Ch7.10 Revelations

The day has been long, with the settling down of all the Bunnies into their assigned rooms, the oooh’s and aaaah’s of finding the brand new clothes and the inevitable fashion show in the hallway that followed and the wanting to explore the house and start work in the garden and the other dozen things that come with being along for a vacation with six other people, all under the age of thirty. Granted that, for a human, thirty years of age seem to be looked upon as the beginning of the dreaded, steep downhill slope toward senility but to a hundred-fifty-year-old goddess with a life expectancy of quite a few millennia, even the energy of two twenty-four-year-old Bunnies is just a little too much to handle, let alone that of four more who are even younger.

So it is no surprise that, not long after dinner, Alma cannot really stay up anymore. And neither can Gwydion, reeling as he is from seeing the house for the first time since his childhood and then finding his own former bedroom in the afternoon, the one Alma had kept him out of before. The poor thing had stayed kneeling in the middle of the room for at least an hour, surrounded by walls lovingly painted with scenes of knights and dragons and leaping sheep and even a large, cartoonish gryphon by the head of the bed. Just kneeling, his shoulders slumped, looking around like a pilgrim arrived at the temple of his god, worshipping at the altar of Memory, letting the full weight of all he has lost, all that has been taken away from him fill his mind and his heart with sorrow and, Alma suspects, a strange kind of relief. How many times must he have wondered if he was ever loved, ever truly desired by his parents? How can a child grow happily in that uncertainty, deprived of a fitting surrogate to provide the love and compassion that all beings require to grow? Math, she has come to see, has no notion of how to be comforting or kind, choosing instead to buy affection with gifts and luxurious activities. None of which can comfort a child awakened from a nightmare or mourning the loss of his parents.

The last few hours have already shown her more of Gwydion’s reasons for becoming a playboy than most of the time spent with him at Math’s house, awaiting the Council’s verdict. So much grief…and she is already tired of it, of carrying it in her heart and sharing in his pain. How can he possibly live and smile day after day after so many years of living with it?

And yet, she is happy to share in his grief and does so willingly, knowing herself privileged for having the chance to do so. It is just that…it all takes its toll and she is exhausted now. She just wants to lie down, curl up in a ball and sleep.

So she excuses herself from the family evening spent by the fireplace and Gwydion follows her example. And, much to their surprise, so do the Bunnies and, of course, Geryon. They insist on turning in against Alma’s assurance that even the younger ones are free to stay up a bit longer. And soon, all are standing in the hallway that leads to the various bedrooms, saying their goodnights.

“The chocolate an’ berries were divine!” Rosemary says in her usually joyful tones as she embraces Alma. “And wasn’t the singing fun?”

Alma can’t help but smile at it. “Considering you were doing most of it, I’m sure you enjoyed it twice as much as everyone else.” She kisses the top of Rosemary’s head. “Good night, dear.”

“Good night!”

The Bunny releases Alma and moves to embrace Gwydion, who is just managing to pry Tulip’s iron-grip arms from his neck. As Rosemary moves, Cherry takes her place hugging Alma, clinging to the goddess in obvious need of physical reassurance. Alma holds her back closely, stroking her daughter’s dark-furred ears.

After a moment, Cherry looks up at Alma and asks, “It’s going to be all right, ain’t it?”

Alma nods, seeing in Cherry’s eyes a glint of real fear that it is not. “It will. We’ll make it so,” she promises, as much to the Bunny as to herself. “Are you enjoying this place?”

Cherry smiles a little and nods. “It’s a good place to just chill out. But…” Her voice trails off, the smile gives way to concern. “Just a week, right?”

The question brings a hint of relief to Alma. Safer and more luxurious than Three Rats as it is, the estate carries a heavy emotional load that manages to be just as exhausting as daily station life in the Fourth Ring ward that has become their home. She doesn’t quite know how she would manage things if her children decided they would much rather stay here.

“Just a week, then we go back,” Alma assures Cherry. “Just to breathe a little bit of lighter air.”

“Worried about the bar?” Sage asks, approaching to embrace both Alma and his sister.

“We got regulars!” Cherry points out, cheek pressed against Alma’s chest. “They’re gonna be really put out if we stay away too long.” She sighs. “This is good, though. Gotta bring May here, sometime. And Sky too.”

“Definitely,” Alma agrees, even though a treacherous thought in her mind arises to say If we can save him.

“Cherry, stop hogging mom!” Tulip complains. “We wanna hug her goodnight too!”

“Just five more minutes!” Cherry calls out, laughing when Tulip groans with irritation. She releases Alma and, after another smile at her mother, moves to give Gwydion her goodnights.

As soon as Cherry opens the way for Tulip, all three younger Bunnies pile around Alma, hugging her from multiple directions, saying goodnight and stretching to distribute kisses at will. Alma basks in them, her ears barely catching Geryon speaking to Gwydion in a low voice.

“…might make a nice spa-like resort. Tempter nymphs pampering the guests. While the owner obsesses over all the secrets hidden in these various nooks and crannies.”

Gwydion sighs. “I know…. I need to take it slowly. And I am. I promise.”

Freeing herself from Kori, Tulip and Chime, Alma slips her hand into Gwydion’s. “Goodnights have been said. Perhaps it is time for us all to retire?”

With a meaningful look at Alma, that she responds to with a small smile, Geryon agrees. “Yes, indeed.”

It feels almost like a passing of a metaphorical baton, the way he looks at her then glances at Gwydion. The ever-sardonic gryphon seldom shows obvious signs of worry with his closest friend but for those who can read them, such small gestures make evident the concern he feels about someone he has known much better and for much longer than Alma. That he trusts her to look after Gwydion’s well-being is just as important to her – or maybe more – as the quiet feeling of friendship which has been growing between them.

With a final chorus of “Goodnight,” the Bunnies retreat into their respective rooms, Cherry and Rosemary insisting that Geryon join them, something the gryphon does not offer much resistance in obliging to.

Which leaves Alma and Gwydion alone again, facing the prospect of a night spent in the room they now know used to belong to Eidon and Gffleu. Gwydion’s parents.

As they enter the room, Alma reflexively squeezes his hand, feeling him return the gesture with hand that is shaking ever so slightly. They stop just a couple of footsteps beyond the door, looking at the bed, at the tasteful furniture, at the little nook by the window. The air feels heavy with a sort of dreadful sorrow, even to Alma, who has never known the loss of an empty childhood home.

“How are you feeling?” she asks, looking at Gwydion’s pale face, at his haunted eyes.

He keeps staring at the bed as if fearing it will spring to life and attack him. “I think…I don’t know. It’s all too much to process.”

His body stiffens, muscles ready. For a moment, she doesn’t know what he is planning on doing but then he advances toward the bed, hand still firmly holding hers, and sits, looking up at Alma in a silent request for her to join him. She sits by him, offering her other hand for him to hold as well, letting an awkward silence spread between them. What can she say to make him feel better?

She looks down at her leg where her hands are held in his, her fingers slowly stroking his skin. She curses internally at her incompetence in finding something to say. After what feels like a short eternity, he releases one of her hands and drapes his arm around her shoulders, pulling her to him. He buries his nose in her hair and she can hear him inhaling deeply, the air leaving his lungs in a long, ragged exhalation.

“You’ve had a long day,” she says and her voice sounds loud and harsh even to her ears. It also sounds like the contest winner of the Useless Things To Say Show.

Still, he replies softly, “And you too, being there for me. I know it wasn’t easy.”

“It’s where I had to be,” she assures him. “And none of it will ever be nearly as hard for me as it is for you.”

“This is a haunted house,” he murmurs. “And it gets to me that I can barely remember what the ghosts look like. Just bits and pieces. A voice here, a vision there. But nothing I can make sense of. I think – I think I remember my father’s voice. And the way my mother held me one time I fell down. Her voice…it’s mixed with yours, sometimes. With other female voices.” He sighs. “It’s all so distant. So broken…”

He looks truly disheartened. Truly lost. She puts both of her arms around him and holds him closely. “I’m not sure this is the best place for us tonight. There are plenty of other rooms. We can prepare one for ourselves in ten minutes.”

He looks around, morose. “If I sleep somewhere, what does that say of how I think of them?” He shakes his head. “Geryon is right. If I could, I’d spend the next few days exploring every little thing, trying to remember my life here. I’d forget about you and the Bunnies and him and–” He looks at her, desperate for an answer. “But I can’t forget about them. I went so long not fighting to know and now that I do, I – I can’t just walk away because it might hurt.”

“Of course not,” she agrees, reaching to stroke his cheek. “But you do need to rest. You are exhausted and in all kinds of pain. You need to rest and recover to be ready to face what might come next. That is what we’re here for.”

Another ragged breath and he presses his forehead against hers. “I’m becoming a whining, pitiful wreck.”

She snorts softly, just a quick exhalation against his lips. “I can handle a little whining.” She pulls away and looks into his eyes. The smile doesn’t come easily to her lips but, for him, she makes the effort. “Let us try something. Forget what your parents would think and don’t worry about me or Geryon or the Bunnies. What do you want to do right now? Where do you want to go?”

He looks confused. “Right now, this very moment?”

“Yes, right now,” she says. “Wherever you want to go, we go. Whatever you want to do, we do. Go out to eat, visit a theater. Get drunk in a bar. Even if you want to go alone.” Though truly, the last thing she wants is to leave him alone.

He smiles a little at her suggestions and thinks it over. “I…I can’t think of anywhere to go. I just want to be with you. Just you and me with no haunting thoughts.”

She looks at him in silence for a moment, trying to decide what to do. She had been counting on him to have an epiphany. But a blur of bluish light filtering through the window catches her eye and she rises, taking his hands and nudging him up. “Come with me.” She looks around and reaches for a blanket left at the foot of the bed.

He rises, his hand pulling a little on hers as he reaches to grab a pillow, that he tucks under one arm as he follows her, unresisting and with a small smile on his lips, down the hallway, down the stairs, across a room and a couple of turns, into the living room. At a last minute thought, she stops, leans down to reach under the table, and removes the blanket she had stored there in the building-block basket before straightening and guiding him outside, to the garden. The night is pleasant, not too warm and not too cold. And perching on a branch, her shimmering blue feathers shining in the moonlight and irradiating a soft glow that covers a little patch of grass, Starfax watches and awaits. In the bushes, not far away, fireflies glimmer faintly and muffled sounds like rustling leaves announce the woodland spirits that are going about their usual nightly business.

Alma smiles at the phoenix and releases Gwydion’s hands, letting the blankets drop at her feet. “I know there are plans to restore this by hand but…” she starts and trails off as she kneels and touches the grass, sending her magic through it.

It is a simple, normally easy spell that shouldn’t take that much out of her. But the way she has been feeling lately, even with the higher levels of freely flowing mana it leaves her even more tired than she already feels. Still, the verdant lawn obeys her call, weeds dwindling until they fade under the grass, night-blooming flowers opening to the moon just a week or two before their season, releasing a pleasant scent. She doesn’t manage (nor does she want) to affect more than the patch of garden bathed in Starfax’s radiance but it is enough for them to have plenty of space.

Alma spreads the blanket she brought from the living room on the lawn, feeling an odd, double-edged sensation of homage and intrusion into Gwydion’s past. She looks at him, waiting for his reaction. He smiles and joins her, laying down the pillow, which is long enough for both of them and then lying down, looking an invitation at her. She grabs the blanket she brought from the bedroom and reclines as well, draping it over them both and resting her head on the pillow. He lies facing her, his fingers caressing her face and her neck down to her shoulders and arms.

“Do you like my idea?” she asks in a whisper.

“I love it,” he replies, looking at her with a sweet melancholy that verges on adoration. She feels her heart thump in her chest at the sight of it and wonders if somehow she can make it so it will always feel that way. “I can breathe better here.”

She snuggles against him, her arm over his side. “Then I’m glad I followed Starfax here.”

He cranes his neck to look at the perching bird, then lies back to look at the stars that slowly dance above them. “She’s a bird with good taste in romantic spots.”

“She has good taste all around,” Alma replies with a soft smile. “She loves you.”

“How can you tell?” Gwydion asks. “She doesn’t exactly…interact with me much.”

Alma looks at him, stroking his back. “This light we are bathed in, it’s her doing. It’s a healing, cleansing light. And she rarely, very rarely gives it to anyone other than me. So I know she likes you. And that she wants you to get better.”

“Can you talk to her? Does she understand you? Maybe telepathically?” he asks, curious.

Alma shakes her head. “No telepathy. I talk but she doesn’t use words to answer. I just… I’ve known her for over a century. I look at her and I know from the way she stands, the way she moves, the things she does, what she wants to convey. And even when I talk to her, I think she mostly reads my intentions in my behavior.” She looks down, a little self-conscious. “I like to think of her as my soulmate.”

He caresses her jawline with a finger and nudges her chin up. “It must be wonderful to know someone so closely… I hope someday I can know you that well.”

She closes her eyes, enjoying his touch, her voice catching in her throat when she replies, “I hope so too.”

She hears him inhale deeply. “I…I know we haven’t…ever since what happened…” he trails off, hesitating. “Our intimacy – if…If you don’t… feel ready…”

She opens her eyes and looks at him with sorrow. “I miss you! I miss…us. Before it all happened. The way we could be so comfortable and not be afraid and – And there were no memories of being…” She looks down, tries to catch her breath. “Sometimes I wonder…I look in the mirror and I look for her there. And I know she’s not but it’s the memory of her and… And I wonder if you think the same. When we’re together.”

She cannot bear to look at him but his silence fills the space between them like a brick wall. It’s enough to be an answer in itself. Eventually, he says, “She was wearing your face. It was the only face I ever saw her wear. I don’t think she could have hurt me more, really, no matter how hard she tried. Inhabiting you, telling me that you were gone. That she was going to bind you into your sword…” He looks at her, helpless. “I know how foolish it is. I know she is gone and that this is you. I know it. But that cruel expression won’t stop flitting before me and tainting everything.”

Alma closes her eyes as the words sink in. She can’t blame him. The sword Fencer gave her has been sitting beside her locker in the office she shares with Gwydion ever since that night. She can’t stand the thought of wielding it, scared of the way it seems to hum her name and call for her to wield it. And maybe she is hearing things, but at the same time she can’t bear the idea of disposing of it, feeling an irrational need to keep it close by. And the fears around Nua’s return are the same as his, with the poisonous addition of all the memories the necromancer shared as they battled for Alma’s body. How can they heal from what she’s done? How can anyone be expected to bounce back from that?

“I’m frightened,” she barely more than whispers, her words moist, like her eyes. “I feel vile. Like I recovered my body but it is not mine anymore. Just a tainted, horrible thing capable of… I’m ashamed of it. And I feel so guilty that it was so easy for her to just…” She swallows away tears.

Gwydion’s leg slips between hers and gently pulls her closer as his arms hold her tightly. “Shh… We’ve talked about this. She set the trap. She had everything ready to exploit our weaknesses. It could have been much worse.” He strokes the back of her head as her tears give way to sobs. “I cannot imagine how terrible it is for you. But I understand the sort of pain. Helpless. Robbed of all agency.”

“What if…we can’t heal?” she asks, swallowing tears. “I don’t want to lose you. And I’m doing all I can but I get scared sometimes that it will never go away. That it will kill the way we feel for each other.”

His hand on her cheek makes her open her eyes to look at his searing, determined expression. “We will heal. Whatever it takes, I’m not letting go. There is no one – no one in this world that means even a tenth of what you mean to me.” His face softens, his fingers pet her skin. “I’m scared too. But I know we’ll make it through. I don’t have a choice but to believe that. I can’t lose you. I can’t. You are the core of my family. I didn’t really have a family until your children decided they wanted me in theirs. Until a few other people decided they wanted to be a part of your family. And it’s become a wonderful thing and I can’t lose that. I can’t lose another family, Alma. I can’t be alone again. Hollow. I…” He closes his eyes.

She cups his cheek and speaks as much to him as to herself. “I’m here. I’m here… You won’t lose me.”

He nods. “We need to do something about this. Whatever it is.”

She looks at him through tears and leans closer to kiss the bridge of his nose. “Do you think this healer Somrak spoke of will work?”

He looks back at her. “I think…it’s time to put fear aside and let him try. Whatever it takes to smile with you again and be happy by your side.”

He smiles tentatively, small and wry and she smiles back at him, just as small. “It seems my ingenious plan to get away from ghosts didn’t work after all.”

He touches her temple. “They’re in here. And here.” He touches his own head. “They’re following us around.” He pulls her closer, caring and protective. “But I am with you and I’m not letting go. That’s the most important thing.”

Alma nods, holds him close. “I am not going anywhere.”

She leans her head closer and touches her lips to his under the stars.

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Ch7.09 Revelations

Intermission in the Teatro Imperial, surrounded by an opulence that has long since gone out of style here in the First Ring, gold leaf and intricate paintings everywhere the eye can look, overwhelming and yet somehow managing to be tasteful and perfectly balanced. Math himself has preferred simplicity since long before it became in vogue, but this old, traditional style has endured for millennia, since the dark days of the God-Emperor, before the establishment of the Council of Archons. Even the name of the opera house echoes that time, and it has refused to change despite the fact that there is, and never will be as long as Math lives, an Emperor ruling the City of Gods.

Yet still he finds himself taking it in and enjoying the complexity and skill. Part of his mind is taking it all apart, analyzing how the effect is achieved so that it never inundates the senses. What mastery!

But now it is time for refreshment. Math stops at the bar, and the other gods who are attending the opera – a druidic production about the creation of the One Tree, fascinating in concept but not entirely captivating in production – move aside when they see him. Math does not allow them to see that he notices this at all, merely moving to the bar and requesting his favorite libation on these occasions, a mix of several nearly flavorless alcohols that, with the addition of a long, curling strip of fresh lemon peel and a pickled plum on a sliver of bamboo, become an exquisite symphony of flavors to rival the operatic productions staged here. Although he knows he could replicate it, he has never attempted to do so. Watching Vilmar, the bartender, go through the intricate ceremony of making the drink is a crucial part of the experience, and the lesser gods, gods who would never come within spitting distance of the Council’s inner chamber, fall to a hush as they watch the Archon so focused on the drink being constructed for him.

Vilmar is well aware of the importance his client places on all this, but resists the urge to amp up the showmanship. He already is quite the showman when it comes to preparing a drink. The ice, the perfectly sliced length of lemon rind, the painting of the glass rim with acrid juice from the peel, the perfect balance of different liquors, are all accompanied by the relaxed yet fluttering hand movements.

All the while music from the first act is playing, the second-string musicians of the orchestra allowed to play as the audience mills about. Math accepts the stemmed glass, swirls the mixture once, and takes a sip, his eyes closed.

There is a hush, then Archon Math opens his eyes and smiles, his beard rising along with the muscles of his cheeks. “Perfection,” he says, and Vilmar bows.

One of the watching gods claps for a moment before his partner stops him. Math turns away so as not to look at the foolish applauder, thinking just for a moment of his nephew, Gwydion, and how he must be faring at the moment. He has two bartenders with him, Math remembers, picturing the mortal Bunnies and chuckling. Perhaps he should arrange a day of instruction from Vilmar…

“Well, isn’t this a nice surprise?”

The voice is the epitome of vivaciousness, making listeners feel younger, more lively just from the sound. And the mellifluous tone, oh my, she should be on stage, singing an aria. Every god in the First and Second Rings would vie to buy a ticket to hear the effervescent voice of Lyria, his longtime friend and often his greatest opponent.

He smiles again, focusing on her face, a sun-kissed brown framed by golden curls and waves of hair in contrast, living vines sprouting tiny blue flowers woven through it today, flowers that release a scent that belies their size, a scent that goes directly to his memory, a memory of centuries ago, when he, beardless, spent an evening being beguiled in conversation with this very goddess, not at all matronly as she is now but no less enchanting. Oh when she laid her fingers on his forearm to make a point, the electric thrill he felt was as good as a kiss.

How did it never happen, that kiss? He spent so long thinking of it, wishing for it, but it was never to be, was it? To her, he was destined to be a friend, a foil, a tool, and a master adversary all in their turn, often more than one at a time.

Lyria bats her eyes at him. “Finally I find you away from those horribly boring meetings and paperwork.”

“I attend social functions and performing arts,” Math insists, allowing himself to fall into her verdant eyes. “Once in awhile.” But he only indulges himself for a moment. For beside her is her polar opposite, the sepulchrally white Death, her husband, his midnight hair pulled back tight from his pale forehead, and Math must, with a nod, acknowledge the ambitious Senator.

“A while…” Lyria looks at him in mock disbelief and criticism and tsks. “Well, I am glad to have bumped into you. And on such a pleasant evening, too, considering all the unpleasantness that has been going around.”

Math knows this encounter is no accident, any more than Lyria’s choice of hair adornment is an accident. She knows perfectly well the effect the scent will have on him, just as she knew perfectly well that the touch of her fingers so long ago would set off an obsession that would last many mortal lifetimes, an obsession she could use. She is here to ensure that her plans come to fruition.

“There is never any shortage of unpleasantness,” Math says aloud. “It’s just more easily noticed when it happens to a loved one.” In the last few words, his voice falls into a mild sadness. But then he brightens. “And what did you have to tell me?”

“Oh, nothing of consequence…” Lyria begins.

“Lyria has a standing project to return her daughter to the Inner Rings,” Death states, cutting through the pretense in his voice that, to those who do not know him, may seem bereft of humor.

“And I have no help with it,” Lyria scolds, looking at Death with the mild annoyance of a long-suffering wife. “That ward is just not a proper place for the children of our families.”

“Even if they do wish to stay there,” Death jabs. His pleasant smile seems perfectly designed for getting on Lyria’s nerves.

Math wonders at this public ‘old married couple’ act. How much of it is an act? What must things be like between them after all this time, in private? His own life has always been solitary. There have been other goddesses who have drawn his fancy, though none who have kept it for as long as Lyria did.

With the conversation moving into areas that could become sensitive, Math makes the tiniest of gestures, almost without thought putting up a shield of silence around them, which also stops any attempts at spying from afar. “I’ve been trying the same with Gwydion,” he says, matching Death’s mild jocularity with his own. “Today, in fact, they are going to an estate in the Second Ring. They will be seduced by its comfort and security. Soon there will be no more talk of Three Rats.”

Lyria’s face lights up and she puts her hands together in delight. Math is unsurprised to feel a kindling of that old desire. Happens every time, even after so long. He pays it no mind.

“Oh, do you mean Eidon’s place?” she asks in that breathless, alluring voice. “That was such a lovely estate… They will adore it. Though it will be quite the sentimental journey for young Gwydion, no?”

“Most likely,” Math says, bringing his drink to his lips with a self-satisfied smile. “But they will surely love it there. So many secrets to beguile Dion.”

Lyria turns to Death and gives him an arch look, as if this were some continuation of a disagreement they had been having. “See? A plan worthy of a great strategist.” She looks rather excited and grips Death’s bicep. “Oh, they could start thinking of the next step in their relationship!”

Death’s mouth curves into a thin smile. “The existence of a next step depends on their relationship lasting until that time, dear.”

“It seems quite possible to me,” Math insists. That Lyria is talking him up means she is trying to maneuver her husband into some position or other. “Dion is quite enamored of Alma, more than I’ve ever seen him. If only they weren’t so tied down by unwise friendships.”

“Alma has inherited Lyria’s love for strays,” Death agrees conversationally.

“Oh, as if, Azreh…” Lyria wrinkles her nose at her husband.

Not a name often spoken aloud, Math muses. Is there anyone in his family other than Lyria who calls him that? Perhaps Subcommander Varah, the Fencer, might have the temerity, but not in public. Always Senator Death, Lord Death, the Pale One, the Peacemaker – that last always made Math smile. The simplicity of ‘Death’ is also its gravity. What more title is needed?

Though the couple are gently yanking at each other’s strings, they are enjoying the game, like a pair of wise old cats who still enjoy swatting at a wriggling length of yarn. “And I would not call the friendships unwise,” Lyria continues. “They have quite loyal friends.”

“Friends who drag them into great danger, and then prevent them from leaving a dangerous locale for the comforts of a real home,” Math grumbles. He begins to brood once again on how best to remove the offblue agents, Somrak and Tuma-Sukai, from the board. The latter in particular needs culling. Just too many complications there. But simply disposing of them will cause more problems, what with the affection that Alma and Gwydion have formed for them.

“And may I ask how you plan to brush this latest episode aside?” Death asks. “Surely my daughter and your nephew are not without fault.”

Lyria releases his arm and looks at him, looking and sounding truly worried. “Oh, please do not tell me that above it all there will be a punishment to burden them! The poor things were completely broken at the end of the fight with that…creature.” She sounds positively ill at the thought of the necromancer. No surprise. A goddess of Life, long loyal to the Clan of Death? Hard to imagine anyone more diametrically opposed to dabblers in undeath. Her voice softens in sympathy with her daughter and her friends. “It will take them years just to recover from the shallowest of their wounds.”

Math, meanwhile, feels annoyed by the checks on his own power. “Unfortunately I must give them something that will seem like a punishment to other members of the Council. It’s a damned nuisance. A great deal hinges on whether the devil and his hot-headed former partner can recover enough to be valuable.”

“Well…” Lyria tilts her head in that coquettish manner that never fails to bring a response from anyone she uses it on, even those with no attraction to females, as far as Math can tell. And it really does not matter that he knows how artful it is, does it? It still works. “I was planning on checking on them myself. If you would like an expert opinion…”

Math feels his eyebrows twitch involuntarily. “Can you determine if Tuma-Sukai can pull through? That is, still function in polite and impolite society?”

Lyria pauses, glancing down and to the left, thinking, before she raises her emerald eyes back to him, serious. “I can only make an educated guess. After all, healing is not a linear event. But I will make as objective an evaluation as possible and let you know my opinion. Now that he has had some time to process events, it will be easier, possibly, to tell how things should go.”

Math returns her look, dark. “If he cannot recover…it will not be easy to convince them. And I no longer trust his former partner to carry out the necessary deed – look at how far he went to avoid being ordered to do it. If I order it done, by whomever, I’ll be hated and any plans with the estate will be ruined.”

“Surely it is not your decision alone,” Death notes, his voice still bearing that hint of amusement that most would never detect. “Which begs the question, who will be called to speak and who will be interested in listening?”

“I could simply make it a trial of Somrak,” Math says. “And by proxy, Tuma-Sukai. Gwydion and Alma were misled, according to Somrak’s report. As for listeners, I don’t know if you can call most of the Council very good at that.”

Death nods. “They will be inclined to do what would have been done four decades ago if a use had not been found for Tuma-Sukai. But if being hated is what worries you, why not give them a chance to defend their friends? If they fail, the onus of sentencing will not be on you.”

Math considers this – or rather reconsiders it. He went through it a few times in the many iterations of planning all this out. “They would welcome the chance, I am sure. And they can have an opportunity to see what sort of people I have to deal with. It should be quite illuminating for them, and they do need to wake up to adult life sooner or later.”

“Illuminating both to them and to you, considering they were not allowed the same luxury when their own necks were on the proverbial chopping block,” Death agrees, poking with his verbal knife.

Math narrows his eyes over the rim of his glass as he finishes his drink and sets the empty glass aside. “Just you wait. You’ll soon regret your long-term scheming. You’ll get everything you’ve pushed for, and you’ll think it was all a waste of time.”

Lyria’s gasp makes him realize that his came out more bitter than he realized. Death, however, betrays no change of expression, though the disappearance of that tiny hint of amusement lends his voice a dangerous edge. “Perhaps I will find other things to push for and people to push for them with me.”

“Oh don’t be so offended,” Math grouses at him. He gestures to the bar, signalling for three drinks to be brought over. “I was merely warning you that being on the Council is the ultimate bore. Archons are so petty… Honestly, it will be good having you there. You’ll shake things up nicely.”

“I hope I do,” Death replies, nodding, the slight sardonic smile once again looking amused rather than hard and deadly. Then he pretends to remember something. “Oh… Surely you must know this but the necromancer’s soul has yet to be surrendered to…anyone.”

Math smiles a little. Of course he had not been certain that Alma had not turned it over to her father yet, but knowing Alma, and knowing she had not given it to the Commander nor his Subcommander ex-wife, he was reasonably sure she still had it. “You’ve raised her well. If it were anyone else, I’d expect her to bargain for an inspectorship. But she will bargain for her friends. She’ll get their punishments reduced. But if she’s going to ask for our devil’s freedom, she’ll need to be responsible for it.”

“Like I said,” Death replies, receiving his drink from a servant, “she has a soft spot for strays. It should be an amusing show, considering it has not even been a year since the prophecy was apparently fulfilled.”

“Oh, you two!” Lyria scolds them after giving the servant a smile and letting her depart. “You speak of our children as if they were fighters on a boxing ring. Shame on you!”

“But they are fighters,” Math says, raising his own glass and prompting the Duo of Life and Death to raise theirs. “I quite admire that in them. They fight with every ounce of their spirit. If only we can make sure they fight for the right thing. And that they are not wasted in struggle with something inconsequential.” He takes a sip and closes his eyes, enjoying the interplay of flavors.

“Well, I will drink to that,” Lyria says, and she does. “Oh, delicious… I just wish they would fight less and live more. There has been enough fighting already. They need peace and quiet to recover. And perhaps plan on a little godling grandchild for us all.”

“A grandchild!” Math exclaims. The privacy shield he erected without a thought earlier shivers from the impact of his voice. He has his own ability to tease. “They’ve barely started, and you’re already planning the baby clothes?”

Death moves his eyes in a way that might be described as the merest suggestion of rolling. He leans slightly toward Math in a confiding manner. “She gets bored whenever she is not planning for world domination.”

“Oh…” Lyria looks at Death with a small frown that is mostly just adorable and soon turns to affection. She places her hand on the crook of his arm. “At least let me dream of simple and pleasant things.” She looks around and sees that the lounge has emptied out. “Oh, I think the performance restarted while we were speaking.”

“We shall have to be rude and noticeable as we return,” Math states, unconcerned. “Hurray.” To Lyria, he smiles. “Thank you for visiting Three Rats. It will be most useful.”

“Hopefully it will be a pleasure as well,” Lyria says. She pauses and looks into her cocktail. “We could just wait for the next intermission here in the lounge. It would be such a shame to leave these lovely concoctions unfinished.”

“The music is the best part,” Math agrees, “and we can hear it almost as well out here.” He walks with them, canceling the privacy shield so that the music comes to them without muffling, and leads them to some comfortable, ornate chairs.

Death lays a hand on the back of one chair, standing behind it like a valet as Lyria sits, then moving to sit in the chair beside hers. “Anything to keep us from the horrifying view of all those druids performing their tales of us through interpretive dancing.”

Math takes a seat himself, and enjoys another delightful sip. The pleasures coming in at the ear in the form of a soaring soprano’s voice; the tongue, via the liquid filling his mouth; the nose, from Lyria’s flowers; and finally the eye, as he allows himself to take in her beauty – all combine to make this a moment to savor. He does his best to banish the stray thought, But what of the pleasures of the flesh, foolish old god? Bah. Touch is overrated.

Ch7.08 Revelations

The portal opens to a stone platform under an arched, stone roof. On the platform, glyphs of protection and transportation – facilitators to travel into the estate overlapped with filters to keep visitors with bad intentions from simply teleporting in – are inlaid in tiny tiles of different stones that glow as the energy of the portal flows through them. And beyond the platform, a narrow, roofed pathway through a garden gone wild, left to its devices for over a century, the dried corpses of dead plants tangled and showing through the green shoots of new grass and small bushes. Among them, tiny sprites lounge and play, probably used to calling the property their home for generations now, as is usual in these high mana, Upper Ring estates. The pathway leads to the main house, the guest house looming further away, to the left side of the garden. Nothing out of the ordinary, nothing to cause concern.

Dion takes it all in with a shallow breath, his heart both racing and catching at the sight. Can he truly remember any of this? Are any of his blurry memories real or is the familiar feeling he is experiencing just a product of an overeager imagination? How can he ever be certain?

Well, no way of knowing for now. He grips the handle of his suitcase a little tighter, then leans back and calls through the portal, “Come on. It’s all right.”

After him comes Kori, who runs out, a medium-sized backpack dangling from his shoulders and hitting his back as he rushes to explore the immediate surroundings. Merri and Cherry are next, slower, more cautious. More burdened as well. Cherry has a large backpack strapped to her back which looks heavy enough, but Merri is carrying a backpack and hauling two large suitcases which, Dion knows for a fact, she needed help to close. He wonders just how many clothes the Bunnies own, since none of them seems the type to engage in retail therapy. Other than, maybe, Tulip, who is just stepping through the portal with Sage, complaining to her patient brother about the weight of her small suitcase, probably in hopes that he will offer to carry it, along with his own. Alma and Chime calmly take up the rear, followed by a hesitant Geryon.

“Oh lovely,” the gryphon comments, looking around at the overgrown garden. “A week in the jungle. I wonder if we will find some long-abandoned temple inhabited by blood-drinking cultists with a habit of ripping the beating hearts from people’s chests.”

“It just needs a little work,” Alma says softly, touching Geryon’s head and looking reassuringly at Dion. “I’m sure we can have the plants tame again in a couple of days.”

The god nods at her with a small smile, glancing to see Geryon look down, abashed, as if having just been reminded of some deal struck when Dion wasn’t watching. Though not quite the best of friends, the gryphon and the goddess seem to have reached a certain comfortable camaraderie more based on a quiet, mutual understanding than on outright demonstrations of affection. Something Dion delights to see, for he doesn’t know how long his best friend will last and would not in any circumstance want to be in a position where keeping his lover meant letting go of someone who has been nothing but a loyal and kind (in his own way) companion to him.

“Yes, I am sure it will,” Geryon murmurs, apologetic.

“Ohhh that’s why you brought us along,” Cherry jokes. Though sad and haunted for the past few days, she is already brightening considerably from her state of mourning. It seems the change in scenery is working its magic on her. “Buncha gardeners and maids! Can I get a big floppy straw hat?”

“Ooo, I want a maid outfit!” Merri laughs, a little forced but, like her sister, looking radiant at the prospect of this vacation. She appraises the garden and sighs, smiling, “I’ve always wanted a flower garden.”

“Well, when one is named after a flower, a garden must seem like an appropriate place to be,” Geryon notes, brushing a wing against her in affection. “I am sure you will brighten it with your presence, as soon as we can have all the weeds standing lower than the average giant.”

“And we’ll take care of clothes and tools soon,” Dion says, trying to match their enthusiasm. “There’s probably a storage shed with such things…” He gestures vaguely with his one free hand. “Somewhere. We’ll search for it. But please, remember: let me or Alma or Geryon check any room or building before entering. Just to be on the safe side.”

“We will remember,” Sage assures him, looking intently at the three younger Bunnies, who are already putting their luggage down in order to go off on their own.

“But we wanna explore!” Tulip bickers, bouncing on her toes.

“But we are going to explore slooooooowly,” Alma insists, a look on her face that never fails to catch her children’s attention to the seriousness of her tone. It as always struck Dion like a little bit of magic all of its own. “And probably get our things inside the house first and foremost. I swear, I have never seen so much luggage being dragged around for a simple week of vacation!”

“Well we didnae ken what t’bring!” Merri cries, defending herself since she is, by far, guilty of most – nay, all of it.

“So you brought half the closet!” Cherry says, insisting to Alma, a thumb pointing at the stuffed shoulder bag hanging over the Bunny’s shoulder, “This here’s all I packed. She packed a whole bunch more of my clothes when I wasn’t lookin’.”

“Considering how many hours a day you ladies spend naked, even that backpack seems a little excessive,” Geryon notes in a half mutter that gets him a squinting glare from Cherry, followed by the Bunny’s tongue sticking out at him.

“I…think we better head to the house,” Alma says, exchanging a meaningful look and a helpless smile with Dion. “Before this turns into a wild camping campaign.”

She joins him, walking just a couple of steps behind him as they follow the path toward the house, the pale, stone-lined walls stretching left and right with long, tall windows. A house filled with natural light…just the way he–

Well, the way he thinks he remembers it. Dion unlocks the garden door with ease. There is no key to it, just a series of movements of the knob that he knows instinctively to make. Though the last time he made them, he would have needed to use both hands and stand on his tiptoes.

They enter the building in almost solemn silence. The door opens into a bright living-room, spacious but still cozy-feeling, the furniture and decor seemingly picked more for simple comfort than for any complex idea of theme-based design, as is the Upper Ring fashion. Instead, the chairs and low table are sturdy wood of beautiful but plain lines. The large windows that can be opened fully, turning the room into a semi-outdoor space, and have a subtle tint to them, he realizes, so that the light that filters through is soft and not aggressive to the eyes. Still he can see motes of dust, much, much less dust than would be expected for a house closed and uninhabited for so long to accumulate.

It looks like Math sent a cleanup crew, he thinks. Probably sylphs. They are amazing at dusting.

On the floor, by the table, he sees a blanket laid out, a little crumpled as if someone has been sitting on it. And on the blanket…is that a set of building blocks? He walks toward it, putting his luggage down and crouching to pick up a handful of them. Colorful, wooden building blocks, some translucent, made of the exotic Bineh’iu tree pulp. A memory of this very same blanket and these very same blocks strikes him. But his hand could only hold one at a time back then…

I should have brought Gryphy along with me…

“Think they put out some fresh linens for the beds?” Cherry asks, breaking his train of thought. “If not, we better get to airin’ the sheets and stuff out now, take advantage of this sun.”

“First things first,” Alma intervenes, moving to stand behind Dion and lean down to kiss his temple. She reaches under the table and pulls out a little basket, in which more building blocks are stored. She whispers in his ear, “I could see it from where I was standing. Maybe we should put them away for safekeeping?”

He looks at her gratefully and proceeds to put all the blocks inside the basket, standing and letting her pick up and fold the blanket with practiced ease. The way his mother would have done it.

“It is best if the six of you stay here with Geryon for a moment while Gwydion and I make a first recognition of the house to make sure the main rooms are safe,” she says as she carefully places the folded blanket in the basket and pushes the whole set under the table again, glancing quizzically at Dion. “Unless you would prefer to do it alone or take Geryon with you?”

He shakes his head and holds out a hand for her to hold. “No, please come with me. Geryon, could you watch over them?”

“Oh, of course. Is that not why your Bunnysitter was invited to come on this vacation?” the gryphon replies, walking over to a chaise lounge and climbing onto it, his smaller, household form allowing him to fit in it. Dion winces at the thought of the future brushing of gryphon fur off the cream-colored velvet. “I shall attentively guard them until your victorious return. Please do make sure not to scream too loudly when you find the inevitable secret room of bloody demise.”

Cherry plops down beside Geryon and gives him a nervous look. “Don’t even joke about that stuff, baby, please?”

“I am sure the house is perfectly safe,” Geryon assures her, his raptorine features showing his concern for her. “Dion is just being his growingly usual paranoid self. You have nothing to fear, darling Cherry.”

“Can we play in the garden while you do all that boring stuff?” Kori asks, looking tired of waiting already.

Dion hesitates before giving in. “Very well. The garden seems to contain nothing dangerous aside from a few potentially annoying insects. Perhaps you can find some particularly interesting ones.”

The Bunny’s face lights up immediately with excitement. “Cool! Come on, guys!”

Cherry smiles as the three youngest Bunnies charge out into the garden as if they haven’t seen the outdoors in months. “Nobody but that boy’s gonna get excited about gettin’ bit by bugs,” she says, rising as well. “Come on, Merri – let’s start figurin’ out what we gotta do for the garden.”

And as they busy themselves, leaving Geryon lounging on the chaise, one eye intently locked on all the activity going on outside, Dion guides Alma into one of two hallways leading further into the house. They walk quietly through the ground floor, inspecting a more formal, but equally simple dining room, a few storage rooms and the large kitchen, which would still easily pale against the one in Math’s estate. The house, spacious as it is, was clearly built for a small family with just the necessary amount of servants attending it, not too many, not too few. Everything looks tastefully picked and put together, every room conserved by some sort of spell to feel as fresh and clean as when it was last inhabited. His parents, Dion realizes, were no fans of lavishness or fashion. Their taste comes through in the understated beauty of each room, in the finer details of wallpaper and furniture and a statue or painting or vase here and there. Their home such a different scenario to what his childhood could have been.

“Does any of this feel familiar to you?” Alma asks softly as they walk toward the right wing of the house.

“Completely familiar and utterly unknown,” he replies in a near-whisper. “I feel as if I have lived here, yet I recognize almost nothing.”

“You were very young back then,” she says in a quiet voice. “It is normal for it to feel that way.”

They stop by the mouth of a hallway, its entrance lined with magical glyphs of warding. Dion runs his fingers through them, the language in which they are written so easily decipherable. His eyes flare as he inspects to see that the spells bound to magic symbols are still active. “I think this might to lead to where they used to work. Maybe not the best place to go into right now.”

And yet, he feels his heart racing at the thought of what he might find past this threshold. He squeezes Alma’s hand almost without even realizing it and she squeezes it back.

“Why don’t we make it off-limits for now and explore upstairs instead?” she suggests. “We can come back here in the afternoon.”

He follows her unresisting as they walk away, but not without another glance toward the mysterious hallway. A couple of turns later, they find the servant access staircase – through the kitchen – to the first floor.

“Hmm, this seems like a floor for living quarters,” Alma notes as they walk through far less complicated and segmented hallways. “There must be bedrooms behind these doors.”

“I’ll check them,” Dion replies. “I’m sure Uncle would have removed or cordoned off any dangers, but he probably has a blind spot when it comes to mortal safety.”

Alma nods agreement, her eyes glowing with the gentle light that, since the awakening of her third sphere, she never quite manages to hide. “Always best to check. They seem to be empty of living creatures, though.”

He smiles at her and then activates his own divine sight before opening the door and stepping in. Inside is a white-walled room, lit with the daylight that filters through a pair of yellowish, translucent curtains, the heavier, opaque drapes tied back at this time of day. The two-person bed is freshly made, sitting against the wall, in the middle of the room, while on the dresser are placed the most varied amenities. An inner door leads to a small bathroom.

“Seems that there are no worries to be had with bed-linens,” Dion says. “Everything is made up quite nicely.”

“The Bunnies will be overwhelmed at all this space in a single bedroom.” She looks at him ruefully, as if to say even though this is just standard for us, isn’t it? And it is. Some people he has met might even think it too small. “They might end up picking just one room and piling themselves together in it.”

“That will disappoint Geryon,” Dion says as he opens a closet and freezes, jaw dropped, to see it full of clothes. Not just any clothes. Blouses and skirts and vests and pants and dresses, half in somewhat frilly, flowery designs, the other more simple, but notably with some leather pieces, all fit for a short human – or a Bunny. “Oh my…seems like Uncle has made Rosemary’s over-packing even less necessary.”

He stands aside so Alma can see the panoply of garments that could easily dress a Bunny for months without having to repeat the same outfit. “I think this is meant to be for Merri and Cherry.”

Alma’s jaw drops just as much as his did and she covers her mouth with her hand in shock. “They will be going crazy with all of this…enough clothes for a whole year.” She looks at Dion, her eyes questioning. “Did you know about this?”

Dion shakes his head, pulling open a drawer on the dresser. “Oh, this is all Math’s own madness, I assure you.” He lifts out a red silk brassiere trimmed in lace, his eyebrow raised. He hastily puts it away, trying not to get too much of his scent on it. “Please tell me Uncle asked someone on staff to pick these out…”

His voice trails off at the sound of Alma’s laughter. Music to his ears, that doesn’t fail to make him smile. It has become such a rare thing and even now it is laced with an edge of despair. He knows better than anyone, how much she needs it.

“You know, there should be at least four more rooms for four more Bunnies,” she points out.

He nods. “Yes, I think there’ll be a room for each. Even one for May, I would guess, though she can’t be here on this trip.” His voice is somewhat grim when he adds, “He doesn’t do things by half measure. He wants them to love this place.”

Alma’s expression softens and she moves closer to him, reaching to hold both his hands in hers. “Well… It’s all right for them to love it. It does not mean this is the life they want to live for the rest of their days.” She locks eyes with him. “And the same goes for us.”

He squeezes her hands before releasing them and taking comfort in a full embrace. He closes his eyes, enjoying the proximity such a touch allows when most other things have been tainted by their recent sufferings. “We’ll let them give this place its fair shot. Then they can choose. They do seem…lighter than they’ve been. Their smiles brighter, more laughter. If they decide they want to stay…”

“We will deal with that if and when it happens,” Alma says softly close to his ear, her hand stroking his back. “For now, they should not be the only ones smiling more.”

She pulls back and smiles at him. It takes him a moment before he smiles back at her, his hand reaching to cup her cheek, to lean her head closer, until their lips meet. Now that their courtship is known to all, he should be enjoying her kisses more often, kissing her whenever he wants to with no cares as to who might see. He hates Nua all the more passionately for taking that pleasure away from him. For sneaking into his mind whenever is trying to enjoy his beloved’s touch.

As they break, Alma’s smile is subdued as if she could sense his thoughts, but she reaches for his hand and pulls him gently toward the door, jesting, “Come on, one of these rooms should be ours. Let us see if your uncle’s staff remembers my underwear size.”

“I am almost afraid to look at what they picked out for me,” he replies, following her. “If it’s the same staff member who chose the lingerie in that drawer, I might have a dresser full of thongs.”

Alma chuckles as they move down the hall, opening room after room. “The novelty type with animal themes, or would you go bolder and try the lace?”

“Maybe something that lights up, with a little warming unit for those cold winter days,” Dion replies, joining in the joke.

Soon, they have found all five rooms meant for the Bunnies, one of them reserved for May, as Dion suspected, and even one meant for Geryon. After Alma opens yet another door and peeks inside for just a moment before closing the door again, a sad look on her face. She shakes her head. “This is not it.”

“Should I not look in there?” Dion asks, feeling worried at her expression.

“You should, just…” she breathes deeply and touches his arm. “Maybe after we’ve settled in.”

He swallows, the dread of all the painful memories that might be unlocked during this visit rising in him. Everything he has lost, hidden behind closed doors in a house kept secret from him for so long. But he chooses to trust Alma’s judgement. He would certainly be a wreck already if she weren’t here with him. “Maybe we should just skip ahead to this last one,” he says, opening the very last door, at the end of the hall.

They peek in together and freeze in their tracks. The room is spacious without being oppressively grand, with a high ceiling and large windows on one wall arranged in a sort of alcove where a frame and mattress for a sort of bench have been placed. The bed is a four-poster that again has plenty of room but doesn’t look like one of those exaggerated affairs where finding one’s mate in bed might involve a map and a couple of hours of squirming travel. Two doors open into the room. One, Dion sees, leads into a walk-in closet, with just about as much as clothing inside it as both gods could wear in a year, suits and others for Dion on one side, various garments for Alma on the other, all of it similar to what they normally wear, at least what he is sure Math has seen them in.

Alma walks enters the second door to find a private bath with a bathtub that seems to invite bathing in pairs. Everything of the highest quality but with the same simplicity they have found throughout the house. She walks back into the bedroom part of the suite. “If your parents decorated this room, then they had amazing taste. And did not favor the more outrageous styles of interior designing.”

Dion walks around the room, running his hands along the wallpaper, a deceptively simple design that reveals complexity on closer examination. He remembers his fingers running through it, once before, when they were much, much smaller. “I was fascinated by this,” he barely more than whispers. “I remember…staring at it, tracing it with my fingers. Look, it doesn’t just repeat, there’s a rhythm to it. A reason…”

Alma joins him, looking intently at the wallpaper. “It looks almost as if it was fabricated as a single, wall-sized piece.” She touches her fingers to the wall, tracing the designs alongside him. Her eyes drift toward the window-lined alcove. “That alcove has a mattress thicker than would be needed to just sit down and there seem to be fittings for some sort of railing. I wonder as if it was used as a bed.” She looks at him. “Possibly for a child.”

He looks at her, eyes widening as realization dawns. With a few steps, he covers the distance to the alcove and kneels by it, touching the mattress as if in a trance, his movements not quite decided upon by his own conscious mind. And he remembers, very faintly, seeing his mother lean over him, the cream-colored ceiling with its sculpted cornice just above her. “I slept here…” he murmurs. “This was their room. I slept here in my first months.” He closes his eyes and sways forward, arms on the mattress.

He feels her rushing from where she was standing by the bed to his side, putting one arm around him. “You were their little boy. They wanted you close.” She sits down with her back against the alcove, placing something on the floor beside her. “Here, sit down with me.”

He breathes deeply, feeling flushed and dizzy at the onslaught of memories and emotions. Sitting down feels like a titanic effort but he does so, looking at the bedroom as if it were the tomb of his whole childhood.

“Look,” Alma says, handing him a small picture frame. “It was on the bedside table.”

He turns pale, almost not daring to look at what the picture inside might be, afraid to find…what? What picture kept on one’s bedside table could be so horrible to look at? He seizes it and studies the image intently, his breath stopped at the sight of a young-looking couple, the male tall and tan, his eyes golden and the smiling expression on his strong but kind-looking face an almost perfect match to the image that greets Dion whenever he looks in the mirror. The female sits on the grassy ground of the garden, copper-haired and paler, lines much more delicate but certainly bearing a familiar resemblance to Math’s, smiles as well, her hazel eyes almost shining with happiness. They are both looking at the toddler in her arms, light-skinned, chubby arms wrapped around a much younger-looking Gryphy. A dragonfly is perched on the dolls’ fuzzy head and little baby Dion, his black hair longer than he ever remembers wearing it, is looking at it entranced.

Yes, he has always loved dragonflies…

After a few heartbeats he feels himself breathe again. “It’s them. This…this is the first time I’ve seen their faces outside of dreams in more than a century.”

Beside him, Alma studies the picture as well, her arms around him, squeezing him gently. “They look so young. So happy. They were absolutely in love with that little boy.”

“Do you think so?” he asks her, almost fearfully. His chest feels as if it is about to burst, full of unanswered questions and sorrow.

She smiles softly at him and points at the picture. “The way they are looking at you… I know that look very well.” She strokes his cheek. “You have your mother’s eyes. And your father’s too, when you cast your magic.”

Dion draws a shaky breath, fighting back tears. It is all so sad, so overwhelmingly sad. “I…” He tears his eyes away from the picture, from the happy trio to look at her, hating to feel so lost before her but unable to avoid it. “I don’t know…if I can stay in here. I don’t know…oh Alma…”

He hangs his head and turns to lean against her, head on her shoulder, overcome by the crashing waves of emotion: loss and reconnection, the pain of the memories of their abduction breaking against suddenly resurgent memories of playing in that garden, enhanced by the muffled noise of the Bunnies shouting joyfully outside. He remembers being happy. He remembers it if only in contrast to how sad he feels now, how mournful. His body shakes with a wordless cry of pain as she holds him closely against her and kisses the side of his head, her body almost instinctively rocking gently.

“It’s all right,” she whispers. “It’s all right. Whatever you decide, we’ll do and no one will mind that. We have all the time in the world. We can take it slowly. It’s all right.”

He holds on tightly to her, letting her rock him, comfort him. Letting her make him feel safe and supported. Her words barely bear meaning, muffled against his sobs, but the sound of her voice is enough. And she keeps murmuring, things he makes no sense of, some words in her family’s language, he thinks, which she has whispered in his ear before to snap him out of some more horrid nightmare or other. They lull him, soft and steady, together with the slow cadence of her heartbeats against his body, until he is no longer sobbing, no longer shaking. Until he is just breathing quietly against her neck, unsure of how long they have sat like this, the picture frame still firmly gripped in his hand.

And maybe feeling him calm down, she says, “We can go back to Three Rats. Or try the guest house. Anything that makes you feel better. Whatever you wish, we’ll do.”

Her lovely scent creeps into the foreground of his attention, soothing him. “I just need…to absorb it all. So much…”

“I know,” she replies, stroking his hair. “Where is Gryphy? Did you bring him along?”

He can’t help but smile at her remembering of his childhood companion. “No… I never thought of it. But I wish I had.”

“I can go downslope and bring him over for you,” she suggests. “It shouldn’t take me more than a few hours.”

“Oh no, no, no, no,” he refuses adamantly. “You will not leave me here to my ghosts for hours just to go back for a toy. I’ll just hold you instead. I’m happy holding you for comfort.” He straightens a little to look into her eyes. “I can’t imagine…not having you here to do this with me.”

She smiles at the words, strokes his cheek. “I’m yours. I’ll be here every step of the way. You were loved and you are loved. Very much so.”

He presses his forehead against hers, closing his eyes. “I’m blessed. I know I am. I need to find more of them but…slowly. I know that there are many more of these moments coming my way. I just need to tackle them one at a time.”

She nods, leaning upward to kiss his forehead. “Of course. Baby steps.”

“Yes,” he agrees, glancing at the picture. “Baby steps…”

Ch7.07 Revelations

Somrak circles Alma’s desk and looks at the chair. It’s not like he hasn’t sat in it before. He’s used her desk, and sometimes Dion’s desk as well, when he was serving here for a week during the last time Sky was out of action – not so very long ago at all, really. But now Alma and Dion are gone, and Somrak, cruel Fates help us all, is in charge.

Fencer had better show up soon. Otherwise, without official orders in written form or verbal from the Subcommander herself, Somrak figures he has until sundown before Machado revolts. The mortal sergeant has been glaring at him like he didn’t care at all about the fact that Somrak could turn him to ash in a few seconds. Machado looks too angry to care about things like that. And why not? All the people he trusts are gone, and in their place…is Somrak.

And who trusts Somrak? Certainly not Somrak.

The last time Somrak was on official active duty in Three Rats, he took down a bullying gang single-handedly, lying to himself that he was doing his good deed for the day but really just for the fun of it – and threw a whole box of random rusty tools into the works of the delicate plans that Sky, Alma, and Dion were developing for dealing with gangs in the ward. And then Somrak uncovered a traitor in the off-blues, and in the process turned his fellow special agents against him. Then Somrak kissed Alma, having blinded himself to the obvious-to-everyone-else fact that she and Dion were a couple. And then Somrak killed a gang of murderous frost giants because, hey, taking down a gang without orders worked so well the first time, why not do it again even bigger and more badass? And then Somrak took Alma and Dion and Saira the mortal assassin into almost-certain-worse-than-death to rescue Sky, without telling the bosses, because…well, it had made sense at the time. And they’d all been tortured and Saira had died and nobody was ever really going to recover from it, were they?

And this is pretty much the story of Somrak’s life, though admittedly the number of screwups lately have been compressed into a much shorter time than usual. Somrak normally has a great many more successes to balance out the times he’s made the Commander bite through a cigar in fury.

Somrak, Somrak, Somrak. Thinking his name over and over starts to make it sound weird in his head, so he’s grateful when there is a knock on the door.

“Yeah, come on in!”

“Well that’s a fine way to welcome a new arrival,” a familiar voice says as the door opens. It is female, low, with an appealing growl that is both challenging and friendly. He recognizes it before he sees the athletic woman it belongs to, her yellow eyes remarkable in that dark-tanned face framed by grey-brown hair and wolf ears with fur to match.

Somrak grins and stands, coming around the desk. “Well, I was told you’d be somebody I knew. I didn’t even think of you as a possibility. Good to see you again, Sergeant Pavia.”

She tilts her head at him and crosses her arms, looking him up and down as if sizing him up for a bout of wrestling. Or a snack. “Good to see you too, seeing as whatever your stunt was got me kicked downslope with a ‘You’re lucky you’re not getting busted down to Probationary Constable’.” Despite her words, her voice retains its playfulness. Even so, Somrak feels dismay. He and Alma had convinced a prisoner to turn on the necromancer, Nua, and reveal Sky’s location so that they could rescue him. Alma had called upon her old Academy roommate and later patrol partner Pavia to babysit the prisoner.

Before he can frame his apology, Pavia continues, looking around at the office. “So, this is Three Rats. Where’s the other Dei? You know…Alma and that other sergeant… And the guy you were going in to save…” Her tone turns concerned and she looks back at Somrak, her face apprehensive at what answer he might give. “I’ve been assuming bad news travels fast.”

Somrak sighs, dropping his gaze and putting a hand to his forehead for a moment before gesturing at the sofa. “Ah, demons… Have a seat. We’ll be sharing this office this week, unless you’d like other accommodations. First of all, I am sorry as Hell you got in trouble.” His voice is forceful and sincere with that, and he pauses a moment, looking into her eyes, before continuing. “But…jumping to the last bit, we saved Sky’s life. It really was a near thing, too. If you hadn’t come to help so fast…it could have gone much worse.” He’s not quite telling the truth, but it’s not really a lie, either. “As for Alma and Dion, they’re why I’m here. And you. They, uh, they got beat up pretty bad in the rescue. Really…bad. And they’ve been ordered to take a week off. That’s where they are…healing.”

Pavia sat while he was talking, but she starts to rise to her feet again by the end, looking truly alarmed. “I’ve never known Alma to take comfort in anything but work when she was hurting. How bad is it if she has to go away? And…she’s coming back, right?” Her voice is aghast.

“Oh she’s coming back,” Somrak says without a trace of doubt, as if stating the weather right outside the window. He gestures with both his hands, encouraging her to stay seated, and he sits on the edge of the desk himself. “But…what happened was quite a bit more severe than usual. Inspector Tuma-Sukai is off healing as well, and he’s going to be a lot longer than a week. But hopefully a week is enough to do Alma and Dion a lot of good.”

He is unable to say many of the details of the situation – the identity of Nua, Margrave’s connection to Nekh, Sky’s identity as a turncoat devil loyal to the Guardia, the existence of the god-binding rituals of the Tragas, all are highly classified, so he keeps the description as simple and vague as he can. Best not to even start down that road.

Pavia looks at him, her ears perked forward, and her nostrils flare. Somrak groans inwardly. The Bunnies have been bad enough, with their sharp senses and skill at interpreting body language, vocal stress, and scent making them bouncy, adorable lie detectors. But Pavia is Wolf Clan, a race of demigod-equivalent hybrids who have a reputation for reading beyond spoken words that make the Bunnies look like beginners at that game. In his time as a special agent of the Guardia, Somrak has developed considerable skill at hiding his true emotions, but Wolf Clan and interrogation-trained Guardia? Pavia is going to read him like a book. A children’s book. The kind with no more than six words on a page.

For the moment, however, she swallows her questions and concerns. “Well, my orders.” She pulls a standard Guardia envelope from her jacket and hands it over.

He takes it and easily opens it, breaking the wax seal stamped with the Guardia emblem. “Thanks…” He scans it, past the usual boilerplate, expecting to see something that he doesn’t see. He looks up at her. “Um, it doesn’t have an end-date on your assignment here. I thought you were just here for the week.”

He notices Pavia’s widening eyes and tensing shoulders just as he detects someone behind him. His hands are already on the hilts of the two knives at the small of his back before he is even conscious of any of this, but he relaxes as he hears an even rougher, deeper, growlier voice ringing out from the newcomer.

“Well, that’s what happens when people like you take a shot at thinking. They get things wrong. Now hand me those orders.”

He lets go of his blades and catches the sheet of paper he released as it starts to slide through the air toward the floor. “Ah, there she is, appearing behind me to try to make me jump.” Without looking, he passes the orders behind him over his shoulder. “I was about to offer Sergeant Pavia here something to drink. I think I owe her several hundred. You want something, Subcommander?”

Pavia’s jaw drops open, an expression of even greater shock on her face, and she straightens to respectful attention immediately. The Fencer plucks the orders from Somrak’s fingers as she rounds the desk on his right side, but doesn’t even look at them, as if she already knows what they say but must fulfill the formality of accepting them. “Have your raggedy bunch of insubordinates actually taught you how to brew a proper cup of coffee in that thing?” She gestures toward the coffee pot, one that consists of a lower chamber for water and an upper one that screws on, for the coffee to boil up through. “Or was your previous time here a complete waste?” Before he can answer, her eyes lock on Pavia. “At ease, Sergeant. I’ll be spending the week here to see if either of you two is still of any use to the Guardia.” She gestures down across Somrak. “This is Kuhn. Try not to get eaten by him.”

Somrak feels the heavy bump of a furred and whiskered cheek against his thigh as the blue-pelted tiger rubs against him in passing, almost knocking him over. “Kuhn! You haven’t run away from her yet!” Somrak kneels and scratches the tiger’s cheeks and behind the ears with both hands. He rises after rubbing his own cheek against the top of the tiger’s head, receiving a deep purr in return. The mutant blue-grey tiger had been in Somrak’s care for a brief time, before finding a permanent home with the Fencer, a sort of peace offering.

“Uh…sure. I mean, yes Ma’am!” Confronted with the Subcommander, Pavia seems highly unsettled.

Somrak rises and moves to the coffee pot. “You’ll have to tell me how the coffee is.” As he unscrews it and fills the lower chamber with water from the sink, he keeps talking. “So Pavia’s here indefinitely?” He open the can of Dion’s coffee, noting the glyph that enchants it for freshness and enjoying the smell of the fine-ground powder as he spoons it into the filter and screws the upper chamber back on, making it tight. He holds the lower chamber in his palm and starts heating up the water using his divine sphere.

“And finally I know what you’re good for,” Fencer mutters as the pot starts bubbling. She jerks a thumb at Pavia. “Your little friend here will be learning the meaning of the concept of ‘free will’, which includes the freedom to shoulder the consequences of her own actions. Anyway, it can’t be that bad a punishment, since she’ll soon be joining all her favorite friends. Or is it?” She focuses a crimson eye on Pavia.

“It…could be worse – But I’m not complaining!” Pavia is quick to reply. Then her voice becomes slightly more subdued. “I mean, I got my kids upslope but…they’re better off there anyway. I’ll take my punishment.”

“Good.” Fencer looks back at Som. “Maybe you could learn a thing or two about respecting command from this one.”

Somrak pours little cups full of coffee and hands them to the two female immortals. At hearing about Pavia’s children, his heart plunges, and he shoots Fencer a glare that goes beyond the usual insubordinate banter, but he keeps his mouth shut about it for the moment. “I’m sure she’ll have plenty to teach me. Maybe you, too.” He sips his coffee, not at all bothered by the fact that it is just below boiling. “So do I have any orders? I think the locals are going to want to see that this is all official and I’m not just stealing the place from their friends.”

“I am your orders, Ponytail,” Fencer tells him, drinking the coffee with a grimace at the heat. She looks at the cup. “Well, not completely a waste of water and powder. Try to leave it somewhere below lava-hot next time. I assume your friends are all gone and enjoying themselves?”

“Gone, presumably enjoying,” Somrak says, finishing his coffee with another sip. “They have the Bunnies with them, so that should help with fun. Merri says just write a list of drinks we serve ourselves and they’ll figure up the bill when they get back.”

“He’s paying for everything this week,” Fencer says with grim humor. “Just the type of person he is.” She looks from Pavia to Somrak. “I’ll leave you two alone to get caught up while I go downstairs and get this rat’s nest under my command.” She tilts her head at Somrak. “Or rather your command. Anything else and I’ll be in the Inspector’s office – assuming this place even has one of those.”

“Downstairs. Hasn’t seen much use in awhile.”

Somrak watches as Fencer leaves without any further comment, Kuhn at her side. As the door closes, he notices that the entire station falls silent, and he says to Pavia, “They actually know the tiger…they’re all going quiet because of the Fencer.”

“Yeah…no kidding,” Pavia mumbles, looking toward the door with unease. “I’ve probably seen her just once or twice before, back at the Academy. Alma took her classes but I just got my rear all the way out of her reach as fast as I could.” She looks back at Somrak, defiance blooming. “I’m no cowardly pup but I’m not stupid either. I know an epic bitch when I see one. And she’s like…alpha elevated to infinity.”

Somrak shrugs and unscrews the now-empty, still-hot coffeepot. He taps the filter against the rubbish bin to knock the used coffee grounds out, then starts to efficiently wash the pot and cups in the sink. “I suppose one of these days she might cut my head off. Until then, I’ll keep telling her what I think. She’s not that bad. Damn good to have on your side in a fight. Come on, I think she’s gone into her office. Good time to introduce you to the Popula. We’ll look so nice and reasonable by comparison. They’ve been working close with the Dei here, and I don’t see any reason to stop that. Other than a lot of them having a bad opinion of me. Maybe you’ll be the one they relate to.”

“Should I play my cute wolfie act and let them rub my belly while you try to strike up a conversation?” Pavia suggests, batting her eyelashes in parody and wagging her long, thick-furred tail. “I can ask them to throw a stick for me.”

Somrak dries the cups and pot and sets them back where they were. He looks over his soulder at her with an eyebrow raised. “Let’s not get carried away,” he says. “We can hold that in reserve, in case things go real bad. For now, just be Pavia.”

“Aaww! But I like having my belly rubbed!” Joking, she whimpers, following him out the door.

He holds up a finger. “Belly rubs are for after shift.” He looks over the landing and sees Machado looking up at him. The Popula sergeant is grim and stoical in the aftermath of speaking with a Subcommander of the Guardia. Somrak touches his brow with two fingers in a mock salute and begins to descend the stairs.

Behind him, Pavia whimpers again, but he can tell she’s smiling. “Meanie. I’m calling the cops on you.”

Ch7.06 Revelations

Whistling a happy tune that echoes eerily, bouncing off the walls and the shelves and the glass of the bottles, Merri pops down into the wine cellar, holding a lantern with a low flame fueled by compressed gas. With her large, light-sensitive Bunny eyes, she prefers to keep the flame small, though she must admit that the shadows cast among the shelves and the cave-like walls are a touch spooky. It’s such a strange old place, quiet and still and feeling far more ancient than it could possibly be. Sky told her it’s been here longer than the Guardia Station above it, longer than the building has been around, that the chamber, before it became a wine cellar, has been here longer than Three Rats has been part of the Insula, since back when it was part of a faraway world that broke away and drifted here. Funny that a bar got built atop it, and that after that bar went bust, another was founded in the same building, their dear lovely Burrow, best bar in the whole Fourth Ring!

The thought of the Burrow closing for a week makes her lose track of where she is as she scans the rows of bottle after bottle, not just wine but every sort of shelf-stable drink you can imagine, looking for a very special bottle of wine to take along on this trip to dear Dion’s estate. An estate! Goodness, next thing you know, Dion’ll be announcing he’s a long-lost Prince! And he’ll prove it by showing a birthmark on his bum!

Giggling to herself, she feels the handle of the lantern catch on the neck of a bottle of cachaça, the local sugar-cane spirits with a taste similar to rum, that is sticking out from the shelf much farther than the rest. In fact she could swear it wasn’t sticking out so far until just a moment ago – but before she can catch it, it slips from the shelf and falls to shatter on the floor, filling with room with a strangely dolorous ringing.

The sound of glass breaking is something she’s intimately familiar with. Careful as one might be, things slip and hit the floor now and then in a bar, and though it always makes her sigh in annoyance to hear it, she instantly thinks of where the broom and the mop and the dustpan are upstairs, intending to go get them and clean this up as quickly as possible, for the portal to Dion’s estate is opening in just half an hour and there’s really no time for this AND OH MY GOODNESS WHAT IN CREATION IS THAT??

Instead of a huge puddle of cachaça, amidst the sharp fragments of glass lying between an intact, jagged-edged base and a broken-lengthwise neck topped with a cork sealed with thick globs of wax, a wisp of black smoke forms, and grows, and spins into a tiny tornado that smells strongly of sulphur.

Merri jumps away, terrified, thinking of demons and of evil gods with barbed chains coming out of their hands, and winces as her back slams against a stone pillar. She barely manages to hold onto the lantern. But the sulphurous dust-devil, which quickly grows to the size of a Bunny, moves slightly away and then coalesces into a solid, human-seeming form.

The Bunny stares. It’s a boy! she thinks, a boy of perhaps eleven or twelve who has darker skin than even the darkest human she has ever seen. Shirtless, he wears a pair of red shorts on his hips, but only a single leg supports him, on which he easily balances, as if the lack of a leg is perfectly normal for him. Atop his unkempt, kinky hair is a long red stocking cap, and from his full lips hangs a little clay pipe from which a wisp of smoke drifts. Merri wrinkles her nose at the foul scent of the cheap tobacco that starts to replace the initial smell of sulphur.

Ara… Já taba mesmo numa hora dessa de deixar eu sair dessa coisa.” The boy’s voice is high, right at the cusp of changing from child to adult. He looks at Merri, a puzzled expression on his face. “Mas que espécie de bicho é esse? Quer ver que homi já cruza com coelhinho pernalonga?

Merri straightens and blinks, pushing her mussed curls from her face, and nervously offers a broad smile. “Well ain’t ye the most adorable wee fella? I ain’t quite followin’…but aye, I’m a Bunny! I’m Merri! Well, I’m Rosemary, but everyone calls me Merri. What’s your name, dear, an’ how’d ye get stuck in a bottle, then?”

The boy scratches under his cap, looking at a loss. “Qu’é isso, minino…? Coelhinha falando que nem gente… ‘Ocê sabe falar língua de bicho, não? Bicho eu percebo ma’ essa besteirada toda q’ocê disse aí eu não entendo não…

Merri tries her best to understand, but though she has picked up much of Batepapo, the local language of Three Rats, what he is speaking sounds similar but at the same time quite different. “Och, ye dinnae speak Urbia a’tall then, d’ye? Nae wonder it is, what with bein’ stuck in a bottle for so long.” She switches to Batepapo and says, “What’s your name, dear? Mine is Merri. Welcome to the Burrow, um, our little home!” She is less than fluent in it, mixing in more Urbia than she should, but even one of the oldest locals who hardly ever speaks Urbia would understand her, aside from her accent.

The boy looks at her, squinting in suspicion, then says suspiciously, “Menina…cê fala que parece que engoliu maçaroca de milho no espeto!” He shakes a threatening finger. “Como ‘cê me libertou eu vou-lhe poupar mas é só dessa vez, viu? Agora eu me vou é fugir antes que me peguem de novo! Fui!” And with that final exclamation, the boy spins impossibly fast, turning back into a dust-devil, which in a flash zips up the stairs and out of the cellar, leaving behind only the smell of sulphur and the acrid whiff of cheap tobacco.

Merri puts a hand to her mouth, feeling a deep sense of foreboding. She squats and looks at the shattered remains of the bottle, and picks up the wax-encrusted neck. In the wax are scratched letters, words that she does not understand, and numerous little crucifixes like some of the monotheists wear.

Then she gasps as she remembers that she barely has time to clean up this mess before they leave for Dion’s estate. Oh dear, oh dear, I’ll have to tell someone about what happened later! Mother, or perhaps Dion. They’re so tense and sad, though, it’s a shame to bother them with it. Oh, I’ll tell Somrak if I see him! That’s it! But then it’s only some young god or something. Surely a little boy will be no trouble.

Ch7.05 Revelations

There is an intrinsic belief to most intelligent creatures that every creature’s path is anything but lonesome. We are connected to others, through blood, through emotion, through responsibility. And every now and again, through something more. There are souls meant to cross our path and leave it almost immediately, shockingly sometimes. Earth-shaking, life-altering contacts. Other souls, however, are meant to stay. They are meant to walk the path with us, to guide us sometimes. To follow, sometimes. To walk side by side until the inevitable end. To be our soulmates.

And while this is true, the assumption that tends to follow – that soulmates are a once-in-a-lifetime event – is not. That they are to be romantic partners is not true either. The truth is that soulmates come in the most variable shapes and sizes. Skin, fur, feather, scale, spirit. Friend, family, lover. Companion. Love has but the shape we give it.

And it may come from the most unexpected places. At least for some. It is a strange thing for some, Alma knows, the relationship she has with Starfax. It is not a vocal love – Starfax does not speak, at least in any form of speech understood to most – not a physical one – the elusive phoenix rarely seeks petting – but it is, nonetheless, a loyal, companionable friendship. It is an understanding, of neither dominance or ownership between two souls who are better together than apart. A quiet, reassuring love that rests on the knowledge that this other being has chosen to follow the same path and won’t leave but for some unpredictable tragedy.

Starfax has always been there. Egg to hatchling to blossoming adulthood, she has always been free to leave, the bars of her cage a meaningless obstacle for the ethereal phoenix, meant more to ensure the peace, safety and privacy of a hiding place than to keep her from leaving. And Starfax has never left. Never judged.

Through fevers and depression and pointless wandering from station to station, all the way down to dark Three Rats, she has followed Alma’s path. And though she has mostly stayed out of the way of the Bunnies and even of Gwydion’s sight whenever he visits Alma’s sanctum, the goddess knows her best friend, her soulmate of decades, has accepted them as new features in Alma’s life.

Which is all to the goddess’ happiness, what little of it she has found in her heart in these last few days since Sky’s abduction and extraction from Nua’s malevolent talons. “Life as normal” has not been an easy thing to deal with. In spite of Arion’s promise of help, the nightmares have been a constant. And though her family treats her no differently – albeit with an obvious increase in the number of daily hugs and odd glances her way in search of reassurance – Alma still feels like a detached, almost alien presence in her own body. The frayed edges of her soul, torn by the power of the godbinding spell and then by Nua’s desperate attacks, refuse to grab a firm hold of her corporeal self. She is attached to her body only by tendrils, she knows, a gentle hold she might accept more easily if not for the stupid, mind-numbing fear that some part of Nua is still left in her, biding for a moment of distraction to finish what she started.

The thought terrifies Alma. And not just her. Gwydion as well. She has caught him glancing her way more than once with a look about him of careful, fearful examination. In the worst of her moments, she has thought of leaving, of sparing everyone the uncertainty, of sparing him the dread. She has mostly opted to hide away somewhere and cry the breath out of her lungs in those moments, hating herself for her own cowardice in longing to make herself disappear for good. Permanently.

And certain as three after two, Starfax has been there, perching nearby, watching in silence. Guarding her friend. Ready to go wherever Alma goes. Even those times when Gwydion has not managed to find her, when his arms haven’t embraced her and pulled her close and held her tightly, breaking any resolve to leave with that silent plea for her to stay.

How can he love her still? How can he still want her by his side in the safety and sanctity of his bed every night and come looking for her in a panic if for some reason she’s not there when he wakes? How can he hesitate before every kiss but still kiss her? The lips that have smiled at his screams of pain…

It’s the touch of Starfax’s cheek to her own that makes Alma realize she was crying yet again. The goddess smiles at the phoenix, perching on the bedside table by where Alma has laid open the one piece of luggage she is packing to take to Gwydion’s parents’ estate for this dreadful vacation she can’t help but wish she had never agreed to. Yet another emotional blow for Gwydion in such a short period of time, in a house none of them knows, that might even be dangerous – she is not sure can handle it all. But she will have to. For him and for her children, who desperately need a stress-free vacation.

“It won’t be as frightening if you’re there too,” she says, scratching the back of Starfax’s head before her hand slides down to pick up the cord around the phoenix’s neck, to which a brown jewel is attached. Nekh’s soul-gem, that Alma has entrusted to Starfax’s safe-keeping for the past two weeks. “Soon you won’t have this burdening you anymore.”

She takes the jewel for now. It will be needed for the conversation she has scheduled for–

“Alma?” Gwydion’s voice cuts through her train of thought.

Alma closes her hand around the jewel, then closes her suitcase. “I am almost ready.”

“Come on,” he says gently, kneeling behind her and resting hands on her shoulders. “Everyone is ready and I’m afraid Merri is about to get a hand’s width shorter under the weight of all the luggage she’s bringing along.”

The thought makes Alma snort as she leans back against him. “Who would have guessed she’s that type of girl? And it’s not like she is particularly fashion-centered on a daily basis.”

The subdued humor of Gwydion’s quiet chuckling is as much a pleasure as the feeling of his arms wrapping around her in a little squeezing embrace before he loosens his hold. “Maybe she’s just anxious.”

“She’s not the only one,” Alma notes, twisting a little to look at his face sideways. “You barely slept last night.”

He looks pained. “And I kept you awake…I’m sorry for that.”

With a little more twisting and adjusting, she manages to shift sideways fully, so that she can rest her head on his shoulder. “Don’t be. It’s not like I’m going to miss the nightmares I didn’t have because I was awake.” She closes her eyes as he strokes her hair. “And at least awake I could keep you company and be there for you.”

He doesn’t reply but keeps petting her for a moment. Intimacy has not been easy, not with the ghost of Nua tearing a gash of trauma and uncertainty between them. Since the night before their rescue of Sky, their essences have not been closer than the moderate closeness a kiss allows. Their walls are raised, not just against each other but against the world, a disheartening scar that has Alma fearing for the future of their relationship. Though they hold on, fiercely, to each other, hoping they can heal together.

“Maybe we can both get some sleep this week,” Gwydion breathes, kissing the side of her head before rising to his feet. “Come on…”

Alma rises as well after closing her suitcase. “Could you take my bag upstairs, please? There is a book I want to take with me…”

“Of course,” he replies, reaching to pick up her suitcase and looking mildly surprised at its lightness. “Don’t be long. The portal is scheduled to open in five minutes.”

“I will be right out,” Alma assures him, feeling a little pang of guilt at the little grain of truth she is not quite telling him.

He nods and leaves, closing the door behind him. And immediately, the room feels colder, the air drier, the light duller, lifeless. Not because he is gone. Because someone else has stepped in.

“A touching scene,” her father says with that mild intonation of humor he puts into every sentence, as if the world exists to amuse him. “If not for your failure to mention our scheduled appointment.”

“He has enough on his mind already,” Alma says, turning to face her father, currently sitting on the edge of the bed. “He certainly does not need to have this weighing on it.”

Death tilts his head and smiles. Just smiles. And in Alma’s mind his unspoken accusation blooms, He doesn’t need to know you never told him about Nekh’s soul.

The thought chills her. It’s no work of telepathy or suggestion. It is merely the product of years upon years of his shaping touch on her. On the part of her that she fears is just like him, cold and calculating and ruthless. Useful, oh so very useful. Cut Fates, oh so very costly…

She keeps her faint smile set, her expression carefully blank. “Thank you for coming, Father.”

His lip twitches with a grin. “My pleasure, I am sure. And why am I here?”

Alma holds a hand up in front of her, letting Nekh’s soul-gem dangle from it on its cord like an enticing prize. “Let us say you have something I want.”

Death’s grin grows with unrestrained pleasure. “It was only a matter of time. Was it not?”

Ch7.04 Revelations

The moment Somrak enters the station, there he is: Sergeant Edison Machado, Three Rats Station’s ranking Popula officer. The powerfully built man looks like he could break Somrak in half, if he could catch him. His hairless, dark-brown, bullet-shaped head turns and, even under his Guardia jacket, Machado’s burly shoulders strain the material as they flex at the sight of the gracile fire god. His eyes, slightly yellowed at the edges, lock onto Somrak’s, his expression betraying a continued lack of trust.

Somrak smirks and holds up two fingers to give a jaunty little wave. My friend, are you in for a surprise. Aloud, he says, “Boa tarde, Sergeant. Como vai?

Tudo tranquilo…” Machado growls, turning as Somrak slips past him and proceeds up the stairs.

Lindo!” Somrak knocks on the door to Alma and Dion’s office.

“Come in, Somrak.” Alma’s voice is muffled by the door, but comes through clearly.

As he opens and steps through, he asks, “Was it my cheerful stride on the steps that tipped you off?” He closes the door behind him. “Your aunt is stalking me.”

“Must be your animal magnetism,” Dion replies from his desk, where he is leaning back in the chair, loosely holding a pen pinched between his finger and thumb as if he has paused in writing a report. “Maybe you should adjust it to attract something a little less threatening instead…like a chimera.”

Ah, that winning Dion smile! Yet Somrak catches a hint around the eyes of the same soul-shredding pain that Somrak himself is constantly straining to ignore, caused by the same godbound whip. “Seeing as she’s also gone insane, I think I’d be better off dating fully grown dragons.” He takes a seat on the sofa, resting his elbows on his thighs. “I have good news, and I have strange news.”

Alma and Dion look at him, then at each other, then back at him, quizzically. The shared look of a couple. Alma says, “I hope you’re not announcing your joining my clan, Somrak. You have your charms but I doubt Fencer would leave the Commander for you.”

“Commander?” Dion looks shocked and shakes his head in incredulity. “Well, that explains quite a lot…”

Somrak chuckles at Dion’s surprise. “Well, would that be so bad? I could be the God of Cremations.” He shakes his head and takes a deep breath, the grins brightly and spreads his hands. “You two are going on vacation!” His voice suddenly takes on a hint of a carnival huckster announcing a big winner. “I have no idea where, but you’re going. Tomorrow. Portal opens at ten bells. With all the Bunnies, apparently. Well, not May. I don’t think May, anyway. But yes, vacation time!”

Alma looks surprised, but Dion just nods. “Yes, we know where we are going. An estate I inherited just recently. But it is not like my uncle to give such short notice of something like this.”

“I don’t know about that, but, uh, congratulations on the estate.” Somrak feels even more disconnected from reality. Now Dion is a landed aristo? He shakes it off. “So you might be wondering who is going to be running this place while you’re gone.”

“We…did set that as a prerequisite for accepting this week of absence,” Dion agrees.

Somrak eyes him suspiciously. “You didn’t happen to request anyone, did you?”

He shifts his accusatory gaze to Alma as well, just in case, prompting her to raise her hands, excusing herself from blame. “Math only spoke to Gwydion about this.”

Somrak turns his gaze on Dion, one eyebrow slightly higher. “Anyone mentioned to your uncle? Because otherwise, I don’t think you’re going to like this any more than I do.”

“We did not go as far as discussing possible temporary placements,” Dion says. “And considering he offered a permanent reassignment at first, I wasn’t exactly in the best state of mind to go into such details.” He narrows his eyes. “Just who is being assigned here?”

“You’re looking at him,” Somrak says, drily. He lets it sink in for a moment. “And yes, I’ll be in command.”

Their eyes go wide in shock. Dion absently whispers, “He really did it…”

Alma sits. If her chair hadn’t been right there, Somrak thinks she would’ve fallen to the floor. She leans back in her seat, elbow propped on the arm of the chair, softly biting her knuckle. “I…” She looks at Dion. “We have been managing to recover here…”

“Now that the initial shock is gone…maybe we don’t need to go on this vacation,” Dion adds in agreement.

Somrak rolls his eyes and flops back on the sofa, almost bashing his head against the wall. “Oh, thanks! Can’t really blame you – I’ve been thinking the same myself. Oh!” He sits up again, with a You’re gonna love this look on his face. “That’s not even the weirdest news! Guess who’s going to be taking up residence, to ‘keep an eye on me’, which I assume means ‘chortle with glee as I flail about’.”

“Calamari Cal,” Dion suggests, deadpan, making Alma burst into a short bout of laughter.

“And here I thought there weren’t any weirder possibilities,” Somrak says. “No, it’s Fencer. She’s not going to help by the way. Just watch.”

Alma’s eyes widen in even greater worry. “Oh dear… We should definitely stay. This is too flammable a place for the two of you put together.”

Dion, less serious, looks around and sighs. “I did like this old building… Perhaps they are trying to convince us to leave by making sure there will be nothing to return to.”

Somrak glares at the two gods until they look mildly sheepish. It’s easy to forget that despite his careless attitude and youthful good looks, he is decades older and carrying several times as much experience as a cop – even if his experience is all on the unconventional side. “All right, listen. It’s orders. And whatever Fencer’s or whoever’s plan is, I’m not following their little ‘Somrak is a screwup’ script. You’re going to go. I’m going to do my job. And you’re not going to come back to a smoking crater. Got it? I’m going to tell them to go to Hell by being the best – by not being the worst commanding officer.”

Alma looks down and is silent for a moment. Quietly, seriously, she says, “I am afraid about something else, Somrak. Sky…what if…what if I turn my back for a week and return to find Sky mysteriously gone or fallen to his wounds…”

They both know what she really means. Somrak has long held the job of Sky’s executioner, should the devil-in-god-guise ‘lose control’, or fall into the wrong hands, or become a broken tool, no longer useful. The Council, fearful of a scandal, could order the Commander to order Somrak to carry out this duty at any moment.

Somrak rises and steps around Alma’s desk. She looks up, her expression apprehensive, as he kneels beside her chair. He takes her left hand in both of his and looks into her eyes.

“I will keep an eye on Sky,” Somrak promises, his voice soft and serious. “If the Commander got the order, he would tell me first, even if he was told to give the job to someone else. He would tell me so I could get Sky away. But just in case…Doria has assured me that I’ll know instantly if anyone tries to enter the Oracle’s grotto with ill intent.” At her sad but reassured smile, his heart nearly stops, but he tries to hide the effect she has on him behind a carefree smile, squeezing her hand before letting it go and standing. “And I’ll have a second-in-command Dei. Don’t know who, yet, but Fencer says I know whoever it is.” He wrinkles his brow and looks over at Dion. “Which could mean a whole lot of people. Hopefully not one who hates me.”

“Well,” Dion reasons, looking as if he’s running through some old acquaintances’ names as well, “we should talk to Machado about these orders and then get to packing. We only have so many hours to prepare, considering it’s evening already.”

“I’ll talk to him,” Alma says. “He won’t question orders from the mouth of a Guardia Dei Subcommander herself, but it’s still best to break it to him gently.” She sighs. “This was supposed to be a week to relax.”

“You can relax!” Somrak insists. “I’m the one who’s not going to relax. Things will be fine! That will be my mission: keeping things fine. And I will do it just to piss off your aunt.” He gives a little smirk. “All right, I’ll do it so you two can stop worrying, too. You’ll see. It’ll be great.”

“And you will make sure to water and feed Lexie too, while we’re away?” Alma asks, a hint of a smile twitching the corners of her mouth.

“The cat? I gotta take care of the cat? Right, deal’s off…” Somrak smiles to give the lie to his affronted countenance. “Of course I’ll take care of Lexie. Lexie loves me. I’m all warm. I can’t even sit down before she tries to jump on my lap.”

“Like I said, animal magnetism,” Dion notes with that brilliant, charming smile of his. “Perhaps you should try scratching Fencer behind the ears too. Or rub her belly.”

Somrak holds out his hands and shakes them. “Uh-uh! She’s the kind of cat, she loves having her belly rubbed for about three seconds, then she rips your arm off.” He pauses and takes a deep breath, looking at both of them. “So…there’s more weird news.” He waits until they look at him uneasily. “I can’t be sure of his schedule, which is always changing, but you may get a visit from somebody there. After he visits me here.”

“And who would this be?” Dion asks, suspicious at the sound of dread in Somrak’s voice.

The fire god struggles with just how to say it. “In the off-blues, you know we have a healer. Not a very good one. But for…special cases, we have an outside contractor.” He leans against the wall and folds his arms, looking at nothing in particular. “Sometimes we have secrets we need sealed away, so that they can’t be gotten at even under torture or mental invasion. And…sometimes we have memories that aren’t doing us any good. Sky called them ‘shrapnel in a wound’. Memories that refuse to shut up. Memories that don’t teach us or help us avoid making dumb mistakes again. They do nothing but hurt us.” He looks up at them. “That’s the kind of healer this guy is.”

He sees that while he was speaking, both of them have looked away, down, like him, and the haunted look on their faces surely mirror his own. They know exactly what kind of memories he’s talking about.

“I’m not sure anyone can just come in and heal a mind,” Alma says, skeptical.

Somrak nods. “He doesn’t, exactly. But he makes it possible to heal on its own. Personally I’ve resisted ever using him, but…it’s different this time. It can take multiple sessions. He’s very concerned about…being invasive. He’s just about the most discreet god on the Insula, too, or we wouldn’t use him. His mind is safe from being opened up through magic or interrogation or anything. Just…if I can get him to drop by your estate, will you talk to him? It’s your decision whether to use him.”

“Manipulating memory…it’s rarely a good idea,” Dion murmurs. “And these are very dangerous memories. We’re already walking the tightrope. If we take a wrong step and cause a scandal…”

“Yeah…” Somrak spreads his hands. “I’ve contacted him, and he’s coming to talk to me. Which is pretty nice, seeing as I’m not offblue anymore. From what I’m told, he erases nothing. It’s…well, better to let him explain it. I’ll just say that if you decide to go for it, you can trust him.”

They are silent for a moment, considering. Then they look at each other, tentative, seeking reassurance that they are in agreement. Alma says, “Well, I suppose we can always talk to him. That much shouldn’t hurt.” Her voice rises slightly at the end of each statement, almost making them into questions.

Dion nods. He looks at Somrak and tries to recover his smile. “I’ll leave you with indications on how to get to the estate.”

“Thanks. Might need to run up there in an emergency anyway.” Somrak takes a breath, letting it out with puffed cheeks. “Right…this is really happening, isn’t it? I swear, if they turn me into a regular station-bound Guardia… Eh, I’d probably be glad for the change.”

“Let us get your station up to speed, then, Inspector Somrak.” Alma rises from her chair. “This should be interesting.”