Ch7.32 Revelations

The mournful strains of guitarra, with rhythm provided by viola baixo, greets Sgt. Edison Machado as he opens the plywood door painted with a young chicken, ridiculous in the way it is proud and strutting like an adult rooster even though it’s a squab ready to be fried, and enters the little bar called O Frango. He is greeted by Bartolomeu and Henrique seated at the checkers table, two old-timers who’ve been coming here as long as Machado, meaning ever since the place opened its doors, always sitting there, playing. Hell, Machado helped build this place. The doorknob he’s holding? He salvaged that from a rubbish heap, and he made the door from scrap wood, and painted the chicken after Virgilio, the owner, declared the place’s name.

O Frango?” Machado had laughed. “Why you wanna call a bar that?”

“Because it ain’t just gonna be a bar, meu amigo! Madeleine is gonna be in the kitchen, and you know she makes the best chicken in two wards!”

And there she is, looking out the kitchen window into the bar room at the sound of “Hey, Didi!” Madeleine, Virgilio’s wife from Little Falls, forty years old now and that big white smile in that ebony face still makes his heart beat a little faster. Ah, Edison, why did you let that one get away, hah? There was a time when she had sighed in pleasure at Machado’s singing, a time when they had been alone together and it had been plain that she wanted him to take her in his arms… But she’s a sister to him now, just as Virgilio is a brother. Things could have been different. But they are good the way they are.

She is just about to call out a welcome to him when her voice stops in her throat and her eyes open wider. Machado knows the reason, and he keeps his face as nonchalant as he can. This is a crazy idea, he mutters to himself in such an undertone that he is not sure whether he only thought it or subvocalized it. He forces himself not to look back over his broad shoulder at the Dei Sergeant who is now entering the little boteco, and he says, “Boa noite. This is Gwydion, my friend from work. Dion, this is Madeleine. She and her man run this place. And these two guys, don’t let them challenge you to a game unless you want to lose your shirt, and boots and socks, too. This here is Bartolomeu,” he slaps the skinny man’s rock-hard shoulder as he moves past the pair at their paused game, “and Henrique,” and he pats the stocky man’s back.

The two players nod in welcome to Dion as Madeleine comes around to the kitchen door and into the bar, wiping her hands on her apron. “Welcome! ‘Tis always good to make new friends. You here for dinner, or just drinks?” Her eyes are fixed on the god’s face, and she looks almost like a teenager, bold but just a little nervous, and her rich, musical Little Falls accent carries quite a different tone than it would, Machado thinks, if he were introducing Longshot, the tall, clumsy redheaded rookie.

Machado mentally rolls his eyes. He’s seen it happen with nearly every female Popula in the station, and with one or two of the guys, too. Dion doesn’t look like a god right off the bat, but there’s no denying he has almost superhuman good looks. Before Dion can respond, Henrique bursts out, “Your first time here, you better eat the chicken!” He points an imperative finger at Dion and, one eye squinting as if aiming a dart, he adds “Chicken!” as if that one word were the most important in the universe.

Dion smiles, looking slightly nonplussed but at the same time oddly pleased. He looks back at Madeleine and says in respectful tones, “My lady, it is a pleasure to be here. Would you do me the great favor of bringing my friend and me some of your famous chicken?” Smooth, Machado thinks. Anybody else, that flowery language would come out sounding stupid, or worse, patronising. But he’s got everybody here smiling.

Madeleine, speechless, stays frozen for a moment, then seems to remember how to breathe, nods slowly, and nearly floats back into the kitchen. Edison shares a look with the two gamers, and then asks Bartolomeu, “Where’s Virgilio?”

“Picking up the kids,” the bony man says, his voice rasping like he has a throat full of iron filings. “The boy, he’s going to that new school, now. Older one, she’s still going to Little Falls, so she don’t have to change teachers, right? Coming home for the weekend.”

“Ah, right.” Machado leans over the bar and fetches a pair of beers that are in a tub of ice. This place has no magical cold cabinet like the ones Merri and Cherry have recently bought for the Burrow, though it does have an enchanted music player, one that spins plastic platters under a needle and then fills the air with song. In fact, the first side of this collection of sad fado songs is coming to an end, and before uncapping the bottles, Machado sets them down and, lifting the arm that bears the needle, flips the disc over and carefully sets the needle to play the other side.

As a new song fills the air with a voice vibrant with saudade, Machado waves a beer bottle to indicate the table to Dion, and then as the two sergeants take their seats, he hands Dion one of the bottles. “Saúde.” He clinks his bottle against Dion’s, raises it, and then takes a drink, filling his mouth with the clean, sparkling, sudsy taste. Is there anything better at the end of a long day of work? He savors it, eyes closed as he sets the bottle down on the table, then opens his eyes and regards Dion. “I hope you like this place, Dion. They are good people here. I’ve known the owner since we were kids.”

It still feels a little strange, calling the god by a familiar diminutive. The alternatives are Sergeant or sir, or Gwydion. The latter just doesn’t fit Machado’s mouth, and the Dei prefers Dion, and, well, it doesn’t feel that strange anymore.

“I quite like it,” Dion responds, looking around. “Cozy. Friendly.” He breathes in deep, closing his eyes for a moment. “It has a good, familiar feeling to it. As if most of these people have been coming here regularly for years. The kitchen smells, the under-layer of tobacco. It smells like…a home.”

“Yeah, well, it is,” Machado agrees. “They live right upstairs.” He holds his bottle at an angle and rolls the edge of the bottom across the table in a short arc, back and forth, his fingertips playing on the bottleneck to the rhythm of the sad song. “I wasn’t sure whether to bring you here, but… You seem like you really want to get used to Three Rats. I thought you should see the opposite of the Singing Cockroach. Not that there’s anything wrong with the Burrow. Just… Sometimes you want to drink with the same people all the time. And where you won’t get poked in the eye with a fern.”

Dion’s laugh is subdued. “I’m glad you brought me here. Life doesn’t always allow for spontaneous exploration of Three Rats establishments, but the ones I know are quite pleasant.” He pauses, in pained consideration. “Except for the Roach.”

“Yeah, well, every ward has to have a Roach, I guess.” Machado keeps rolling the edge of his bottle. He has a question welling up in his mind, something he was reassured about by Somrak, but…Somrak, despite his successful week in charge, is still not someone that Machado trusts to judge others’ thinking. “Listen, uh…that vacation you took. Everything that’s been going on, well…it’s good to have you and Alma back.”

The god looks at Machado, penetrating, his smile fading. “Are you worried that we Dei are planning to leave? I assure you, you couldn’t be more wrong about that. We have all grown to like this ward.”

The god sounds, to Machado’s ear, a little surprised with himself. “I have to admit, I’m beginning to think you might stay around. Pretty strange still to see cops who have all these powers walking around the streets. Funny how I’ve become used to it in the station. But with all that’s been happening – it’s good to know we can call on you.”

The smile fades completely, and the sorrow of the music seems to settle into Dion’s expression. “Sometimes I wonder if all that has happened isn’t to blame on our presence here. How did you handle things, before our time? Considering how we’ve struggled so far, it couldn’t have been easy.”

“It wasn’t.” Memories of dark deeds that he would rather not revisit come to mind. Three Rats has always been a difficult place to survive in, a place forgotten by other, more prosperous wards, with very little opportunity for advancement outside of the gangs or, for a lucky few, the Guardia. Machado had thought his friend Virgilio was crazy to start a bar in a ward so crime-ridden, so unstable. And some of the deals Machado had cut with local gangs to keep this place open, to keep the family safe, and other families, other lives… He just hopes this god sitting across from him really can’t read his thoughts, because otherwise he might feel obligated to arrest his mortal counterpart.

Madeleine arrives with a tray bearing several plates and bowls, which she sets down on the next table. “Here you go, officers,” she croons. She places before them two dishes of chicken sauteed with cashew nuts and bell pepper in a thin tomato sauce, topped with thin slices of raw yellow onion. “Poulet aux noix de cajou,” she names it, “and mayi moulin,” she continues as she puts a shallow bowl between them containing a mound of redbean-and-cornmeal mush, surrounded at the edges by a garnish of thick chunks of avocado. She adds two small plates of vinegared shredded cabbage, carrots, onions, and green chilis, calling them “pikliz” and warning Dion that they are quite spicy, but good to eat with the fried plantains, plates of which she sets on the now-crowded table. She picks up the tray and smiles at the both of them, and asks, “Bom apetite! More beer?”

Sim,” Machado says, handing over his now-empty bottle. “Merci, minha amiga. This is going to become his favorite place, now, I know.”

Madeleine smiles invitingly at Dion and she laughs. “You sound like that would not be a good thing, Didi!” she chides, lightly slapping Machado’s shoulder.

Machado chuckles. “Hey, I’m happy to introduce him to my favorite place to drink, and the best local food.”

Because his voice is loud, the checkers players overhear, and stocky Henrique bursts out, “But…not local! This is…is exotic! Exotic Little Falls food!”

“Cuisine!” Bartolomeu corrects him. “High-class cuisine! That’s what it’s called when it’s from more than one hour away!”

“Oh, and what does that make me, then?” Madeleine says to him, putting one fist on her hip and holding the tray at a slightly threatening angle.

Bartolomeu cringes, giggling, and begs, “Save me, Didi! She’s gonna assault me with a deadly weapon.”

“Maybe she can smooth out that point on top of your head,” Machado suggests. He turns back to Dion as the hilarity dies down and Madeleine goes behind the bar to get their beer.

Through all this, Dion has looked on with amusement, even enjoyment, but Machado appreciates how he did not join in and try to be ‘one of the boys’ right off. The place is friendly, all right, but even if the others don’t realize Dion is a god, Machado worries that Dion’s upper-ring mannerisms might quash the relaxed atmosphere before the regulars here get used to him. But now that it is once again just the two of them for them moment, Dion leans forward with a grin and asks in a low voice, “Didi?”

Machado rubs his hand from his forehead, across his smooth scalp, to the back of his short, thick neck. He growls, “Nobody calls me that outside this place, all right? Nobody.”

Chuckling almost silently, Dion leans back and solemnly promises, “Then none shall ever hear it from me.”

Madeleine returns with their beers and after a little more pleasant banter, she leaves them to continue their private conversation. Machado says, “‘brigado. Saúde.” He touches his bottle to Dion’s. “Now, where were we? Oh, yeah…well, sure, we had a rough time of it, back before you got here. There were times we had to choose who to go after, and there were people we just couldn’t go after. Not enough people, not enough support from on-high. But it wasn’t as bad as it got lately. You arrived right when the Dukaines were coming in, screwing with everything that had settled down into peace for awhile. So, you know, it was them, not you. You got here just in time. Now, looks like we’re getting back to peace again.” He knocks the tabletop for luck.

Dion’s eyes catch the knocking, and he smiles a little at it. I guess to him it’s just some superstition, but hey, like Vóinha used to say, ‘The gods have their magic, but so do we’, Machado thinks.

“May the Fates agree,” Dion says. “I know of wards where Popula and Dei don’t mingle at all. I’m glad this isn’t the case with our little station. Much of what we have achieved has been due to your work, after all. And even with Pavia joining us, not having the Inspector with us…” Dion takes a deep breath and sighs, his shoulders drooping. Then he looks back up at Machado. “Anyway, that is not what I wanted to ask you about. I have been thinking about Kori lately. His outbursts. And I know he is very close to you.”

“Outbursts, hah? What’s going on?” Machado’s brows creases in multiple furrows. He likes all the Bunnies, but Kori, sixteen years old and full of explosive energy, is the one he is closest to. The boy has been learning capoeira from him, the local martial art that is also a dance and a musical form and so much else – a lifestyle, really – and it has made Machado feel like an actual uncle to the teenager.

“Well… I admit we have never been particularly close, he and I,” Dion says, nervous. “But we have never been on bad terms either. The Bunnies are just not the type to be aggressive or resentful without good reason. But Kori recently accused me of causing some level of separation between them and their mother.”

Machado breathes out, his eyes cast down. I was afraid this could happen. “Ah… He doesn’t talk a lot, you know? But yeah, he’s got a lot of anger there. I’ve tried to draw him out, but it seems like he gets it out, you know, through his body. Running, football, tussling with other kids. He’s got to be careful though. He’s real strong for his size. That’s why I started teaching him to fight. Not so he’d fight more. So he’d learn to control it.”

Dion nods all through this. “I understand. Martial arts do the same for me. But I would not dream of blundering into his life, proposing to teach him a completely different style of fighting. I just wanted to understand what makes him so angry at everything. And if he won’t speak to you…” Dion pauses and takes a drink of his beer. “I guess I’ll be left wondering.”

Taking a drink as well, Machado thinks over the possibilities. He looks up and asks, “Can you, uh…” he gestures vaguely, “turn off all that god stuff when you need to? Pretty much just be like us in a fight?”

“Yes. I can refrain from using my powers if I sense they are not needed. Why do you ask?”

“Well, you’re right, he’s not going to take it well if you come in to teach him.” Machado is nervous to ask this, but he refuses to show it, shoots the question straight. “But you think you can be a student? To me?”

Dion smiles slowly. “Provided you don’t ask me to do a backflip in slow motion on my first lesson, I would be honored.” By the time he reaches the end of the sentence, he sounds quite serious.

Machado feels a little smile form. “Oh man, what am I getting myself into? Anyway, I hope capoeira will be different enough from what you already know that Kori will be, you know, a little better than you at first, if you ain’t got the powers going. If he can show you a thing or two – that would be good. He’s already turning into a good teacher, with the younger kids. I don’t know if he’s going to talk, but maybe at least he’ll start thinking different about you.”

“I hope so,” Dion says. “My intention was never to interfere with the Bunnies’ relationship with their mother. And though I care for them, there is little I can do from where I stand in this case.” He locks his eyes with Machado’s. “Let me know when the next lesson is and I will be your loyal student.”

To Machado, it sounds like this is a very big deal to Dion. He returns the seriousness, straightening a little in his chair, holding Dion’s gaze. He nods. “Tomorrow morning. Right after dawn, in the yard behind the Burrow.” Inside, he is thinking, Seriously?? I’m going to be a Dei’s teacher? Am I mad?

Then he looks at his almost-empty bottle mournfully. “Guess I better not have any more. Getting up early now.”

Dion exhales deeply. “At least you are not on call. This was wonderful. I am sorry to leave, but I do have to get to my shift. Oh, by the way, would you mind not commenting about this with our lovely commanding officer quite yet? I want to see what I can achieve on my own.”

Machado grins with the right side of his face alone. “Fine. But the one who asks me to keep secrets is the one who pays for beer. Next time! Get your hand away from your pocket – tonight you are my guest.” He signals to Madeleine, and reaches for his wallet.

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Ch7.31 Revelations

How to make a universe in five easy steps:

One: Choose a dream. Any dream will do. An original or a copy, borrowed from your favorite author or some piece of inspired cinematography. Forests or ocean shores, a specific room, a cavern, a cloud, a plot of cosmos. Anything. Any place. See it in your mind. The materials, the sounds, the scents – that will be the body.

Two: Choose its function. Is it a sanctuary? An arena? A zoo? A place to sleep in? To be lost in? To keep others out? To welcome people in? To be hurt or hurt others? Pick carefully – that will be its mind.

Three: Define its boundaries. How big will it be? How solid? How much detail will you put into it? Material items? Living occupants? How much of it do you know? How much left to be discovered? Only imagination offers limits to a dream, no? – so draw its borders.

Four: Nurture it. Give it your own self. Guide it into becoming what you want it to be. There are no shortcuts here, no easy path. What you give is what it becomes. Give it love and it will be loving; be gentle and it will be kind. Give it fear and it will be a place of nightmares. Give it nothing…and it won’t grow – and that will be its heart.

Five: Now that all of that is sorted out, there is only the one step left. The most vital one. To give life to your dream. All dreams exist in potentiality, just a breath away from existence. They hover in nothingness, like patches of something that could be if only energy and time and effort were put into them. If only the right sort of circumstances were to gather together at the right moment. And it is up to you to pluck them from the Void and recognize what they could become – once you do, you have your seed.

And so it is that universes are built from back to front, from the end to the beginning. Many things are, if one were to look carefully. It is how we built the Insula, how we found it, floating away in the Nether Realms of the Void, filled with all these places who became our closest companions throughout the years.

But enough about us. We’ll leave the details for our unauthorized autobiographies, sometime. For now, we dive into the mind of a certain god of magic and look through his eyes as he busies himself with the seeds to three new pocket universes.

In his room, Dion has prepared the necessary glyphs and materials and ritual components for all three seeds but he is keeping two of them as projects for later. The components will hold a few hours. Actually, a few days if properly stored. He will take his time with those. The third is a bit more of a security requirement, something that Somrak’s current position as temporary station commanding officer frees Dion to do without weakening the Dei shifts terribly while Alma recovers from creating the Bunnies’ new apartments.

A conspiracy room. If they are going to keep plotting to break Guardia rules and embark on dangerous missions the world should not know about, they will definitely need one. The office at the station is becoming less and less a suitable option. So he is working on a detached reality with free entrance limited to himself, Alma and Sky. Possibly Somrak. With no risk of a Bunny or six suddenly walking into it at the wrong moment or deciding it is the perfect place to hang out. And certainly away from those treacherously long ears, always ready to capture bits of conversation if anyone forgets how sensitive they are. A place that can be sealed away in case of need and which has all the necessary anti-spying spells already weaved into it. With a secret entryway into the Bunnies’ new sanctum (to be kept strictly in the Dei’s sphere of knowledge for now). And, of course, with the portals of the Dei sanctums all opening directly into it.

It has been for awhile now that Dion has been considering the need to move the portal to his sanctum from the kitchen pantry. At first it was a simple enough, easy-access alternative but with the increasing activity in the bar and the growing need to be paranoid about safety, he has been looking for other portal placements. An easy enough choice would have been downstairs, by Alma’s sanctum. But that now belongs to the Bunnies. So another option is required and Dion has come up with this new arrangement. An antechamber connected to the bar by a single portal, which is under Dei control. And in that antechamber, the gods can have their own sanctums, connected to it by portals. Privacy, convenient proximity. And Alma can keep that portal set up to lead directly outside, to the breezeway. Hmm… definitely better to connect it to the new chamber, though.

And for now…he procrastinates in making her new sanctum possible. If she insists, of course, he will, but he is in no hurry. The truth is that the last few days sharing the master bedroom at the estate with Alma have been a pleasant and strange experience. Not just waking up together but dressing and getting ready together, sharing a closet and a bathroom, their amenities sitting side by side on the counter, their arms grazing each other as they combed their hair or brushed their teeth. Such a comfortable togetherness, in some ways deeper than mere physical intimacy. It had occurred to Dion not once or twice but many times that his parents had once done the same, shared the same room, the same morning rituals, for years, decades maybe. For a while even with baby Dion in their midst. Such new feelings and revelations…and he just wants to hold onto them.

And to Alma. Even if they did talk about the need for separate sanctums and veered off discussing the issue of moving in together, how bad could it be, if she gave up on a new sanctum and stayed here, with him? Do they really need to ever again sleep apart? To keep their belongings separate?

And yet, it is a bit of an intimidating change to contemplate. Moving in with someone is often referred to as an important step in a relationship, an unveiling of all secrets, of all mysteries regarding a beloved’s true nature. And it certainly feels like a big, risky step. Not from the point of view of what mysteries Alma might still hold but from the point of view of having his own open for scrutiny. Are there any quirks she doesn’t yet know about and which might make her take a step back in the relationship?

He shakes his head against these pointless, silly thoughts. After all they have been through together, weakened and vulnerable and hurt, they have already seen each other at their worst. It surely wouldn’t be something as small as a daily quirk that could pull them apart. Even though they have been together for less than a year…and just fully, officially so for a couple of weeks…

It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! What they have has been forged to last. He is sure of it.

But he can’t help feeling a thrill in his stomach at how the conversation might go once he proposes the move.

A knock on the frame of the pantry door catches his attention and makes him rise from his desk chair to go open the portal and answer the door. Beyond it stand Cherry and Merri, each flanking an exhausted, ashen-skinned Alma.

Mana hangover, he thinks, looking at the goddess. Not entirely unexpected.

“Hey, hon!” Cherry pipes up, playful but with a note of worry on her low-hanging ears. “We found a hot chick wanderin’ around the premises and figured you’d know what to do with her.”

“Silly!” Merri scolds her, leaning forward to look at Cherry past Alma’s stomach and chest. To Dion, she says a little more restrained, “Mum’s got a bit of a headache startin’, dear. Can ye take care of her?”

“I’m fine…” Alma breathes, rolling her eyes at being spoken of as if she weren’t present. “Just a little strain from all the changes and I had forgotten I had to take all my things into storage. You two worry too much.”

Cherry pets Alma’s arm and looks up at the goddess, not making an effort to hide her concern. “We’re always gonna worry about you, if we see you almost fallin’ like you did.” She turns her pleading eyes to Dion. “She needs the kinda care we can’t help with, hon.”

He smiles at her, wanting to leave her reassured. “Don’t worry a bit. I’ll have her feeling better before you know it, ladies.”

At Alma’s raised eyebrow and look of mild annoyance, he replies with a silent invitation, reaching out to offer her his hand for support. The goddess looks at each of her daughters, tenderly stroking their heads, and then takes his hand, holding it just a little tighter than usual, tight enough to make him suspect her headache is a bit worse than she is letting the Bunnies know.

“Ooh! D’ye want us comin’ back wearin’ nurse uniforms?” Merri suggests as Dion helps Alma to sit on the edge of the bed.

He smiles. “As entertaining as that would be, she needs quiet.”

“Ah well, for the best. Seein’ as we dinnae have any nurse uniforms,” Merri notes. Her voice low and gentle, she adds, “Feel better, Mum…”

Alma smiles softly at her two eldest children. “Thank you, little ones. If you need anything for the rooms, just let me know.”

“Don’t worry ‘bout a thing. Just get well soon,” Cherry says, hesitating before leaving but eventually letting Merri guide her away.

Behind the Bunnies, the portal closes, leaving the gods alone in Dion’s comfortable, quiet sanctum, scented with soothing aromatic oils.

“I’m sorry about that,” Alma breathes, looking apologetic. “I didn’t want to interrupt your work, but they are stronger than they look.”

He chuckles quietly, stroking her hand with his fingers. “Especially Cherry, I know,” he replies, keeping his voice low and soft. “My work can wait. I suspected you’d need rest after making their rooms, anyway. So I was counting on a visit.”

“Did I have an appointment set without realizing it?” she jests, smiling.

“I know you’re usually the healer in these cases but this case, I think, is in my area of expertise,” he says, sitting a bit straighter and trying to look more dignified. “Now, let me examine you…”

She snorts but closes her eyes and obediently lowers her head, playing the part of a pleading patient even as her brow furrows a little, possibly from a wave of pain. His smile fades at the sight of her suffering and he cannot help but reach out and touch her cheek, stroking it gently. Her lips curl in pleasure and though she does not open her eyes, she leans into the caress, resting her head against his hand. He treasures the touch, lingering in it as he activates his magical senses and his eyes flare golden, examining the way mana flows in her body and how depleted she is.

“Yes, you overdid it all right…” he breathes, staying in the character of an expert healer, which becomes twice as hard when Alma opens her eyes and looks again at him, an eyebrow raised. “You need urgent treatment. Let’s get some mana into you.”

He leans forward, touching the underside of her chin with a fingertip. Already foreseeing where this is headed, she tilts her head up and to the right, welcoming his kiss, which Dion uses to transfer some of his mana directly into her. The sharing of his power colors the experience, giving it an added layer of pleasure that almost makes him forget to cut off the exchange before he becomes the one in need of mana.

As they break, her eyes flare golden for a moment while her body converts and absorbs his mana. “Isn’t there a rule against this type of treatment in your oath, Doctor?”

“My oath is, ‘An it hurt none, do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law,’” he replies, leaning closer for another kiss. “I’m not hurting you, am I?”

Though there is no mana transfer this time, the kiss stretches and trails into a series of shorter ones, until Dion nearly forgets what they were going on about before.

“Well, if this is my treatment, I’ll be getting sick a lot more often,” Alma notes, reminding him, already looking a little better. “And the dose? Repeat this every few hours?”

“Oh this is a revolutionary treatment, with no upper limit to the dose,” Dion tells her as if selling a miracle drug. “We can do it whenever we like with no harm. It is, however, highly addictive.”

She tilts her head, her expression one of fearful concern, almost shock. “For the patient or for the healer? I wouldn’t want to interfere with your important, life-saving work…”

She leans forward as she speaks, placing a hand on his chest and slowly kneeling on the bed like a cat pouncing in slow motion, apparently forgetful of her headache. Dion’s hand falls from her face to her side, stroking down the length of her ribcage, down her flank, her hip as she looms over him, looking at once predatorial and naif.

“Both, I’m afraid,” he breathes. “But I am willing to make the sacrifice…”

He turns and lies on his back, both of his arms wrapping around her, hands stroking her back and sides as their lips engage again in delicious communion. “Now…” he starts to say, only to be interrupted by another kiss. “Now pause–”

He holds her and rolls so that he is propped on one elbow and she is the one lying belly up, feeling guilty when she grimaces at a pang of pain. She looks up at him, questioning.

“Hold still just for a moment,” he asks her. “I want to take care of you.”

Again she obediently closes her eyes and awaits his ministrations in utmost trust. He resists the temptation to kiss her, understanding for once the long sermons his teachers use to give their students at the Academy of High Magic, warning them against the dangers of being distracted by lustful thoughts when trying to cast complicated spells. Or even simple ones… Concentrating, he touches her forehead with the tip of his index finger and carefully traces a little glimmering glyph, which glows brighter and brighter until it dissolves into nothingness. As it does so, Alma breathes a sigh of relief. Having been on the receiving end of this spell, Dion knows very well how it feels, how the spell seems to sink into the skin, bone, and brain like warm wax comfortably dripping relief into the mind. He removes his hand from Alma’s forehead.

“There… how does that feel?” he asks softly.

She smiles at him, opening her eyes. “Very good… I wish I’d known that trick before. It would have spared me a morning of pain when we first arrived here.”

“It’s one of those things that every sophomore at the Academy of Magic has learned from the older students,” Dion explains. “Most of them are mortals, of course, and they have a kind of illness from overusing their own life force if there’s not enough mana available from external sources. From what I’ve seen, it makes a god’s mana headache look like a sunny day in the park. That spell is a variant that the mortals came up with, works for gods.”

“Well, I’m glad they found a way to make it better,” she replies, turning on her side to snuggle closer to him. “Thank you. Maybe I can learn it sometime.” She pauses to take a deep breath. “They seemed to like it. Their new sanctum. Kori looked excited.”

Dion lowers himself to lie on his side and strokes her hair. “Maybe all they needed was some time to process the idea.”

“They all love you,” she tells him, her arm draped over his side. “But Kori…you have seen the anger he carries within. He’s not angry at you, really.”

He nods. “I know. And in a way I can understand. I’ve been that angry myself, without the benefit of a loving mother to hold me through it. I’m not hurt.”

And yet, he is, just a little. Just enough to want to do something about it. Though Alma has so far been careful to keep Dion from feeling stifled by the prospect of shouldering a burden of fatherhood toward the Bunnies if he keeps pursuing this relationship with her, the fact is that there is no way to dissociate the goddess from her offspring. They are all part of a single pack, and loving her, choosing to be with her, means accepting some sort of role with the Bunnies. So far, that has been mostly one of friendship, more closely so with the older Bunnies – except distant, still-suspicious Mayumi – and Tulip – though that one not necessarily by Dion’s efforts – less so with Kori, the active, ever-running-off teen, and Chime, who Dion is not sure can truly be close to anyone in a conventional way. But all in all, all seven Bunnies have never directly antagonized him or made him feel like a grain of sand in the fine clockwork of their close-knit family. And he finds himself growingly aware of how uncertain and unsettled his position is in the midst of all these people who come attached to the one he loves.

But he doesn’t want to worry Alma, not now that they have so much to focus on. He will find his own way to deal with it all. So for the moment, he veers away from that line of conversation. “This change will soon prove for the best when all those rooms are vacated upstairs. I’m sure Pavia and her sensitive ears must have become used to the peaceful quiet of staying above the bar. I hope she has earplugs, now that they’re back.”

For some reason, the mention of the Wolf demigoddess seems to leave Alma uneasy. With Tulip being such a fateful copy of the goddess, it is not unusual for Dion to imagine Alma with long, furred ears and, if she were to have them, he is sure that right now they would be hanging back against her skull. “Yes…though she has always been fine with chaos.” She looks down and breathes deeply before looking back at him. “Gwydion, there’s something you need to know…about Pavia.”

The serious tone, heavy with sadness, gives Dion pause. He cups her cheek in his hand and locks eyes with her, concerned. “Is she going to be a problem? Do you think she will blame you for the demotion and being forced to move here?”

Alma shakes her head, looking miserable. “No…she knew the risk and never even questioned the sanity of our actions. She’s a Wolf, after all. Loyalty is virtue to her people. Even after over fifteen years of separation.” She sighs. “But you should know that her loyalty is due to more than just friendship.”

He looks at her in silence for a moment, absorbing her words. Her tone, the tension in her muscles, the way her eyes look at him almost apologetically draw the full landscape of her words. Lovers. Alma and Pavia were lovers, somewhen in their past. He remembers the Wolf woman’s warning about Alma’s cold, hardened heart, when they first met, her certainty that Dion did not stand a chance with the death goddess. They make so much sense now…

Finding out that Alma has pursued romantic relationships with members of her own gender – and one so animalistic-looking too – does not bother Dion in the least. Tastes are a personal thing and he had often found himself amused by the way some humans are so disgusted by something he likes to think of as people simply eating the food they like most. And he himself has never let such a thing as gender get in the way of a seduction. But to know that this former romantic partner is here, in Three Rats, and may have carried the torch of that much older love than his own through the years is certainly troubling. Dion is still trying to make peace with the contradictory emotions between liking and trusting Somrak and being aware of how he feels about Alma (and how Alma feels about him), after all.

And now this. “Do you still have feelings for her?” he asks, voice low, cursing internally at realizing how stiff his body is.

She sighs at the question and again shakes her head. “I never really did.” She looks away, at a point above and beyond Dion’s left shoulder. “I don’t think I was even capable of feeling anything back then. Arion was suddenly gone, Cherry and Rosemary were in stasis, I had just left my father’s house–” she trails off, her lips curled in a self-deprecating grin. After a moment, she continues the explanation, “I was numb, I guess. Pavia was always a friend to me. Her company made me feel better. And even when I realized how deeply she loved me, I… I could never match it. That love. I think she knew – I know she knew. Her nose is too good to be fooled by words. But she didn’t care and I…I’m ashamed to admit that I used her. And when I was kicked out of my first station and away from her life, I was rather relieved at it.”

He listens, quiet. The relief he can’t help but feel at not having to bend to the force of his arrangement with Alma and accept Pavia as her lover is quickly overcome by the regret in Alma’s voice. She sounds ashamed, admitting to betraying her closest friend in a time of need. A friend who knew exactly what was going on but let the desires of her own heart distort what little affection Alma was giving into feeling much greater than it was. Hope is a terrible thing.

And yet, can Dion truly be disgusted by this confession? When has he felt such shame and guilt over any of his previous liaisons, even when he had lied? When he had spoken soft words of love just to reap the first, shallow blossoms of physical affection he could get his hands on? Can he judge, knowing he has done worse for far more ignoble reasons?

No. He can’t. “As someone who has used a great many people’s affection and desire to his own ends, I don’t blame you. You had better reason than I did, with what you were going through.” He strokes her cheek. “You’re not that person anymore.”

She smiles gratefully at him, leaning her head closer to touch her forehead to his. “What can I do? I don’t want to lie to her. I hoped that she would become attached to her mate but…I can tell her feelings have not changed. And I don’t want to lead her into some halfway thing to give her an illusion of love. Not again. I care for her, I love her but I’m not in love with her.”

He holds the back of her head, stroking her scalp with his thumb. “I think all you can do is be honest with her. It will hurt but…lies hurt more. I hope she can appreciate that and move on. I like her. She helped Sky and all of us with this sacrifice. If she has to stay indefinitely, then I hope she can feel comfortable and at home here.” He pulls away a little to kiss her forehead. “It might take awhile but if she loves you that much, she should accept your choices, right?”

“Right…” Alma says, still looking miserable. “For as much as you and I have our agreements, I don’t want her to expect me to be available and willing to be any more than a good friend. Or even to negotiate a place for her in my relationship with you. There’s just no room for that in my mind.”

He can’t help but smile. “I completely agree. Adding any more guests to this party is just ruining perfection.”

He leans closer to kiss her, gently holding her to him. As they break, he touches the tip of his nose to hers, smiling at the adorable, reflexive twitch of her nose at his touch. She still looks subdued and apologetic but at least now she is smiling and the sight of her curled lips brings a little glow of joy to his heart.

“Things just keep getting complicated for us, don’t they?” she breathes.

His smile falters a little but doesn’t completely fade. “Considering my past and all the ghosts in it, this might not be the end of our complications. I’m afraid I collected quite a few more than you through the years and some have a temper. Not to mention some of their family members…”

“Does this mean I should start carrying a wooden bat to fend them off?” She jests. “I imagine it might amount to quite the army…”

The suggestion makes him chuckle. “I think that sword of yours might be more dissuading than a bat but… Perhaps let me try talking to them before any attempts to knock them on the head. I don’t want you hurting your wrist over it.”

“Hmm… should I put some sort of property mark on you?” she suggests, grinning mischievously and raising her head a little to leave a couple of little kisses on his neck. “Maybe a bell around your neck? A little tag saying ‘Taken. If lost return to Alma’?”

“You could always scent-mark me,” he purrs in pleasure. “Though I’ll bet our more sensitive-nosed friends would claim you already have. Your scent must be all over me.”

He feels her cheek rise with a smile as it brushes against his, her mouth playfully nibbling on his earlobe as if the gods were puppies playing together. “I try but you have an unhealthy habit of bathing all too frequently. I can barely keep up with renewing the scents.”

He can’t help but break into laughter at that, rolling to lie on his back. “Why do you think I bathe so often? That way I can enjoy having you mark me all over again. And I can mark you.” Quicker than she can anticipate, he wraps an arm around her and pulls her down, holding her to him and rocking her from side to side, her legs still lying at an angle with his, her feet on the bed to his right. Her gasp at the sudden movement is almost a little squeal and she laughs as he nudges her head to curve back so he can cover her neck and face in kisses.

Eventually, she manages to reposition her legs so that they hug his hips and she props herself up on her hands and knees, looming over him. “Always the scoundrel…” she breathes, grinning. “Always looking for ways to lure me to your bed…”

He chuckles quietly at the pet name she hasn’t used in awhile, reaching up to run his fingers through her hair, which falls to the sides of his face like a curtain. “Can I help it that you spark my fantasies with each new revelation? Do you know how many Dei cadets fantasize about female Dei roommates engaging in…extracurricular activities in their rooms when the lights go out? And yet, you are the first I’ve ever met to actually do so.”

She waggles her eyebrows at him. “Studies say it is usually more frequent for male roommates to do it, in fact. Even though no one talks about it.” She leans down to whisper in his ear, “What about your roommate?”

“Oh, he went home after his first week,” he leans up to kiss her shoulder, placing his open hand on the small of her back and pressing down. “I had the room all to myself. So lonely, I was…”

“I’ll bet…” she breathes, tilting her head to kiss the angle of his jaw. “All those female cadets…” Another kiss. “Needing tutoring…”

“You should have been there…” he counters, cradling her head and tilting his own to brings his mouth closer to hers. “I would have been so much happier.”

She doesn’t reply. Silence stretches as their lips meet and engage and happily lose track of time. He feels her weight gently being lowered onto his chest and abdomen, her legs moving to lie between his. Gods, if they had been through the Academy together, entwined like this on those horrible, cheap bunk beds every night after lights out…

They would probably have failed the course even before the midterm exams.

“Is this my next treatment, already?” she asks, a little breathless as they part for a moment. “If it stays this intensive, I might be ready to make my new sanctum before the sun sets.”

What was intended as a joke sends a chill down his spine. New sanctum? No, no, no…

“Now don’t be so hasty,” he tells her, trying to downplay his unwillingness to see her go. “The seed for your sanctum isn’t ready yet and – you still need to rest.” He holds her and rolls with her so that they lie on their sides. “Just stay horizontal. Preferably with a warm, handsome body next to yours for best results.”

She looks at him, confused. “I was just joking. I know it would be dangerous to expend that much mana so soon. But my things are in a pile in my old sanctum. I’ll need to at least move them into one of the rooms upstairs. And Starfax needs a new haven. I’ll need to make my new sanctum soon.”

“Yes, but you are still drained. You definitely should stay here for observation,” he insists. “Overnight at least. And you can bring your things to this sanctum. Bring Starfax. I’ll make room for them. Stay a week. Stay forever. Forever would definitely be best. With me…”

He looks at her pleadingly after what is probably one of the clumsiest sort of proposals he has ever imagined he would utter in his whole life. And when she takes a moment to reply, her eyes looking into his, her lips in a tiny, almost sad smile, he nearly gets up and runs out to avoid the rejection he fears is coming. They love each other, they should be together. Why is she taking so long to reply?

“Are you sure you want this?” she asks. “What about the things we talked about? The need for a place to study, to practice our new magic? To have our energy flow without interference or distraction? Do you want to give up your own sanctum?”

“I…have thought about it,” he replies. “I loved sharing a room with you at the estate. And even this one…it doesn’t feel half as cozy and welcoming without you here. This to me is our bed. I don’t want to see you go to sleep elsewhere every night.”

Her smile broadens and she seems to melt a little at his words. She reaches to stroke his cheek. “I don’t want a sanctum to sleep alone there every night. Or even most nights. I love this sanctum. And this bed. And sleeping cuddled against you. I just wanted to make sure we’re not moving the cart in front of the horses.” She breathes deeply, nodding. “But I think there’s no harm in delaying making my new sanctum and giving this a try. Maybe until the trial is done and all that stress is past us?”

Dion’s heart swells with joy. It almost feels like he might burst with it, so overwhelming it is. He can’t speak. Words evade him. His reply to her comes out as a kiss, deep and breathtaking, enough to draw her essence into a play date with his own. He’s not sure if he’s lost the need to breathe altogether, for the kiss seems to stretch on forever before he finally releases her lips from his, his essence still reverberating with glowing traces of hers.

Alma opens her eyes and blinks, her usually slow breathing sounding a bit wheezy. “I’m going to assume that’s a yes.”

“Assume I am very, very happy,” he tells her. “And I promise you will have your sanctum if you decide you still need it. But don’t rush. You need to rest. And I need you.”

“Aawww…” She snuggles closer to him. “I might start redecorating. Take up the whole closet. Find your secret stash of magazines. Derail your studies. You’ll be throwing me out in a week.”

He snorts, kissing the tip of her nose. “Impossible…You will never find my magazines.”

“Oh!” She frowns, pulling the pillow from under her head and awkwardly wacking Dion’s head with it.

He laughs, amused and happy, and pulls his own pillow from under his head, replying in kind. “Pillow fight, huh? If this is how we’re starting your stay here, I don’t see how it could go wrong.”

Ch7.30 Revelations

There is a special in our hearts for places. Specific places, tied to specific memories. They often look bigger in our mind’s eye than they actually are. More colorful. They are rooms or intersections, clearings. A rocky outcrop by the seashore. A table at a favored restaurant. Places of calm, of safety, of joy. Of love. And sometimes the exact opposite.

And they are more than just places. They are the sum of all the times spent there, of all the people connected to them. Of every step. Of every smile. The place of a first kiss. The hospital where a loved one died. A childhood home. They are parts of us. Parts of the story we live to tell.

To the point where losing one of those places is as bad as losing a person. It is a fracturing event, a split between the person we were up to that point and the person who stands now, outside and away, deprived of that sanctuary. In our minds, places are forever. Pets will die, people will leave. Places…stone, cement, wood, steel. Made to last, to outlive us. Our favorite theater will always stand. Our childhood school will still be there for us to walk by, our child in hand, saying “That is where I went to school when I was your age.” But then one day they crumble or burn down and so does the dream. One day, we are standing outside the house that saw us grow and watching a family of strangers move in. One day, we are sitting in our old bed, in our old bedroom, and suddenly everything is so much smaller, so much emptier and more distant than we remembered. And that eternal, immortal place is gone. It is there, right there…but it’s gone.

Pets die, people leave, places are lost. Everything dies.

Even when all they do is change.

Alma sits cross-legged in the little pillow-filled comfortable alcove, the depression on her grassy bedroom floor, and looks around her, at a place she is about to lose. Her sanctum, her first home here, in Three Rats, is about to change, to stop being hers, to embrace a new existence as a sanctuary and stronghold for the Bunnies. Her wardrobe with her clothes has been emptied, her books no longer sit on their shelves. Starfax’s cage is about to be gone.

All in the setting of a new future the goddess is not quite sure exists. Why do it now, before the trial? To speed her recovery? To lay the ground for her children’s independence in case things go wrong? She is not sure she knows the answer. There is simply something in her that is pushing forward, as if time is running away and it is either now or never. As if the rest of her life won’t come unless she wraps up this bit of it. Since making the decision, she has reconsidered it numerous times, feeling guilty not over abandoning this sanctum – a place that to a god is like a part of jys essence materialized into a place – but over making her Bunnies feel guilty that they are driving her away from a place that is hers but theirs as well, as if making her pull away from them with the way they push too close to her. It’s nothing like that. But they will never understand, not with their communal urge to eliminate pain with proximity. And she feels guilty that, for so many reasons, she will never be like them, never think like them and never give, regardless of how much she gives, exactly what is right to them.

She sighs and shakes her head at her own thought. What is the point of operating based solely on the perception of others? The Bunnies will be safer sleeping in a sanctum of their own and if anyone is going to give up this memory-filled nook, it will be her, not them. They have given up too many things already. What room has she been so attached to in the last decades as they are to this one? The place where they slept for the first time together, all seven siblings and their mother. The place where they got to know each other, exchange stories, be held by a parent’s arms, most of them for the first time. The place where they are safe, where even the air rings with the same energy that was background to their lives in the Dreamlands as Alma carried them around with her. Where Kori and Chime found their names, their identity. Their home.

From her cage, Starfax watches the goddess, the bird’s quiet gaze following Alma’s movements with the calm of many years spent together. This will be yet another change for her as well, another moving to a new home to follow that bond of companionship. Many gods have a single sanctum tailored to their needs and whims, which they never quite grow out of, grow tired of. They transport their sanctum with them, merely changing the point where the portal to it opens to allow them entrance. Some will quite literally not even change the placement of a table or bed for over a hundred years. But not Alma. After leaving her childhood home and room, she has never again taken to a magical sanctum in a pocket universe, dwelling instead in normal – if the word normal can be applied to the kind of constructions available in the high-mana wards she has worked in – apartments, rigged with magical equipment, yes, but not in any way defying the laws of space and reality. Temporary things, like living off a suitcase for years. Even this sanctum she has created is only partially a pocket universe, more a distortion in the reality of the room that already existed – and which would return, unscathed, if she were ever to cancel the magic – to suit her purposes.

The thought of creating a pocket universe leaves her exhausted. Well, not creating, really. More like feeding, nurturing, shaping. She does not possess the power or knowledge to create a new reality from nothing. It takes a seed, a spark, so to speak, of somethingness and that Gwydion has been kind enough to offer to provide. From that seed, nurtured by Alma’s own energy and essence, a reality attuned to her and only her will grow and take shape.

A reality that might even reject any visitors, if she is not careful and allows it to become selfish and jealous. A sanctum is like a child which grows very fast, fed by the feelings in jys parent’s heart. Like an animal companion which mirrors jys human’s personality. So many things can go wrong. No wonder some gods and wizards make veritable fortunes by selling ready-made sanctums.

But before she can focus on that new sanctum, she must first reorganize this one. Her first priority is the Bunnies. Moving temporarily into a regular room like the ones above the bar is nothing new or shocking to her. Alma can wait to have a proper sanctum. But the need to do something to help her children feel safe is imperative.

Another deep breath, another look around her. Solemnly, she says goodbye to the place of her first night in Three Rats, her first nights with her children, of her healing of the Oracle’s Pearl and first time witnessing Starfax’s rebirth, of Saira’s long convalescence, of her healing of Somrak, of the breaking of her heart at the hands of Gwydion’s jealousy, of the healing of it by his fevered ramblings and his newly-healed regret. The place of so many things that changed her life. She mourns the loss of it as a tear rolls down her cheek and a smile blooms in her lips. Everything dies.

“Be good to them,” she whispers at the ether as she raises her wrist in a signal for Starfax to leave her cage and come closer. The phoenix flies toward the goddess and lands smoothly on Alma’s wrist, touching her cheek to Alma’s in greeting.

“I’m afraid you’ll have to be patient with me and endure this new move, old friend,” the goddess says, stroking the back of Starfax’s head. “These are days of uncertainty but, hopefully, it’s the last we’ll have to move for awhile.”

Hopefully…

Starfax lowers her head, raises it slowly. She stretches her wings and flaps them once. Twice. And takes off. Alma is alone.

Time to get to work. Just like on her first night here, she holds up a mana orb, full of thick, glittering liquid, and tries to visualize the final result she is looking for. In her mind’s eye, she imagines the doors to the new rooms, the interior of those rooms, the disappearance of the cage and fountain, the shortening of the bookshelves. In her mind, she sees it all. And then she makes it happen.

A spark of her mana releases the magical energy in the orb, making it overflow and spread in a thin sheet of golden light, like a flimsy wave that washes over the room and covers every surface, shining over grass, over stone, over wood and water and glass. Making the walls glimmer. Making the floor glow.

The room shrinks slightly, walls moving closer. The fountain with its statue of the girl holding the orb filled with the miniature oceanic environment that Sky gave Alma for Year’s End begins to dissolve, leaving only the globe floating midair. The bars of Starfax’s cage melt into nothingness, the plants and flowers in that nook turn to energy that Alma uses to draw the new limits of the pool, which will now allow the Bunnies to walk all around it as they find their way into their rooms. She also makes it shallower, no longer needing it to be deep enough for the tall goddess to soak in. The bed, she keeps, for when the Bunnies feel like sleeping together in a pile, but her wardrobe, vanity, workbench and mirror vanish into nothingness.

She contemplates keeping the alcove she sits in but decides against its current location. Beneath her, the floor rises, raising her with it as it becomes level with the rest of the flooring and the pillow-filled depression travels toward the wall behind her which curves into a concave nook. At her command, the seven tiny self-regenerating mana orbs attached to her earring fly away from her, toward four of the walls of the six-sided room. She often uses the orbs as points of focus for her magic and now they hover in six different points. Through them, Alma sends her own mana to reshape the walls, opening six different doors. Six doors to six rooms, not too big – the Bunnies seem to find large bedrooms disturbingly spacious, as became clear at Gwydion’s estate when they would often leave their assigned rooms to spend the night in groups of two or three in a single bedroom – but bigger than the ones they have now. A comfortable, spacious bed, a nice closet (extra-large in Rosemary’s case), a bathroom, lighting which mimics the one they have in their rooms with windows, upstairs. A small desk.

No decor. That will be up to the Bunnies. It will be their job and their pleasure to bring each room to match their own personality. Alma looks at the newly-formed doorways on the walls and wills doors appear. Doors which she equips with defensive spells that allow each room to be sealed off in case the sanctum is ever breached by an enemy. The door that leads outside of the sanctum receives the same treatment, a passkey which, when spoken, will turn this safe haven into a sealed off stronghold. She weaves the magic into the fabric of this reality, almost like a piece of her own conscience, a tiny artificial intelligence designed to be nurturing. Finally, she floats the now-empty mana orb all the way up to the ceiling, infusing it with light.

Done, she thinks to herself, breathing out in relief just as a mana headache begins to blossom above her left eye. Blasted mana hangovers… Such horrible things. Some will develop almost immediately after mana is drained. Some might take hours to come. Some take days to mature.

Alma rises unsteadily to her feet, wondering how mortal wizards manage to deal with them. It is not like they can be solved by simple medicine, like regular headaches. She makes sure Sky’s ocean orb is safely packed away with the rest of her things before opening the door. Carrying clothes and books outside can wait. It is time to reveal the new sanctum to her Bunnies.

“Cherry! Rosemary!” she calls. “Sage! Kori! Chime! Tulip! Come downstairs! It’s ready!”

The thundering gallop that issues down the stairs has nothing to do with the order in which she called the names. Tulip comes running, nearly hopping down two steps at a time. Kori follows, slower but apparently more excited with the idea of a brand-new room now that he has had some time to process it. Chime comes running as well, but his serene expression indicates more a desire to follow his siblings than any particular excitement at the prospect of these changes. Sage and Rosemary walk calmly down the steps, trailed by Cherry, whose expression is somewhat sorrowful and whose feet seem to require Rosemary’s constant cooing and encouragement to climb down the stairs.

One by one, they enter the room and Alma leans against a wall to allow them easy entrance and mask the tiredness and weakness that come from expending her mana in ways she is not used to. Other than Cherry and Rosemary’s bedroom, clearly built for two, the others are all up for picking and Tulip and Kori soon have theirs picked, based on the strangest things, like the placement of an obviously movable bed or the color of a wall that could easily be painted over. Chime seems to pick his from the way sounds from this main area travel into the bedrooms. Sage simply takes one of the two remaining rooms at random, his hand stroking the door of what will be Mayumi’s room by default as he walks by it. Rosemary is already piping cheers at the large closet in her room. And Cherry…

Cherry looks around the sanctum, now different from what it was but still similar enough to feel familiar, her ears dropped to half-mast. Her eyes linger on Alma’s things, piled up to be moved, and the Bunny looks at her mother with a guilty, apologetic gaze. As if she were casting Alma out.

Silly Bunny, Alma thinks to herself, stretching her arms to invite Cherry into her embrace. Not everything has to be your fault. Or your job to fix.

She holds Cherry, stroking her hair.

“Sorry, Mom,” the Bunny breathes against Alma’s chest.

And that is when the world starts spinning and Alma’s legs fail under her.

Ch7.29 Revelations

A fire lights up the office, but it is not the gaslight mounted on the wall. Rather it is a small burning ball of red flame floating through the air, bright but not as hot as it appears, not likely to set anything less flammable than pure alcohol alight, but Somrak still keeps it away from the walls and ceilings without needing to think about it, until he reaches the window and, pulling on the sash, raises the slatted-wood shades. The light disappears as he turns to face Alma, who enters, looking around the office with relief, obviously glad to be home, and Dion entering last, closing the door behind them.

Somrak feels a slight pulse of magic as Dion casts a spell, one Somrak recognizes as a privacy spell Dion has used before, more efficient than the one that Somrak knows, and the off-blue agent reminds himself to ask Dion to teach him that one soon. But for now, he pulls an envelope from his jacket pocket and hands it over to Alma, just as he did a little over a week ago. “Your orders, Sergeant.”

Alma plucks the envelope from his fingers, and Somrak gives her a wry grin and spins a quarter turn, then lets himself fall into a graceful slump on the sofa, his arms extended along the back, his legs stretched out straight, boots crossed at the ankles. “And now I can get back to earning my reputation as an irresponsible miscreant. As you see, I did not burn the ward down, for which I think I deserve a cookie.”

Fanning herself with the unopened envelope, looking like she is trying not to laugh, Alma looks around the office as if inspecting a house she might be planning to buy. “It really is all very…organized,” she says, finally.

“Not even a scorch mark,” Dion murmurs, hands on his hips, sounding half surprised.

Somrak grins. “We, uh, did have a little trouble, but with help from Pavia and Ewá and Doria, we took care of it. Machado was very helpful as well. We totally bonded.”

“You mean…with ropes?” Dion asks. “That would explain why I haven’t seen him downstairs.” He leans against the edge of Alma’s desk, by her side, and even though Dion may not be conscious of it, Somrak can see how at ease Dion is again with Alma, and how comfortable she is with him as well. The goddess relaxes ever so slightly toward Dion, her hip touching the edge of his hand.

With a silent inner sigh of exasperation at his own desire for Alma, as inextinguishable as it is unfulfillable, it seems, Somrak replies, “Machado is off duty. And the rope-play involved Ewá. With Machado, I kept getting cane rum spat all over me.”

Alma raises a salacious eyebrow. “This is sounding better and better by the minute. So what kind of trouble requires a Wolf, a Voice, and a Naiad walking into a Guardia station?”

“Trickster trouble.” Somrak’s voice is flat and dark. He knows they’ve probably had their own encounters with this most annoying sort of god. Trickster stories are always popular, and usually quite funny, and Tricksters are often heroic figures to a certain sort of chaos-loving never-do-well, but they’re exasperating to encounter outside of legends.

“Oh, we’ve had one here, then?” Alma breathes. She sounds equal parts unsettled and relieved. “Good thing you were in charge. Saved us the hassle of dealing with it.”

Somrak rolls his eyes. “Oh yeah…I’m soooo happy to have rendered that service. You should be glad you didn’t have to deal with it. Guy was very annoying. He’s up in Third Ring Max Security now. Strange thing…Ewá is actually planning to put in a bid to have him sent to her folks. Some kind of cultural tie. Even though he threatened her kids.”

“Maybe her clan has ways of dealing with this kind of trickster to reform him,” Dion suggests. He sounds equally glad he’d missed out on the fun. “Or to make him wish he was still in prison. Anyone hurt?”

“Me mostly,” Somrak grumbles.

“This wouldn’t have anything to do with the nickname ‘Scorpionpants’, would it?” Dion asks, a wince in his voice.

Somrak just gives him a sour look as confirmation, causing Dion to grimace in sympathy, and Alma to cringe at whatever image her imagination conjures up. “Other than that,” Somrak says, “some groceries ruined, some goats and chickens stampeded, some kids scared. Nothing serious, but the last one could’ve become serious. Pavia…” He pauses before mentioning her flea infestation. “Well, she got dunked a couple of times.”

“And what else?” Alma’s voice and expression are dry. She can tell he’s hiding something. Somrak knows he can be a very good liar when he wants, but he has realized lately that he tends to let his guard down among those very, very few people he is close to.

“Well, it’s one of those things that seems like no big deal to me, but might be to her, so I’ll let her tell it,” he says, waving off the question. “Suffice it to say, she was real happy when the little jerk got sealed away. Couldn’t have done it without her. Kinda wish I could take her with me when I head out.”

“She is a good, dependable officer, yes,” Alma agrees. “But why was she sent here, and how long will she be here? She didn’t seem to want to discuss it with everyone else in the bar just now.”

Somrak’s head sags, and as usual when something makes him feel sad, he feels anger bloom. But there is no one here to direct that anger toward, so he shoves it back down. “To answer the second question, there’s no end date. This is her new posting. As for why…” He looks up at Alma. “It was us.”

Alma looks appalled. “No…”

“So far, she’s been punished more than any of us has for rescuing Sky,” Somrak says, trying to keep emotion out of it. “By your aunt. But I don’t know…maybe Fencer’s just trying to make sure the punishment isn’t as bad as it could’ve been. Pavia seems glad to be here, even if she’s not happy to be separated from her family.” He realizes anger is creeping into his voice despite his best efforts, so he just sighs and shakes his head.

Alma looks as if she’s been punched. Into the silence, Dion says in a low voice, “But she has children. There are regulations against separating parents from their offspring. Did they migrate here too?” He seems deeply unsettled at the thought that the Guardia might separate a parent from her offspring.

Somrak shakes his head. I couldn’t get away from my mother fast enough, he thinks. But not everyone is a poisonous abusive bitch like her. And Dion’s only got his uncle for family, doesn’t he? And being around Sky, perhaps, had infected him with a stronger concern about the often-unnoticed and lasting harm children endure while adults tell themselves that the kids will be unaffected.

Aloud he says, “It’s not something Pavia wanted to talk much about with me. But I can tell she’s not happy about it.”

Alma looks haunted. “I will talk to her about it. I’ve known her for over twenty years and I know her partner as well. He used to come by the station every now and again long before they were mated.”

“Good,” Somrak says. I just hope she doesn’t get her heart shattered in the process. He has an inkling of how strong Pavia’s feelings are for Alma. And he can relate. But in the Wolf Clan, loyalty is a love even deeper and stronger than the romantic variety. Paired together, as he is sure it is in Pavia’s case, it makes for a legendary combination – literally, the basis of several popular tales. Being spurned can be devastating. But…none of my business. “Anyway, you guys are looking more than halfway back to normal.”

“A vacation without demons or other major threats works like a charm,” Dion says, putting an arm around Alma’s shoulders and smiling gratefully at Somrak. “And Wasure’s visit was an even greater help.”

This brings a grin to Somrak’s face. “Good. He, uh, he helped me, too.” After a second, he asks, worried, “And how are the kids doing?”

“Better,” Alma replies, smiling a little at his concern. “Glad to be back. They enjoyed the estate but this is their home. They missed everyone here.”

“That bar was way too quiet without them.” Somrak chuckles, “Me and Fencer had heart-to-heart conversations in it, it was so quiet.”

“And how did those go?” Alma asks, unsure.

“Surprisingly well?” He is as uncertain as she is. “I, uh, seem to be onboard for something…different. All very hush-hush and I’m sure stuff I’m not even supposed to think of mentioning but…well, even I’m not sure what it is. But I may be leaving for it any time now. Sort of…off-blues but not quite.”

“I thought you were suspended pending the trial,” Dion points out.

Somrak shrugs. “And yet they put me in charge of a whole ward. Apparently one thing that’s not changing about this new program is the way rules get changed at a moment’s notice.”

Dion frowns, and Alma says confidently, “You can trust her. If she has seen something in you, then you can trust her. She might not be nice or keep you safe but…she’ll go to war for anyone she takes under her wing.”

“Yeah…I’ve figured that.” He looks up at both of them. “I’m sure I’ll be at the trial.”

Their expressions soften with shared worry. “We’ll be there too,” Alma says. “And we are doing all we can to gather support for our side. How…is Sky?”

“Oh.” Somrak gives them both a secretive smile. “Sky had to put on some pants the other day.”

They tense in expectation. “Did you have to go out and buy extra fabric?” Dion asks, leaning forward slightly.

“Well, Doria and I are talking about how to make a kind of kilt that can expand and contract as he shifts–” He breaks off and laughs at the hopeful, eager, even impatient looks on their faces. “He’s able to be Sky again. For a few hours a day now.”

Alma straightens, standing from leaning against the desk. “He’s… shifting.” She sounds as if she’s having trouble processing the news, as if she is afraid to believe. Then her eyes widen, her expression brightens. “He’s shifting! He’s shifting!” She actually jumps, turning to land facing a broadly grinning Dion, and she throws her arms around his neck as he takes hold of her waist. “He’s shifting,” she murmurs against his shoulder.

“He’ll be coming home,” Dion breathes, equally relieved.

Somrak takes pleasure from their joy, from Alma’s burst of girlish energy as well as from Dion’s quieter happiness. But he is keenly aware of being at a remove from them, further than the mere two steps of physical separation in the cramped office. He feels a pang at that awareness, but knows that it is the proper state of things, for a god like himself. A part of him longs for the Fencer’s call to duty.

Not wanting to fall into a brooding silence as he has been known to do, Somrak says, “From what Sky says, Lyria helped. Death Clan is all over this ward, lately.”

Alma’s head shoots up and she turns to look at Somrak. “My mother visited?” She looks pensive. “They must have sent her to see if he’s recoverable…”

“She got him past whatever was blocking him,” Somrak says. “And he’s lasting longer every day. Probably going to need some big-spikey-growly-voice time every day for awhile, but…I think he’s going to be ready for public consumption in a few more weeks, maybe even less.”

Dion releases Alma as she relaxes back against the desk again. “We’ll visit him as soon as we can find a window of distraction from all the people who might be intent in following our comings and goings,” he says. “And bring him some items of comfort.”

“This is such a relief… The closer he is to recovery, the easier things will be for us all,” Alma says. “It will be harder for the Council to decide against him.” She looks at the slightly creased envelope of orders, as of she had forgotten that she was still holding it.

Somrak’s smile fades at the thought of what the oncoming trial could mean for all of them, and a resolve that he has held ever since the mission to rescue Sky becomes even stronger. This mess, in his mind, is largely his fault. He was in charge of the operation. He was the most senior officer. He, Somrak, nearly got them all killed, worse than killed, even. He intends to take that burden of responsibility and lay it before the Council. They have all already suffered enough. Even Pavia, who had nothing to do with it, is suffering. If anyone is to receive further punishment, Somrak will do his best to make sure it is him.

“This is Sky’s home,” Somrak says to get his mind away from thoughts he does not wish to share with these friends. “He needs to be back here. And, uh, that apartment is not going to work for him. But I don’t think he can afford another sanctum for awhile. Seems he gave just about all his savings away to some teacher who says it came from an anonymous donor…”

Alma smiles at this tilting her head as if not surprised. “We’ll figure it out. There is no way we are letting him stay in some alley apartment where he might go missing again.”

“We are devising a plan for all our apartments,” Dion adds. “If we have to be paranoid, then we’ll at least find a pleasant arrangement that also makes things easier.”

Somrak feels intrigued. “Oh, finally getting paranoid? I look forward to seeing what you come up with.”

Alma raises a hand, palm forward. “You’ll just have to visit later and see. Or,” she shakes a finger, once, at him, “stay long enough to see what happens. Which begs the question: How much longer do we have you with us?”

Somrak lifts his hands, palm up. “Fencer seems to delight in being unpredictable. I suppose I can’t deny her what gives her joy, so…I will find out when she yanks me away. Hopefully I have another couple days here, at least.”

“Then you can stay in charge for the rest of today,” Alma decides. “I need time to start enacting my brilliant plan.”

That jolts Somrak out of his slothful slump. “Hey wait, I’ve already turned the place over to you!” he protests. “I thought you guys were all about rules and procedure. Dion’s second-in-command, right? I’m just a civilian right now. A shockingly handsome civilian!”

Alma gives Dion an amused look. “Did you hear him turning things over to me?” She holds up the envelope, still unopened.

Dion shrugs and shakes his head. “I must have been distracted unloading Merri’s fifty luggage pieces.” He turns his apologetic gaze on Somrak. “Sorry. I really am going to be busy too.”

Somrak slumps back again. “I’ll tell you, this ward has given me more trouble in just a few weeks…” With a sudden burst of energy, he stands and snatches the orders from Alma. “If you insist, I’ll make these official after you’ve done your…” He waggles his fingers at them. “…miniature world creation. In the meantime,” he lowers his chin and growls like the Commander, “get outta here so I can get some work done!”

Ch7.28 Revelations

“Oof!” Merri’s foot comes down hard on the solid packed dirt, speckled with patches of grass, in the breezeway between the Burrow, their dear dear bar and beloved home, and Three Rats Station, Mum and Gwydion and Sage’s workplace. It’s like arriving at the end of a flight of stairs and thinking there is one more step down but no, there’s the floor, bam! Happens to her every time she goes through portals, always a little higher or lower than expected. But she’s holding Cherry’s hand and that keeps her steady, which is a good thing as otherwise the heavy suitcase in her other hand might’ve tipped Merri right over into a sprawling heap.

They are right behind Mum, and oh what a relief it is to be back in Three Rats! The scents of the ward may include the results of still-inadequate garbage collection and sewage treatment (though not as bad as it used to be) and the occasional cooling corpse (now that’s well down these days), but it also includes the smells of jacaranda blossoms and arroz e feijão cooking slowly in someone’s kitchen, and sambar lentil soup bubbling away in a big pot in the house next door. As she takes a deep breath, Merri closes her eyes, and she can smell something…ohhh, some kind of spicy curry is cooking in their own kitchen right now!

As Merri opens her eyes, Alma is looking back toward the portal. Cherry pulls Merri aside as the others come out, and Mum announces, “It’s all still in one piece.” Merri can’t help but giggle, but oh, poor Som! Still, the Bunny must admit she had been just a wee bit worried at what condition the place might be in. All that alcohol around a fire god?

“Come on,” Merri says, tugging at Cherry’s hand. “Let’s find out what smells so good!”

They rush past Alma and throw the door open, and oh! the Burrow, the Burrow, the lovely Burrow! The lush greenery and flowers of the plants, the lustrous old wood of the tables and the bar itself, that comfortable smell of a bar: beer and other alcohols from all across the Insula and even other worlds, plus the fresh living smell of the flowers and ferns and all, and whatever that dish is cooking in the kitchen, and oh, a whiff of tobacco, well not too bad and what’s a bar without a little tobacco scent as long as it’s not cloying and disgusting, and oh, Auntie Varah has been here! and Somrak and oh my goodness that smell isn’t Lexie, it’s some other cat, a big cat…and…and…

Merri’s eyes go wide as she feels Cherry’s grip on her hand tighten. Seated at one of the tables, partially hidden behind the hydrangeas, there’s a cop, Guardia Dei by the indigo shade of her uniform, and oh she smells like a hunter, a predator, oh my goodness…

A wolf.

Merri feels a thrill of a deep-buried prey-fear shiver from the backs of her calves as they tense to spring away, up her thighs to her tail, which puffs out, and along her spine to end up prickling the soft ruff of fur on her neck beneath her ginger hair. A wolf! At the same moment that she is feeling a primitive terror, she is marveling at the woman’s ears, which are just adorable, and the strong, high cheekbones on her dark-tanned face. And her eyes, oh her sharp-glancing golden eyes, fixing on the two Bunnies, and she thinks, Oh my dear ye’ve got the same thought we do, don’t ye, but from the other side? Somethin’ deep down inside ye wants to give chase, don’t it? And the thought of gettin’ chased through the woods and caught by the likes of ye, well, I cannae say it doesn’t appeal – eeee, look at that big puffy tail, oh I want to cuddle it!

She grins at the woman, who smiles back. Merri knows that, whoever this is, she’s likely to be at least as good as a Bunny at reading scents and subtle body language and all the rest that makes keeping secrets and telling lies so difficult. So it is like a shared joke, what’s passed between them, these instincts that their conscious minds can easily overcome, and Merri feels Cherry’s tension relax as she too understands that this is no enemy, that whoever this is, however sharp her teeth and big her eyes, this wolf is a friend, even family, for is not anyone who wears the uniform welcome here in the Burrow? They are Alma’s family, and that makes them a Guardia family, for sure and certain.

Merri sets her bag aside, leaning it against the wall, and walks straight up to the woman, holding out her hand. Well not exactly straight – there’s those hydrangeas with their lovely blue and purple masses of blossoms to dodge. “I’m so sorry we were nae here to welcome ye before…Sergeant, isn’t it? I’m Merri, and this here is Cherry, and it’s a pleasure to make yer acquaintance.”

The woman smiles back and shakes Merri’s hand. “It is, isn’t it? I’m Pavia. Nice to meet you.” Her gaze is intense, but only stays on Merri for a moment before flicking toward the door, eyes following ears.

“Ha! I like her,” Cherry says, smiling. “Hey there. You been here long? You want us to scare you up somethin’ to eat or drink?” She sniffs, looking toward the kitchen. “Though it smells like you already got somethin’ cookin’.”

Pavia shakes Cherry’s hand as well. “Not me, I don’t. But the way it sounded a minute ago, he was definitely trying to scare something into becoming edible.” Though she looks at Cherry as she speaks, her ears remain turned toward the door.

Cherry glances at the kitchen. “Somrak? Hope he ain’t doin’ anything weird to our kitchen.”

“Oh, Cherry, now what would he do?” She hasn’t taken her eyes off Pavia. She can hear the voices in the breezeway. Does she know Dion? A former girlfriend…oh dear. Or perhaps it’s Mum she knows? “Pardon my askin’ but are ye a wolf goddess?”

Pavia shrugs. Her self-deprecating smile sends a thrill through Merri. “Just a demi,” she says. “Part of the Wolf Clan–”

The door opens and Pavia stands, looking as if she’s utterly forgotten the Bunnies, terrified hope on her face and in her stance. Merri turns to follow her gaze and sees Alma at the door, frozen in shock, and Merri feels a sudden rush of empathy for her new acquaintance. Och, is there to be heartache? Poor dear…

After a slow heartbeat of paralysis, a smile spreads across Alma’s face. “Pavia? Pavia! What are you doing here?” She radiates joy at the sight of the wolf-sergeant, but Merri can tell there is a hint of worry. She steps out of the way just in time for Pavia to walk past her, tail wagging happily.

There is just an almost-unnoticeable moment of hesitation between the two, but then they embrace each other. Pavia laughs softly as she holds Alma, and murmurs, “Hey, I got asked to make sure Mr Torch-Man didn’t burn the place down.”

Merri looks over at Cherry and sees she’s reflecting back the same worries about the two. Aloud, though, Merri asks, “Cherry, did ye hear that? There’s a whole clan of ‘em! Maybe we should have a clan…”

The wheels that begin to spin in Merri’s head, of a world that has a place in it for Bunnies, of Bunny children, of old Bunnies, of Bunnies thinking of themselves as something more than just seven siblings, well it fairly makes her head swim. But before she can say anything more, a voice from the kitchen doorway sends her thoughts scattering like petals on the wind.

“And finally this place is going to get back to normal.” Somrak is leaning on the frame of the kitchen door, smiling, drying his hands on a towel. Cherry runs to him and he straightens up to catch her as she jumps up a little to give him a hug. She holds onto him tightly, and as Merri watches, smiling, Cherry touches her forehead to Somrak’s. He looks a little surprised but happy, and Cherry whispers to him in a voice that only a Bunny (or maybe one of the Wolf Clan) could catch from this distance, “How you doin’, hon?”

“Better,” he whispers back.

Cherry points up at the rooftop. “Later, huh?” Somrak nods, and grins as she gives him a kiss on the cheek, lets him go, and says aloud, “Now what the heck you makin’ in our kitchen?”

Kaeng phet,” he says. “Or at least the closest I could come to it with local ingredients. Nice and spicy. You’ll love it.”

“Uh huh,” Cherry responds with false doubt. “Smells good… Is that coconut milk?” Her voice fades as she goes into the kitchen.

Somrak walks toward Alma, slipping an arm around Merri on the way and giving her a friendly squeeze. “She’s looking better,” he says to Merri in a low voice.

“She is, dear. We all are. Oh, it’s ever so good to be home.” She walks with him to where Alma is asking Pavia about her children.

“Oh, they’re fine,” Pavia is saying, looking over her shoulder at Merri. She sounds as if she doesn’t much want to talk about her own children. “And I guess these are your kids, huh? Cute.” There is a worried air about her, lurking behind her joy at being reunited with Alma. She is holding one of Alma’s hands, perhaps a little tightly.

“Two of them, yes. The others are…” Alma raises her voice a little with an accusing glance at Merri. “…outside dealing with all the extra luggage a certain Bunny brought along.”

Merri slumps in Somrak’s arm, dismayed. “It’s not all mine!” she insists. “Tulip brought back all them pinecones and shiny rocks! As if one pinecone don’t look like another…”

Just then, Kori and Chime enter from the breezeway, their arms full of silk blouses, gold-trimmed skirts, random socks, frilly undergarments, and some things Merri herself can’t identify right off, even though they are all her clothes. “Merri, two of your suitcases burst open!” Kori complains. “D and Geryon are trying to fly all your stuff upstairs!”

“Oh bother!” Merri slips free of Somrak and rushes up and takes a double armload of clothes from the boys. “I’m terribly sorry…thought those bags could take the strain…” Tottering, dropping articles of clothing along the way, barely able to see around them, she runs up the stairs to her room to open the window.

By the time she returns, the bed she shares with Cherry is heaped with clothes, only the most precious articles hung up to avoid further wrinkling, a smaller pile made of ones that got dirty when the bags burst outside, and of course a complete change of clothing from her travel outfit – a pea-green jacket over a dusty-rose blouse and a matching houndstooth skirt – for something more suited to work – a simple t-shirt and shorts, with the apron to add to it waiting in the kitchen, assuming Somrak hasn’t borrowed it at some point.

She finds that most everyone is seated and about to start digging in on Somrak’s reddish, vegetable-filled curry, which he is serving in large bowls alongside smaller ones filled with steaming fluffy rice. It smells divine! she thinks, and she rushes to join them, sitting in an empty chair just as Somrak ladles her bowl full of steaming liquid. He gives her a wink and continues with what he had been saying.

“He was this kid with one leg. It’s all in the reports, stuff he got up to. Let’s just say it was a pain in the…nether regions getting him locked away.”

Merri’s eyes go wide and she feels herself blush as she remembers the bottle in the wine cellar, the one that almost seemed to leap into her way, and fall, and release a little one-legged boy who disappeared, just before they left for the estate. Oh no…oh I simply forgot all about it! Strange things are always happening here and Mum and Dion seemed so fretful and goodness of course I wouldn’t have wanted to worry Cherry and then when they felt better well I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to make them feel worse again and oh my is this trouble my fault?

Pavia is chuckling at him as she takes a spoonful and glances at Alma. “Yeah, you’re in for some funny reading. Right, Sergeant Scorpionpants?” She pats Somrak’s back amicably as he goes past her to set down the nearly empty pot and sit at his own place.

“Scorpionpants?” Sage asks, mystified.

Somrak gives Pavia a weary look. “You really didn’t have to go into so much detail in your reports.”

“Ahh, come on… it ended up well and you even got to fraternize with the boss.” Pavia’s tail wags a little where it hangs from the back of the seat of her chair.

Somrak rolls his eyes. “Because that’s always so much fun.” To Alma, he says, “You’ll be glad to know we had some oversight. Or at least someone to be amused at our antics. I think your aunt is starting to like this place.”

Alma stops eating, spoon suspended halfway between bowl and mouth. She looks at Somrak with wide eyes. “Varah likes Three Rats? Oh no…she didn’t go on a rampage, did she?” She closes her eyes and sets down her spoon. “How many killed or otherwise horribly mutilated?”

Somrak shares a look with Pavia and then back at Alma, then, leaning forward, chin on hand, he asks slyly, “And just what sets her on these rampages? Just in case, you know, I ever want to send her on a rampage against someone I don’t like.”

Alma opens one eye and furrows her brow at him. “Nice try, Ponytail but you are not hearing it from me.” Her voice is a gruff imitation of the Fencer’s.

“Oooh, I got chills from that,” Somrak jokes, shivering his shoulders. “No rampages this time. And,” he adds proudly, “not one report of murder or maiming in the whole ward this past week, last I checked, which was…two hours ago. Well, there was a stabbing, but the guy will be fine, according to your doc.”

“It seems Three Rats did great without us,” Dion says after swallowing a mouthful of curry and rice. “I say we take another vacation. Maybe visit that oceanfront resort down in the Fifth Ring?”

“Ooh…I’ve never been to it. Sounds lovely,” Alma replies. “And we’re already packed, too.”

Merri gasps and squeals around a mouthful of delicious curry. Then she can see that Alma and Dion are just teasing. And Somrak shakes his head anyway. “The Subcommander left me with some orders you’d better read before you go off on any more adventures. But we can go over those after lunch.” Something not to be discussed in front of us, eh? Merri thinks. And Mum looks worried. Oh I do hate all these secrets, but I suppose it can’t be helped.

In a quick change of subjects amid the clatter of spoons on china and the chatter of the younger Bunnies, Somrak says, “Speaking of adventures, what did you get up to, aside from Merri buying out the Second Ring’s clothing shops?”

“Oh she didn’t buy them,” Alma says. “They were all waiting for her in a closet.”

“The clothing fairy was busy preparing our arrival, it seems,” Dion agrees.

Somrak looks confused. “The clothing fairy?”

“Grandmama,” Merri explains. “A lovely present to all of us.”

“Well, aren’t you lucky,” Somraks says. “But how come you were the only one who brought loads of clothes home?” He gives her a teasing look.

Cherry interrupts to answer. “She always loved havin’ her closets bustin’ with clothes. Like it ain’t a proper closet if you can shut the door all the way.” She rubs Merri’s knee to show her love. “We started out not really bein’ able to buy much in the way of clothes, and then when we had a successful bar, Mer just loved havin’ so many outfits to choose from. And her closets invaded mine and took ‘em over, ‘cause I never really needed all that much closet space.”

“Except for fallin’ in love with every leather jacket ye see,” Merri retorts, but she leans a little against Cherry, her bare arm pressing against Cherry’s warm skin.

“Oh, I do miss some of them…” Cherry says mournfully.

Dion says to Somrak, “This is about the extent of adventuring we got up to. Arguing about clothes. Gardening.”

“We did meet some dryads,” Cherry says. “They were great, after they figured out we didn’t want to damage their trees. It was real calm and relaxing.”

Somrak picks up on her wry smile. “Got to missing the excitement of Three Rats?”

Cherry grins. “Yeah…don’t want any of the new places startin’ up to take our loyal customers, either.”

“The estate is a lovely place to visit but moving there is not something any of us would want right now,” Alma says. She looks at Dion and takes his hand. “We’re fine where we are.”

“Yes,” he agrees, sharing a smile with her. “It’s a place to be taken in small doses.”

Merri glances at Pavia and sees that she is watching the two of them as if she is in pain. Pavia’s gaze flicks away and she catches Somrak looking at her in sympathy, and the Wolf Clan sergeant looks down at her food, her appetite apparently lost for the moment.

“Good to hear,” Somrak says, looking back at Alma and Dion. “I don’t know…you guys retiring to the country just doesn’t sound right.” He grimaces. “And every single person we talked to here asked when you’d be back.”

“‘Where are the usual Dei?’, they’d ask,” Pavia adds, trying to sound cheerful again. “‘They know what they’re doing.’”

Alma and Dion, unaware of the undercurrents of emotion flowing around them, look touched at the account.

“Hey, didn’t anybody ask when the bar’s opening again?” Cherry asks.

Somrak nods. “Some of them sounded quite worried.”

Geryon, dabbing at his beak with a napkin held in his semi-prehensile forepaw, comments, “The people of this ward have come to expect those who are capable of leaving on vacations are unlikely to return.”

“Then we’d better get the place up and running for the evening crowd!” Merri says. “Show them we’re back in Three Rats!”

“Yes, and then we can get to work,” Alma says. She sighs, looking over at Merri and Cherry. “You know, for a week there, I did have a kitchen.”

Cherry scoops the last of her curry into her mouth and swallows, then starts to get up to collect plates from those who are finished. “Mmm, well I’m just about ready to turn ours over to Sommy. But any time you want, Momma, you can borrow ours. You just gotta promise to make more chocolate mousse!”

Alma smiles and chuckles. “It’s a deal.”

Ch7.27 Revelations

The lock clacks as it turns, and the door opens. A slim but muscular silhouette stands in the doorway for a moment, moonlight behind him, then the door closes and the lock turns again. Footsteps, sounding confident in the near-absence of light as they echo among chairs and tables and the leaves and blossoms of plants that grow from walls and floor here and there, move to the bar, and behind it. There is a clink of glass, liquid-filled bottles kissing each others’ sides. A small flame lights the end of a cigarillo, and the glow shows Somrak’s face for a moment as he uses the visible light to read the label of the bottle he is holding. He nods and, taking out a shotglass, pours as the room falls into almost total darkness again, but for the one red-glowing ember a few inches from his mouth.

“The rabbits are going to smell that when they get home tomorrow.”

There is a clink of shotglass against bottle, and a mild curse. A sourceless ball of flame appears over Somrak’s shoulder, a swirling sphere of orange fire, like a miniature sun, about the size of a grape. It is enough to reveal the Fencer sitting at the bar two seats down.

“Masking your body temperature?” he asks. “Or did you just appear?” He takes another shot glass from under the bar and pours her some bourbon. Ignoring her lack of an answer, he asks, “What, can’t sleep? Kuhn snoring?” He slides the glass to her, and she catches it with casual ease.

“Sleep is an acquired taste to death gods,” she replies. “And I usually have more work than hours in a day to do it. What’s your excuse?”

Somrak shrugs. “Nightcap. You missed a celebration. I tried to invite you, but you were nowhere to be found.”

She takes a sip. “Like I said, busy. Too busy for drinks with the ladies. So your bottle-imp is in maximum security.”

“That he is. Went like clockwork.” He raises his glass toward her before he drinks.

She ignores this. “The advantages of actually having a plan. You’d think after a century on the force you’d have figured that out.”

He shakes his head, smiling at the way she never lets up. Getting to be hard to remember how she used to rile me, he thinks. “Wasure was here. I didn’t mention it in our last talk, though I’m sure you knew that already.”

“Something needed forgetting?” Her tone isn’t even of curiosity. The question might as well have been a statement.

“You saw my report,” Somrak says. “I saw…Margrave’s master. One of the Princes of Hell. Saw its face.” He slides the glass around on the bar-top, idly, but tracing a crude outline of something that could be a face. “Heard stories of course. How it’s like a disease, to see one of them. An infection that gets in your brain and poisons it, turning it to mush. Turning you into a devil-worshipper. Or just killing you with endless nightmares. I never really believed it.” He waves his hand over the vague moisture-image and it evaporates with a barely audible hiss, and he silently thanks Wasure for hiding that memory away from him. He knows he saw it. He knows that thinking of it hurt him, kept sleep away, corroded memories of happiness. Wasure had had to endure that himself, briefly, second-hand. Wasure doesn’t just provide a service. He follows a calling, one that Somrak is beginning to realize is much harder than even his own. He has been thinking ever since how to thank the good doctor for helping him.

“They’re not exactly the prettiest things around, no,” Fencer agrees, taking a longer sip of her drink. “Getting past it never gets easier. But you could have done it.”

He looks at her in surprise. That was almost praise! “Thanks the vote of confidence,” he says after a moment, then finishes his drink and pours himself another. “Sky pushed me to call the Doc. Said, with the torn soul and all, I didn’t need to be dealing with that nastiness, too. I’d never used Wasure’s services before, but…it’s not the worst thing, putting something like that away.”

“Anything else you put away?” she asks. She slides her empty glass back at him.

Without looking, he catches it and shakes his head. As he refills it, he says, “Not that I wasn’t tempted. But I need to live with the mistakes I’ve made.” He looks at her as he refills her glass. “I suppose you’ve never had a memory you couldn’t beat into submission.” He slides it back to her.

Eyes locked on his, she scoops it from the bar, not a drop spilled between the two of them. “People like Wasure weren’t around back in the day. Before the Guardia was even Guardia, the attempted Hell uprising just after the Guardia was created, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Mistakes, failure, loss, anger, betrayal. It was either live with it or let it slowly poison you to death. I know the ins and outs of your job, Ponytail. I used to do it for a living.”

He corks the bottle. She was in the Hell uprising. Of course she was. He nearly shudders at the thought. And with Hell sending out agents like Sky, before he switched sides, and trying to start a new Necromancer War, maybe she’ll be in another one. Aloud, he says, “My job… Please tell me it’s not going to be station commander forever.” He gives her a smirk. “Though I haven’t blown the place up yet.”

“‘Yet’ being the operative word,” she retorts. She pauses. “What do you want, Ponytail?”

He swirls his drink, sips. “That’s a big question. I want to be doing my job. It’s what I’m good at. And sometimes, I think I’m doing some kind of good. But some of the things we’ve been asked to do…it’s just not right. The off-blues, they’re not the same anymore. You know what I mean, right?”

She looks away a moment, then drinks and puts her glass down, empty. Her mouth is hard, her jaw muscles like stone. “The off-blues were never meant to last so long. They were a temporary fix, back when off-blue wasn’t even a word and all we were were assassins. Agents.” The word sounds sour. “When we needed to go places the law hasn’t been written to reach. Thing is, most alternatives we thought of are just too risky. You know what level of loyalty and secrecy the job demands. And coming across those things isn’t exactly easy.”

“Yeah…” Looking at nothing, listening to her words but seeing before his eyes those things that he thought about having Wasure lock away. Alma whipping him. The dream sent by Margrave’s demons. And things has has been ordered to do over the years. Killings and coverups. Nobody innocent, maybe, but always worthy of death? “And all the loyalty in the world doesn’t stop you from being a cruel bastard who can’t spell ‘morality’.” Like me? He drinks and looks at her again. “I just want to know I’m being pointed at the right target. I thought I was, always. But sometimes… It was targets the Council needed hushed up, wasn’t it? It was favors being traded.”

She gives him a cold look. “You have one leash around your neck. I have at least three. Someone pulls on mine and yours is bound to tug. Believe it or not, Somrak, yours hasn’t been yanked even half as many times as mine.” She lets the implications of that settle. “Trust and sacrifice: two things best not asked for if not given.”

“So why’s the Commander been putting you in charge more and more, then?” he asks. “Off-blues were always his directly, for a long time anyway. If you have three leashes…”

“Just because you see me more, doesn’t mean I wasn’t there all along.” She shakes her head, and for the first time it occurs to Somrak, She’s confiding in me. The thought chills him with its implications. In me? “Disbanding the off-blues is inevitable. We’ve known that for a long time. I’ve been choosing the ones that can still be of some use. The ones that aren’t too fixed on the old way of doing things.” She snorts. “And I count myself lucky that I only have three leashes. Your Commander could use a few more necks these days.”

“I never wanted to have more than the one,” Somrak murmurs. “But…I couldn’t just follow procedure where Sky was concerned. I couldn’t. I’m loyal to him, too.”

She leans toward him, her arms crossed on the bar top, eyes fixed on his, the crimson one and the milky, empty one. Her expression is blank, unusually so for her, no sardonicism, no contempt, just blank. “You are lucky.” Her voice is flat, cold, stating the simple case. “Your soul looks like a cat had a good time playing with the living room curtains, but you are lucky. The pain will fade away, eventually. Loyalty makes us do stupid things. Makes us think we’re the only ones who can go in and fix things.” The eyelid over her milky eye closes slowly and reopens, a lazy blink that could never be confused with a playful sign of complicity. “There are people loyal to you. They will be ready to follow you. Where you lead them is your own responsibility. Where you allow yourself to be led, is your own choice. Right here and right now, you are free. Perhaps for the first time in your life. Take that freedom and use it to make your next move. And make sure to be certain of it when you do.”

Does she want me to quit? Does she want me to go free? Few agents have lasted anywhere near as long as Somrak. The only ones he knows of who’ve lasted longer are the ones who’ve been around longer than the Guardia itself, like Fencer and the Commander. Is that what I want to become? Am I staying just because I can’t think of anything else to do? He looks at her, her eyes fixed on his face, as if she’s trying to stare him down. But I really can’t think of anything else. This is what I am.

“I’m not quitting just yet.” He downs the last of his drink, then puts the glass in the sink to wash in the morning. “But I am calling it a day.” He picks up the bottle and comes around the bar, his little fireball trailing him as if it is attached by a string, and pauses next to her. He sets the bottle next to her elbow. “Let me know when you need me.”

She shakes her head. “Enjoy your vacation while it lasts, Ponytail. And keep your bags packed.” She sounds tired. When he hesitates, she growls, “Get some rest. You won’t get much once you’re back where you think you belong.”

He leans against the bar. What am I going to do? Walk away while she sits here? “Come on. Let’s go get something to eat.”

She looks up at him quizzically. “The Hell has gotten into you?” But she stands, slowly. For all her springy muscle, she takes her time.

“I know another curry place, open all night. You’ll love it. They have cats.”

She raises an eyebrow at him. Then she whistles. There is a grunt from upstairs, then soft padding of large, broad feet. Louder descending the narrow, steep stairs, and then Kuhn, his glossy blue-grey fur almost hiding him in the shadows, trots into view, looking alert and curious. The tiger rattles the leaves of an elephant-ear philodendron as he passes, then rubs his cheek against Somrak’s leg hard enough to nearly make the god fall to the floor.

Gripping the bar to stay upright with one hand, scratching the cat’s ear with the other, Somrak says, “The owner’s going to love this.”

Ch7.26 Revelations

“I thought you said that you wanted to learn,” Alma notes patiently, holding the book open in front of her.

“I do want to learn!” Gwydion insists. “But you have to admit it’s easier to speak than to read. Every time I try to read I start remembering my old Academy professor’s voice pronouncing the words and then I get it all wrong. I’m pretty sure he just learned it phonetically from some other professor who didn’t know a thing about the Tongue of Ashes.”

“Not if he insisted in calling it the Tongue of Ashes, no,” Alma agrees. “And definitely not if that is how he pronounced the words. I can barely understand which ones you are trying to say.”

Her tone is equal parts frustrated and amused. Gwydion has shown a desire to learn the language of her clan for weeks now, both to eliminate the need for Alma to constantly have to translate any texts of interest in the books she has in her own private library and to quench his natural wizardly curiosity over one of the most commonly used languages of magic, after the language of dragons and a few versions of infernal languages. It is a strange thing that wizards in general turn to languages of creatures frequently seen as intimidating or unholy to create their conduits to mana but, as Gwydion has once explained, the feeling of threat and intrinsic power in the fear of such creatures seems to somehow work as a key for many to open themselves to magic.

Unfortunately, however, most wizards don’t have an inkling of how to properly pronounce most of the languages they use, instead creating a sort of subschool of warped interpretation to syntax and phonetics which inevitably leads to any and all languages sounding aggressive and imposing. No self-respecting death god would ever need to shout his own language. And according to Gwydion himself, no dragon would ever roar and hiss at every other word as if jys tongue were badly burnt. So, as Cherry and Rosemary are out enjoying a walk through the woods with Geryon and the three younger Bunnies are chasing each other around the lawn and Sage is in the kitchen doing…whatever smells like orange zest and lemon custard and cinnamon all mixed together, Alma has taken the opportunity to sit down in the living room with the book she brought with her from Three Rats and give Gwydion a rare lesson in the language of the Clan of Death.

Reclining with his back against the arm of the sofa, arms around Alma’s sides and head peeking over her shoulder, Gwydion asks, “And how is this language called, after all?”

Antha’yoae,” Alma replies in a breath. “In loose translation, ‘nightly whisper’. And that should tell you how the words should be pronounced. Softly. Soothingly. The way I whisper it in your ear when you’ve had a bad dream. It only becomes frightening and aggressive when people go around yelling the words.”

“Yes, it sounds completely different on your lips,” Gwydion agrees, kissing the side of her head. “Though I’m pretty sure quite a few of your family members would manage to sound intimidating no matter how softly they speak it. Or maybe even more intimidating for being softly spoken.”

“Silly…” she says with a snort, though she can definitely think of a few of her brothers who would fit the description. “Now, try again. The next sentence is easy.”

“Easy…” he groans. “You’ve said that about all the previous ones and we’re only halfway through page three of this lesson.”

Still, he starts sounding out the pictographs, almost immediately reverting to the harsh sounds of the so-called Tongue of Ashes. Then he seems to catch himself and stops, returns to the beginning of the sentence and reads again. Having spoken the words once, badly, they flow smoothly the second time, like a gentle brook running through a channel cut by a tumultuous flood.

“How was that?” he asks, sounding almost shy, fearful of having done badly.

“Very good,” she assures him. “Nearly perfect.” She reaches to touch his cheek, stroking it as a reward for doing well. “See? You can do it.”

“I have a wonderful teacher,” he purrs in her ear. “‘In the stillness, there is a song.’ Is that what it means?”

“Careful with the temporal modifier,” she notes. “There was a song, not is.”

“Oh, right. Grammar…my nemesis.” He is silent for a moment before pointing at a couple of pictograms in the next sentence. “What do these two mean put together? I’ve found them in another book. I know that this one means ‘enemy’ and this one means ‘gateway’. So… enemy at the gate?”

Alma reads the sentence. “Well, in this context they mean ‘gatekeeper’. ‘In the stillness there was a song. It was like the rattling of keys hanging from the gatekeeper’s belt. I could not explain to you why it sounded so specifically like that but somehow I knew I was no longer in my own body inside my jail cell.’” She tilts her torso and turns her head to look at him over her shoulder. “Where did you encounter these words?”

“In one of the books you have on Hellish languages,” he explains. “Most of it, I couldn’t really find a use for regarding my magic but the symbols matched the book Somrak gave me. One of them appeared inside a banishment circle. It matched this symbol on my forearm.”

He rolls back the sleeve on his left forearm to reveal the curved, black mark left at the site of entry of the demon ichor he was poisoned with during his inquiries on where to find the pocket universe in which Sky had been held. Alma cannot help but purse her lips at the sight of it, feeling an inkling of remorse and failure that she could not erase that mark.

“The book offered those two words in translation of this symbol,” he continues. “I thought they might go together but I wasn’t sure of it. And with all that happened later on, I never thought to ask again.”

She considers this. “Well… ‘Gatekeeper’ is the most common interpretation. And it sounds correct. Actually… the person who wrote the book I think you’re speaking of is the same who wrote this one. He was fascinated by such things.”

“I wonder–” Gwydion starts to say but whatever he is wondering is lost in his throat as Tulip and Kori come into the living room, Tulip dragging her feet in that usual way that announces to the world that she is tired or bored or being forced to do something she doesn’t want to be doing. “Oh, is playtime over?”

“Tulip decided she doesn’t want to play anymore,” Kori mutters, lying down heavily on the sofa, his head buried against Alma’s stomach in about as dramatic a display of boredom as Tulip’s.

“I’m tired!” Tulip complains, throwing herself onto the chaise lounge that sits just perpendicular to the edge of the sofa against which Gwydion is reclining. “You guys kept running after me!”

“Because you kept tagging us! That’s the purpose of the whole game!” Kori retorts, his voice half muffled by his snuggling against Alma.

“Well, it’ll be time for an afternoon snack soon enough,” Alma says, stroking his hair and ears with one hand while holding her book, still open, with the other. “It’s a good time for a pause. But where is Chime?”

“He’s sitting by the door, outside,” Tulip says. “Wants to work on a song or something.”

“Ah…” Alma cranes her neck a little to see just the tip of Chime’s ear poking from behind the door frame. Though she is facing the great glass-pane doors that lead to the garden so she could keep an eye on the three youngest of the family, she cannot see her music-loving son where he sits without a considerable amount of craning.

“What’re you doing?” Kori asks.

“We were reading a book,” Alma replies. “Well, I was showing Gwydion how to read one of my books.”

“And I am failing miserably at it,” Gwydion adds.

“Now, now…” Alma scolds him. “Don’t try to play the martyr…”

“Is it one of the books in that weird writing?” Tulip asks, propping herself on her elbows to look at the contents of the pages. “It’s so…weird! Look at it. It’s all…symbols and stuff.”

The way the young girl tilts her head and squints as if that would help her instantaneously learn a new language makes Alma chuckle. “Well, I guess any writing looks strange when you don’t know how to read it.”

“Yeah, but there’s no real letters,” Tulip insists. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

Ah…the certainty of ignorance. “‘If these walls could speak, what stories would they tell?’ ‘Oh, but they do speak, Master. Do not think them speechless just because you are deaf. Do not believe them sightless just because you are blind’.”

“Oooh…what’s that?” Kori asks, raising his head, ears perked in curiosity.

“A little excerpt from a play that was very popular some…oh, twenty years ago?” Alma replies, glancing at Gwydion for confirmation. “What was its name again…?”

To Tell the Truth with Lies,” the god says, grimacing. “Ugh… The times I had to endure it… I almost knew the lines by heart, everyone I knew was always so eager to see it.”

“Oh, so it was boring?” Kori asks, his ears dipping in disappointment.

Alma shakes her head. “Not at all. It was actually a comedy. The story of a Second Ring lady about to marry a gentleman who is constantly lying about every little thing, and her maid, who is about to marry the gentleman’s valet. As the story goes, the maid tells her beloved about a dowry promised by her lady’s father if her lady’s fiancée will quit his habit of lying compulsively. But they are too late to warn the fiancée before he starts lying to the girl’s father, telling the most outlandish stories you can think of. Eventually, they manage to tell the fiancée about the dowry and the poor fellow becomes so nervous that he starts getting all of his stories mixed up together and making the father suspicious. So the poor valet has to disguise himself and find ways of trying to make the stories look like they are true after all.”

“And does it work?” Tulip asks sitting on the edge of the chaise, her fingers gripping the wood.

“Almost,” Alma says. “But by the end of the day, the father finds out about the lies. And the poor fiancée is so exhausted and regretful that he swears himself off lying completely.”

“Oh…so there’s no wedding?” Tulip furrows her brows in confusion like she is not liking the direction the story is taking.

Gwydion’s sigh sounds louder than probably intended in Alma’s ear. “This is theater, little flower. All’s well that ends well. The father lets them marry and gives them the dowry even after all that.”

“And the groom offers his valet the money for all his help and friendship,” the goddess adds.

“Though truthfully, the valet was doing it mostly for the money and the chance to share a roof with his own ladylove,” Gwydion counters, making Alma laugh.

“You really don’t like the play, do you?” she asks, turning a little to look at him.

He pauses before replying, apparently subdued. “I’ve…developed an allergy to it.”

“Well, I had fun watching it,” Alma states, stroking the god’s leg. “Though granted I only did watch it once and later read the playscript.”

“And what’s this story about?” Kori asks, craning his neck to look at the book pages.

“Well, this was written by an ancestor of mine,” Alma tells him, turning the book so the Bunny can see more easily that the pictograms pages are in fact handwritten. “He called it ‘The Traveler’ and it’s a story about how we would leave his own body and go around spying on people and seeing new places. Everyone thought he was a little crazy but I thought I would give it another read. Somehow it sounds similar to some of the things I have experienced with this new sphere of mine.”

She doesn’t tell them that some of those experiences happened under torture, that her wounds contribute to the feeling of looseness in her connection to her own body. She is operating on the sole basis that her role as a Spinner and the experience of becoming discorporate to spin the Wheel can somehow benefit from her harnessing of such negative things as her wounds and near-binding to her own sword into something useful. And if she could learn to come and go freely into the Wheel to speak to the Shan’doír…

“So…you’re like…learning to leave your own body?” Kori asks, looking ill-at-ease with the idea. “Does it mean you die and come back to life?”

“What’s it like?” Tulip asks, excited. “Being dead and all?”

The questions make Alma think carefully about the answer. She doesn’t want to frighten her children, after all. Gwydion’s arms tighten their hold around her as if the simple mention of the fact that Alma can, like any other god or mortal, die at some point were painful to him. She closes her book and tucks it between her own leg and the back of the sofa, freeing her hand to rest on Gwydion’s. “I…can honestly say I don’t know. What I do is not the same as being dead and well…I’ve never been dead. I have just seen many souls through it…”

“Are they like scared when they die?” Kori asks, snuggling against Alma.

“Sometimes…” she concedes, stroking her son’s cheek.

As she does so, Gwydion touches the Bunny’s shoulder in reassurance and Kori glances up at the god with a pained look in his eyes. There are no words exchanged between the two but when Kori settles down again, his head lies just that much closer to Gwydion’s hand so that the god may pet the Bunny’s ears.

“It depends on what they believe in,” Alma proceeds in soft tones. “When a living being dies, a death god is there to help the soul release itself from the body and then send it on its way to the Wheel. Some people believe that they go to a good place after they die, with their departed friends and family. So they are not afraid at all. Some think they will be judged and punished by all the bad things they did when they were alive so they can be very, very nervous. And some people believe they will move on directly into the next life. Some just think nothing will happen and their existence will be over.”

“Which ones are right?” Kori’s voice is a murmur.

Alma shrugs at this. “All of them? None of them? Depending on what they believe in, they will experience those things until they reach the Wheel. It doesn’t take long for that to happen but souls have no notion of time so, to them, it can feel like an eternity.”

“So…they all end up in the same place?” Tulip surmises, arching her eyebrow in the exact same way Alma does when suspicious. “That sounds kinda silly… I mean… Sky says sometimes there’s even been wars about who’s right and who’s wrong.”

“Well, ignorance isn’t always bliss, it seems,” Alma breathes. “People go to war over the most inconsequential things.”

“So then what happens?” Kori asks.

“Then every year, all the souls that have returned to the Wheel are cleansed of their memories and given to the gods of life so they can make them into new beings,” Alma explains. “And when those beings die, they return to the Wheel and it starts all over again.” She raises a finger and twirls it around. “Like a wheel, turning and turning. Beginning and ending in the same place.”

“So…if we like…believe we’re gonna be all together with family and stuff when we die, that’s where we go?” Tulip asks.

“Pretty much,” Alma nods as her youngest child rises from her seat and slips onto the pile of Bunny and gods already occupying the sofa.

Tulip struggles against Kori, the pair pushing and shoving each other and complaining about the other’s every little movement like only siblings can do until they finally manage to find a precarious balance that allows them both to lie in Alma’s arms. It is always amusing to see that, though old enough to be adolescents if they happened to be human (and barely old enough to not be babies if they were gods), all of her three younger children still behave very much like that: children.

Perhaps a sign that life is somehow managing to be sweet enough not to force them to grow up too fast, Alma muses, hoping that this can be true for quite a while, still.

“Will you be there too?” Kori asks of her. “When it happens to us?”

Gwydion’s breath, soft against her ear suddenly stops and Alma herself bites her lip before replying. The thought of losing her children, all at once to calamity or one by one to old age is enough to tie a knot around her stomach. It is something she knows she will have to face, sooner or later, sentenced as she is to outlive all of her children unless some injury steals her own life (and she would rather die a thousand deaths than lose any of the Bunnies). But thinking about it is torture in itself. To know they will be reborn with no memory of her, no vestige of the bright, loving people they are now… It is heartbreaking.

She breathes deeply and blinks away a tear, trying to smile and sound reassuring when she says, “One way or another. I will see you through it.”

Gwydion’s arms squeeze her again and his lips touch her cheek gently. It is all Alma can do not to turn and hold onto him, sobbing away the mental image of harvesting Kori’s soul combined with the flaring of memories of past nightmares and of her own father robbing bunny rabbit after bunny rabbit of the lives a very young Alma had given them. Having two Bunnies currently lying on top of her helps her restrain herself, though.

“Well…that’d be nice, I guess,” Tulip breathes, hugging Alma with one arm while she holds onto Kori with the other. “What’s this Wheel like?”

The goddess strokes the girl’s arm, adjusting the position of her own legs to better support both Bunnies. “Oh, it’s a very peaceful place full of the souls of people who have passed away.”

“Do dead people, like, tell you stories and stuff?” Kori asks, unease turned into curiosity. “Like if they committed a crime or hid treasure somewhere?”

“Ooooh! That’d be so cool!” Tulip quips. “Then we could find it and dig it out! And get rich!”

Alma laughs quietly and feels herself shaking with Gwydion’s laughter at the childish entrepreneurial visions around the idea of death. The god has been quiet throughout the conversation, simply offering physical comfort to both her and the Bunnies here and there but he is listening carefully, she can tell. Perhaps out of genuine curiosity or out of a momentary realization that the Bunnies will not always be with him (a fact easy to forget most of the time, even for mortals, let alone for gods), Gwydion is just listening, just taking in the simplified but not at all untrue explanation Alma is offering. Death is even to gods the greatest mystery of life and not many get to ask (or dare to ask) a death god about what really goes on once one crosses that final threshold.

“Dead people are not very interested in sharing secrets,” Alma says. “Some might have a final request, especially ones with people depending on them. But most just want to return to life. And if I am not careful, they could follow me back into the realm of the living.”

Kori’s ears perk up. “So you could bring people back to life?”

“Not quite,” Alma replies. “Well, technically I could, though that is very much frowned upon and my Clan has a very strong hatred for the undead. But if their souls are cleansed of memories, well, that is sort of how you were created, actually.”

“Oh! So these souls could become more Bunnies!” Tulip exclaims.

“Yeah, you could fill the world with Bunnies!” Kori cries out. His eyes become hooded, ears tilting down conspiratorially. “And then we would show them…mwa ha ha…”

The air becomes filled with laughter as the godly couple breaks into chuckles. “Well, I would be in quite a lot of trouble if I started making new Bunnies left and right,” Alma notes. “You were all very far from a ready army when you were born. The Council would definitely not approve of new baby Bunnies.”

Laughter dies. “Oh, that’s too bad…” Tulip pouts a little. “I’d kinda like to know what it’s like to hold a baby Bunny for real.”

To hold a baby Bunny… it has been a while. “I remember you used to fit in your father’s open hand,” Alma says to her, a nostalgic smile on her face.

Tulip seems to melt at the notion. “Aawww…really?”

“Yeah… father…” Kori grumbles.

The grumbling tone says it all. “He hasn’t contacted you yet, has he?” Alma asks, stroking Kori’s hair when the Bunny shakes his head. Oh Arion… “I will try to reach him and scold him yet again.”

“It’s…fine,” Kori murmurs sadly. “Maybe he just doesn’t wanna meet me.”

“I cannot believe that is true, Kori,” Gwydion intervenes, touching the Bunny’s back. Even Tulip tightens her hold on her brother. “Not the Arion I have met. And what father wouldn’t want to meet a son like you?”

“Come on, Kori… Dad is nice,” Tulip tells him. “Kinda weird and all but nice. And really handsome.”

Kori looks at her and then at Alma as if knowing his sister has already been visited by their father is further confirmation of his status as an unwanted child.

“I know it hurts you,” Alma says, holding him. “And I know it’s not easy to understand. Gods like your father, who don’t live in close contact with mortals, forget about the passage of time. They see the suns and moons travel across the sky and forget that those are days beginning and ending. And days turn to weeks and weeks to years. Lifetimes go by and they will think it was only yesterday. And by then, it’s too late.”

“Did you guys fight or something?” Tulip asks. “Is that why he left?”

Alma shakes her head. “No, not at all. We might not be together anymore but we are still on good terms. And he is happy to see me happy. But even if we had fought, my relationship with him changes nothing in his relationship with you. He still loves you very much like he does all his children. He’s just…” She trails off, looking at the ceiling as if the right word might be printed there. “I am trying to find a word that does not exist in this language… In my family, we call it Quiral. A soul in transition. Like someone who is still alive but not very attached to the world of the living. So he doesn’t quite see things the same way you or I do. He sees the world from very far away and important things to you and I are not as very important to him. It is a common consequence of gods growing old. And you are the only mortal children he has so he is not the most experienced of people when it comes to dealing with you.” She sighs. “I know it’s no excuse. I’ll try to bring him to his senses.”

“You are not alone Kori,” Gwydion tells the Bunny. “You will always have a family of people who love you. I…” his voice catches for a moment, “would have killed for that when I was your age.”

Kori looks up at him, eyes shining with pent up tears, lower lip trembling. And suddenly buries his face against Alma’s chest, nearly tossing Tulip out of the sofa. “I don’t need him…”

“You have him anyway,” Alma reassures him. “And you have us. Always.”