretch on the interpretation of the law. She estimates that a decade, maybe two, that is all he has left if he takes proper care of himself. The countdown of his life reminds the goddess of how short Mayumi’s years will seem, how quickly her daughter’s lifetime will fade away compared to Alma’s own.

It is with this dark thought hanging over her head like a storm cloud that Alma steps through the portal at Sawara-machi and out the one at Amarta. The lavish, colorful and busy streets greet her with their usual carefully groomed ignorance of her presence. Amazing how even gods and divine creatures, by all accounts as difficult to kill as a young star, are weary of death gods.

She misses Three Rats already. At least the people there have good reason to fear her but try, sometimes with some level of success, to be friendly and observing first of who she is and not just what she represents. How quaint that mortals, too simple-minded in their views of the universe to fully understand it, are more prone to try and understand it, to see things for what they are, than gods, who actually can.

Too bad their nature does not allow them to live long enough to do it.

“Now there’s my dangerous criminal!” a friendly voice startles her out of her grim contemplation.

Alma manages not to jump too high in her fright. She smiles in stoic endurance of Pavia’s gleeful snigger at a prank well achieved.

“And there is my faithful escort,” she replies once Pavia steps out of the shadow of the portal and into Alma’s line of sight. “Thank you so very much for escorting me, Pavia. I hate to pull you away from the celebrations.”

Pavia snorts at this, bending slightly to look at Alma through her short eyelashes. “You kidding? I got the short straw this year. On duty all week. Between the festival and the influx of visiting relatives from other wards, that place becomes a nightmare! Remember Trial Week at the station?” She stands shoulder to shoulder with Alma, facing away from the goddess, stretching her arms and raising her hands as if to frame a picture in midair. “Rich boys. Rich boys everywhere, getting waaaaaaay too drunk all week long!” She glances up at Alma. “You sure you don’t want to get back to that?”

Alma laughs at the all-too-accurate description of the Year’s End here. “Now that you mention it…no.”

The Amarta Guardia Station had been her first placement in the long list of stations that the goddess has worked in. And so far the longest as well. She had not chosen it, would not have chosen it for herself, not by a long shot, not with it being so closely positioned to her father’s home, but Pavia’s placement there had made it impossible for Alma to refuse staying. Pavia, her former roommate at the Guardia Academy, had been the only person Alma truly considered a friend at the time and, even though the goddess would not have done worse for the loneliness of being on her own, it would have felt like betrayal to leave Pavia in Amarta, all by herself.

Of course, her time at Amarta had not lasted longer than four years but those had been good times. Painful times of readjustment to Arion’s departure, to the Rosemary and Cherry’s – and later Mayumi’s – incarceration in stasis, to life away from her childhood home (though that was not really all that painful, no), but the work in a ward that was her own, with as good a friend as Pavia by her side, had brought warm flashes of momentary light into what was a nearly constant grim and dark mood brewing deep in Alma’s core.

Still, she does not miss all those spoiled, drunk brats reeking of the Fates-know-what expensive beverages they have just had and throwing up the contents of their divine stomachs into the paper bin before claiming that they could not spend the night in prison on account of being some powerful senator’s first born, that much. But ahh, how Alma had enjoyed proving them wrong every single time.

“I can’t join you,” she says to Pavia. “I have family business to attend to.” She sighs. “The annual meeting.”

Pavia’s gold-furred lupine ears twitch minutely before turning and dropping slightly as realization dawns on the demigoddess. Her voice loses its playfulness for a moment. “Oh… That old shindig.”

Alma nods resignation, marvelling still, after over two decades of knowing Pavia, at how the wolf-woman’s whole body radiates her state of mind so easily and completely. It is a trait of her kind, Alma knows, of the wolf-people, to be straight-forward and hold as little of their emotions in secret. Powerful warriors, aggressive and hot-headed but loyal to a fault, to family, friends and masters, they are great friends to have. And awful enemies to make.

They are predators and equipped as such. Not the feeble, human-type predator, with its flat teeth and very little in the way of physical weaponry or power, but sharp-toothed, sharp-minded creatures with amazing senses of smell, sight and hearing and a pair of legs made to run swiftly and leap efficiently for the kill. And, of course, they hunt in a pack. Surely, nowadays there isn’t so much hunting left to be done, because the simpler, kill-or-be-killed ways of their ward have been weakened by a certain lust for luxury items (though the wolf-people’s standards in luxury are certainly not in synchrony with the rest of the Insula) and the universal need for money to acquire them. But mercenary work is almost just as good as hunting and it does allow for their predatory instincts to be satisfied, so most wolf-people have turned to it. And, of course, now more and more of them are “moving on with the times” and beginning to crave less “primitive” lifestyle. Progress…

But Pavia is a wonderful specimen of her people and – possibly because this is one of those times of year when it pays to remind civilians of why they don’t want to do anything that would surely get them in trouble with the law – today, she has it on display. Her brown shorts edged in Dei blue reveal strong, muscular legs, lined at the back with a strip of soft, brown-grey fur, and always slightly bent at the knees, making her walk with a slightly springy, almost childish gait. Powerful thighs allow her thunderous bursts of speed. Her feet are long, with long toes hidden by the simple, malleable leather shoes she must wear to allow for a smooth transition between a humanoid plantigrade walk and a lupine, fully digitigrade run. Alma had found inspiration in the memory of those shoes when she had worked with Syron to make footwear for the Bunnies.

The torso, covered in a simple Dei-blue tunic, is lean and compact, not much endowed in the way of breasts but certainly not missing the trouble that such mostly decorative (and only temporarily functional) lumps of fat tend to cause for women with a habit of getting into fights. The arms are lean as well, darkly tanned, as is the rest of her body, and lined at the back with more of that short but soft fur. Her lovely, darkly tanned face is slightly elongated, the bridge of her nose wider than what humans would consider the norm to enhance her scenting. The eyes, large and bright with round pupils and yellow irises accented with orange, veiny details, are made to see movement a mile away – though Pavia has at some point confessed to having trouble distinguishing detail in people’s features if they are standing more than a couple of steps away.

All in all, the demigoddess looks every bit of what she is, a hunter at the service of the Guardia and, Alma would swear by it, the best tracker the force has at their beck and call. With the benefit of not being half as prone to fits of murderous rage as some of her countrymen (though Alma suspects the aggressiveness to be a result more of their humanoid minds flirting with the powerful build of their lupine bodies than the other way around. Non-human animals rarely slaughter for sport).

And now all of Pavia’s powerfully built body, from the amazing ears tilted downward to the long, bushy tail hanging still and tense, is showing her unease at the look of uncomfortable resignation on Alma’s face. Thankfully, awkwardness never lasts long with the demigoddess. She shrugs. “Well, could be worse, I guess. You could be missing a nice escort back to Dad’s place.” A bright smile lights up her face. “Come on… You always look better when you’re smiling. Or grinning. Probably grinning. Always know something interesting’s gonna happen when you grin.”

Alma cannot help but smile as they move to a quieter corner of the plaza where the portal is set. “It’s good to see you. Last time… I’m sorry we couldn’t spend more time together.”

Pavia shrugs nonchalantly. “Heh, I get it. You had the big hunk looking over your shoulder.” She glances sideways at Alma, a sly grin on her lips. “And liking what he was seeing. He make a move yet?”

Alma’s smile widens and she feels the slightest warm blush tinge her cheeks as she looks away, eyes turning upward with recollection. “Maybe…” She looks back at Pavia, wondering how long she can keep up the charade. “How are you? How is the family?”

“Oh, don’t you try to throw me off like that!” Pavia scolds her, tail whipping self-righteously. “Details. I want details. The dirtier, the better!”

“Pavia…”

It is useless to try and keep secrets, Alma knows. But the game is fun and Pavia’s expression of intent, anxious curiosity with those big yellow eyes looking up and shining, has always amused the goddess. Like a puppy after a toy…

The previous night, with its troubling start full of thoughts of Mayumi’s departure and then Somrak’s unexpected and mind-jumbling kiss, had taken a very pleasant turn indeed, in the quiet haven of Alma’s office. She had fallen asleep there, on the sofa, in Gwydion’s arms, after more than a few kisses and soft words and a mildly uncomfortable discussion on how to prevent more Bunnies. They had not reached any conclusions, too concerned with the possibility of failure to try any of Gwydion’s spells, but the conversation had left them more at ease with the subject and certainly even more eager – if such a thing is possible – to find a solution. At some point, the god of magic had left the sofa to return to work, leaving Alma to sleep peacefully, wrapped warmly in a blanket and in the comforting familiarity of his scent. The goddess had returned to her room only in the greying hours of morning – strange that Saira had been nowhere to be found – feeling radiant and at peace with the world, to bathe and change clothing before waking up Mayumi.

But that is not something to share at the first opportunity.

“Come on!” Pavia insists, ears perked and jaw dropped, flashing a sharp-toothed smile. “It’s all males at my station now and they’re too embarrassed to talk to me. Haven’t heard any real gossip in months!” She lets out a whimper of excitement. “Help a girl out…”

“I am not going to–” Alma starts, trying not to laugh.

“Fine, don’t tell me,” the demigoddess cuts her off, moving closer to Alma. “I’ll just find out on my own.”

And with that, she takes hold of Alma’s wrists, making the goddess stiffen as Pavia stretches to her full height and stands on the tips of her long toes to sniff the scents on Alma’s neck. Shorter than the goddess by a good hand’s width, Pavia leans against Alma as her nose searches avidly for clues of the goddess’ dalliances. Her warm breath, loud against Alma’s ear, tickles the goddess’ skin into startled laughter.

“Pavia!” Alma cries out mid-chuckle.

“What? You’ve never minded that before,” Pavia notes, still busy sniffing. Alma relaxes, allowing the demigoddess an easier search. “Well, that’s unexpected. Who’s the girl and the old guy? And…” Her nose crinkles against Alma’s cheek with a final, deep breath. “Ah… there he is… Alma, Alma, Alma… Didn’t know you had it in you.”

“I need to ask him for a spell to remove all scent…” Alma mutters as Pavia moves away. But it is not Gwydion’s scent on her skin that makes her mutter. She had never told Pavia about the Bunnies. “The girl… The girl is my daughter.”

“Well, that was fast!” Pavia exclaims, amused at her rash assumptions.

The amusement drains from her, however, when Alma takes her time to reply. The goddess breathes deeply and prepares to hurt the feelings of her old Academy companion. “She is twenty-two years old, Pavia.”

“Oh…” Pavia’s eyes look down in consideration. She looks up again. “Oh! But then…” She shakes her head. “No, I would have known. Your scent would have changed. We were still working together back then, how did you manage to keep a pup hidden like that?”

Alma shakes her head, guessing at the thoughts that must be rushing through Pavia’s mind. “I was never pregnant. I…created them.” She sighs. “It’s a long story, and a painful one. I was forced, by the Council, to seal my children away, magically. Until a few months ago, I had not seen them since their births.”

Pavia looks as befuddled as anyone would be expected to be at such a story. “Oh… Why would the Council do that? And…” Her brows furrow in confusion. “Children? There’s more than one?”

Alma nods. I wish… I wish I could tell you everything. I wish I told you before.

But she cannot. And so she places her hands on Pavia’s shoulders and looks down, deep into the demigoddess’ eyes, hoping she can see honesty in Alma’s gaze, in spite of the secrecy. “I am sorry I didn’t tell you. It just… It never seemed to be safe enough to do so.”

Though I know…you would not have failed me, her own guilt-burdened thoughts add.

“It is an awful mess I got myself into, before I ever enrolled the Academy, Pavia,” she tries to explain as best she can. “And…it hurt too much to even think of it, for a long time. I have seven children. And…I actually cannot say why the Council ordered me to separate myself from them. I am forbidden to discuss what happened prior to the current situation. Just suffice it to say, I would never have obeyed if I had been given any other choice.”

Her voice turns grim and steel-edged at those last words, her eyes trying to convey how limited, and for the most part fatal, Alma’s choices had been at the time. And how they can still be, really.

Pavia looks at her in silence for a long time, eyes serious and fixed in deep thought. Then, they soften and Alma can almost feel the first breath of a newborn decision.

“Is that why you were always so sad before?” Pavia asks, voice low, tail hanging low and barely moving.

Alma breathes deeply, closing her eyes against the wetness of tears. “That my children were growing up among dreams, enduring pains and fears, experiencing joys and love, all without me?” She nods.

She does not mention Arion. She had told Pavia, once, on a particularly difficult and lonely night, about her lover, departed to a place too far away to reach. She had not spoken Arion’s name or revealed what he was. And she had never mentioned him again, since that night.

Pavia strokes her hair, perhaps guessing at what Alma has not mentioned. Stretching, once again on her toes, she nuzzles the line of Alma’s jaw, hiding her face in the goddess’ soft, silver-white locks with a low, drawn out whimper of empathy. “I wish you’d told me.”

Alma wraps her arms around the demigoddess, stroking the back of her hair, where the spine joins the skull. She can barely keep the tears at bay but forces herself to do so. Pavia has never seen her cry. “I wish I had. I should have. But at the time, it was a pain I needed to hold close. I thought…that I was standing alone against the whole world. Even against people who cared for me.”

She feels Pavia’s arms wrap tightly around her, pulling her against her chest, the steady beat of the wolf-woman’s heart reverberating fullforce against her body. They have not stood this close in years, not since Alma stopped visiting and allowed herself to become lost to Pavia, knowing her to be comfortable in Amarta, with a partner and a family, thinking it would be best not to taint Pavia’s life with the bleak, hopeless presence of a friend with no real prospect of ever finding joy and happiness. Pavia deserved all those things, the sweetest blessings of life, and Alma had had no faith in them. She had allowed herself to become lost to memory, a ghost of the past, for Pavia’s benefit. But the way the demigoddess holds her, tightly then relaxing as if some great burden has just fallen off her shoulders or some old binding has become loose, tells her something entirely differently.

She had thought it her fault. Pavia had thought it her own fault that Alma had left. All this time, she had carried that fear and guilt in her.

Oh, Pavia…I am sorry. I am so sorry… I’m the one who is to blame. I should have… I should have been better to you.

“I would have helped, you know?” Pavia whispers against her shoulder. “Somehow…”

There is such relief there… Alma can barely imagine what a weight it has been. For someone whose nature is loyalty to believe she might have failed a dear friend… And to feel abandoned by someone she has chosen to be loyal to. Alma feels sick to her stomach to realize this. It was her who had not wanted help or the pain of becoming close to someone only to have them removed from her life.

“I know…” she breathes.

“I always stood by your side,” Pavia says. “You always knew where to find me. But you never told me where you were.”

Alma fights down the urge to cringe as that additional pike plunges into her heart. “Three Rats. It’s a little place down in the Fourth Ring. Almost Fifth. I will be there for quite a while. Council’s orders.” She pushes Pavia away a little so that she can look at the wolf-woman’s face. Wolf-people don’t cry but they look no less sorrowful for it. “So now you know where to find me,” she says, smoothing the fur on one of Pavia’s ears.

The demigoddess instinctively shakes her head to free her ear, making Alma chuckle quietly. “Man, you really must have messed up to end up that far down,” she notes.

“I’m afraid I really did,” Alma concedes, stroking Pavia’s neck again, scratching the patch of short, thick hairs there and feeling the unease begin to recede, replaced by an almost dizzying lightness.

Pavia looks up at Alma, her expression friendly again, tail wagging slowly in quiet bliss. “You know, I never thought you’d pick a middle-aged mortal to have kids with,” she says in contemplative, half-amused tones. “Changed tastes, did you?”

Alma freezes, surprised at the question, trying to figure out what on the Insula Pavia is talking about. And then it hits her… Sueyoshi. She snorts. “He’s… He’s not the father. Well, he’s her father, her adopted father I mean. I just met him for the first time today. Well, second. First time in…” She waves it off before things get too complicated again. “Never mind! He’s not the one.”

Pavia laughs at her fumbling. “All right, all right! So… who is?” She cocks her head in expectation. “Don’t tell me it was the rich boy. And talk about him! You do know all the stories about him, don’t you?” She looks at Alma with just a hint of worry. “Half the female population in the First Ring wants him dead for sneaking out of their beds and not calling them the next day. Seems that he collects lovers like some girls collect shoes. Never stays the night, never beds the same girl twice.”

“He is a scoundrel, yes,” Alma admits with a soft smile. “But that last part of the tale is not really true. At least, it has not been with me.”

“And to think I told him he didn’t stand a chance with you…” Pavia says with a mischievous grin. “All right, Alma! I knew you’d land some rich boy, eventually, you being…yourself, but I never thought you’d reel in a playboy hooked by the lip!”

Alma shakes her head, smiling at Pavia’s cheers. “Anyway… It’s not him. The father has been far away since the Academy. Visited a few times but even that, I guess, is over,” she says with a slow shrug of resignation.

“Oh sure, complain away in the arms of your hot new sergeant!” Pavia exclaims, making Alma chuckle. “Anyway… We’re gonna make you late.”

Alma sighs and nods as they start walking toward Death’s estate. “Something tells me I’m going to end up wishing I’d just let this whole thing go and stayed talking with you.”

Pavia looks down but snorts at some passing thought. “Remember that time we were late to…what was it? Oh! Animal control class! And we let half the backup critters out their cages just so no one would notice us sneaking in?” She laughs heartily at the memory. “Ah, Instructor Marun all covered in angry squirrels!”

“That was your idea!” Alma cries, chuckling.

“Oh, come on!” Pavia exclaims, crossing her hands behind her head. “That was epic!”

Ch6.48 Trust

“Mayumi…”

“Mmph…” The Bunny snuggles deeper into her blanket.

“Mayumi…”

There was a dream. There was a dream and now it’s gone.

“Mayumi, wake up.” The voice is amused, on the edge of laughing. Mayumi feels the blanket pulled away from her face. “Time for your present.”

The dream, if there was one at all, fades from memory like frost off a cold glass set out in the sun. Mayumi’s large brown eyes open to see Alma looking down at her with a smile. She can feel the goddess’ hip against her back, sitting on the futon on which Mayumi sleeps. “Hello,” the Bunny whispers to her mother.

“Good morning, dear.” Alma strokes Mayumi’s hair away from her face. Her amused expression transforms seamlessly into something more tender, tinted with sorrow. “Time to wake up and get dressed.”

Mayumi simply looks up at Alma in surprise. This has never happened before. She has woken in Alma’s room, sometimes by her mother, but this is the first time Alma has come into her tiny, almost closet-like room when Mayumi was asleep. Bundled up in a blanket, she wonders how she looks to Alma. Is that the reason for the tender expression? Does she look like a sleepy child? She smiles uncertainly up at her mother and asks, “Did I sleep late? Are the others already up?”

Alma shakes her head, a hint of amusement creeping back in. “No. We are going to sneak out today, go somewhere special.”

Mayumi’s eyes go wide. “Just…you and me?”

Alma nods. “Just you and me.”

The Bunny blinks twice, trying to process it. Since Mayumi awoke to this world, she hasn’t really gone anywhere with Alma, not just the two of them. The goddess has been incredibly overworked, and aside from that, she was imprisoned in the First Ring for weeks. And the younger Bunnies have been more in need of attention. And Mayumi has not exactly made things easy on Alma at times. There was a time when they were hardly speaking.

But now, Mayumi is due to leave for the Academy tomorrow. She hadn’t expected to be taken somewhere. She knows her decision to go away for six months has been as painful for Alma as it has been for herself. And not only the two of them. Last night near the end of the party, she caught Cherry in the kitchen holding Merri, comforting the sobbing, tipsy redhead, barely able to speak herself, saying, “Come on baby, May’s gonna be all right,” and not sounding at all convinced of her words. Mayumi went to them, too sorrowful at the grief she was causing to speak up, but they soon noticed her and pulled her into their embrace.

The younger Bunnies, Kori and Chime and Tulip, don’t really have a grasp of what six months away will mean, so they aren’t as worried about it. But Merri and Cherry had been without her for years, somehow knowing they had others out there who were family, and have only just been united with her. Sage, too, must have heard them and had broken away from Aliyah to join them, wordlessly holding Mayumi as if he couldn’t trust himself to speak without begging her not to go. The look on his face – that alone nearly broke her resolve to follow through on her decision to become Guardia.

Sage eventually went back to Aliyah, and Mayumi had meant to spend the night with Sky, but in the end she went to him to explain that she needed to stay with Merri and Cherry longer. He understood, of course. He told her to go, be with them. She promised to be with him the next night, her last, for at least awhile. They could walk together, talking. But the three oldest Bunnies spent last night laughing and crying together, talking, telling their former lives, and falling silent but for soft moans of pleasure.

Mayumi returned to her own room a few hours before dawn, leaving Merri and Cherry asleep in each other’s arms, Mayumi intending to try to hunt dreams of her father – and now here is Alma, promising…something. Mayumi finds herself grinning. It doesn’t matter what they do. Just time together, just the two of them, that is exactly what she wants right now. “Just a moment!” She springs from the bed and whips off the long shirt she wears as a nightgown, quickly changing into shorts and a simple blouse – “smart casual” as Merri would call it – from a footlocker, looking to Alma for approval, in case it is too informal for what she has in mind. But the goddess merely nods after a moment’s consideration, and Mayumi dashes off to the communal bathroom to brush her teeth, before presenting herself ready.

“Ready?” Alma asks.

Mayumi nods, then remembers. “Oh, the futon!” She quickly flips the bottom third of the bed up, then rolls the rest onto the top third, shoving it away neatly. She’s momentarily irked at herself for leaving the blanket and pillow trapped inside so sloppily, but she can fix it later. Then it hits her. This is the second-to-last time she will do that. Two nights from now she’ll be sleeping on a hard Guardia Academy cot, her bed for the next two hundred sixteen days, well over half of the Insula’s ten-month calendar.

She turns and looks at Alma. “Ready.”

“Let us go, then,” Alma says. “Before the others wake up.”

Slipping out of the bar does not prove difficult. Nor does making their way through the streets, heading toward Little Falls. They talk pleasantly of the previous night’s party, and of the next morning, when they will be walking this very route. Alma will bring Mayumi to the Little Falls portal.

“Do you want me to accompany you?” Alma asks, hesitantly.

“To the Academy?” Mayumi shakes her head. “That would be kind, but no. I…should make the journey on my own. I will be all right.”

Alma looks pleased, and Mayumi feels that she has passed a sort of test. They pass a road that Mayumi knows would lead, if they took it, into the tangled warren where Sky’s apartment is located. She still hasn’t been inside. Sky’s reserve sometimes makes her wonder why he is holding back. Is it only that he wants to take it slowly, and his reticence at being involved with a civilian employee of the station? Technically she is not under his command, but she understands that. And yet, there is something more, things he holds back from telling her. There is some secret, she feels, that causes him to fall into silences.

Will he, in this time apart, find someone else? She hopes so, and she has told him, though the thought he might no longer want her makes her feel sick. It would make things easier, simpler. But she has given up so much already. She glances at Alma, beside her. All the years, twenty-two years, apart. And those years in a dream that she can now only catch in fragments here and there, that too almost completely lost to her. She does not want to give up anything more that she truly does not have to.

But she is doing that now, isn’t she? Giving up six months with those she loves to pursue a dream. Why?

She steels her resolve. She is Guardia. She was in her dream life, and she will be again. Any doubts are unworthy of her. This is her path.

“You’ve been quiet,” Alma says.

Mayumi snaps out of her reverie. “Oh, I…I was just thinking about tomorrow.”

Alma looks at her, sympathy written on her face. “You’ll be fine, Mayumi.”

“It’s not me I’m worried about.” Without looking up, she reaches out and catches Alma’s hand, squeezing it, and feeling a reassuring squeeze in return.

“We will be all right too,” Alma says. “You just focus on your studies. If you were to need to repeat for another six months…” She shakes her head, unwilling even to consider the thought. “No.”

Mayumi feels the soft ruff of fur on the back of her neck rise, as if a mild electric charge were in the air, or had just left it. Has the magical level changed a bit? She looks around. “Are we in Little Falls?”

Alma nods, and then nods again toward the plaza ahead of them. It is a plaza Mayumi has seen twice before: once in the light of morning, like now, with Sky, when he took her to several other wards to make sure that she and the other Bunnies would not fall ill in low- or high-magic environments; and once with Alma and Gwydion and all the rest of Alma’s children, bodies of assassins and thugs scattered about, Saira’s arrows sticking out of them like deadly pins, slashed wounds by Alma’s sword and Gwydion’s magic, and Mayumi holding her own blade, standing before Cherry and Merri, also armed, ready to fall to the teeth of hell hounds to protect the others.

Three Rats does not have its own portal. Little Falls is by far the older ward, having arrived at the Insula Caelestis longer ago than anyone Mayumi has spoken with can remember. And the portal, here in the plaza, is just about as old, the silver-and-brass oval frame simple, less elaborate than those in some of those other wards. It sits on a raised platform, three steps from the street. Already this morning there are people using it, tearing expensive tickets from small books that can be purchased for those, often merchants who have need of long-distance travel. The people of Little Falls are barely more prosperous than those of Three Rats, but trade must go on.

Mayumi looks at Alma, the question plain on her face, but she doesn’t ask. The mischievous smile on the goddess’ face tells her that the surprise will remain a surprise until the right moment. But the smile, Mayumi sees, is fragile, just barely shaky, with nervousness.

“It is our turn now,” Alma says. “Ready?”

Feeling her heart pounding, Mayumi nods. Together, still holding hands, they step through. As a goddess, Alma has no need of tickets. She pays directly, in the mana needed to power the portal, paying just a little extra to bring her mortal companion through. And a little extra beyond that, as Sky has told her, as a tax. The portal system was built by gods, for gods. There had been a time when mortals had no way of using it at all, and even now the enchanted tickets are only sold to mortals reluctantly and with considerable paperwork, so that users can be tracked.

As they step through, the portal flashes gold, and Mayumi’s stomach flips as she feels just for a moment that she is falling, as if she’s missed the last step on a stairway. Then they are elsewhere.

The portal they step out of is more complex than the one in Little Falls. It is the color that catches Mayumi’s eye, causing her to turn her head. She would call it simply red, but in Three Rats they would consider it red-orange. It is the color that Mayumi learned to color the sun in drawings, though the orphan children at Ewá Nanã’s home choose yellow. Her eye follows up the thick wood frame, its inner edge only made of the alchemical silver and brass that is part of all the portals she has seen. At the top, she can see a cross-strut with a plaque on it bearing kanji characters saying Sawara-machi, or Sawara Town, a name that shakes her so that she nearly does not see that they have just exited from a portal in the shape of a torii, a free-standing, sacred gateway, in the myōjin style, the upper crossbar above curved upwards at the tips. She knows it. She knows it well. She releases Alma’s hand and steps backward, away from it, her eyes wide and fixed, until she gets far enough away and yes, she can see, atop the kasagi, the upper crossbar, are stones. Small stones, tossed up by children, sometimes adults. It is very difficult to get a stone to land atop the kasagi and stay there, but those who manage it experience great good fortune.

She managed it once, when she was fourteen.

Her heart is beating so hard that it hurts. She can hear it distinctly in the throbbing capillaries of her ears. She is nearly hyperventilating. She turns, looking over the rooftops that spread below the ridge they are on. The Insula, a mountain floating in a sphere of Reality amid the endless Void, is steeper here than in Three Rats, and the streets are a maze of slopes and steps. The roofs are made of interlocking ceramic tiles, glazed black or a near-black blue, many trees and small gardens scattered among them, a swath of parkland, a large square building with a wide open space on which children are running, playing, racing each other, one class following their teacher in calisthenics. She can’t hear the music or see exactly what they are doing – it is a bit too far for that. But the muscles in her legs twitch in a desire to do those exercises that she has done so many many times before.

She suddenly sucks in a deep long breath, putting her face in her hands to shut out the overwhelming vision. She does not know whether she is about to scream, or moan, or laugh. Two hands come to rest on her shoulders, and she turns and throws her arms around Alma’s waist, her fingers almost painfully digging into the goddess’ back, and her body decides to weep, powerful, silent sobs shuddering through her frame.

The gentle stroking of her hair and ears slowly brings her out of this deluge of disabling emotion. She becomes aware enough to start controlling her breathing. A stab of shame – You are acting like a child! she accuses herself – is washed away by the thought, It is real! It is real! My home is real! She leans back slightly, and looks up at Alma, blinking away vision-distorting tears.

The goddess, worry becoming happy relief, smiles and says softly, “Happy Year’s End, Mayumi.”

Mayumi looks up at her, shaking her head slightly. “I…” She pauses, swallows. “You could not have given me a more precious gift.”

Alma’s smile turns into a grin of pleasure. “I wasn’t certain if the real Sawara Ward and the dream one would even resemble one another closely enough to be recognizable.”

Mayumi releases her and looks around, her mind and eyes clearer. The portal is on the grounds of a shrine to the god of rice and fertility and alcohol and general good fortune, the main gate guarded by two stone foxes. The houses below are less colorful, perhaps, the trees not quite as large. Is it simply her memory that is amiss? Or is it truly different? Perhaps both.

“It does look a bit different,” she says, “but I would know it even if it were far more changed.” She wipes her eyes with the back of her hand, and laughs at herself. “I’m sorry. I…overreacted.”

Alma shakes her head, still smiling. “Care to give me the tour, then? All I know is how to get here.”

Mayumi nods. She hesitates, looking toward the main altar of the shrine to Inari, but not wanting to keep her mother waiting, resists the urge to make a prayer, promising herself she will return later to show her respect to the god. She bows instead, hands pressed together, then turns and takes Alma’s hand, leading her down the long stairway and into the ward.

Its narrow, winding streets are still far more orderly than those of Three Rats, far easier to negotiate, clean and well maintained. The people resemble Mayumi, superficially – her pale-olive skin tone, the gracile build, dark hair and eyes with epicanthic folds, face flatter than most people in Three Rats – though they are taller than her and lacking her Bunny ears and tail, the black, soft fur on her calves and forearms. Those who see them pass bow reverently to Alma, who, though not especially tall for a goddess, is still taller than the average human woman and somewhat towers over many of the Sawara residents. Her white hair and ethereally pale skin, along with a mild but noticeable divine aura, mark her as a goddess. The mortals hardly notice Mayumi beside her, and their whispered expressions of wonder fade as the pair walk further into the town.

“I can see that people are not very used to gods here,” Alma mentions as she looks around. “It is a pretty place.”

“We have a few gods here, but they stay hidden from the people except for special occasions.” Mayumi wonders at her unthinking use of “we.” This waking-world version of Sawara Ward – she has never been here. But she lived nearly her whole life in the dream version of it. She shakes the thoughts away, her ears knocking against each other, and continues, “Only the priests and shrine girls get to speak with them regularly.”

Alma nods. “I know a cousin of mine is in charge of this ward. But she will not be here today.”

Mayumi glances at her, eyes a little wider. “There is a Shinigami, a Death Goddess. She appears to us in the summer festival of the dead. I had no idea she was…your family.” She does not mention that the people here only speak of her in hushed voices, afraid of attracting her attention. Mayumi herself had always wanted to meet her. She did not at the time that know that her mother was a goddess at all, much less of the Death Clan, but she still somehow felt drawn to the unnamed goddess known only as the Shinigami.

“All death gods are my family,” Alma explains. “One way or another. Some are brothers, others are cousins. My uncles, aunts and my father’s other wives usually stay in the Inner Rings.”

Mayumi smiles. The way Alma speaks casually of family. She knows, from things Alma has mentioned, that relations with her family are not always perfect. But Mayumi had only known, growing up, that somewhere, somehow, she had a mother, and that this mother yearned to be with her. She could not say how. If she ever dreamed within the dream-world, she cannot remember. But she knew, though at times she wondered if she were merely fantasizing it.

And here she is, in that same ward. With her mother beside her. She feels a swell of love for the goddess that makes her feel she could almost burst. She feels her face flush, wanting to say it but…not here, in the road.

“Well, this is the school. It…looks rather different from the dream version. I remember it as far larger. But still, in a way it looks the same. And that is the Guardia station. And down this lane…”

The low walls along the narrow lane are the same, just the same. They are made of blue-glazed brick, topped with the same sort of curved, interlocking shingles as the roofs of the houses. In the walls are small wooden gates leading to the gardens in front of every house here, with flowers and berry bushes, plum and cherry trees, bonsai looking like miniature ancient pines, gnarled and twisted by ocean winds that have never reached this ward, here in the Third Ring. There is an overfed cat watching them curiously from atop the brick pillar beside one open gate.

She knows, just down this lane, is the house she grew up in. Will he be there? Is he well?

Will he know me?

Her feet feel as if they are set in concrete.

Alma squeezes May’s hand reassuringly. “Why don’t you go ahead, and I will follow?”

Mayumi looks up at her, swallows, and slowly nods, squeezing her mother’s hand tightly, feeling a mix of dread and excitement. For a long moment, Mayumi continues to hold Alma’s hand, but finally, she drops it. She turns, takes a deep breath, squares her shoulders, and walks ahead down the lane.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

Ishijima Sueyoshi, Guardia Popula Inspector (retired) for Sawara Ward, sets down his little kama hand-scythe and sighs despondently. The garden is dying. Rust is spreading through it like fire, discoloring leaves and killing the flowers and herbs he has labored over for years. Even his beloved old friends, the four trees, one at each corner – Ume-chan, the plum tree, whose blossoms are so lovely in spring and from whose late-summer fruits his neighbors make a delicious liqueur; Mikan-chan and Nashi-chan, who bear for him tart mandarins and juicy pears in autumn; and Sakura-chan, who produces no fruit but whose cross-pollinated cherry blossoms bloom snowy-white and nearly-red in gorgeous unpredictable patches, out of season, always during this most sacred of times, the New Year, for longer than Sueyoshi has been alive – they too are being devoured by the rust.

His legs folded under him, he lets his shoulders slump. He has been retired now for sixteen years. He had not wanted to retire; he was only sixty-two, a good thirteen years younger than his father, the previous Inspector, had been when he retired. But the irregularity in his heartbeat had become worse, and though being an Inspector is mainly a desk job, he had thought it for the best to allow young Sergeant Ueda to ascend to the position. And Ueda, the first woman ever to lead the Guardia of Sawara Ward, has done an excellent job, though Sueyoshi had to have a word with a few obstinate individuals to explain the errors in their overly traditionalist thinking. His heart might be weak, but his ability to convince others not to gainsay him is still strong.

So his retirement had been a good decision. That is what he has told himself for sixteen years. And it is true. A good decision for the ward. But…a bad decision for himself. His heart, which supposedly needed rest, has only become weaker. The touch of the priest of Ebisu, channeling his god’s healing power, only temporarily relieves the pain and shortness of breath. Sueyoshi can no longer drink that sweet plum liqueur, can no longer drink coffee, can no longer eat some of his favorite foods.

And what, really, is he living for? He has no wife, no children. His parents are gone. He was an only child. And his longest friends are dying off, one by one, with few remaining. His neighbors are kind. They care for him. And his officers – formerly his officers, that is, the ones he commanded and trained and polished carefully into the pride of the Guardia – they drop by, bringing vegetables harvested from their families’ gardens or other gifts: clothes and wooden carvings, magnificent ceramic bowls and, his favorite, books of fiction and poetry.

He had been embarrassed when they found out his secret pleasure, long before, but rather than finding it silly, those who knew him found it endearing and almost competed to bring him the latest books, or the rarest. And this helped him get through the first few years. But as he weakened further, and as he found himself suffering from a mind-killing insomnia, he truly began to wonder if it was not time to abandon this body and reenter the Wheel of Souls.

That is when the dreams began. That is when Mayumi, his dream-daughter, came into his life.

He cannot remember all the dreams, especially the early ones, but he is sure he remembers the first. He had been dreaming of some mysterious plunderer devouring his plants, night after night, and when he finally caught her, she had turned out to be a young girl, perhaps ten years old, wild-eyed and mute, with long furred ears. He brought her into his home, bathed her, dressed her, fed her. Her fear had quickly given way to a guarded trust, then attentive devotion, though it had been months before she smiled and finally spoke, telling him that her name was Mayumi.

He had found that, since Mayumi came into his life, he had slept like a stone in a gentle stream. Having someone to care for sent him to bed early, sleep effortlessly dragging him into its embrace. He had never married because the girl he had loved, in his youth, had chosen another, and he had never quite recovered from it. He had put all his energy into his work, and then, far too soon, his work was gone, leaving him with nothing. Mayumi gave him purpose again. And in the dreams she had laughed and cried, learned to control the white-hot rage that sometimes seized her, learned what he could teach her. He did not know much beyond the Guardia, however, so he taught her justice. His father, after all, had named him Sueyoshi: The Leading Edge of Justice. He tried to live up to that name, and to show her the same path he had learned.

She had learned well, and had become Guardia. But now…for months she has hardly been in his dreams. Only for moments does she find him, telling him she will find a way back to him, and then she is gone. Something has happened. Something has gone wrong. Or perhaps she has just become an adult, and gone off to her own life.

And he feels he has let her down as well. The insomnia is back, worse than ever. He does not sleep for days at a time. And his heart pains him. Although the cool air is a relief from the unseasonable warmth, he should not be working in the garden. And he must admit, he cannot save it on his own. He will have to call upon others for help. What point is there in going on if one cannot take care of one’s own garden? And though he has always refused even to consider whether or not Mayumi has some sort of real existence, he cannot stop the doubts that tell him he is losing his mind, imagining that which he could never have in reality.

Then, on the little low door set into the garden wall, the wooden catch rattles. The door begins to open, but it sticks, like always. But with effort someone pulls it open. Even this short visitor must duck her head to enter through that door, though her ears brush the lintel.

Her ears. Black-furred, rising from the sides of her head through straight black hair, parted in the middle to reveal a young, frightened face. For a moment, she looks just as she did when he found her in that first dream, seeking something but scared of what she will find. Then she sees him. Her eyes widen, her face lights up, though she is not smiling. She looks at him, almost unbelieving.

It is a dream. It must be. But that is no matter. It is so very, very good to see her. He stands, slowly, and then he feels that familiar pain, and things become dark.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“Mother!”

The loud, carrying voice is not directed toward him, obviously, but it rouses him nonetheless. Had he fallen asleep in the garden? Is this one of the neighbor girls calling for help? “I’m fine!” he insists. “Just…fell asleep.”

Then it registers: she had called “Mother!” in Urbia, not Japanese. But then the voice, more quietly, speaks to him in his native tongue, shaky and frightened. “Father…you’re going to be all right.”

The arm around his shoulders is strong, and he turns his head slightly to see the soft, black fur on the upper side of her forearm. He straightens, still sitting with his legs folded under, and looks at her face, tears filling her eyes.

“Mayumi?” He cannot summon any more words. It can’t be. It can’t be real. Have I died? They say that those who dream deeply live on in the land of dreams after death.

She nods. “I told you,” she says. “I told you I would find you.” She smiles weakly.

A shadow moves across them, and a cool hand touches his back. “Mayumi? What happened?”

Her eyes look up at the newcomer, past Sueyoshi’s shoulder. “He saw me and… I think he fainted.”

“I am all right.” His voice is weak, he knows, and he grows irritated with himself. “I…felt dizzy.” He shifts to look at this “Mother” and sees someone who is unmistakably a goddess. Her subtly luminous beauty, her hair white but not from age, her eyes glowing like copper reflecting the light of a crackling fire. “I have seen you…” A dream, almost forgotten, comes flooding back. The hawk that died. The black horse. The goddess on the hill. He looks back at Mayumi, stunned.

A touch of healing power reaches into him, like that of the Ebisu priest, but so much finer, gentler, as if being careful of his old heart. The dizziness disappears and he feels better than he has in years. He barely hears the goddess saying, “Emotions can be overwhelming. Where can we sit, Mayumi?”

They both help him stand, and Mayumi, murmuring, “Over here,” guides them to the wooden deck he built himself twenty years ago, after the old one had begun to rot. Up three steps and then they help him sit on a comfortable chair beneath the overhanging balcony above.

“I am fine, really…” And he is. He feels years younger. His head is still spinning, but it has nothing to do with his heart. How can this be real?

“I am sure you are,” the goddess says. “But you would be even better after a drink of water.”

Mayumi cries, “I’ll get it!” and dashes inside, for all the world as if she lives here.

Sueyoshi watches her go, then looks at the goddess in wonder. “Is this a dream? Or have I died?”

She smiles and shakes her head slowly. Though so pale that she seems almost transparent, her expression is warm. “No. This is the Wakenworld. I brought her to see you, as I said I would. It is her Year’s End gift.”

He nods. “You did.” Even using the more formal Urbia “you” sounds rude and inadequate to him. “Divine one, I cannot say how grateful–”

Mayumi returns, handing him water. “How are you feeling?” She says it in Japanese, in a familiar tone.

“I am well… You…are here.” It is half-question, half-statement.

“Yes.” She smiles, though her warring emotions render it fragile. Then looking from one to the other, she says, “Mother, this is…my father. Father, my mother is, well, a goddess… Her name is Alma.”

Sueyoshi nods. “Yes, we have met.” He looks at Alma, feeling now the slightest bit amused, her kindly manner toward him beginning to overcome his awe of her.

“A certain black stallion showed me this ward in a dream and told me where to find your father,” Alma explains.

Mayumi looks astonished, then pleased, causing Sueyoshi to wonder who this stallion might be. Some god, perhaps, who watches over her? “That was kind of him,” she says, then looks back at Sueyoshi. “I…I can’t believe it.” She smooths his longish grey-white hair, which he has allowed to grow out since his retirement. He feels conscious of his wrinkles. He wonders how she saw him in their dreams. He feels as if he might have been much younger, old enough to be her father, but not, as he is now, her grandfather. Her face flushes, her nose turning pink in the way it always did when she was fighting her way back from the verge of tears.

Sueyoshi takes her hand, comforting her by murmuring, “Yes, yes.” This radical adjustment in reality will, he is sure, take time to sink in, but it is time to treat it as being as real as it so obviously is. He asks Alma, “Divine one, can you both stay? I…I did not prepare the usual feast, being alone…but I can gather some things from the neighbors.”

Alma shakes her head. “I brought Mayumi here to spend the day with you. I, however, cannot stay. There is a family ceremony I must attend in the Second Ring.”

“You can’t stay?” Mayumi asks, distraught.

Alma shakes her head. “I am afraid not. Every year, on this day, all the Life and Death gods meet to part with old souls and prepare the new lives for the coming year. It is our most sacred ritual. And I will see many family members I have not seen in a whole year.”

Sueyoshi feels a pang of pride at seeing Mayumi’s disappointment turn to stoic acceptance. “Thank you, Mother. For bringing me here, for…” She closes her eyes, words failing her momentarily, then opens them again. “For everything. When will you return?”

Alma hesitates a moment, thinking. “Well before sunset, I think,” she says. “Enjoy your time here.”

Sueyoshi stands. He nearly sinks to the floor again in order to perform a full prostration of the deepest respect, but something about Mayumi’s closeness to her, the lack of formality, and what he remembers of the goddess from his dream makes him change his mind and instead perform only a standing bow, albeit one with his back fully bent, his palms pressed together in gassho, as if in prayer. “I will be more prepared when you return. Though whatever repast I have to offer will be far humbler than you deserve, I hope you will join us then. My deepest gratitude for this gift of time with one I have only known in dreams until now.”

He feels those cool hands on his shoulders, nudging him upright. He straightens slightly and raises his head to see her bowing herself, not deeply, but to him. A goddess, bowing to him. He feels reality crumbling further. But then, this is the person his daughter calls Mother, just as she calls him Father. What world has he tumbled into?

“It will be my honor to join you then,” Alma says. “And I assure you that I was never one for feasts. I prefer quiet moments.” She hesitates as if remembering something. “By the way…” She looks up, and Sueyoshi follows her gaze, to where a slightly darker patch of blue moves across the sky. It comes closer until it resolves into yet another figure from a dream, the phoenix, glittering in the sunlight, a flash of some jewel dangling from its neck catching his eye. The magnificent wings spread, cupping the air, and the bird lands on the almost-black age-gnarled branch of the sakura tree, the weight shaking the branch so that a number of rust-eaten leaves fall. The phoenix begins to preen its feathers back into place, the brown, tear-shaped gem at its throat gleaming. “I truly am sorry for your hawk,” the goddess says. “It seems that Starfax has guided him to…different skies.”

Sueyoshi realizes his mouth is open, and closes it. The hawk, yes, which he had found injured, which he had hoped to give to Mayumi, in dream at least, and which had died. “I am happy to know that poor but noble bird was helped by such a magnificent creature.”

His eye catches movement beyond the bird. The heads of his neighbors are peering over his wall, staring at the astonishing visitors, the white-haired goddess and the rabbit-eared girl. He glances at Alma, hoping she is not bothered by his nosy neighbors, but though the way her eyes crinkle in amusement shows she is aware of them, she does not seem to mind. She favors him with another smile, and turns to leave. “Have a lovely day, both of you. I will see you this late-afternoon.”

The wind picks up, and the air fills with the scents of the unblooming flowers of his garden. But they are not unblooming. Even those which are out of season are, within moments, budding and then opening fully. Leaves along nude branches burst out in seconds, healthy and green, and blossoms of cherry and plum are covering their trees as Alma walks past them. Around the edges of the garden, hydrangeas and cosmos bloom, and the other two trees are beginning to bear mikan and nashi, mandarins and pears.

By the time he looks back, he sees the goddess has already passed through the low doorway, gone, leaving behind her gift of life. He looks at that gift, beside him, smiling at him and taking his hand. He encloses her slender hand in his, the memories of walking with her, hand in hand, in her childhood, once again robbing him of the ability to speak.

On its perch, the phoenix Starfax prunes a rebellious feather back into perfection, and then with a glance of her ambarine eyes at Mayumi, opens her wings and takes off into the heights.