“He used something like that on me once before, long ago,” Sky is saying. The pleasant, relaxing sounds of stringed instruments and voices singing in languages barely known on the Insula issue from the speakers connected to Sky’s windup, flywheel-powered record player. Sky has one hand wrapped around a mug of coffee, feeling the heat from it penetrate his fingers. The mug has no handle. It is rustic-looking but with a subtle elegance, and the smell steaming from it triggers a sense of calm in the long-time imbibers of the drink regarded as sacred among some cultures of the City of Gods. The music, the coffee, the goddess next to him combine with the feeling of welcome that he always feels here in his sanctum. It is like a living thing, almost – no consciousness at all, but there is a sort of spirit here in this, his home. “A combination of drunkenness and lust. It’s like a squid spraying a cloud of ink to cover its escape. But it leaves behind devastation.”
Alma is leaning against him, exhausted, his other arm around her. She is cradling a matching cup of coffee in both her hands, looking wan, ready to drop off to sleep at any moment. She is still incorporating her new sphere and none of this has helped. “I despise love spells. They distort everything. I wouldn’t… I wouldn’t have…” She looks up at him, embarrassed. “You know.”
He looks at her, his face sorrowful. “I know. Of course I know. And neither would I.” At a raised eyebrow from her, he snorts. “Look…if there were any goddess I were going to fall in love with, it would be you. I know myself that well. But, as much as I love you, I’ve never…never been attracted that way, to immortals.”
Alma’s mouth opens. “Oh.” She pauses for a heartbeat. “Well, no wonder I’ve felt so at ease with you. I’ve known some gods who were drawn to mortals. It usually works the other way around, though. I could never bind to mortals. They are so…temporary. So frail.”
Sky shakes his head. “I’ve known gods like that, too, who go chasing after mortals and then abandon them before they can become inconveniently old.” His tone has an edge of disgust to it. “That’s not me. It’s not that I have a particular passion for mortals. More that I don’t have this…complete lack of passion for them. It’s something in how I was made. Maybe connected with the rebellion thing. I don’t really know.” But I have suspicions, he wants to say. All offspring of Hell are born with an antipathy for their former slaves, the gods. In me, it is quite muted, but still comes through in this way. And the evil and cruelty I suffered in Hell makes unthinkable any feelings of affection for one of my fellow devils or demons. But mortals – I was made to feel empathy for them. To lead them in rising up.
“You have no choice, then?” Alma asks, interrupting his reverie. “Other than to love those who will inevitably leave you to mourn alone?”
Sky shrugs. “I have a choice. I have chosen to live in isolation for more than sixty years.”
She closes her eyes in sympathetic pain and leans her head more firmly against his side. “Poor Sky. Well, I hope this doesn’t add to your pain, but I’ve never felt romantically pulled toward you, either.”
Sky chuckles. “That isn’t painful to hear. If I didn’t already know it, I would say it’s a relief. I mean, it would be flattering, but since I can’t reciprocate, it would complicate things. I’ve…had a goddess or two fall for me. You’re my dearest friend. It would fill me with sorrow if you loved me in a way I could not return.”
Alma finishes her coffee and sets the cup on the table, which has several small objets d’art on it. Passing over a knotted dragon carved of ivory, a small school of ceramic carp, each painted in unique patterns and apparently designed as chopstick holders, and a comical bug-eyed mudskipper whose gaping mouth holds a random assortment of pens and pencils, she picks up a carving of lustrous wood, looking at it absently, running her thumb over the smooth surface. It is a statuette of a god or demon done in a fantastical, almost parodic style, with a huge wolflike muzzle of shark teeth, backswept horns, a big overhanging belly, bowed legs, and upturned laughing eyes. It holds a harpoon in one hand and a bundle of fish on hooks in the other, and its draconic tail wraps around a pile of skulls scattered about its feet.
“Part of me is wondering now…” she begins, leaving Sky hanging, waiting for how that will finish and filling in the blank with a hundred possibilities. “…if Gwydion was right.”
It takes him a moment for it to click into place. “When he accused you of forming a harem? First of all, he had the wrong idea about me. Second, correct me if I’m wrong, but the only god other than Dion who has fallen in love with you lately is Somrak. Not much of a harem.”
She says silent for a two slow breaths. “So you know about Somrak, then?” she asks, her voice low.
“After all those years of being his partner, I can read him easily,” Sky replies. “It was pretty obvious he had developed feelings for you, at least while I was asleep for a week. Maybe before that. I should have seen it coming. You…are his type. Anyway, I just think you’ve been meeting the sort of gods, lately, who are naturally going to be drawn to you. Coincidence.”
“If only I weren’t drawn to them,” she says. “I really always wanted something simple. Two people for as long as it lasts. I thought I had that and then I didn’t and now I had it again but…I don’t.” She shrugs. “We’re not exclusive, Gwydion and I. At least in theory. Turns out that just went one way. Worked fine for as long as I didn’t want anyone else.”
Sky is quiet for a moment, just comfortingly rubbing her shoulder. Then he says, “He’s afraid. I wouldn’t claim to understand that kind of thinking…except maybe I do. For me, it wasn’t other lovers. It was war. I was with someone I loved, truly loved, and we only had so many decades we could be together, and yet I would go off to war every few years. Part of it was my nature, but part…fear of that all-encompassing commitment. And of what I knew would come after. Fear of the end. It took me time to figure that out, and to stop running away.”
“I love him, Sky. I didn’t think I did, at first. It was just… We were both going through very difficult times and it was solace, being together. No commitments. Just a way to avoid thinking. Together, for a time. But then time went by and it didn’t take long for that to change. But I never pushed. It’s not like I’m any better at commitments than he is.”
As diplomatically has he can, Sky says, “I’ve heard…rumors about his romantic tendencies.”
“I’m very much aware of his general approach to the opposite sex.” Alma smiles wryly at Sky. “I’m not young enough to believe in fairy tales, you know?”
“Hey, there are some wards where not believing in fairy tales will get you killed,” Sky jokes. “Anyway, he hasn’t learned to trust yet. Not just you, but himself. That’s what I think, anyway. And you’re absolutely right to be furious with him, but…” He sighs. “Maybe I’m just a fool, but I think you two are going to be good together.”
Alma cuddles against him. “I’m not furious anymore. Just sad…tired. Wondering what I’ll find when I return to the station. And how he found out about Somrak.” She looks up at him. “So I’m Som’s type, then? And what does that mean, exactly?”
Sky pulls her closer, relishing the simple physical contact. “Ah, Somrak. I’ve rarely seen his cynicism break down. It only ever has around goddesses who are at least as tough as he is. Not in the sense of raw power, but in mental strength. People who have…been through Hell, but who do not let it limit them. He respects that.” He pauses. “And…well, it’s none of my business…”
In mild irritation, Alma insists, “Oh, just ask already. What would I have to hide from you now?”
“I was just wondering what the draw is, with him. As you said, you just want something simple. But it’s clear you are attracted to him.”
Alma takes a deep breath. “Have you ever tracked a criminal who takes amusement in taunting you, outsmarting you, being one step ahead? And the chase becomes consuming? You want to outsmart him, learn to think like him until you’re not quite sure which thoughts are yours and which of them aren’t?”
Sky nods, his mind going back over a number of cases.
“Death gods are like that too,” she continues, “with people who keep – what do they say? Flirting with death? It’s more than a simple expression. It’s alluring. But…that’s not all of it. As you say, Somrak is just so broken. So alone. I know that kind of loneliness. The numbness.” She sighs. “Anyway, I wouldn’t leave Gwydion to run after him. And that is what I told him, that day during the party.”
Sky nods again. After so many years of being Somrak’s responsibility, Somrak’s partner, and very recently, maybe, Somrak’s friend, he knows what she means. “Despite what happened, I’m glad I asked him to come to Three Rats. He needs someone. Us.”
“He has us,” She smiles humorlessly. “For as long as he wants us. How long have you two been together?”
“Oh, the Commander partnered me up with him when I was fresh out of the Academy. So about forty years.”
Sounding tired, Alma murmurs, “Why would he? I thought Somrak was many times our senior.”
“He is,” Sky says. “He has been an off-blue longer than you, Gwydion, and I put together have been Guardia. But he’s actually younger than I. So maybe the Commander thought we would sort of balance each other out.”
“It seems too long a time to spend as an off-blue,” she says with a sigh. “Anyway…I admit I was surprised to find he could be so friendly. He surely seemed less amenable when we first met at the Curia. And Gwydion took to him as well, I could tell, in spite of the jealousy. And the Bunnies…” She covers her face with her hands, dropping the wooden figurine on her lap. “Gods, the Bunnies…. Might have had an eighth one tonight if you had not broken that spell.”
Sky’s eye go wide. “What?” he squawks.
Alma fidgets with the hem of her dress as she talks. “I’m afraid I cannot quite control how I create them… You see, I can’t…you know. Not with gods. Not without risks.”
“Oh.” He thinks of the consequences. The thought of offspring has always disturbed him, since he has no idea what the result could be. He feels ill again. Then he realizes what this means for her and Gwydion. “And so Dion and you…?”
“I know.” She looks up at the ceiling. “It’s frustrating to say the least. Hence the whole arrangement deal. I would risk it with him, though, if the Council weren’t watching. If another Bunny pops up…”
A new Bunny would very possibly see Alma sentenced to Hell after all, and the existing Bunnies coldly executed. “The consequences for you and all of them would be dire. There’s no, um, magical way of…?”
She shakes her head. “Still looking. No choices so far. Mortals are safe. Demigods are too, it appears. But gods…too powerful an exchange of mana. And really, I have no interest running around lying with whoever is safe. Truth is, I’m not even sure how I do it.”
“What about this new sphere?” Sky asks. “Will it bring balance, or more difficulty?”
“I don’t know, really. The Wheel is everything. Life to Death to Life again. When a soul is spun through it, it is cleansed. Reshaped. Through the Spinner – a god of the Wheel, that is – a soul may reach the Wheel. It’s a strange sensation. Indescribable. Pain and ecstasy.” Alma shakes her head. “It was frightening when it awoke in me. I was not prepared for it. And Spinners…they’ve always been Life gods. For as far as I can remember, just one of them lives at each generation. Our current Spinner has been growing weak. We had been afraid she would disappear without leaving a successor.”
Sky feels worried. “Does this spinning weaken gods then? Is it going to bring you to harm?”
“I don’t know,” she says again. “But Sharia is rather aged. I think she is merely becoming senile. The Wheel takes power in order to be channeled, I think. Maybe…she is too old to summon enough power.”
“Strange to think of gods becoming old, but I suppose it works that way for some,” Sky muses. The truth is, most gods disappear after a few centuries, very few lasting more than a dozen. Exactly what happens to them is unclear; the consensus is that they ascend to a higher plane of being.
They fall quiet, and Alma looks around the room. On the curved wall are pictures of people, some smiling, others keeping their faces woodenly expressionless, framed in hand-carved, sometimes painted frames that are themselves works of art. A half-dozen guitars are mounted on the wall as well, decorative but easily removed to be played, and there are smaller ones as well. Weapons also at hand: two curved swords of different designs, a short spear, a hardwood club with what appears to be shark teeth embedded along the edges to make a primitive, wicked sort of sword. She picks up the statuette again from her lap. “So who is this?”
Sky laughs. “Oh, that’s me. I started out as a god on another world. I was worshipped in a tiny kingdom that occupied a single valley on a small island. This,” he juts his chin at the record player, “is music by people who live on that island.”
“But not by your people?” Alma asks.
Sky shakes his head slowly. “I failed to protect them. I wanted to explore the world. Disease and the actions of stronger, predatory nations wiped them out while I was away. By the time I returned, they were gone. No one ever recorded their music. I am the only one left who knows their songs.” He tries to speak matter-of-factly, but the shame in his voice is obvious. Even after all this time, he thinks of them almost every day.
Alma squeezes his hand. “Well if you looked anything like this, you’ve certainly changed.” The gentleness of her voice softens the sardonic words. “So, why is it that you keep this place so well hidden?”
“Oh, part of the paranoia of being off-blue, I suppose,” he answers. “I’ve always kept a fake place that can be ‘found’ by enemies. Not that I’ve taken great care of keeping this secret. Being part of a regular station is simpler. Enemies can usually be met head on.”
Alma smiles. “I’m not really one to talk. My sanctum is busier than Kyri’s bakery. But I like this place. It feels rather like you. Simple on the surface. Hints of a million stories to tell in every little thing. Like this idol, and the pictures. Or that little carving on the shelf over there.”
Sky looks, and stretches to pick it up and show it to her. It is a yellowed piece of ivory, somewhat triangular, the size of his palm, curved on one side and almost straight on the other, with a rounded tip and a base made of polished, fantastically twisted driftwood. On one side is carved in delicate lines an image of a ship in full sail, plowing through the waves; on the other is a large fish-like creature, a spout of water or spray or maybe even smoke rising from its head. “That…is something carved for me by my, well, my grandson. He was on a sea voyage, and became quite the artist during it. This is the ship he was on, the Hamilton,” he points to the tiny name carved on the hull. “And this is what they hunted.”
Alma is wide-eyed as she takes it from him. “You have a grandson? This means you had children, at some point. Where are they?”
Again, he tried not to sound as sad as he feels. “Long gone. They were all adopted. Mortals.”
Alma says nothing, but puts a hand on his and squeezes it gently.
After a long moment of silence he says, “I met her not long after my encounter with Sam there. Well, some years, but it didn’t seem so long. Slaves had risen up on an island, and I had gone to aide them, and there was Sam. For a time, I thought we were friends. Then he switched sides. Anyway,” he reaches for a thick portfolio on the table, opening it to reveal images, photographs, some of them by methods she had never seen before, until he finds one of a serious-faced couple in finery – a wedding photo. It takes her a moment to recognize Sky, his hair completely different, slicked back and with furry sideburns, wearing a black suit with a curious little bow around his neck. The woman next to him is in white, with a veil over her hair, her face darker than his, lips full, a knowing look as if she has seen through the photographer and holds some secret of his. “This is her. Laura. We met, and I fell in love. And it being in the midst of war – a different war – we found children who needed homes. I… Well, we soon had a family. And one thing I know is, picking a fight with Sam while one has a family is not a good idea. So I did my best to forget that vow of revenge.”
“And you saw him again you just thought you’d go for it?” Alma asks.
Sky shakes his head ruefully. “I knew giving him a chance to act was a mistake. I thought I should try to take him out quickly, neutralize his powers. I thought he was going to do something to you. So…I acted. But as usual, he was already prepared.”
“I will report to Father about him, now that I know what we are dealing with,” she tells him. “He is family. That helps. The Clan will deal with him.” She turns slightly to stroke Sky’s temple. “And I think you should let that vow fall for the time being. You have a family.”
Sky reluctantly nods assent. “He is more trickster than death god, really. Be careful. And then there is the necromancer…”
Alma looks down, her hand lowering again. “Yes, there is that. I have been reading the information that my father has finally unlocked about the wars. So much that I didn’t know about my clan, what it went through. And finding something that will be of use to us is like sifting through a mountain of sand in search of gold.”
“We will find them,” Sky says. “They’ve gone underground, it seems, but we will find them. And you need to be in good shape for when we do. You should rest.”
“Maybe if I did, this day would end sooner.” She laughs derisively. “Maybe I could wake up and the world would be sane again.”
Sky looks askance at her. “This world? Has it ever been sane?” He gestures with his chin again, toward one of the two doorways. “There’s a bed in there. Or I could get some blankets for the sofa here. You could take a nap.”
“And what will you do? While I nap?” she asks.
“I could use some sleep as well,” he says. “It’s my usual time. So I’ll take whichever one you don’t prefer.”
“I’m pretty much sure we would both fit here on the sofa, then,” Alma suggests. Sky blinks in surprise, but she smiles sardonically and continues, “Figure we have pretty much established there is no chance for anything improper taking place between us. I’m just… I guess I’ve grown used to not sleeping alone.” Her voice and expression are apologetic.
Sky smiles. “I’ve fallen asleep here many a time.”
“Good,” she says. “You can tell me about your grandson and this sea monster. Is this its tooth? It must be almost as big as a dragon.”
“Bigger,” he says. “Much bigger than all but the oldest dragons. The oceans of that magic-poor world contain many such creatures.”
Alma snuggles against him for comfort, sets the carving on the table next to the little Sky-idol, and closes her eyes. “Thank you…by the way. For showing me this piece of you. I know I keep scolding you for being too open but the truth is…you just pretend to reveal too much while keeping far more hidden, don’t you? Paranoid, is what you are. It’s nice, learning a bit more of the mystery that is Tuma-Sukai.”
He holds her, silent and still, feeling her breath slowing. The day has left her so exhausted that he knows she is fading quickly. His heart beats faster, as he closes his eyes and steels himself to speak. Finally, as if afraid of someone else hearing, he whispers, “Alma? There’s something I want to tell you. That I’ve been wanting to tell you for so long. That I am terrified to tell you but…I must.”
She makes a tiny sound, soft like a sigh of pleasure. She is asleep, he realizes. He looks fondly at her face, made innocent by slumber, and feels suddenly, sharply grateful for her trust in him. He wants to protect her from all the myriad threats that beset them. Not just her. Her children, and Dion as well. Sky knows he would give up his life for any of them.
He strokes her hair and kisses the top of her head. “It’ll wait for morning.”