Interchapter 6-7 4: Offblue Upbraiding

Ah, Guardia Headquarters. Normally Somrak portals directly into the offblues’ offices, deep within the palatial building, the unofficial division hidden away from prying eyes with rooms labelled ‘Office 21’ and ‘Closed for Repairs’ and ‘[random gibberish symbols from forgotten language]’. But even though he still has the key for the portal – difficult to take away a magical passphrase – and he doubts it’s been changed, he knows he isn’t welcome. Most of the surviving offblues blame him for the enormous mess under the glacier, in which three of their Dei members died. That one of the dead was a traitor who killed the other two does not seem to be changing the ‘Somrak has lost it’ theme that has taken hold. But then, Somrak doesn’t really disagree.

So coming in from the nearest public portal is a nice change of pace. HQ is among other governmental buildings, all huge and impressive and practically shouting ‘obey’ to the lesser gods and mortals below, great cliffs of stone surrounding the plaza. Guardia HQ features double doors that stretch a dozen stories in height, open at all times, flanked by enormous statues of a Dei and a Popula in formal uniform, their badges pure solid gold. Both male, Somrak notes, shaking his head and chuckling to himself.

He climbs the many wide steps and enters the building, feeling the tingle of powerful security spells registering who he is and everything he is carrying with him. But the Guardia and the handful of civilians going about their business pay him little attention. Like the statue of the Dei outside, he is wearing a proper, standardized uniform, a deep indigo-blue jacket and trousers with epaulettes and rank insignia and his flame-shaped badge on display, boots and even the stupid cap. None of this but the badge is required for Dei, who are given to individualizing their uniforms, and Somrak normally doesn’t even wear his badge where anyone can see it, nor his rank. But today he is obviously Guardia Dei, his badge flashing, and his sergeant’s stripes there for all to see.

He misses the familiar creak of his crimson-and-black leathers, but he’s making a fashion statement today. And when he finally reaches the waiting room for the Commander’s office, the raised eyebrows on Mrs. Finch are a good payoff.

As Somrak removes his cap and tucks it under his arm, the aging mortal secretary stands and comes around her desk. There are seven people seated and waiting, some of them obviously gods, one of them a powerful politician’s aide that Somrak has met before, but it is as if they don’t exist to her. She walks right up to Somrak and holds her hands out.

He stops in his tracks and takes them. Her skin is soft and loose to his touch. Her face smiling, a map of wrinkles forming. He instantly warms, his sphere reacting to this woman he has admired for over four decades as she has done her job here, first as an assistant and later as the Commander’s chief clerical staff. She is not normally demonstrative in the affection he suspects she feels for all the Commander’s close-held officers, and he feels his heart speed up as she squeezes his hands. Being favored with such special regard on this of all days is more moving than he could have imagined.

“You look a very proper Guardia officer, Sergeant,” she says, letting go his hands and unnecessarily adjusting his lapels. She looks up into his eyes. Is that pity in her green eyes? Has she heard that he’s to be dismissed, stripped of his badge, arrested? Or perhaps she’s heard of the torture, of the deep unhealed wounds in his soul that make him want to scream in despair every second of the day. “They are waiting for you.” Her voice is soft, encouraging. She smiles. “Go show them who you are,” she whispers, too softly for anyone else in the room to hear.

He is so very tempted to kiss her for that.

And so he does. Invisibly to the room, not touching her at all, he projects a tiny bloom of heat onto her right cheek. It starts soft and rises slightly in temperature, then fades, more than a quick peck but less than a huge smooch. Certainly nothing that will knock her off her sensible work shoes. It takes her a moment to realize what just happened, and she blushes. Blushes! He smiles broadly, teeth flashing white against his golden-brown skin, as she looks at him, scolding but pleased.

She pats his chest and whispers, “You scoundrel. Go on now.” As Mrs. Finch turns and walks back to her desk, Somrak laughs silently at the added jaunty bounce to her step. And then he strides for the doors, pretending to ignore the jealous glares of those left behind.

The Commander is standing in the middle of the room, and turns to look at Somrak. Like many older gods, the Commander chooses to wear the form of an older human, in his case balding with ruddy, leathery skin pulled tight over his ropey muscle and bone. Somrak, however, wonders if the Commander was born looking like this. He cannot imagine his boss as a child.

“What in Hell were you thinking?” No preamble, just launching right into it, which is only to be expected from the Commander.

“You’re assuming he thinks,” the Fencer mutters from where she’s sitting in a chair by the desk. She and the Commander were apparently having a conversation when he walked in.

“And hello to the both of you,” Somrak replies, trying to be breezy and careless. “Should I do ramrod straight for this, or can I sit?”

The Commander looks him up and down. “This is the first time in about a century you’ve asked before you sat yourself down.” To Fencer. “Sure they didn’t replace him with a good shapeshifter?”

“It’s him minus the scar,” Fencer replies. “Which is just as well, because he’s gonna have a hard time healing his soul after the treatment it took.” She glares at Somrak, looking like she’s imagining shriveling the flesh from his bones. “That they all took.”

“Can I use that as an excuse to get out of this?” Somrak asks. “I would much rather be relaxing, trying to heal…” Though he makes it sound like a joke, it most certainly is not. But he does take it as an opportunity to sprawl on the most comfortable chair available.

“You’ll explain yourself,” the Commander insists. “You’ll tell us why you kept this off the books, no backup, putting all of you at risk.”

Somrak tilts his head at the Fencer. “Like I told her: the Sikari. You’ve warned me clearly what would happen if Sky got into a situation like that. You’ve all but directly told me not to contact you if I think I can get him out. Or are you going to deny that now?” His voice is casual – someone who overheard the tone but not the words would never guess he was accusing the Commander of hypocrisy.

But it is the Fencer who replies, growling as dangerously as her pet tiger, Kuhn. “You took a god who had just been poisoned and a goddess who shouldn’t even have been thinking of activating any of her spheres into a pocket universe completely out of your control. Not to mention a now-very-dead mortal.”

Somrak’s face becomes grim. “I used them to learn where Sky was. I couldn’t do that on my own. Then I was going to ditch them and go in alone.”

“But you didn’t have the resolve for that.” The Commander almost spits. “Couldn’t stand fast. I knew you were getting soft. All this rubbish lately. Going off to fight giants.” He shakes his head. “You know, most offblues don’t last twenty years before they die or break down. I guess I should just be happy you lasted five times as long.”

“We’re not getting out of this by blaming it on a washed-out agent,” Fencer notes. “This was the definition of stupid. And all because your little boy couldn’t stay away from Three Rats.” She turns her glare on Somrak again. “And when I specifically ordered you to stay away. Or was speaking in Lower Formorian at the time?”

He meets that glare, the red eye, the silver eye – not an easy thing even for a god. But Somrak just recently looked into the face of one of the Princes of Hell. His soul had been whipped by a bound death goddess, wielded by an insane necromancer wearing the body of Fencer’s niece, the woman he loves. Somrak isn’t going to quail at a mean glance. “She called me. She needed help. They told her not to call for help, and implied they had Guardia moles. Which is almost certainly true. So she called me.” He clenches his jaw for a moment before continuing. “I knew what answering that call would mean. You want my resignation?”

“Does it even matter what I want?” Fencer demands. She throws her hands up and leans back in her chair. “What I wanted was an operative I could trust and count on. What I wanted was to be kept informed about a necromancer I have hunted for two hundred bloody years! Who decimated over forty of my cousins and nephews!” Her voice rises to a roar. “Who nearly managed to kill my niece twice with a pain you can never even imagine! Bind her to a sword like she bound her cousin to that whip! It doesn’t matter what I want! I can’t even have the benefit of you realizing just how badly you screwed up! Or take us seriously for once in your wretched life!” She abruptly stands and walks toward the window, leaning forward to grip the sill and putting her head against the glass.

After a moment of silence that rings through the office after Fencer’s outburst, Somrak says, “I take this seriously. I know what happened, and what almost happened. If I could do it over again… But we didn’t know this was your necromancer until the last minute. And even you wouldn’t have known they were using Tragas godbinding techniques, would you? That’s not something Nua had any knowledge of before she went to Hell. If I could do it over… But we got Sky out. And Alma. And Dion.” He takes a breath. “I made the call. You decide what happens now.”

The Commander looks at Fencer’s stiff back. “You’re damned right we’ll decide. But first we have to find out if you’re going to be punished by the Council. You knew your responsibility to notify me the moment Agent Tuma-Sukai had been captured. You didn’t just violate chain of command. You didn’t just ignore orders. You broke the law. So what we decide isn’t going to matter a rat’s whisker if the Council wants to crucify you.”

“And when will they decide?” Somrak asks.

The Commander snorts. “Probably won’t be months. But it won’t be tomorrow, that’s for sure.”

Fencer straightens and turns, crossing her arms. “Meanwhile, you are on leave. No use to the offblues, that’s for sure.”

“What about Sky?” Somrak asks. “Is his head on the chopping block?”

“You better pray for a miracle,” Fencer replies, grim. “Or for your friends to have some tricks up their sleeves.”

Somrak looks at the two of them. “He served for forty years. He’s loyal. He’ll recover.”

Somrak is not given to pleading, but the imploring tone of his voice prompts the Commander to mutter, “Demons, don’t start begging. I know all that. Just keep him in line. Get him ready. If the Council sends an Eye to inspect him and he can’t shift to god-shape… If you want to be useful, go kick him into shape.”

“And Ponytail,” Fencer says, “on the off chance that you might get out of this in one piece, I would advise you to consider your own loyalties very carefully.”

Somrak nods, then stands and straightens slightly to stand at attention. He is not quite the model of stiff perfection, but for him the effect is striking. “I will. Will that be all?” There is no trace of insolence in his voice.

“Take your sorry carcass out of here,” the Commander says with a sigh. “You’re officially suspended. Don’t go anywhere we can’t easily find you. Be ready to appear before a tribunal on a moment’s notice. And get that thrice-damned devil ready for the same.”

“And while you’re at it,” Fencer adds, “tell whatever is left of the Three Rats Dei to await orders until the Council decides how all of you will be punished. They are on strict household management until then.” Somrak looks at her, feeling a sharp pang of melancholy at how tired and old she looks. He knows he is the one responsible for it.

“Understood.” He wants to repeat that Alma and Gwydion are not culpable for violating the Council law regarding actions to take in the event of Sky’s capture, that they did not even know of the law’s existence and that he takes full responsibility for violating it. But that is all in the report, and they know it was a lie. Alma has already told Fencer that they went in, eyes wide.

He turns and goes, thoughts of what the future is to bring weighing him down like stones piled high on this shoulders. But he is still bearing his badge and his stripes for now. On his way out, he grins at Mrs. Finch, pointing a finger at her with a wink and giving her just a tiny spot of warmth on her cheek again. Then he is quickly out of the offices and heading back to a public portal, for the long journey downslope to Three Rats.

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Interchapter 6/7 3: Family Photos

The stack of books is like a fortress tower, looming beside Mayumi’s elbow. She keeps meaning to put them on the shelf, the shelf right in front of her, certainly a more convenient location and far easier to pull a book out for consultation. Yet she keeps them in a stack. She has no time! No time to clean up, no time to eat, no time to sleep. She forgot to brush her teeth this morning and all day she’s felt on her teeth the growing accumulation of the residue of gulped-down food snatched in passing from the Popula cafeteria as she rushed from classroom to classroom. She thinks she may have accidentally eaten a bun with bacon in it. Her herbivorous stomach has been making the most amazing rumblings. One of the instructors stopped in mid-sentence and looked toward her in shock after one particularly loud gurgling that sounded like an attempt to summon some kind of frog-demon. The entire class had had a good laugh over that.

It is the second day of the Academy. The first day of classes. Two hundred fifteen days to go.

A mere six months to prepare a Guardia for a thousand possible situations, fantastically different wards, a purposefully convoluted system of law that even Voices, the lawyers of the world, can never fully comprehend. Indeed, sixty years would not be enough, but a focus on the true basics – how to approach, how to be flexible, how to take control of a dangerous situation while still serving the public good – means a generalist approach, molding recruits into cops who must think, not merely follow rules. It’s the only way it can work.

The side of her head leaning against a hand, her fingers in her straight black hair, Mayumi studies the passages. She remembers this from her dream-life. Not the passages, not exactly, but the way the teachers seemed to delight in the students’ collective gasp when they gave out the first-day reading assignment. The big pile of books on the desk, the teacher sitting beside it, grinning like a wolf looking at a bunch of sheep trapped in a pen. “You’ll have read Mbuti, Spinnocci, Cao Fu, al Bishi, Hartono, Vasconcelos, and Butler…by tomorrow.” Gasp! “There will be a test.” Groan!

She knows it will get easier. Cadets will get used to the workload, but also the workload will ease off, at least in the amount of reading, moving more into practical training. The initial data dump is meant both the provide a theoretical basis to what they learn later, and to kick loose anyone who doesn’t truly want to be here. The Guardia doesn’t really need people who can absorb useful information from five chapters and two entire books overnight – for a single class – but it does need people who will try their hardest.

Unfortunately, hard-working doesn’t necessarily translate to kind-hearted. Most of the courses have Assistant-Instructors, and Mayumi felt her heart sink this morning when the syllabus for “Basics of Criminal Psychology” landed on her desk and an oily voice puffed against the fur of her ear. “Hello there, Bunny.”

She couldn’t stop her ear from flinching back, but she kept herself composed otherwise. She’d been half expecting this. Standing up to bullies always comes with a cost. “It’s pronounced Ishijima, Assistant-Instructor Pringle.”

“Guess who’ll be grading the test, Bunny.” Pringle grinned cruelly at her.

Mayumi looked around at the enormous classroom. Some students were standing because there weren’t enough desks. The Guardia had lost a lot of officers in the Shard War, and the cap on the number of recruits must have been raised. She would have to remember to get to classes early to be sure of a seat. But to Pringle, she said, “That looks like a lot of work, Assistant-Instructor. I’ll write my answers extra clearly, for your tired eyes.”

Remembering the confused look on his face, brought forth by her sympathetic smile, makes her chuckle now, in her room. Then her stomach rumbles again, not in hunger at all, sounding like eighteen unoiled doors creaking in the wind at once. She clutches it in discomfort.

“Hey! If you explode and spray your organs all over the walls, you are gonna have to clean it up yourself!” Pari is on her bed, the smaller, upper bunk, large enough for a pair of very friendly humans and nearly big enough to be an apartment in itself for the pixie. She is sitting in front of a thick hardcover book, heavier than herself, propped open against a pillow. As Mayumi glances over at her, Pari falls backwards to lie on the bed, staring at the ceiling, arms open. “Ugh. Booooooring! Why do I need to know all this junk? Half of this stuff will never apply to me, anyway!”

Mayumi asks, “Why is that?” She is trying to read and talk at the same time.

Pari flips over onto her stomach and props her chin on her hands. Her tiny body and ability to levitate allow her to move in unexpected ways. “You haven’t been payin’ attention, have you? I’m a pixie? Pixies don’t fight. They barely get in trouble with the law.”

“But what if you’re posted to another ward?” Mayumi points out.

Tapping the side of her disproportionately large skull, the pixie says, “Then I’ll make sure I use my head and break theirs!” She chuckles at her own joke, but Mayumi has already become absorbed in her class notes again. Moments later, Pari’s high-pitched voice startles her at its nearness as the pixie lands on Mayumi’s desk. “So what’s gotten you so interes– Hey, those are Dei books! Are those your mom’s?” She pulls one out from near the bottom of the stack, forcing Mayumi to catch and rebalance the rest. Pari starts flipping through it.

“That one is on use of force,” Mayumi says. “About two-thirds of it is not really applicable to Popula, but it’s an interesting read anyway.”

“Think there’s cheat sheets in these?” With her tiny hands, turning the pages takes effort, and Pari creases a page. Mayumi’s hand grasps the top edge of the book, and she looks over it at Pari.

“There are plenty of notes slipped in between pages,” she says. “Though never written in the margins. Mother respects books deeply, and I hope to return these to her in the same condition as when she gave them into my care.” Mayumi pauses, looking at Pari seriously. “Her notes will be at least as helpful to you as they are to me. Probably more. Would you like to study them?”

“I don’t know,” Pari growls, crossing her arms. “Might get some legendary Death goddess sicced on me if I make a crease in a page or something…”

“The books are my responsibility, and any damage will be mine alone to admit to. But just…” Mayumi pauses. “As a friend? Be careful with them.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Pari dismisses it, flipping through another page or two to look at the little pieces of paper written in Alma’s small, careful handwriting. “Ooooh – hey, what’s that?” She picks up a slightly thicker piece of paper that has fallen from between two pages and turns it. “Oh, that ain’t notes. It’s just an old picture.” She tosses it aside, apparently casually, but in Mayumi’s general direction.

Mayumi picks it up. The Insula, with its varying levels of magical and technological potential in different regions, has numerous methods for making visual reproductions. This picture seems to have been taken via a camera of some sort, developed on a chemically treated film. It is strangely thick. She studies it, having to hold it away slightly. I’m not as farsighted as Cherry, but I really should get reading glasses, she thinks. Then she recognizes one of the two figures. “Oh…that’s Mother. And…someone?”

Suddenly Pari is at her shoulder, hovering, that inaudible hum in the air tickling Mayumi’s cheek. “Oh… Well, they’re both in Academy uniforms so…classmate? Which one’s your mom?”

A smile dawns on Mayumi’s face, attended by a feeling of real joy. “On the left, with the white hair. She styled it differently then.”

Alma looks at the camera, as ethereal in beauty as ever despite the simple Dei cadet uniform. Her eyes are blue, the same eyes she had until just three nights ago when she returned, strangely changed, from her Death Clan meeting. Mayumi wonders if she will ever see those blue eyes again, or if her mother has been forever altered. She touches the surface of the picture, tracing her finger along Alma’s hair, remembering how silky it felt when she was held by her mother.

“Huh…she looks kinda sad a bit, don’t ya think?” Pari asks.

Mayumi nods. “She…often does.” In fact there is an air of melancholy around Alma at most times, a beautiful sadness that makes all all her progeny want to be near her, to elicit a smile like the sun breaking through a calm grey sky. Such smiles feel like victories.

Pari looks at the picture, then at Mayumi. “Well, pretty sure the wolf-chick next her ain’t your dad. You take after him, then? ‘Cuz…you look nothing like her. And I ain’t just talkin’ about the ears and all.”

Mayumi laughs. “Well, none of us looks like her, except for the youngest, who looks almost exactly like her. As for our father…I’m afraid I don’t look anything like him, either.”

Pari raises an eyebrow. “You sure he’s your dad? Gods are weird sometimes.”

“Gods are indeed quite unusual,” Mayumi agrees. “And we aren’t exactly related to either of them in the usual way. From what I understand…we simply appeared after they, well, made love.”

“Oh…Sheesh, makes you think twice before gettin’ into bed with a guy.” Pari looks at the picture. “Or a girl. That one’s looking at your mom like she’d go for it.”

Mayumi looks again. “Oh…yes… I see what you mean. She’s not just a classmate, is she?” The woman has wolf ears in the same way Mayumi has bunny ears, and there is a luxuriantly furred tail behind her legs. She is looking at Alma with a cajoling grin, as if saying, ‘Come on, let’s have some fun!’ But her eyes look almost desperate, questioning, with canine devotion. ‘Do you love me? Do you love me?’ “Perhaps she is the Pavia who lived here with Mother.”

Pari looks back at the bunk beds. “Think they uh… Saved on detergent for the sheets?

That makes Mayumi smile again. “I hope they made each other happy. But now they’re apart.” Her smile fades. “The Academy…six months is a long time, and yet no time at all.”

“Yeah, but don’t you go looking at me funny. I’m not playin’ on that field.” She looks at the beds again. “Ugh…Hope they did it on your bed.”

Mayumi snorts, looking at the beds, too. “Probably – mine has more space. Anyway, it was over twenty years ago. I have a feeling both of those beds have played host to numerous couples in the years since. Roommates or otherwise.”

The look of disgust on Pari’s face makes Mayumi laugh. “Ugh! Way to keep me awake tonight! Anyway, if they’re not together anymore, who’s workin’ with your mom these days?”

Mayumi goes to her closet, where she’s deposited her dufflebag. She has only hung up about half her clothes, which is not many, and out of it she pulls a case from which she retrieves a small album of pictures. She brings it back to the desk and opens it to show Pari. The image looks different, almost painted, achieved as it is via a simple sort of magic rather than chemistry. “This is Mother now. And this is her with Gwydion and Tuma-Sukai. Sky. He’s the Inspector, while they are Sergeants.”

“So, she has two guys now instead of a girl? And check out how happy she looks, huh? Huh?

Mayumi laughs again, shaking her head. “She and Sky are not lovers. Though they care for each other a great deal.”

“They sure look like lovers to me. And hey, if you’re sayin’ she’s not lovers with the tall dark guy, she must be with Mister Hot Pants over there.” Pari points at Dion. “He looks like a real piece of work.”

Mayumi nods. “I did not know what to make of him at first. But he has saved my life, and the lives of my siblings, more than once. And, well, he has changed.”

“What, like turned into a cactus or somethin’?”

“He… He seemed to think only of himself at first. I don’t think he feels that way anymore.” She smiles at all three of them, seeming to belong together, like some trio out of legend.

“You have the hots for him, is that it?” Pari nudges her. “Come on, admit it! Or do you like the big guy instead? Hey are you blushing?! Oh you do!”

Mayumi feels the warmth in her face. “Sky and I have been…trying to decide what to do about our feelings for each other. I don’t know how that will go.” She turns the page to a picture of Sky on the left, and all the Bunnies on the right.

“Whoa! Major mishmash!” Pari counts the Bunnies. “Your mom and the guy in the picture make all of those?”

Mayumi shakes her head. “I don’t have a picture of our father. But yes, all seven of us came from the same two parents. As you can see, there is little in the way of shared heredity. We don’t really think of each other as brothers and sisters so much as…family. But we are very close.”

Though it is not something she is at all ashamed of, Mayumi doesn’t mention that the four older Bunnies, herself included, are also lovers. It is not something that seems unnatural to her, though she knows it is different for humans. She cannot guess what it might be like for pixies, but considering some of the things Pari has said, Mayumi wouldn’t want to risk disturbing her.

“Yeah, your folks are kinda colorblind, aren’t they? Pretty much like us pixies, only we’re even more colorful. So your dad’s not around?”

“He is far, far away. But I have met him once. I don’t really think of him as my ‘dad’.” She pauses, realizing that her description of her life is just getting more and more complicated. “He’s my father, and I want to get to know him, but I was raised by another man, a mortal. And I think of him as Father. Truly, in my heart he is my father.”

“So… another boyfriend of your mom’s?” Pari puts her fists on her skinny hips. “Really, how many people is she juggling here?!”

Mayumi laughs softly at the idea of Alma and Sueyoshi being in any way sexually intimate with each other. “My father and Mother only met for the first time…two days ago?” Can it have been such a short time? “They have never been lovers.”

Pari’s voice changes, becoming almost angry. “So she just uhm…left you with this guy so he’d raise you? That’s cold. I wouldn’t want anything to do with a mom like that.”

“Alma had to do what she did in order to keep us alive. It’s a very complicated story, and…I don’t think I’m allowed to tell some of it, as it might get her into trouble. But she had two choices. She could have allowed us to be put to death. She chose for us to live apart from her so that we could live. It took me some time to realize how painful that was for her.” She looks at Pari, her eyes pleading for understanding. “I love her dearly.”

A bit embarrassed, Pari mumbles, “Oh…well, then. If you put it that way…”

“I know it seems very strange, but there is so much more to her, and all of us, than even we know. That is why I hesitate to judge. I’ve been judged quite severely. Called an abomination. Judged and sentenced – to death.”

“Sheesh!” Pari exclaims, buzzing back away. “You could do with a makeover but you’re not that ugly!”

Mayumi props her elbow on the desk and looks at Pari, resting her head on her fist. “Enough about me. I’m tired of talking about me. I’ve been wanting to get to know you more but…you seem rather private, so I didn’t want to push. I don’t know anything about your people except from stories, and I’m sure they’re full of inaccuracies.”

Pari tilts her head. “Do you pay extra for each big word you drop into a conversation?”

Mayumi feels disappointed at what she is beginning to perceive as evasion behavior. The insults don’t sting as much now that Mayumi sees them for what they are: a way of avoiding revealing anything of herself. “If you don’t want to talk about yourself, Pari, that’s all right. I’ll be ready to listen if you ever do feel ready. I’m all ears.” She looks back at her books, with a small grin at her joke.

Out of the corner of her eye, Mayumi sees the pixie looking at her, then away, as if she’s trying to make up her mind. Then Pari takes flight and goes to her leafy satchel, which is hanging from one of the bedposts. She rummages in there, then comes back and shows Mayumi a small piece of photo paper, about a quarter the size of the pictures they’ve been looking at. It features herself and another pixie, this one with dantier features, with pastel-blue skin and long dark-blue hair with a white streak, hugging Pari lovingly from behind. They’re both laughing happily.

“That’s the only one I brought with me,” Pari explains.

The Bunny beams at the sight, squinting to focus better. “Who is she?”

“My baby sister. Been takin’ care of her since the day she popped out of her flower.”

Her tone makes Mayumi look at her with concern. I’ll ask how the flowers work later. “But now…?”

“We got Mams. Just Dad ain’t around and Mams works long hours. Anyway, she’s all grown up now. Already started a job.” Pari sounds proud of her younger sibling.

“What sort of job?” Mayumi suddenly realizes that, aside from the burst of joy at seeing the picture of her mother’s Academy days, she feels happier than she has since leaving home, and that part of the reason is that Pari herself has not been feeling happy at all, until now, and a huge tension between the two of them seems to be dissipating. “From the stories, I’m imagining things like…watching over princesses.” She chuckles to show how she realizes how foolish that is.

The pixie snorts. “An’ where do you find a princess on this here island? Naah… We’re poor folk. Sis is just putting the colors on flower petals and paintin’ butterfly wings. She’s all artsy like that.” Pari leans against a book. “Definition of a proper pixie.”

“But you chose the Guardia.” Mayumi is just going to assume for now that Pari is telling the truth about the butterfly wings. More to ask about later.

“Yep. I’m no good at customer service. Besides, I stink at arts an’ crafts.” Pari shrugs.

Looking back at the picture, Mayumi says, “You both look very happy. Do you miss home?” She realizes how sad that came out, how her own homesickness tinted the words.

As if totally clueless to Mayumi’s tone, Pari replies, “Nope. Not even a bit.”

This surprises Mayumi. “Is there something wrong there?”

A shrug from the pixie. “Not really. Just no me-shaped hole for me to fit in. They’re probably celebratin’ that I’m gone right now. No one likes a pixie that can knock you out without using fairy dust.”

“Well…you’re planning to go back, though?”

“These guys rarely send people far away from home on their first assignments. Besides, not that many Dei there so… Maybe that’s the hole I’m meant to fill. You planning on going back to your place?”

“Yes. I hope I can. And…to tell the truth, my family and I have been ordered to stay there. I’m only here under special permission. So I think it’s a sure thing. If not…” Mayumi shakes her head to banish the unthinkable. Being sent away from her siblings… But she remembers the strange little fortune that the Oracle told her only a few days ago. According to her, Mayumi will indeed be away for some time.

She picks up the photo of her mother and the wolf-girl again. Turning it over, she sees writing on the back. It is nothing but a date, twenty-five years ago. Mayumi does some quick calculation – it is not the same year that her mother would have been in the Academy, but rather a few months before that term began. Strange… Mayumi runs her thumbnail along the thick edge, and it starts to peel apart. She feels excited. What she had thought was a product of the technology used to produce the photo is instead two photos stuck together. She very, very carefully teases them apart.

Fortunately she manages without causing any damage. The top photo does indeed have writing on the back: ‘Alma & Pavia’, followed by a date around the middle of the term, twenty-five years ago. The other picture, curled slightly from being peeled back from the top one…

Mayumi gasps. It is her mother, looking considerably younger, with a tall, dark man. And in her mother’s arms are two small bundles.

Two babies, with blankets around them.

Mayumi can see the Bunny ears. And she can see the hair, not nearly as full as it would be later, but curly, and clearly reddish on one babe’s head, and black on the other’s. It is her older siblings, perhaps just appeared, and the tall man looks upon them dotingly, a little dazed, while her mother looks both happy and frightened.

“What’s that?” Pari asks, leaning to look. “Ooo, who’s the hottie?”

“I think…he’s my father,” Mayumi says, wonderingly.

“I thought you said you met him before!”

Mayumi shakes her head. “It was in a dream and…he didn’t look like this.” She doesn’t want to explain that her father is a Void Rider, and often appears in the form of a black stallion full of stars. “Look at how young Mother seems. This is only a few months before the other picture. She looks ten years older.”

“And a lot sadder,” Pari points out. “Those two the redhead and the dark chick?”

“Rosemary and Cherry. I’ve never seen a picture from this time. Of any of us as babies.”

“Oh, hey, stop with the waterworks!” Pari sounds embarrassed, and Mayumi reaches up with surprise to touch her wet cheek. She hadn’t realized she was crying.

“Sorry, I…” She can hear Cherry’s voice scolding her: Why’re you always apologizin’, May? Ain’t nothin’ wrong with a few tears, baby. At the thought, she almost sobs.

“Oh man, it’s gettin’ worse…”

“I just…I miss them so much!” She shuts her eyes tight, as if that could end the weeping.

“Great…” Pari sounds annoyed. “What’re you gonna do? Cry yourself to sleep every night? Give up and go home?”

“No!” Mayumi opens her eyes, defiant at the annoyance. “I’m not giving up! I just miss them, is all!”

“Yeah, well… Quit with the tears, will you?”

“Does it make you uncomfortable?” Mayumi asks, sniffling and wishing they had some tissues.

“Pfft!” Pari seems to try to make a show of nonchalance. “Got a little sister, remember? Boy, that girl will cry up a lake if a puppy looks at her the wrong way. You…you gonna be all right? Maybe you ought to go to bed.”

Mayumi nods, feeling comforted at the hint of concern in Pari’s voice. “It’s funny. All my life I slept alone, except sometimes with my father, like when I was sick, until I woke to this world, and suddenly I was sleeping with the others almost every night. Big pile of Bunnies… Or just one or two of them, or Mother, or Sky. Now, back to just me. I guess I’ll get used to it soon.”

Pari looks awkward. “I can uh… I can stay with you if you want. Nothing I’m not used to either. And it’s a really big bed.”

Mayumi looks at her in surprise, speechless for a moment at the kindness, mouth open, and then she smiles. “That would be so kind.” She sniffles again.

Pari narrows her eyes. “But you better keep your hands to yourself, Missy! Not your mom’s dog-girl, here.”

With soft laughter, Mayumi says, “I think I can manage to resist.”

Interchapter Ch6-7 2: Math Comes for Dion

The rushing of water gushing from the shower head is a welcome sign of peace in the chaos of the last two days. Two? More… Life has been misery since the beginning of the new year, flooded with pain and nightmares. Some brought on by his own stupidity and insecurities, some by the hands of sadists and maniacs with plans to help unleash Hell on the Insula and destroy all that he loves. Some by the secrets kept by his own family, of blood and of heart, given to him by simple genetics and brought to him by the machinations of Fate and the gods know how many other minds combined, accepted by him for a hundred reasons. Secrets… A life butchered by secrets, stumped and blinded by the knowledge kept from him, all for the sake of what? Of pain? Of safety? Of the unremitting anguish that has driven him to numbness and apathy toward others? Of a purposeless existence.

And now some of the secrets are revealed, laid bare before him, a sphere blossomed. A good friend’s mask dropped to reveal the hideous face of the ultimate enemy perched on the neck of someone who loves him, who has sacrificed for him. So many questions brought forth… He still doesn’t know what to think about it all.

For now, there is peace. After the return home, not twenty hours ago. After the tearful, quiet reception from the Bunnies and station personnel, their faces gaunt at seeing Dion’s, Alma’s and Somrak’s weakened condition, the faint physical marks left on their bodies that even Lyria’s healing could not quite make disappear. They had had a day to mourn Saira’s loss already but the relief seeing the gods returned had brought forth fresh tears, the reassuring, if weak, embrace of their mother unleashing the pain and dread the Bunnies had been keeping at bay for a whole night. They had hugged Dion and Somrak as well, just as strongly, just as lovingly, quiet and subdued by Lyria’s constant care and vigilance. Until finally the gods’ wounds and exhaustion had caught up to them and Lyria had gently pulled the Bunnies away and ordered Somrak, Dion and her daughter all to bed.

Rest, however, had not come easy. Well, it had, at first, their recovering bodies demanding sleep and horizontality for the first few hours. But the pain was a constant and the nightmares had followed. Nua’s horrible grin distorting Alma’s beautiful face, the evil of that hateful soul killing the flowing, ever-shifting light and color of his beloved’s eyes. The slashing of the whip against his skin and the dreadful cackle in a voice made to whisper loving words sweetly in his ear.

Dion had awakened, startled, in his own bed, in his own room, fiercely holding the pale, white-haired body of someone he took, to his terror, a little over a minute to safely identify as his love. His great love, whose very essence he had tasted and merged with, tainted by the suspicion he cannot quite shake that Nua might still be hiding in there somewhere. He knows, he knows Fencer has removed Nua. He has received Melinor’s, Imset’s and Luminus’ confirmations, her brothers who have known her for over a century. But that part of his mind that is scared and wounded is holding up the suspicion like a shield. He had frozen, watching Alma whimper and struggle in her sleep, her brow furrowed in suffering, wondering for a moment in dissociative contemplation if he should wake and reassure her or smother what could still be Nua in her sleep. The very triggering of the thought of hurting his beloved had snapped him out of it, so unimaginably painful it was. So shameful and monstrous it was. In the end, he had swallowed his fears and kissed her cheek and gently woken her, whispering reassuring words in her ear. Somehow it was easier when she was awake, the expression on her face, the colors in her eyes so very hers. The way she looked at him, embraced him, silent, frightened and relieved. He had held her, kissed her, the initial instinct of pulling away from Nua drowned in the familiar movements of Alma’s lips, in the taste of her mana, her essence. They lay together, not doing anything much or saying anything important. Just looking at each other and holding each other, breathing in their respective scents, listening to each other’s breathing. Sharing silence.

And eventually she had settled down and fallen back to sleep, peaceful sleep this time. And he had stayed awake, watching her, incapable of falling asleep himself but forcing his eyes to gaze at her face and recognize all the little traces, his mind to remember all the other times he had watched her slumber. Registering every little telltale sign, every expression, every twitching of her eyelids and lips, the ever-so-subtle wiggling of her nose that is just too adorable for words.

Until the pain in his soul had found a reflection in his body again and lying down had become too uncomfortable. So he had opted for a hot shower to relax his muscles and, hopefully, his mind. Just a little bit of normality to sooth his thoughts, shaken by trauma. And it worked.

Dion exits the shower feeling better about himself, cleaner. Somehow taking a simple shower makes him feel more truly clean than Nevieve’s cleansing spell, the touch of the water more solid than magic against his skin. He stands still to allow the sylphs to rub and wrap around him, to dry his body.

But that doesn’t happen. Instead, he feels the unmistakable tingle of a spell, reality shifting around him, transporting him to the familiar sight of his uncle’s private study, in the presence of the Archon himself. Not the one he uses to meet with plaintiffs and professional acquaintances, the grand, bright marble platform on which Math had first met Alma and the Bunnies right after their escape from the Fourth Ring, but the smaller, darker, more intimate one, lined with bookshelves and featuring that dark wood desk against which Dion once kissed Alma and she kissed him back, passionately, just the second of hundreds, thousands of kisses but engraved into his mind for the secrets he shared with her then. And they hadn’t even been lovers.

“I thought we should have a little talk,” Math says, sitting at that very same dark wood desk, looking grim and solemn and maybe – Dion is not quite sure – worried. “How are you, my boy? You’ve been through quite a rough patch, from what I gather.”

Dion looks down to find himself dry and fully dressed, the little detail and indication that Math had been watching, spying on him to know when best to bring him here. Just like Math, to spy on people and break their intimacy, all under the simple excuse that it is all for their own good.

He nods slowly, annoyed already and uncertain of what to expect of this unexpected conversation. “I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. But I am…recovering.” He looks around him, surprised at how much he doesn’t want to be here, in this safe, so very safe, First Ring estate. “I cannot stay long.”

Math rises from behind his desk and comes around, his face now a full mask of concern. “Gwydion…you can stay as long as you wish. Certainly you would be safer and more comfortable here.” The Archon pauses, looking Dion up and down as if to look for any physical wounds. “You nearly died.”

“I know this. I was there,” Dion replies, speaking slowly out of a certain need to breathe deeply between sentences and keep from shouting a demand to be sent back to where he should be resting and healing. Home. “I was not the only one. And because of it, if they find me missing, they will panic and think me abducted. They don’t need the additional trauma.”

Math waves the prospect of causing generalized panic among Dion’s loved ones off as if it were a mere nuisance. “Fine…I’ll have you back in moments.” He leans back against his desk, crossing his arms over his chest. “I’m keeping an eye on the place. No one has noticed your absence yet. But Gwydion…it is time to come home.”

Ah…there it is. Math’s move.

No! Home is mate.

I know, he thinks to himself, still finding it odd, this novelty of having his own essence speak to him, its impulses and quick anger permeating his thoughts. Home is family.

We don’t go.

I won’t go.

Out loud, Dion asks, his eyes narrow with warning, “Is that an order, Uncle?”

Math’s eyes narrow as well, lips pursing for a second before he nods. “It could be. It easily could be.” He lowers his head, rubs his eyes. “You have no idea how much danger you are in. You have been engaging in all sorts of wild escapades, but now your sphere has awakened. Hell very well may be aware that there is a Hammer of Devils alive and walking the Insula. You will be targeted.”

“Like my parents were before me,” Dion growls, fists clench on either side of his hips. “I remembered that day, Uncle. In the garden. My mother’s screams of panic as she was dragged away. It took demon ichor for me to remember.”

We were weak. We were hurt.

Math shakes his head, looking at the ceiling, at the bookshelves, at everything but Dion. “Such memories…bring nothing but pain. And you have had enough of that.” He looks at his nephew. “This can be spun to make you out to be a hero, Gwydion. Sure, you were led astray by a rogue Guardia, but you managed to save the day. Promotion to Inspector, a nice quiet station in a First Ring ward… You can get your life back on track.”

No! We don’t go.

The sudden flash of anguish at the thought of leaving everyone behind in Three Rats is almost breathtaking. Dion stands befuddled as if Math’s words were a slap to his face. “What? What do you mean by that? You think I saved the day? That someone led me in there as if I were a lamb for slaughter?”

We are not stupid!

“It plays better that way,” Math says, unphased. “That fellow, Somrak, apparently he was going through some sort of mental collapse. Disobeying orders, slaughtering an entire gang of giants on his own and disrupting an official action…” He shakes his head as if it were all a chain of unfortunate events.

“He was trying to prevent the Sikari from being sent to murder Sky along with his captors!” Dion shouts. “We all were!” He points an accusing finger at Math. “All because of the laws the Council created to contain Sky!”

“Wise laws,” Math shoots back, eyes steely, voice low but firm. He straightens, stands fully. “You know, I find myself surprised. You, Nephew, are a Hammer of Devils. The Hammer of Devils, to be precise. And here you are speaking of a devil as someone to rescue.”

Dion cannot even tell what is worse: the words or the fake, casual tone of mild concern and confusion in his uncle’s voice.

“And whose fault is it that I am only now discovering what I really am? Who refused to ever let me know as much as who my parents were?” Dion hisses, stomping his way closer to Math. “Who sent me down to Three Rats to serve under the command of said devil through maddened Archons and gang wars until we became friends?”

Math glowers at Dion, his power, massive and powerful and just…ancient, leaking through every pore on his skin, spreading around him until he seems to grow taller, bulkier, more intimidating than the fit old man he normally portrays himself as without changing at all. His beard and hair bristle with mana, his expression locked in severe scowl. “I did what I did to protect you. But now that your sphere is active, you need to come home. Where I can keep a closer eye on you.”

“And do what?! Put a collar around my neck and walk me by the leash where I will never see another demon again?” Dion can barely control his fury, the impulses of his sphere reacting against the perceived attack of Math’s demonstration of power, feeding his anger until his aura flares and glows its righteous golden, his eyes glowing, showing their black, inky marks. His voice changes to a roar. “Like a tame attack dog. And what will you show me of my sphere? What will you teach me about being a Hammer of Devils? Do you think that bringing me to the First Ring will make things better?! That I will magically heal and live a happy inconsequential life without Alma or Sky or the Bunnies, here, under your wing?!”

“Calm yourself!” Math thunders, the lights dimming except around his head and face.

The thought of leaving his friends and lover, his family, behind puts more of a dent on Dion’s fury than Math’s shout. The prospect of not having them with him makes him sick to his stomach. He could never heal without them. He misses them already.

We want to leave! Let’s go!

We will… We will.

But he cannot will himself to turn away from his uncle. Not yet. Math softens slightly, and the lights return to normal. “My boy, I merely wish to take you out of what now seems to have become a nexus point for Fate. If I had known the Oracle had taken up residence there, I’d never have sent you. And you don’t have to leave them behind, you know. I can easily arrange a transfer for Sergeant Alma and her brood.”

“A transfer?” Dion asks, slightly subdued. “You mean you would transfer Alma and Sky and the Bunnies to some rich neighborhood where we can all hide away?”

Perhaps knowing the strength of Dion’s anger is broken, Math goes to the sideboard and pours a glass of ambrosia. “I wasn’t thinking of a neighborhood. There’s an estate. Lots of woodland and fields. Gardens. Deer. Guest house. I suppose you could put Tuma-Sukai in there, though how I’d explain to the Council…” He glances at Dion. “Would you like a glass?”

Dion breathes deeply and shakes his head. His voice is calmer but strained when he says, “No, thank you. I… We all have our responsibilities. Alma is limited to the Fourth Ring with her children. And locking the Bunnies in an estate would be cruel to say the least.” His mind seems to spin, unable to reach all the ramifications of this offer. “I am not even going to ask how I’d climb to Inspector in this fantasy of yours.”

“Oh, you know…portals.” Math replies as if the words made any sense. Cryptic as usual. Just more of the same. He takes a sip of his drink. “Are you sure the Bunnies wouldn’t like it? I thought for sure they’d enjoy the estate. Nature and all… Well it’s too bad, seeing as it’s yours by right of inheritance.”

Dion looks at Math, eyes wide open, body frozen in shock. “My… parents’ estate?” He is almost afraid of the answer to that question. That such a place may be real, on the Insula and not just in his dreams… “It exists? All this time, you have held onto it and never let me know?!” Anger starts rising again in him, making him pace around the room just so he won’t take the easier route and punch the daylights out of Math. “I have been an adult for decades! I had every right to know it was there! Why do you keep doing this to me?! Do you truly hate me this much? Am I that much of a burden in your life?!”

Math sighs, standing still, twirling his glass in his hand. “I told you – I’ve been trying to keep you safe! It is all of a piece. And while sometimes your actions have been burdensome, I most certainly do not consider you a burden. I want to keep you alive and in this world!” He looks at Dion, pained. “I do not hate you, Gwydion. I have never hated you. You are all I have.”

Could have fooled me. “And yet you play me for a pawn and decide my life for me ahead of time as if I were incapable of thinking for myself,” Dion says bitterly. He stops pacing, crosses his arms. “What is your plan? I accept to return to the First Ring and then what? What marvellous life have you designed for me after I run away from the Fourth Ring with my tail tucked between my legs?”

“Well that is up to you. I hadn’t really planned on the devil surviving long… And I’ve only recently come to realize that your feelings toward Alma are as serious as they appear to be.”

Of course…through constant spying, Dion can’t help but think.

Math takes another sip of his drink. “As long as the Council knows that she and the Bunnies are in one place, out of the way, I’m sure she could work in the same station, under your command. With time, perhaps the two eldest Bunnies could be permitted to open a bar near there.” He tilts his head this way and that. “That might take a few years…”

“A few years?” Dion’s voice is sorrowful, his anger once again faltering. “What are a few years to you, Uncle? They are mortal. In a few years, they will be old. And the other Bunnies? One of them is at the Guardia Academy. Will you confine her to an estate after that?”

“Ah yes,” Math says, seemingly satisfied at the way things are going. “She was allowed to attend the Academy as an experiment. Assuming she graduates, she’ll be allowed to serve under controlled conditions. Probably the same station as her mother. Not that I think there’s any danger of her leaping upon the nearest Archon and ripping his head off, but some of my comrades do seem to think that way.” His voice is amused as if it were all one big joke. “Now think of how safe they’ll be. Kept away from all the dangers of a place like Three Rats.”

He swears internally, feeling dejected at how tempting the offer sounds, at how tired he is, how full of thoughts pulling him this way and that. How much he wants to just rest, sleep, run away from everything and just…sleep. In peace. Away from the pain and the problems and the danger of it all. He finds himself wanting to say just say yes to Math.

“And what will happen?” he asks, instead. “To Three Rats?”

Math looks genuinely surprised. “To Three Rats? It’ll…go on the way it always has, I assume. Meaning badly, but please, that’s not your concern, is it? It’s not like it’s home.”

And at that, Dion freezes, the lull of Math’s apparently sensible offer shattered. “What do you mean, it’s not home? It is home for the Bunnies. And it has become a home to us. The places, the people. They are like family. We’ve all been together through hardship and through better times. The Popula are not mere mortals, they are friends.”

Math looks at Dion pityingly, an Archon watching a young god care for mere mortals and finding it endearingly pointless. “Gwydion…mortals come and go. It’s what they are. If you become so attached to individuals, you risk greater pain than you experienced in your torture. As a whole, being concerned with them is a very good thing, but individuals…” He shakes his head. “You will see. Only immortals can stand by you through the centuries.”

“You know nothing of what pain I went through in my torture,” Dion growls, clenching his fists. “Of fear and hopelessness. And holding the one you love in your arms and…” his voice breaks as the memory of holding Alma in his arms, motionless and cold creeps into his mind. He pauses, taking a deep, ragged breath to regain composure. “And she won’t wake up. We learned very well how mortal we can be too. Besides, the Bunnies are mortal. Are you telling me that Alma is wrong in loving her children the way she does?”

Math takes a deep breath himself. “I am sorry. I do know nothing of your torture. But I do know the pain of loss. And I do not think Alma can do otherwise than love her dear creations. But I do not want to imagine what it will be like for her when they are old and perishing one by one. She will certainly need your strength then. Still, better that than a premature death in a dangerous ward. Even assuming there’s not another attack by demons, one of them could be knifed by some street urchin at any time.”

Dion bites his lip, bitter at how he cannot really deny that logic. And maybe seeing how conflicted he is, Math presses the point. “Why don’t we give it a little trial? A week at the estate? With Alma and the Bunnies. You’ll see how much they love it.”

“I…” Dion hesitates, looking torn, but then nods in defeat. “I will propose it to Alma.”

Math beams with a smile as if he has just conquered a great victory. “Good!” He pauses, his eyes distant for a moment. “Oh, I had best get you back. Alma is stirring. I’m afraid those clothes will have to stay here. Probably a good thing you didn’t have any ambrosia…”

And even before Dion can react to the words, he finds himself back in his own bathroom, naked, the sylphs just whisking away, surprised as he is at his sudden materialization. He doesn’t bother dressing, rushing to return to the bedroom proper, to the bed where Alma is stirring, batting her eyes open and stretching lazily.

Thankful that Math didn’t make him damp again, Dion slips into bed and lies next to her, slipping an arm under her neck, pulling her close, into a kiss, even before she awakes fully, his need of her bypassing the instinctive hesitations and visions of his recent trauma. She takes a second to respond, kissing him back once realization dawns, still a little sleepily, her arm reaching automatically to drape over his side. The kiss is a reassuring delight, familiar and cool, the perfect soothing remedy for the turmoil of his thoughts. His heart quiets, his essence curls against hers in bliss. He could kiss her for hours.

“Hmm…this is a nice way to wake up,” she breathes once they break away, snuggling against him.

“It’s a nice aftermath to an unsettling conversation,” he replies, holding her close, stroking her hair. At her quizzical look, he explains, “My uncle took me away for a talk.”

That seems to wake her up immediately. Her eyes widen with worry. “Oh… What kind of talk?”

“A ‘time to come home, my boy’ talk,” he says, sighing, uncomfortable even as he imitates Math’s speech. Pausing, he looks into her eyes for a moment, gathering his words and his nerves before presenting the issue to Alma. “He’s offered to settle us on an estate. Safe and far upslope. An estate that…belongs to my parents’.” He is silent a moment to let the meaning of that settle in her mind. “He says he can arrange to have the Bunnies and you moved there. Even Sky, after he is well.”

She looks back at him, reaching to stroke his cheek, a sad empathy in her eyes. Her voice is soft when she replies, “And what would we do with our days? Would we be his puppets the same way my mother wanted me back to Father’s house to be a political bargain doll again? And wasting away in isolation until he needs us for something else?”

The gentleness, that subdued resignation of her voice somehow makes the words hit harder than if they had been shouted. They cut through the idyllic landscape of Math’s offer like a knife through butter. She is right, he knows, seeing right through the illusions and plans in a way he wishes he could sometimes. That sometimes just makes him sad.

“Most likely,” he says with a sigh, closing his eyes at her caresses to his face. “He offered a station. A promotion. Portals back and forth between the station and the estate.” He opens his eyes again. “Part of me rejects it outright. Because yes, it would tighten his grip. But on the other hand, Alma, this place has been incredibly dangerous. Even we have nearly died, or much, much worse on more than one occasion. And for the Bunnies…” He grimaces at the memory of that horrific dream, of each of the Bunnies dead and eaten by demons. “He offered a chance to try it out. A week.”

How surprising that he is actually considering it, actually wishing for a way out of Three Rats. No…not out of Three Rats. Just out of this string of nightmares and pain. Just a week-long pause can’t be so bad, can it?

She holds his gaze, her fingers running through his hair, stroking the rim of his ear. She is silent for a long while, making him wonder what is going through her mind, what words she is choosing not to say. Finally, she asks, “This is the estate you lived in as a child? You must be craving to see it.”

Is he? Yes, yes he is. What will he find there? He wants to know. “I am,” he says after a moment. “Either way, I will need to go there to look at my past and see what I can find. But this trial stay…what do you think?”

She looks away, her fingers resting, still for a moment, on his temple. “I don’t know. The station needs us and I hate to leave when there is no Dei to stay behind. And we just told Sergeant Machado we wouldn’t leave. It always seems like we can never manage to stay here long. And to be that far away from where we can keep watch over Sky… But…” she sighs, looks at him. “I see the pain in my children’s eyes. The fear. They need a time off, I think. And I hate to admit but, you and I…”

“We need time away too,” he says, breathing out with relief at her mirroring of his thoughts. “Time away from constant threats and darkness. It will only be a week, I promise, and only if Math can work out some way for Three Rats to be watched over properly in our absence.”

She touches her forehead to his. “I hate to prove my mother right. But let us not make any decisions about leaving permanently, all right? I know this ward is dangerous but, it has become home. Turning my back on it just to run away from danger…what would we think of ourselves for it?”

He nods, cupping the back of her head. “I chose to stay where I could make a difference. What difference could I possibly make in some First Ring ward where everyone is a god who’s never known deprivation, or the servant of one? But, it’s not just my decision. I can’t make it for you and for them. The thought of one of them being taken from you before their time is intolerable to me. And the people we know here…we do good in their lives, don’t we?”

She nods as well. “The ward has changed since we first arrived here. Shops opened, the market is livelier than ever. Children will soon have a school. And the deal we negotiated so that Nataniel could have his work hours be mostly spent at the clinic really paid off. The bar is nearly full every evening.” She sighs. “I never thought I would love this ward so much.”

“I was very close to saying yes,” Dion admits. “He made a very strong case. But I feel the same way about this ward. Still, I would love to have you along, and the Bunnies, when I visit the estate. We can take some much-needed time off. Sky will surely tell us to go.”

She holds him a little tighter. “Hopefully, it will help with our recovery, long as that will be. And bring a smile to my children’s faces. I hate to see them so sad and frightened.” She looks at him, a small smile on her face. “I do want to see where little Gwydion used to live. Though…it must be an emotional trip for you. I don’t want to disturb your discovery of things or hinder your recalling of any old memories you might have.”

He considers this, smiling at her concern as if it were a caress of its own. “Perhaps there will be times when I need to be in solitude, rooms I will want to enter alone. And we will have to explore the house carefully and establish safe areas. At the very least so nothing that should not be disturbed does not get…disturbed.” He smiles wryly as the haze of slumber starts veiling his thoughts. “I think I’m not making sense anymore.”

She smiles softly at him. “Well, seeing as you are dressed for bed – or should I say undressed? – I think we can delay our shifts a little and take some much needed rest. Sleep on the issue, so to speak. And maybe you’ll start making sense again after that.”

He smiles, his eyelids heavy at the hypnotic peace of this joint haven of theirs. “Maybe he’ll do something really crazy and put Somrak in charge of the ward.” He chuckles as he drifts into sleep.

She chuckles softly as well, holding him close. “Now that would be something worth seeing.”

Interchapter 6/7 1: Telling Machado

“Come in!”

Sergeant Edison Machado is a big man with a big voice that with little effort fills a room and knocks paint off the walls, but even he is surprised by how loudly he shouts at the knock on his office door. He’s been expecting it. He’d heard they had returned this morning, and after spending some time with family, his fellow sergeants have come to visit him.

He remains seated, elbows on his desk, as the door handle turns. Merri told him they’d had a hard time, but come on, they’re Dei, they’re able to bounce back from anything. Not mortals, though. Not Saira, the troubled and troublesome kid who grew up to be an assassin, almost took Aliyah with her into gang life, would have if it hadn’t been for him steering her into a career as Guardia Popula. He’d tried to keep Saira out of it too, but he’d attended the simple little funeral to her, as Lyria, the Bunnies’ grandmother, used her magic to inter Saira’s corpse beneath the struggling mango tree out back, and then bring its leaves into bright green health. The thing hasn’t ever brought forth fruit before, but maybe this year…

The door opens and the two gods look in, Dion and Alma. He is ready to blast them with fury. How could they not take him along on their mission? Or even tell him? Hadn’t he been there for them when the Dukaine gangs tried to kill Alma’s kids? And a flock of demons had attacked while they were away. If the Bunnies’ grandmother hadn’t happened to visit…

But one look at their faces and his anger dries up to dust and blows away. Alma asks, “I wonder if we can have a word with you for a moment?” Her face is thinner, somehow even paler than usual, the skin under her pearlescent blue eyes dark, showing up almost like bruises. She is obviously making an effort to remain her usual calm and courteous self. And Dion looks just as worn out, as if someone has kept him awake for a week straight. Sorrow, too, etches their faces in ways he could hardly imagine seeing on an immortal, if he hadn’t already seen it before, at the deaths of Corporal Stathos and his family weeks ago. But this is deeper. Something has afflicted them to their core.

Machado rises as he takes all this in, in his haste almost knocking over the crossbow he has left propped against his desk, ready to use if the station is attacked again. It’s the one the Inspector gave him so recently for New Year, and he has a bolt slotted in, ready to fire after only drawing the bowstring back. “Come in.” His voice is soft with concern. “Sit, will you? You want something? Coffee?”

“That would be lovely, thank you.” Alma walks in, moving with conscious care as if she has recently lost some degree of control over her own limbs, and is not entirely sure that control has returned. “Can I help with anything?”

“No, no, you just sit down and rest,” Machado insists, fumbling for his coffee pot and his bag of coffee, custom roasted, blended, and ground extra-fine for him by the best torrador in Three Rats, a man whose sister was once very sweet on him.

Gwydion makes certain the door is completely shut, and locks it. “I am going to cast a simple silence spell on the walls, if you don’t mind,” he warns. “Just to prevent the escape of unwanted rumors.” He puts his palms together and takes a deep breath. His head and hands begin to glow with golden light.

“No problem,” the mortal sergeant mutters as he carefully fills the filter of his pot with the almost-black powder. The reminder that other gods aside from ‘his’ could be listening in disturbs him. What sort of trouble continues to linger after all that has happened?

As he screws the pot together and sets it on the flame of the single gas burner, he sees that Dion has finished casting his spell and is taking a chair beside Alma’s. The god’s hand grazes the goddess’, and she takes his hand without apparent thought. They share a look, haunted, but reassuring each other: I am still here with you.

Machado has of course been aware of the attraction the two have had for each other. Most of the cops in the station had been betting on Alma and Sky becoming a couple, as despite a rocky start it was clear how much affection they bore one another, how rapidly they’d become close. But even though he’d been rather hoping that Sky and Alma would end up together, he’d known the pale Sergeant Alma would find herself in the arms of the handsome rake, Gwydion.

Edison believed Sky when he said he was really planning to stay in Three Rats, and circumstances were for some reason forcing Alma to stay, so it would have settled Machado’s mind if those two had become lovers, but it was clear that Dion would win. It was the way they fought. Alma was too comfortable with Sky too quickly, moving from a distrust to a mutual bond, a reliance on one another, the battles suddenly ceasing – but with Dion there was the fighting but also the glances, the dance of attraction and resistance. And Machado had found he couldn’t help liking the ladies’ man, someone who reminded him of himself, but he’d been worried the scoundrel would pack off and leave Alma broken-hearted. Or take her away.

But that worry was gone, especially in the past couple of weeks. Each of the three Dei had taken lead on different missions, and Edison had been along on several of them as support. With all the gang warfare, they’d needed to ignore the lines between Dei and Popula missions many times. Is it still just a Popula mission when you’re up against a gang that outnumbers all the Popula in the ward three to one? Or when they claim to have magical armor that protects them from arrows? And even when it’s clearly a Dei mission, there are often mortal supporters who need to be arrested and processed, too many for the Dei to round up and get back to the station on their own, especially when they have two or three ruffian demigods to control. Having Popula officers along means arrest and imprisonment are choices back on the table, not simply “kill or release.”

And Dion had done a fine job leading. All of them had. He couldn’t believe how smoothly they’d come to work together, with each other and with him and his Popula cops. How could they ever have managed the past months without a combined station of Dei and Popula working as one? And yet this still is far from the norm. Three Rats is an experiment in having mortals and gods in the same station, one of only a handful across the Insula.

So Machado is pleased to see the two of them taking comfort in each other. Office romance…well, at least they’re the same rank, he thinks. And they’ve been restrained so far. Surely they’ll continue to be in public. And now I’m owed fifteen…no, sixteen beers by those who bet Sky would bag her!

With effort, Alma tears her eyes away from Gwydion’s, takes a deep breath, and says, “I don’t think we need to tell you that something very serious has happened in the past few days.”

He looks up from pouring the powerful espresso into tiny cups, mismatched but clearly chosen carefully. “Yeah…I heard some of it, but so far it’s all fog and rumors. Is this the kind of thing you can fill me in all the way?”

“Yes and no,” Alma replies. “Inspector Tuma-Sukai was kidnapped from his apartment four days ago by the necromancer that killed Stathos and his family. She was working with a powerful demon summoner.”

Machado curses under his breath as he spills some of the coffee. He shakes his head and grabs a napkin. “You got her? And got the Inspector back?”

Dion nods and takes over the narrative, as if saving Alma from the exhaustion she is clearly experiencing. “We did. But the battle was nearly lost. We were captured and…” He trails off, his voice rough and haunted. “Things went very wrong. We were lucky to escape.”

Machado sighs and serves them their coffee. “You know…I would’ve come along. I mean, don’t know if I could’ve done anything but…I would’ve.” He rubs his smooth-shaved head as he says this. He was fully prepared to shout something like this at them. It had sounded far more indignant and explosive in his mind.

An expression of bitter remorse mars Alma’s beauty. “The only mortal we took with us was buried beneath a tree today. She would not take no for an answer.”

“You can see for yourself a hint of the condition we were left in,” Dion adds, holding his cup in both hands as if to warm them, though the day is already becoming hot. “And Sky…it will take time to know if he can ever recover.”

Machado pauses in rubbing his bald head at this, looking at them in shock. “You saying he might have to retire? But…he’s Dei! How can a Dei get hurt so bad to have to muster out?”

“There are weapons that can harm even gods,” Alma says, the bitterness in her voice changing to a numb echo of horror. “Weapons that reach past the body, into our souls. Deadly for mortals, torture to us.” She pauses, looking ill, her coffee still untouched. “And he was ruthlessly tortured.”

Machado’s broad shoulders sag. “Is there… What can we do?”

Alma glances at Dion and then the two Dei look at Machado, an agreed-upon moment having been reached. “That is the reason for this conversation,” Dion says. “We are not quite sure what happens next but there will certainly be some sort of punishment awaiting us in the near future, for going into the necromancer’s lair without reporting to the higher command.”

“And until then, the station has to keep running,” Alma says, looking at Machado earnestly. “We are weakened but we can certainly keep working. And we will need your help more than ever in keeping everything on its axis.”

A dozen questions jam in his throat, so that in the end none are asked. He looks from one to the other god. “These are Dei matters,” he says when he can get a word out, “so I won’t ask why you didn’t tell the command. But you know I got your back, as best as a mortal man can. You know every cop in this station does. All I ask is, you let me know if there’s some chance of a counterstrike. These necro-demon lovers – any of them left to take revenge?”

Alma closes those strange eyes and shakes her head. “I strongly suspect they went as far as killing their own thugs to summon demons and power their weapons against us.” She sighs. “The leaders are either dead or captured. We should be safe. As for Sky…he is being taken care of by people we can trust. We will find him all the help we can.”

Machado nods, sorrow subduing his thoughts. But there are practicalities to attend. “So what do I say if some upslope brass sits me down and sweats me?”

“The truth. You did not know what was going on. We never told you anything until it was too late and we were back.” Dion’s tired voice is reasonable. “As you said, these are Dei matters. If they want answers, they can come to us.”

“As for in-house commentary…” Alma opens her eyes as she speaks up again. “You are being told more than anyone other than Gwydion, Somrak, Geryon and I currently know. The Bunnies have an inkling of what happened but they don’t know just how grim things are looking for Sky. And we cannot risk them knowing or following us around to find out where he is. It would be cruel to make them live in fear of what is yet to come. The same goes for the rest of the Popula.”

Machado’s distress deepens. He doesn’t want to lie to them, especially not to his student in capoeira, Kori, but he nods in agreement. “I got it. I guess there’s no way I could visit the Inspector?”

Dion shakes his head in refusal. “For as much as he would deeply appreciate it, the orders are for strict isolation right now.” His voice is compassionate. He clearly knows how much this is affecting the mortal sergeant. “We will keep you apprised, however, of his progress.”

Machado reluctantly nods. He and Inspector Sky had fought side by side, armed with crossbows, to hold back a team of assassins to let Dion and Alma escape with the Bunnies once. When the weather changes, his leg still hurts where it took an arrow. And it hurts, now, that he can’t do anything to help Sky. “Appreciated. And…all that you told me, thank you for that too.”

Alma looks thoughtful. “Edison…” she says, before pausing to drink her coffee.

He feels an electric prickling of skin on his forearms. She has almost never used his first name. It’s a name not at all usual in this ward, and almost nobody but his mother calls him by the name she gave him. Even to his friends, he’s typically called Machado.

“There won’t be any official change in command until the higher powers have their say,” she continues, “but I think we can live well without an official leader. We all know our jobs. And perhaps we can work out some sort of daily schedule with you in charge of a shift with just a Dei on call?”

He nods. “I used to run this whole place,” he points out, matter-of-factly. “Well, the smaller station before we moved. Anyway, I think we can manage, no problem.” He hesitates before asking, “Uh, how long you think it’ll take for you to get back to a hundred percent?”

“A couple of decades, maybe? Maybe more?” Alma forces herself into a small smile at Machado’s alarmed expression. “We can manage a good eighty percent right now, I think. Certainly enough so we don’t put anyone at risk. And I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to belittle your leadership skills or experience.”

“Oh no, no offense taken. I just meant, I can manage. Unless, you know, demons attack again.” He stands and gathers their cups. “You want more? Though you look like all the coffee in the world ain’t gonna keep you up much longer.”

“And we still have our reports to write,” Dion sighs.

“Yes…” Alma locks eyes with Machado’s. “Thank you. For listening and understanding. And for your discretion. We are blessed to have you as a friend.”

He blinks and reflexively reaches up to rub his head at that after setting down the cups and saucers next to his tiny office sink. He feels his cheeks burn at her words. “Yeah well, same here, you know? And forget about the paperwork for now, eh? Go rest. I’ll bang on your door if we need you for an emergency.”

He goes to open the door for them as they stand.

“I guess…paperwork can stand to wait a few hours,” Dion notes. He puts a hand on Machado’s rock-solid bowling-ball of a shoulder and looks him in the eye. “Thank you.”

Machado smiles, embarrassed. He remembers clashing with these gods early on. He’d been sensitive about the way his command had suddenly been put under these immortal beings, how everything had changed. “Thank you. Without you guys…we’d be working for the Dukaines. Or dead.”

Dion returns his smile, squeezing his shoulder before exiting the office. He feels a cool touch on his upper back, and he turns to find Alma giving him a gentle embrace. Again he feels a thrill of shock. Her ethereal beauty would make any man’s heart race, but also to be held, however briefly, by a goddess of death…

Her cheek touches his forehead – it is easy for him to forget how much taller she is than he, though she is the same height as Dion – and he muses that having her there at the end to see his soul off would be the best anyone could hope for. Then she is gone, following Dion, off to rest and to recover, and Machado is left alone with thoughts of loss and change and an uncertain future.

Ch6 mid-chapter 4: The Lion and the Phoenix

A young lion once set out on a journey to look for his own pride. He was strong and proud, at the prime of his years and could no longer stay with the family that had watched him grow. It was time he found his own life and forged his own family. And so he did as he must and turned his back on his kin to begin his journey.

He traveled far and wide in search of a new home and a family. But wherever he went, he found none of his kind willing to be his pride and little prey to sustain him. He was chased away by other lions defending their prides, wounded, deprived of food and company. But still, he kept prowling the jungle for a territory of his own.

And when the jungle yielded nothing, he traveled beyond it until he reached the desert. Under the scorching sun, thirsty and famished, he climbed the dunes, desperate for prey and shade. He walked all day and found none. But when the night came, he saw a distant, reddish glimmer on the horizon. His strength renewed by hope, he ran all the way toward the light until it was just a few steps away. Suddenly before him, an oasis stretched, a verdant treeline surrounding a small lake.

Parched, the lion forgot about the light, ran to the water and drank until he could drink no more. And when his belly was full of water, his eyes began to wander to the trees in search of prey, for his dying thirst had sparked his hunger again. He found no animals on the ground but when he looked up, to a lonely, blackened branch just above the water on the other side of the lake, he saw a beautiful, radiant bird with glittering reddish-gold feathers that looked almost ablaze, so brightly colored they were. The lion had no doubt that this was the source of the light he had seen before.

The bird perched calmly on the branch, seemingly ignoring his presence. He quietly walked the margin, moving closer to it, intent on capturing the beautiful creature. Moved as much by hunger as by fascination, the lion could not help but desire this extraordinary prey. And so he sneaked his way through the reeds and the bushes until the bird was within reach. And he pounced.

But the bird had seen him and it took flight just as the lion jumped over the branch. Flapping its long wings, it flew out of reach of the lion, and set him alight, for she was a phoenix and her beautiful feathers were made of spark and flame. The poor lion landed on the grass, suffering horribly at the flames that consumed him, rolling on the ground to try to put them out. But they were divine flame and all he did was spread them to the trees and bushes around him until the whole oasis was ablaze. Maddened by the fire, he jumped in the lake. The flames died but not before all the water had evaporated and the lake was no more. By morning, the oasis was gone. And so was the phoenix.

Again, the lion found himself in the desert and although his belly rumbled with hunger, he roamed all day up dunes and down dunes until the coolness and darkness of night fell around him. Again, he saw a faint, red light in the sky and again he traveled for many hours in its direction. This time, he did not reach a lake and there was no oasis. Instead, he found only the blackened skeleton of a burnt tree and, reclining against it, a female spotted deer. The lion approached it as stealthily as he could and pounced on the recumbent animal. Dehydrated from the desert heat, the deer did not move or try to escape and soon the lion was feasting on his prey.

As he ate, however, he noticed the reddish tinge of a light shining above him. Lifting his eyes to a low hanging branch of the carbonized tree, he saw the fiery bird that had escaped him the night before. His mind inflamed by fury and vengeance, he climbed the tree and leapt to catch the phoenix. But again, the phoenix took flight and her flaming feathers brushed against him and set him on fire. With no water around, the lion roared in pain and rolled desperately in the sand, setting fire to the tree and to what remained of the deer. By the time the flames had died, the tree had crumbled to ash and the deer was carbonized and inedible. Morning dawned and the fire had burned the lion’s mane completely. His fur was gone, his skin now black as coal. And the phoenix had disappeared.

This time, the lion did not travel by day, choosing instead to lie down and nurse his wounds. He waited patiently for the night to come and only then did he rise to prowl the night for the red light he knew must be shining somewhere. He would catch the phoenix, he swore to himself. Even if he died in the flames of its fire, he would catch the bird that so mocked him. He found her in a hollow among the dunes, squatting over a pile of dry twigs and branches, slowly grooming her feathers and plucking from them tiny sparks that she would then spread around her. Impelled by his anger, without a second thought, the lion ran down the dune, his black skin mixing with the night shadows. And pounced.

By the time the phoenix saw him, it was too late. He caught her wings under his mighty paws, pinning her to the sand. She struggled to free herself, again her feathers set him alight but to no avail. He roared in glee as his prey squirmed under his weight.

“You, who have mocked me with your beauty and freedom, fall now under my might.”

The phoenix struggled and in her struggle, her beautiful feathers broke and fell. Her flames died. Her light dimmed. The lion looked down at his prey and was horrified. For the prize he had seen in the beautiful phoenix was no more and under his feet lay instead a pale bird looking at him through dull, dying eyes.

“My death be on you for I cannot live if I cannot be free.”

Moved by these words and by the suffering of the beautiful bird he once coveted and resented, the flaming lion took a step back, releasing the phoenix. With a gentle tap of his muzzle, he rolled her so that she lay on her stomach and then nudged her to take flight.

“Go and live,” he said. “For I gain nothing but regret from taking your life.”

The phoenix lifted her head to the heavens and wrapped her wings around her body, her flames sparking once again into life.

“May blessings find you, great king of the jungle, for the mercy you show tonight,” she said.

And with that, she burned brighter and disappeared in the flame, extinguishing the fire that burned the lion’s blackened skin. Soon, the morning followed and the lion set out again to cross the desert. He walked for many hours, finding nothing but sand, beginning to regret his sparing of the phoenix’s life when her body could have fed him for a day longer. And when the night fell…

The horizon glimmered red. Faithfully, the lion followed the light he knew must lead to the phoenix and arrived at an oasis. No, not an oasis, he realized, but a great jungle on the other side of the desert. His heart overcome by joy, he ran under the cool, green cover of the trees until he found a spring of the purest water. He drank and bathed and played in it, glad to leave the scorching heat of the sun behind him. And when he looked toward the bank, he saw two feline eyes staring back at him. A beautiful lioness, her fur a bright orange color, stood staring at him in fascination.

And it was thus that our young lion finally found a home and a mate. He lived many years in this jungle and had many descendants, who inherited the darkness of his fur in large stripes over the bright orange of their mother’s coat. They were the first tigers.

As for our phoenix…well, he never saw her again but to all of his children he would say, “If you ever find yourself lost in the desert, follow the red light.”

Where anger is power, mercy is wisdom. For true strength lies with the kind and good fortune lies with the strong.

Ch6 mid-chapter 3: Cheapshirt

“The wrong dormitory?”

“That’s what I said.” The instructor, a woman with a jaw shaped like a brick that’s been dropped a few times, holds up the key that was assigned to Mayumi. It is larger, heavier, and considerably more elaborate than the one in her other hand. “This here is a Dei dorm key. The Popula keys are these little ones, see?” She hands Mayumi’s key back to her. “You’re in the Dei dorm.”

“But…” Mayumi’s ears droop back in confusion. “I’m Popula!”

“No, that’s not…” The woman pauses and takes a file off her desk. “Ishijima…Ishijima. Yeah, here it is. You’re in Dei 204.” She glances at the folded uniform under Mayumi’s arm. “I guess they gave you a Popula uniform by mistake. What’re you, kinda borderline-mortal/immortal?” She says it with a kind tone.

Mayumi shakes her head. “Not at all. And…” She rummages through the file she was given at the third registration checkpoint. “Here. It says I’m Popula.”

“Huh. Would you look at that?” The woman looks more closely. “Oh… Says here your mother is a Dei Sergeant. Is that right?”

“Yes.” Mayumi remembers how her heart had pounded with joy, seeing that on the form. Though it was only a passing notation on a registration form, it was an official form, declaring that Alma is her mother. Not the creator of some quasi-illegal artificial life form, but her mother. Who was responsible for that? Sky? Someone higher up the chain? Perhaps Ewá Nanã, the Voice, the lawyer who had saved her mother and Gwydion and all the Bunnies, had pulled it off.

“And you father’s Popula. Well then you’re some kind of demi,” the woman says, handing it back to Mayumi. “Anyway, you’re assigned what you’re assigned. And today is bonkers for everyone. Just go to your room for now, drop off your stuff, take a shower, and put on that uniform. Get some food in you. Induction ceremony is in two hours. You can get it sorted out tomorrow.” The voice continues to be kind, but also final. She clearly has a hundred other things to take care of today.

“Yes, Instructor Hasral. Thank you very much for your help!” Mayumi bows slightly out of habit, then gets out of the woman’s hair. She certainly doesn’t want to try to explain how her mother and her father hadn’t even met until yesterday.

The walk across campus is a long one. The Academy is divided into two halves, one for Dei, the immortals, near-immortals, and magically powerful members of the Guardia, and one for the Popula, the mortals of various species with little or no natural magical ability, the largest group of whom is the humans. There are numerous other species on the Insula, but humans seem to dominate, at least in the wards Mayumi has known, and certainly here at the Academy. And there are far more Popula than Dei at the Academy, but their training halls and dormitories are of roughly equal size. There is always talk about how mortals are as necessary to the working of the Urbis Caelestis as immortals are, but the immortals always get the nicer things.

It occurs to Mayumi that if she’s assigned to live in the Dei dorms due to some misunderstanding about her parentage, she still has all her classes on the Popula side of the campus. She pauses and checks her course schedule to make sure. Yes, she’s definitely taking Popula courses, she’s relieved to see. If she’d been put into Dei courses – well, thank goodness she wasn’t. She imagines there might be some coursework that could be fatal to a mortal.

But this does mean that, until the mistake is fixed and she is moved to the Popula dorms, she’s going to have to get up earlier to run across campus. Nearing the gloriously arched and crenellated Dei dormitory, which makes her think of an ancient fortress, she looks back toward the Popula buildings far in the distance across exercise fields and obstacle courses on which some eager newcomers are already testing themselves. She estimates ten minutes should be plenty of time. She can probably run it, flat out, in three. Being a Bunny means being fast. But ten minutes’ less sleep is a small price to pay for showing up looking calm and collected and free of sweat.

And surely it’ll only be for a day or two.

She enters the huge hallway, luxuriously decorated with paintings and sculptures, the wide marble floor lined with velvet sofas and leather chairs. Just this hallway has more luxury in it than is probably spread through the entirety of the Popula dormitories. Voices whisper from two goddesses, twins, it seems, with strange braids that float in the air like serpents, consulting their keys and then ascending one of the curving staircases.

Feeling tiny in the enormous hall, Mayumi follows them. From the number, she assumes her room is two floors above the ground floor, at least if they do things as in Three Rats, which there is no way of telling. Why should they? Perhaps she has the entire two-hundred-fourth floor to herself? Not that the place looks anywhere near that tall, but these are the Dei dorms. There could be a thousand extra-dimensional palaces crammed in here, for all she knows. Maybe every room comes with a celestial lion as a servant. Maybe she’ll be sharing a room with a storm god who keeps a typhoon going all the time. Mayumi nervously ascends the steps.

Fortunately, Room 204 does turn out to be on the second floor, two floors above the ground floor to be precise, just like they count floors in Three Rats. That touch of the familiar helps more than she wants to admit, because Room 204 is nowhere near room 203, which is nowhere near 205. She finds 204 down at the end of a hallway that features room numbers 213, 280, and 237.

Wondering what strange logic might have prompted such a random numbering scheme, she fits her key into the lock and turns it. The door opens with barely a sound – good. Assuming she has a roommate, they will be able to go in and out without disturbing each other much.

The room is dim, but brightens slowly as she enters. The increase in illumination stops just as it reaches Mayumi’s comfort level, she notices, slightly dimmer than most humans prefer. Will it get brighter when I need to read? she wonders. She looks around. The room is enormous by her standards. It is roughly as big as her mother’s divine sanctum, though lacking a huge bed, a fountain/bath the size of a small swimming pool, and a garden’s worth of plants, this room feels much bigger. There is a bunk bed in one corner, odd seeing as how there would be plenty of space to split the room into a suite with separate bedrooms. Also odd is the fact that the lower bunk bed is twice as wide as the upper one, a king-size versus a somewhat wide twin. The twin is supported by three posts, and a beam that goes from its un-posted corner diagonally to the bottom bed’s post. That lower bed could sleep three humans easily, or five Bunnies. But some gods are quite large, Mayumi knows. Perhaps that is why.

In the opposite corner is a pair of desks, each of which is bigger than the biggest one at Three Rats Station – which happens to be the one Mayumi often worked at, in the basement, taking care of Records. One of the desks has a tray on it with a covered plate, from which she can smell meat and vegetables, and something sweet. Another corner holds a little kitchen nook, and the fourth has a doorway that appears to be to a bath – which makes the apartment even bigger.

Scattered about the floor, just to break it up and make it not immediately suitable for holding a modest-sized dance party, are several old, comfortable-looking pieces of furniture. The walls above the desks feature large built-in bookshelves, which are roughly two-thirds full of a hodgepodge collection. Curious, Mayumi sets down her folder and uniform and pulls one tome out at random, and sees it has a title in Old High Urbia, or at least in the script, which she recognizes but cannot read. Well, maybe – it could be a related script. Anyway, she has never learned it except for words like “forbidden.” It is a language used only by gods and wizards and priests, and it is best for mortals like her not to mess with it. She quickly puts the book back.

She realizes then that she still has her duffel bag over her shoulder. She walks over to the beds, and it is then that she senses someone else in the room with her. She’s not sure what it is – perhaps her keen hearing is barely catching the sensation of a heartbeat – but she knows someone is there.

“Hello?”

A high-pitched voice rings out. “Don’t you even look at the top bunk! That’s mine!” It makes Mayumi think of a seven-year-old girl who has been smoking cigars for ten years.

“Oh… That’s all right,” Mayumi says, looking around the beds and seeing nothing. “I’m Mayumi.” She starts to wonder if she is dealing with an invisible god.

“Good for you, Rabbit Ears.”

Mayumi closes her eyes at that. Name calling… she thinks to herself, but she suppresses her displeasure. She experienced plenty of bullying her first time at the Academy, in her dream life, and she has already experienced some today. And now her roommate. She slips her duffel bag from her shoulder and lets it fall heavily to the floor beside the bed, and asks, “Is there something I should call you?”

The reply is not at all what she expected. “AAARRGHHH! MY STUFF! YOU ALMOST CRUSHED MY STUFF!”

Mayumi freezes, her ears slapping flat back against her head and neck to muffle the angry high-pitched squeal. She doesn’t want to move, afraid she’s going to destroy some other invisible thing. An image of a news-sheet headline flashes in her imagination:

BUNNY CADET ACCIDENTALLY MURDERS DEI ROOMMATE ON FIRST DAY AT ACADEMY! IS THE PROPHECY TRUE??

“What…what stuff?” she asks.

The voice comes up right near her head, making Mayumi flinch. “MY STUFF! ON THE FLOOR RIGHT THERE! RIGHT UNDER YOUR STUPID BAG! WHY WOULD YOU CRUSH MY STUFF?!” There is still no visible sign of her roommate, but Mayumi can feel a sort of shimmer in the air, a vibration, like a silent hum.

“But you said I almost–” Hunching, Mayumi carefully lifts her bag, looking down to see a satchel made of what looks like colorful autumn leaves stitched together, sitting beside where her bag was. Though small, it is easily big enough that the Bunny should have seen it, but its coloration blends into the carpet pattern. “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t see it. But look, I don’t think I crushed it at all.”

There is a soft thump of impact against Mayumi’s bag. Did she just kick my bag? Seriously? the Bunny thinks in astonishment.

Quieter now, but dripping with threat, the high-pitched voice says, “Consider yourself lucky, Princess Fluffy Tail.”

Mayumi exhales and very, very carefully sets her bag back down. It has been a long, emotional day, and the name-calling isn’t showing any sign of stopping. And now a threat. But she controls herself. “Well I seem to have three names now, and you still have none.”

“‘Course I got a name.” The voice drifts back toward Mayumi’s face, and now there is a flare of purple light. “You just don’t know it. What are you, anyways?”

That is just about enough. Mayumi’s voice takes on an edge. “Is there some rule that I must ask for your name three times, or something? Or is it just a secret?”

“Man, you really don’t know anything from nothing, do you? Names aren’t something you just hand over for no price. Names got power. Know someone’s name, you can do all sorts of things with it. You’re not a goddess, are you?”

Squinting at the light, trying to make out what it is, Mayumi states, “No, I am not. I’m a Bunny. And I’m mortal.”

The light winks out, to reveal a tiny creature about as tall as Mayumi’s knee, sitting at the edge of the top bunk. Her skin is dark purple with crimson lines on a wide forehead. Her head is almost too big for her thin neck, and she has huge eyes that take up much more space, relatively, than a Bunny’s, with two, no three concentric irises in lilac and pink tones. The crimson lips bear a sardonic look that is too jaded for anyone so small and, well, cute. Her hair is just a short pinkish fuzz except for a frizzy top-ponytail that hangs to one side. Her limbs are as thin as the rest of her body – shockingly thin, looking far weaker than Mayumi assumes she must be – which is clad in a sleeveless button-up white sweatshirt and matching high-cut shorts. The creature looks at her with ill-disguised curiosity, “The heck is a Bunny?”

Mayumi is relieved to finally have a face to look at. The resentment that has been building up, at the insults, the refusal to offer a name, the unnecessary shouting, the threat, largely dissipates. “Hello. It’s good to see you. Whatever your name is. Bunnies are the progeny of the goddess Alma, of the Death Clan. We…have long ears. Actually, we’re still figuring out what we are.”

The tiny Dei props an elbow on her thigh and her chin on a hand that seems far too small to hold up that huge head. “How come you’re mortal if your mom’s a goddess? She forget to do something while she was busy?”

“Um…I’m not sure, actually. We’re just mortal. But it seems the Academy was a bit confused, and so I was mistakenly assigned to the Dei dorms.”

“So you’re not a Dei-blue? Gonna be a cheapshirt?”

Mayumi narrows her eyes. “Cheapshirt?” Her voice is cold.

The little Dei shrugs. “You know, Popula. Bottom of the food chain.”

“Bottom,” Mayumi repeats, wishing she had misheard. “Of the food chain.” She feels sick to her stomach.

“Did something break inside a’you or–” The Dei stops, looking at Mayumi, and grins. “Oh Missy, you don’t wanna do it. You’re gonna get your cute lil’ self all bruised up, you do that…”

“Do what?” Mayumi is fighting to keep from raising her voice, but her tone is seething with fury. “Do you think I’m going to assault you simply for being arrogant and rude? I am not the one threatening her roommate with violence. Twice!”

The creature snorts. “Who said anything ‘bout violence? Look at me! Ever seen a pixie fight? Huh? Have you? Pixies don’t fight! We’re all peaceful. Big taboo, a fighting pixie. Teach little kids bad lessons, all that crap.”

Mayumi takes a breath. Different cultures. Misunderstandings. But… ‘cheapshirt!’ ‘Bottom of the food chain.’ Ugh! She takes another breath, willing away the anger. “Well I am glad to know something about you. And yes, I am meant to be Popula. Your fellow Guardia.”

“Well, huh-ray to me…” She rolls her huge eyes. “Sheesh… of all the roommates I could have gotten… You better not snore.”

Mayumi is silent for another three breaths. This just keeps getting worse. Reset. Start over. Her voice calm but strained, she says, “We seem to have gotten off to a bad start. As I asked before, is there something I should call you? You see, I actually do know some people are reluctant to share their names… so anything is fine.”

Her roommate looks at her in silence for a few appraising seconds, eyes narrow. “You try to write up a contract, it won’t work, you hear?”

Mayumi’s eyebrows rise in surprise, and it takes her a moment to understand. But she remembers some stories, and says, “I promise you, I would never attempt to bind you. And since I have no magical ability at all, I think you’re quite safe.”

Another high-pitched snort. “Yeah, tell that t’my uncle Borsi. Girl tells him all that, next thing he knows BAM! He’s hanging to a contract.”

“Did you just tell me your uncle’s name?” Mayumi feels a smile touch the corner of her mouth. Personal information!

Another suspicious stare. “That’s not his name. ‘S just what everyone calls him. Means ‘idiot’. Married 30 years now.”

“Well, I promise not to force you into marriage. Anyway, if you don’t want to give me a name, that’s all right. We probably won’t be roommates for more than a day or two anyway.” Mayumi gives up, turning away to sit on the edge of her spacious bed.

The raspy voice comes closer. “You planning on being a Pop with all that niceness in ya? Can’t even get a person to cough up their name?”

“I was unaware this was an interrogation.” Mayumi starts pulling some clothes out of her bag. “I’m afraid I do not have any handcuffs on me, either.” Her mouth twitches in a smile again.

“With my wrists? Yeah, good luck wi’ that.” She sighs. “Pari. Just to end your misery.”

Mayumi turns to smile quite friendly at Pari. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Pari. So, do you snore?”

In a growling voice, Pari replies, “I can put you to sleep so’s you won’t find out…”

Mayumi’s eyes widen. “Do you mean you can magically put me to sleep? That would be…useful. Is there any side effect?”

Pari raises a tiny fist. “Yeah, huge headache in the morning. Bruises. Maybe some missin’ teeth.”

Mayumi grimaces. Threats of violence are just a constant with her, then. Perhaps they don’t actually mean anything. “Have you eaten yet? I missed lunch.”

Pari jerks her head toward the tray. “That’s yours, then. I ate the pudding.”

“Thank you!” Mayumi crosses the room to the desk again and lifts the metal cover. She starts eating some salad even before sitting in the chair and turning it to face Pari.

“I didn’t bring it!” Pari cries as if accused of a crime. “They brought it over.”

“They bring your food to you in the Dei dorm?” Mayumi shakes her head at this luxury. “So…what is a pixie? If you don’t mind my asking.”

Pari’s jaw drops. “You mean you don’t freaking know?!”

Mayumi shakes her head. “I’ve heard the word. All I know is pixies are small and can fly.”

“Small? Small?!” Pari launches herself into the air, fists clenched, and drifts toward Mayumi. There are no wings, but just the same barely noticeable vibrato in the air as Mayumi noticed before. “Who you callin’ small, you free sample of human?!”

Mayumi holds up her hands. “Hey! Come on… I’m small compared to most people I know. At least you can fly. If something is on a high shelf, I have to get a ladder.”

Pari lands on the divan, crosses her arms and looks away haughtily. “Hmpf! Pixies are Fey-folk. Ya know, fairies and the sort? We don’t make wishes come true and we don’t teach kids to fly. Just… help out with nature and small critters and stuff. Some of us are good at other things. Kinda like everyone else. Like, Mam’s good with kitchens. Works at a restaurant sprinkling spices on stuff.”

Cautiously returning to munching on salad, Mayumi asks, “And do you have a specialty?”

“I get into fights a lot.” The matter-of-factness almost makes Mayumi laugh, but she stifles it because Pari seems to take offense just as often as she dishes it out.

“That,” Mayumi says instead, deadpan, “is not a surprise.” Then she considers herself, and remembers mistakes she has made. “I…well, I’ve had my own problems with that.”

“Meet a lotta scumbags too?” Pari asks.

“I have met some unsavory characters, yes. Some of them have tried to murder me and my family.” Dark memories flood in. Hellhounds, slavering for the blood of her and her siblings… Merri screaming. Nekh raising his hands to kill them.

Pari’s voice breaks through. “Uh? Why’d they try to kill you? You piss someone off?”

Mayumi shakes her head. “It was…a disagreement between gods. We were caught in the middle. We were…tokens on a board. Bottom of the food chain.” She looks up at Pari. “That’s part of the reason I want to be Guardia. I want to show that we’re more than that.”

“You the first in the family to join the Blues?” A little of the constant tone of antagonism seems to have disappeared from Pari’s voice.

“My mother is Dei. And my father is Popula. It’s…rather complicated.”

Pari suddenly straightens. “Dei… Wait… You said Alma? That Alma? Got her badge here some twenty years ago?”

“Um…yes?” Mayumi feels confused and worried that she has said something wrong, really wrong this time. She does not want to bring any kind of shame upon her mother.

But Pari starts laughing. “Oh man, you’re so lucky you’re a cheapshirt… This was her room!” She points to the door. Squinting from across the room, Mayumi can make out scratches in the lustrous, probably gasp-inducingly expensive wood of the door. “List over there, previous students who had this room. Carved on the door. Tradition here.”

Mayumi stands and goes to look. Name after name after name, in columns, many hundreds, two for every year. The Academy has a single six-month term every year. Six days to a week, six weeks to a month, ten months to a year. Two hundred sixteen days, minus a one-week break four months in, to train cadets using magically enhanced intensive methods, to prepare them for the incredibly diverse array of situations they will find themselves in, here in the Urbis Caelestis, the Celestial City. And there, twenty-four lines before the most recent pair, there is the name. ‘Alma’. And next to it, a name she does not know, ‘Pavia’.

Mayumi feels a chill. Why have I been assigned to the Dei dorms? Why my mother’s room? This cannot be a coincidence, can it? Aloud, she asks, “Why…why do you say I am lucky to be Popula?”

“Dei-blue that recruited me, he liked to tell stories from when he was a rookie here. Your mom was in some of them.” Pari chuckles. “My kinda goddess, you ask me. Pranks? Legendary.”

“Alma? Pranks?” Mayumi shakes her head. “It… That can’t be right.”

“Just do yourself a favor. You see old man Jutte, don’t tell him who you are. Now, you about done yet? There’s some kinda Induction thingy I’m supposed to be at. Byeeee!”

And with that, Pari takes wingless flight again, grabbing the doorknob and twisting her whole body to turn it.

The door slams behind her before Mayumi can say, “…goodbye.” She sighs. She glances at a timepiece on the desk – plenty of time for a shower before changing into her uniform for the Popula Induction, which, of course, comes after the Dei one.

Stood up to that martinet Pringle but couldn’t stand up to your roommate, she thinks as she undresses. She looks at her blouse, holding it before her. Like her skirt, it was handmade by Sage. Made with love, from surplus material. A cheap shirt.

Ch6 mid-chapter 2: Mayumi Arrives at the Academy

What is a portal? It is a doorway from one place to a discontinuous elsewhere, sometimes even another reality altogether. Mayumi has forgotten how strange that is, because movement via portals is an everyday occurrence around her. Gwydion goes in and out of his sanctum multiple times a day, via a door that sometimes leads to the pantry, sometimes to his home. And the doorway to her mother’s sanctum – well, perhaps that is a portal too. Mayumi isn’t sure, exactly. The room, a lush combination of bedroom, garden, and bath, was her home for the first weeks in this waking world, and there is certainly something otherworldly about it. It is not fully in this reality, so perhaps she is moving through a magical portal every time she goes in and out.

She misses it terribly now. She tells herself to gaman, to endure. She was in it only a few hours ago, after all.

But these thoughts about portals are brought on by the very different nature of the ones she is traveling through now. Public portals, requiring tickets, impersonal and cold. Each one different in form, some soaring and complex, some basic arches of concrete inscribed with incomprehensible symbols. But each one is the same, as well. The are not the warm portals of home. And each one of them carries her further away.

And transferring from portal to portal to portal, and all along the way upslope, she can spot them. Cadets. Cadets for the Guardia Academy. Cadets like her.

Some of them are wearing their uniforms. She resists the urge to tell them to go into a washroom in one of the larger portal stations and change back into civilian clothes. One isn’t supposed to put on the uniform until Induction. They’ll be told that with an exasperated sigh when they arrive. Like a great many Academy rules, it’s not written down anywhere. You’re supposed to know that It Just Isn’t Done.

Mayumi feels guilty for not telling them. She has an unfair advantage. Her father and her mother are both Guardia, and not only that, she’s been through the Academy before. In a dream. A dreamworld in which she was a Guardia Popula officer for two years.

But she doesn’t tell them. She doesn’t want to stick her nose into their business. She doesn’t want to call attention to herself. She’s already attracting stares. It’s the ears. Her long, black-furred Bunny ears. The tail too, but that’s not quite as immediately noticeable with the long jacket she’s wearing. She is the first Bunny to go to the Academy. The only Bunny with permission to leave Three Rats Ward. The only Bunny within a month’s travel by foot, at this point, for she’s all the way in the Second Ring by now, and with the next portal jump, she’ll be in the First Ring. One jump after that and she’ll be at the Academy gates.

She feels very small. Very alone. She clenches her jaw against the urge to cry again.

She really, truly did not want to cry when she said goodbye to her siblings. Merri and Cherry, Sage and Kori, Chime and Tulip. And Aliyah and Cala, escorting them. She did her best to hold it together, but when she looked into Cherry’s eyes… What she saw there. The sorrow, the loss, the fear. Cherry is so strong, so brave, but in a way, her heart is the softest of all the Bunnies. She cares so deeply and wants so very, very badly for everyone to be together, now that she has found her family. And she’s right. They should be.

Why am I doing this? Mayumi asks herself for the hundredth time. And the answer is, as always, that she must. She was Guardia in her other life, in that world of dreams. And that life must not disappear. She needs to hold onto it. And she was born to be Guardia. It is not just her parentage, but her soul that calls her to it.

Couldn’t she have waited until next year’s intake? But the opportunity was there. The upper levels of the Guardia had approved it. And the Bunnies are being treated like some kind of…experiment gone awry. There are those who truly feel that the best thing to do with them would be to break their necks, cut their throats, drown them – anything to make them go away and be forgotten. From what she understands, the Council’s decision to let them live had been a very near thing.

She is being given the chance to show that Bunnies can contribute to society. That they can be regarded as normal mortals. If she had turned down that chance, it might never have come again.

The weight of that responsibility makes her shoulders tense. She remembers looking into Cherry’s eyes and just dissolving into tears. And all of them had caught her, held her up, kept her from falling right there on the portal steps. She had been so close, so very close to just saying, “Take me home. I want to stay here with you.” She had wanted it so badly.

It had been Merri who had whispered in her ear, “Buck up, my love. Ye can do this. Ye’re gonna do this. Come on, now.” But it had not been Merri’s face that Mayumi had looked into when she blinked away the tears enough to see again. It had been Cherry’s. Those sad, huge, brown eyes. Cherry wasn’t smiling or trying to put up a good front. Her dark skin was lustrous with tears, and she had taken Mayumi’s face in her hands, and just looked at her. She looked like she was doing the hardest thing she had ever done.

“You go on now, baby,” Cherry said. The tears began afresh, but her voice was steady. “You go on now and you study hard. You come back to us with that badge. You make us proud. You will. And you do.” Then she kissed Mayumi, long and sweet, and on releasing her, Cherry gave her a little push toward the portal.

Mayumi quickly said goodbye to the others, wordlessly embracing and kissing the Bunnies and Aliyah and Cala, too. Then she turned and walked quickly, not trusting herself to stop. It was only in that last moment as she slipped her ticket into the slot in the arch of the portal that she heard a heartbreaking sob, and she turned her head as she stepped through, and saw Cherry sagging in Merri’s arms, clinging to her like a victim of drowning to a lifeguard.

And then they were gone. Her family, gone, left behind.

The next portal station had been a big one, and Mayumi had entered a washroom stall and sat in there for a good ten minutes, crying. But enough of that now. It is time to focus on what lies ahead.

She exits the final portal and for one moment she sees it, a few minutes’ walk up the street, the great shining white-marble gate of the Guardia Academy. But only for a moment. All around her is a press of bodies, and every single one of them is taller than she, it seems. She grimaces in annoyance, and with more people coming in from the portal from many different transfer points, she’s quickly shoved forward. Hemmed in on all sides by big, lumbering humans, she’s nearly crushed as she’s carried along. She holds tight to her bag and tries to endure the cacophony of noise and the almost overwhelming mix of body odors.

What should be a few minutes’ walk takes most of an hour, as the instructors at the gate check cadets through and tell them where to go. As expected, the ones wearing uniforms are told to change back to everyday clothes before Induction. One of the instructors is particularly derisive, and Mayumi finds herself shoved into the line that is moving toward him.

Mayumi’s heart sinks as she nears him. Right in front of her is a cadet dressed in Academy uniform. Stocky, with iridescent skin that subtly reflects every color of the rainbow, she assumes he is some sort of Dei: god, demigod, or maybe even a spirit of rainbows or something. She’s never been very clear on the dividing lines, but from what Sky has told her, they can be very blurry.

She listens as the instructor, puffed up with self-importance, chews him out. “Did you think you had any right to be wearing our uniform on the streets? You ain’t been inducted yet! You ain’t a cadet! You’re just some worthless citizen!”

Mayumi feels the sparse, soft fur on the back of her neck rise in anger. She clenches her teeth to keep herself from speaking up. She wants to remind the instructor that Guardia are citizens, that that is the whole point. Guardia uphold the public order but are never, never above those they protect. It is a job that may receive respect, as in the dream-ward she grew up in, where Guardia were honored in the same way that teachers and priests and doctors were honored, or they might be viewed with suspicion and derision, as they were in Three Rats when she first arrived there. But Guardia must always remember who they are.

But she stays quiet, burning with shame at doing so. Her mother would not want her to stay silent. Nor would her father. But she has a job to do. She needs to get into the Academy. And to do that, she must get past this gatekeeper.

So when the rainbow-colored almost-cadet is sent scurrying off to change, Mayumi’s face is composed.

“Name?” The instructor, tall for a human and towering over her, hardly glances at her at first.

“Mayumi Ishijima.” She is registered under her adoptive father’s name. Like most gods, her mother has no family name, being simply “of the Death Clan.” Mayumi cannot claim that, for the Death Clan does not recognize the Bunnies as family.

“Sponsoring officer?”

“Inspector Tuma-Sukai, Three Rats Station.” Mother could have sponsored her, but Sky is higher rank, and at the time he was preparing the application, Mother was under house arrest for murdering an Archon. Awkward.

The instructor really looks at her for the first time. “Dei Inspector, eh? Most of these goons ain’t got anybody higher than than a Popula Sergeant vouching for them, if that.” He takes in her civilian clothes, simple and home-tailored by her skillful sibling Sage, her small, slight build, her human face framed by straight black hair, and then the only non-human feature not hidden by her clothes, her long, erect ears. His eyebrows go up. “Ah, the Bunny. Heard a rumor about you.”

Oh no…

The instructor chuckles nastily, like he knows all sorts of secrets. “Oh, you’re gonna have a great time here, Bunny.”

Mayumi narrows her eyes and reads his badge. “Thank you for the warm welcome, Assistant-Instructor Pringle.” Her voice is even and cool. “Am I on your list, Assistant-Instructor?”

“Huh? Oh yeah, yeah.” Pringle seems annoyed at her precise enunciation of his full title. He juts his chin toward another queue past the gate, on campus grounds. “Go on, then. See you in class, Bunny.”

The way he says it, he seems to think it is an insult. She doesn’t move.

“Assistant-Instructor Pringle.” Her voice is not raised, nor is it filled with anger or menace. But there is an edge to it that rings out above the chaos of noise around them, and fixes his attention back onto her. “My name is Ishijima. Perhaps that is difficult for you to pronounce?”

He blinks, then starts to smile humorlessly. He closes his notebook and turns his back on the long line waiting to get in the gate. “Are you talking back to me, cadet? No, you ain’t even a cadet yet, are you? You’re nothing, citizen.” He puts his fists on his hips and bends forward, looming over her, trying to intimidate her with his height.

She leans toward his face, staring intensely into his eyes, her whole world narrowing to just that. Her voice is low. “You think a citizen is nothing. You are a citizen. We are all citizens.” She leans forward just a little more, and the anger she is channelling at him makes him flinch back, as if she were about to bite him.

Before he can recover, she is walking away. She hears him stutter, “H-hey!” but he is cut off by another instructor shouting, “Keep it moving, Pringle!” She doesn’t look back.