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!”
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!”