One of the best tools in the kit of an off-blue is a simple little spell that sends vermin scurrying away, allowing a restful sleep in some of the nastiest armpits of the Insula, and before beginning his second night of sleep at the Singing Cockroach, Somrak, in lightweight cotton trousers and a simple close-fitting sleeveless singlet, has just finished casting it to make the bedbugs think there is a big, juicy, blood-filled mammal in the next room, when he hears a knock on the door.
He picks up a long, straight black-enameled dagger and rises, gliding quietly across the room, then opens the door while standing in a good position to evade a strike and also to strike in return. He relaxes when he sees it is Alma, wearing a hooded cloak, her distinctive white hair concealed and her divine aura suppressed as much as she can manage. She would still be a very noticeable figure to the variegated assemblage of lowlifes downstairs, but perhaps she will not be recognized as Sergeant Alma of the Guardia Dei.
Somrak feels his mouth go dry. He hasn’t seen her since last evening, and did not expect her to come for a visit. He’d planned to go by the station tomorrow morning to compare notes, knowing she is to meet Saira tonight. To have Alma so close, so unexpectedly, is a tortuous pleasure, but knowing he’ll likely have to tell her lies to keep her in the dark about Sky, and about what he really plans to do, is simply torture. He stands back to let her in, and closes the door. He holds up a finger, then sets up a small white candle the length and thickness of his smallest finger on an ashtray and lights it from his fingertip. It burns with a yellow flame.
“If that flame turns green, someone is trying to eavesdrop magically,” he says. He sits on edge of the bed, near the wall, giving her enough space to sit as there is no chair in the dingy, cramped room. “Visited a friend today. Got some more background on our gang. Probable identification of two more members.”
Alma lowers the hood from her head and looks around the room, taking in the torn and filthy wallpaper, the slightly lopsided bed with its brand-new sheets that Somrak bought in a market earlier in the day, the window so dirty that it only lets in a little distorted light from the sickly streetlamp outside. Then she looks at Somrak, her expression a touch reproachful. “Good evening to you too, sir.”
Somrak grimaces. “Sorry… Welcome to the abode. The cockroaches really do sing, you know. It’s not much, but it comes highly recommended.” Those mother-of-pearl eyes on him seem to look past his flesh, straight to his heart.
Alma gives an almost-silent snort at this. “I’m sure Gwydion would disagree. He has a bit of a story with the place. How was your day?” She sits, carefully, on the bed, which creaks a warning.
“I quietly visited a colleague on the post-Dukaine task force. We have a better idea of who’s in the gang. Figured I’d drop by and fill you and Dion in tomorrow.” From the side table, which looks as if an angry glance could cause it to collapse, he picks up a bottle of whisky that has no stopper and a none-too-clean shotglass upside down on the neck. “Want some? It’s a crime to call it whisky, but I ordered it from downstairs just for appearances. Works pretty good as a pesticide though.”
Alma puts a hand up, palm forward, and shakes her head. “Thank you but no. I will be meeting our common friend once I leave here. Just thought I would stop by and check how you were doing before going there.” She looks down at her hands, now clasped in her lap. “Gwydion told me…about the devil’s blood.”
Somrak sighs internally. “Yeah, that. Well, we can’t know they’ll still have it around when we go in. Devils don’t exactly serve guard duty. Their services are very expensive in terms of souls and contracts. Likely, it’s back where it belongs. Still, we’ll take precautions.”
He stops himself before he crosses the line from ‘too talkative’ to ‘babbling’. At least he hopes he stopped himself in time. He’s usually better at lying than this. But then he’s usually not lying to Alma. He can’t tell her that she doesn’t need to worry about the devil. First, because the devil is her best friend, Sky, the guy they’re going to rescue. Second, because they are not going to rescue Sky. Somrak is planning to let Alma and Dion investigate, then take what they learn and go in by himself, because he knows that this is–
“A suicide mission,” Alma mutters. Took the words right out of my head, Somrak thinks. Louder, she says, “This is shaping up to be a suicide mission. I can hardly imagine that they would not make use of such an asset once we go in.” She takes a deep breath. “And that’s if we can find them in the first place.” She looks truly disheartened.
Somrak is quiet for a minute, then mustering all his false confidence, assures her, “It’ll be a tough one, that’s for sure. But working together, we stand a chance. Three gods, one to deal with the sorcerer, one to deal with the necro, and one more of a generalist, but with plenty of experience dealing with both. They’ve picked a fight with the wrong crowd.” He lays a hand on top of both of hers.
Alma raises an eyebrow, her voice soft, non-accusatory in tone if not in words. “What is wrong with you, Somrak? Your hand is cold and so is your voice. You say those things but they are just something to say. This is Sky.”
Somrak releases her hands. “Yeah. It’s Sky.” He lets some of his worry creep into his voice. “And I know if I think about that too much, I’m not going to be able to do what I need to do. I’m going to be distracted.” Like I am right now. More firmly, he continues, “So my head is in that space it always is during a mission. Where it should be. For him, and for us as well.” He sighs. “Speaking of distractions… I… Never mind – it’s none of my business.”
That active eyebrow of Alma’s rises again. “What exactly isn’t your business?”
He is uncomfortable, but it could be important. “When you and Dion and I were together in the office, you two could barely look at each other. I know I was blind to all that on my first visit here, but in retrospect it’s a big change from how you were around each other before.” He waves his hand dismissively. “If you want me to shut up, just say so.”
Alma sighs, her alabaster tresses shaking along with her head, as if she wants to deny it ever happened. “We had an argument. Words were spoken that take time to lose their sting. Especially in the absence of an apology.”
His tone grim, Somrak says, “Let me guess who needs to apologize.” And which rich little prettyboy could do with a smacking.
“It’s not an argument unless both parties participate.” Alma looks away, at the wall in front of her, staring absently at an orange-and-black cockroach as long as her palm. “He found out about the kiss. And then I was rather late returning from Father’s estate.” She gestures vaguely toward her eyes. “Anyway, misunderstandings.”
“Misunderstandings?” Somrak tries but does not entirely succeed in keeping the anger out of his voice. It might take two, but Dion is the one who misunderstood, I’m sure. Then he checks himself. He knows he is biased in this case. And she does not seem to want any further outbursts. “I’m sorry, Alma. I never should have–”
She cuts him off with a shake of her head. “No, it is becoming clear that this argument was coming, one way or another. You were merely a catalyst.”
They are both silent for a long moment. He wants to ask, Can it be salvaged? But he dreads either a positive or a negative answer. To learn that those two are sundered fully would give him an opening, he is ashamed to acknowledge. But Somrak has no future prospects, no future at all, he is sure. Hope would only make him waver in his resolve. And he truly wants them to be happy.
Finally, shaking his head in annoyance at his treacherous thoughts, Somrak forces that aside and asks the question he has been wanting to ask, but that other things have constantly preempted. Pointing with two fingers to his own eyes, he asks, “So what’s up with the eyes?”
She looks down with a faint smile. “Oh…I seem to have acquired a new sphere.”
Somrak blinks in surprise. “A new… A new sphere? I assume you’re not a goddess of finding lost things now, or you’d have figured out where Sky is already.”
Alma shakes her head at the lame attempt at humor, but her smile increases minimally. “Nothing so immediately useful. Apparently, I am a Spinner, providing balance between Life and Death, sending souls to the Wheel and reincarnation. But it could not have come at a worse time. If this sphere is to bring balance to my powers, then that is something which will only come after much training. For the moment, it is mainly a distraction, though it is not as draining as it was at first.” She exhales deeply and stands slowly. “I should go. It is time. I hope you have a restful night.”
He stands with her, wishing he could drop this wall, tell her everything. Keep her here no matter the cost. But he does not. There are more important things, he insists to himself. “Be careful. This gang could be planning an ambush.”
She offers him a small smile. “I’ll be all right. Good night, Somrak.”
Words. Words are the problem. There just aren’t any that won’t make things worse. As she begins to turn, he reaches out, touches her arm. He barely stops himself from grabbing it. She turns back toward him, her eyes asking a silent question. He softly puts his arms around her, and feels his body relax as she puts her hands on his back and holds him tightly. His hands on her, his body, radiates the warmth that it did not before, a comforting heat, soothing, not passionate but speaking of the love he has for her.
He does not know how long they hold each other, but as he begins to become conscious of the passage of time, he releases her, looking into her strange eyes, stroking her smooth cheek. She reaches up and touches his hand, that small, sad smile for him, for the things they share and cannot share. Then, silent, she turns, pulling up her hood again as she opens the door and departs.
Somrak watches her go, watches the door close. He sits heavily on the bed, forearms on his knees, emotions in turmoil, detachment lost, silently cursing over and over like a mantra meant to bring his thoughts back under control.