Ch6.51 Trust

Alma arrives at her family’s estate and says her farewells to Pavia. She is already late for the ceremony, she knows, but her presence there is only essential to one person: herself. So, after scheduling her escort back to the portal for three hours later, Alma rushes through seldom-used but well-known halls to reach an apparent dead end.

The hallway here leads into the shadows. Inside them, framed in black metal, small pieces of black glass meticulously arranged in intricate patterns would reveal the most delicate glyphs stretching in a spiral, drawing a portal that would fill the world with awe, if ever a light were to shine through them.

Alma reaches into that darkness and touches the glass, allowing the magic in the symbols to sense her essence, to recognize death in her. In the blink of an eye, the darkness engulfs her. She appears inside the sacred hall, a massive underground cavern lit only by the narrow skylight that pierces through the ceiling to allow the light of the sun in. The hall is still part of Death’s estate but the ground, up there, is part of the Life Clan’s property in the First Ring. All the life gods in the Urbis will be standing under the sun, around that opening in their ground, just as all the death gods in the Insula are standing down here, in the darkness cast around that single pillar of light shining on the circular platform in the center of the room. With all of them gathered here, not a creature will die, not a being will be born today.

But something is wrong. The ceremony should have started already. The sun needs to be aligned perfectly with the platform, shining directly on it to activate the Wheel. The Wheel Spinner, only goddess of the Wheel in the whole of the Insula, should be standing at the center, serving as its body, filtering the souls collected by the death gods throughout the year and resetting, renewing them so that the life gods can send them on their next incarnation.

The sun is shining. But the Spinner is nowhere to be found. The death gods are mostly just standing around, waiting for something to happen. Alma takes advantage of this and moves into the throng of brothers, cousins, uncles, aunts and other family members, looking for the place where her father will be standing. He will not be standing on any platforms or sitting on any thrones. In this most sacred of rituals, all death gods stand as equals.

A wheezing voice by her left rings familiar with spite just as she spots Death’s second wife, Macana and her son, Molochai. “Oh look… brothers. The… prodigal daughter… returns.”

Alma stops and turns to look at Clochol, the Death by Asphyxia, stretching his many, powerful arms. His large hands, fit for holding a mortal neck as its owner kicks and flails in suffocation, are open in mock surprise. Even if his blueish-purple face with bulging, bloodshot eyes smiles at Alma, she knows that he is not in the very least pleased with seeing her.

By his side, Sudic, the Weaver, Death by Hanging, taps his eight, spidery legs, with which he is said to hold the ropes that encircle the necks of his victims. The countless eyes that cover his torso blink at the goddess, one by one, while his voice scratches against his silk-filled windpipes. “If you are going to infiltrate a ceremony, at least be polite enough to be on time.”

And just behind Sudic, Narec, Drinker of Souls, scratches his sickly bluish-grey skin with yellowed, sharp talons and runs his tongue over his pointed fangs while he whistles derisively, “Or else take the door.”

Without a lower jaw, for this is how his worshippers envision him, he is forced to speak through slits on both sides of his neck. Seeing these three of her brothers always reminds Alma of how lucky she is to not have her sphere allocated to a specific type of death.

“Ready… to pick… sides,… this time?” Clochol wheezes, one finger mockingly twiddling with the earring nailed directly into his skull since he was created without a left ear.

The joke sends both his monstrous brothers into maniacal laughter, making Clochol laugh too at his own poor excuse for a witty sense of humor. Soon, however, his wheezing frame is shaking with breathless cough and he walks away, closely followed by Sudic and Narec, who prop him up so that he doesn’t fall. Alma sighs at all this, wondering if it is her taint or their divine nature that keeps the brothers despising her so even in spite of the obvious bonds connecting them all.

“Don’t pay attention to them,” Molochai says, gently hugging her hips.

Alma puts a hand on his head and strokes his hair. “I won’t, little brother. Not this time.”

Not far away, the gentle Macana nods and smiles reassuringly at her through soft, wrinkled features and waves a delicate hand in greeting. Alma smiles and nods back at her, in gratitude for her constant support. Macana has always been there to help her deal with unfriendly, bullying brothers like Clochol and his siblings. Her family is riddled with such characters.

“They do, however, have a point,” someone says from the vicinity of Alma’s right thigh. “You are late, sister.”

Alma looks down at Supa, the short, bulky, heavily armored death god with long frizzy hair that barely allows for the clan mark dangling from his left ear to be visible and a fiery beard that the dwarven people living in caves and tunnels all over – actually, under the Isle, have created for themselves. Rough-mannered and ill-tempered, he has never been affectionate toward his only sister. But he has never stood against her either.

So it is without animosity that Alma replies, “I was detained elsewhere. Why is the Wheel not turning yet?”

A carrion bird, black as night, lands on Supa’s helmed head. The creature’s exposed skull and spine sway as it crows, its mother’s silver chrysanthemum poking through the feathers of his left wing, while the fine chain of the supposed earring rattles softly against its vertebrae, “The Spinner failed the first attempts. She stepped out to regain her strength.”

Alma stares into the hollow orbits of Panai, Harbinger of Death and Cleaner of Corpses, as she processes the words he has just spoken. The Spinner is old and grows weaker every year but she has never failed to activate the Wheel.

“Yes, at this rate, we won’t have a ceremony next year,” Lwal echoes her fears as he enters the conversation.

Guardian god of cemeteries that lurks among the graves of mortals, Lwal is another of those unfortunate gods shaped too strongly by the feeble, fearful minds of Man. Created with a knack to tolerate few people and like no one but gravediggers, his otherwise noble spirit is trapped inside a hideous, chimeric body. Pale and sickly, his muscular human torso covered in short dirty hair that always smells of death and decay, he walks on strong, lupine legs balanced by a long, scrawny tail. His weaselly, elongated face crowned with bat-like ears, the left of which pierced as law demands, always seems to leer at everyone.

“Where are your pets?” he growls in question. “I thought you didn’t go anywhere without them.”

“They have no business being here,” Alma states, ice building in her voice at hearing the Bunnies being called pets.

“And you do?” Panai inquires, casually scratching his polished skull with a skeletal foot. The sound it makes would be blood curdling if Alma weren’t so used to it.

Alma’s eyes shoot back to Panai. If her gaze were a blade, it would pierce through steel right now. “Last I checked, we still shared a father, Panai. Unless you know something I don’t about that.”

“Oh, my little sister is developing a sharp tongue, I see!” the good humored tones of Imset’s voice ring suddenly as he drapes a cloaked arm over her shoulders. “Long time no see, Almy.”

Alma chuckles at the rarely used pet name. Imset, the Darkness at the End of Life, is the twin of her oldest brother. Always draped in the cloak that shapes his body entirely made of shadows, he is also one of the most good-natured of all of Death’s sons.

“The First Ring is too rich a prowling territory for the likes of me, Immy,” Alma greets him with a hug. “But it is always a pleasure to see you. Where is Lum? You two are never apart.”

Imset jerks his head to the left. “Look behind me.”

Closeby, Luminus, the Light at the End that guides souls into the afterlife salutes Alma by touching two fingers to his forehead. His body made of light where Imset’s is made of darkness, Luminus is the oldest of Death’s sons, born from Becech’s chest, three days before his twin. Though he keeps very much to himself, he is the gentlest of them all. He seems to be busy entertaining their easily bored cousins, Namka, Orcal and Ghedibo, three tiny, colorful and cheerful fairy-like goddesses in charge of collecting the souls of little babies. So Alma just smiles and nods back at him, not wanting to impose.

A fearsome bark puts an end to the conversation.

“Back to your positions, the lot of you! Sharia is returning. Alma, get out of the way!”

Alma looks into the distance to see Varah, the Fencer, glaring at her through a crimson eye. It is obvious that Alma is performing badly by not obeying her aunt’s shouted orders immediately. But there is also wild pleasure there, hidden deep in that glare. After all, is Alma not doing what her aunt had told her to do, in her very own special way? Does the Death by Blade see the spine that she has always urged her niece to grow finally stretching into existence?

Just as Alma is about to move, the tip of a cane taps her shin.

“Excuse me, young lady,” a withered, slightly cackling voice speaks from somewhere behind the goddess.

Alma twirls on her heels to face Sharia, Spinner of the Wheel. Old and wrinkled, her spine bent and shrunken by the weight of the centuries, Sharia is the only known goddess of the Wheel alive, charged with guarding the ever turning spiral of death and rebirth and summoning it into the material realms, where the living dwell, once a year so that the souls of the dead may be wiped clean of their memories and readied for a new life.

But the Wheel is a demanding master and Sharia bears its mark. Life flees swiftly from her grey hair and cloudy eyes. Every year she looks thinner, weaker, more worn. And without a successor in sight, the day may soon come when the Wheel no longer turns for the souls of the Urbis.

Alma tries to keep these worries away from her mind as she smiles pleasantly at the ancient goddess. “Do you not recognize me, Spinner?”

Sharia squints at her for a long moment. Eventually, her face brightens in recognition.

“Little Alma! How you have grown!” she cackles. “Why, you were just a little girl last year.”

Alma chuckles. “I am afraid it has been decades since I was a little girl.”

Much to her surprise, Sharia’s eyes narrow in irritation at her reply. “I am old, not daft, little girl!” the Spinner scolds her. “And I know what I say. Help me, please. I could swear this place gets bigger each year.”

“With pleasure, Sharia.”

Alma takes the arm that the old goddess proffers and does her best to steady the Spinner’s steps as they walk toward the platform in the center of the room. The sun will not be shining over it for much longer. At their passing, the assembled death gods move aside to let them through. Alma catches a glimpse of Melinor standing by her father, both looking at her with badly hidden curiosity.

“Is this the year you finally join us, dear?” Sharia’s voice interrupts her thoughts.

Alma sighs. “I would love to but where would I stand? Every year, I fail to answer that question.”

“And yet, every year you return,” Sharia notes, glancing up at Alma with a strange expression on her parchment-skinned face. “Even when you are invited not to.”

“This is still my clan,” Alma states firmly, bitterly. “Unless they cast me out, I have every right to be here. I have seen some uglier faces than these, lately. I will not be bullied out.”

She hardens her heart against the criticism and accusations she fears, but expects, from the Spinner. For all her sins, her taint, her weakness, Alma now knows that she does not deserve the treatment she has many times received from her family. For maybe the first time in her life, she allows herself to feel what she has been denied all these years: anger. At being discriminated againt, mocked, used, rejected by those who should be her safe harbor in a storm. Now, with the loving support of the new family she has been trying to build for herself, Alma is beginning to let go of the fear of rejection from her clan to embrace the reassuring knowledge that her friends and children await her return back home. Home… Where they are.

“Yes… You have grown,” Sharia whispers softly. “And not a moment too soon.”

Surprised by the Spinner’s words, Alma grins like a child receiving an unexpected compliment.

Still, she holds on to the simmering revolt that tempers her tone. “My father’s daughter may be weak, wise one, but my children’s mother cannot afford such luxury. Nor can my friends’ friend.”

Sharia nods thoughtfully and stops walking. They have arrived at the center of the platform.

“And where will she stand this year?” the Spinner asks, sweeping the room with her cane.

Alma snorts and looks up at the disk of sunlight coming through the ceiling and that falls so deliciously warm on her face. The answer to that question eludes her still.

“Is there some place halfway up?” she jests.

Sharia tilts her head to one side. “Funny you should mention that.”

She beckons for Alma to lean forward, as if she were about to reveal the secret of a hidden platform or room. Alma complies, entranced by the beautiful, vibrant, nacred blues and greens that suddenly surge through the Spinner’s eyes like rays of pure energy. Sharia stares into Alma’s deep blue eyes for a moment and slowly raises a hand to the young goddess’ forehead.

“Brace yourself,” she says. “This won’t be entirely pleasant.”

By the time her words register, it is already too late. At a touch of Sharia’s fingers, Alma’s soul seems to explode. The young goddess stumbles, taken by surprise as new energy, a new calling awakens in her. Her soul breaks from its bindings, rejecting its previous shape.

Alma throws her head back as a scream dies in her throat. The sensation is breathtaking, thrilling and painful. She feels her essence being stretched to impossible lengths, spreading as if it had the whole world to fill, her soul being pulled in opposite directions by her opposing spheres until it is but a thin strand of spectral mana. No longer the same shape as her soul, her body refuses to obey her command. And then, it refuses to hold her at all. She sees more than hears or feels it thumping onto the floor, lifeless, empty as the shell any body ever is to its precious cargo. She rises in the air, levitating until floor and ceiling are both halfway away. So strange… She can still feel herself, still find a shape to her essence. She can see and hear and feel the world around her but everything is so distant…so alien to her. The room feels flimsy, wavering as if it were just one of many possible rooms that could ever exist in this very same place of space and time and probability. Her family feels solid, though, shimmering like stars against a dull sky, all of them as certain and real as only death can stand at the edge of life. Family…but they are not like her. Not like her at all. How could they ever understand? If they can’t feel this…this… paaaaiinnn! Her back arched in pain, her spectral eyes open in an agony that is somehow mixed with pleasure, Alma watches powerless as the Wheel awakens and pillars of light shoot up from the ground all around her, twisting and converging to join the guiding light of her soul.

Below her, the room is silent with the astonishment of hundreds of death gods.

“What are you lot waiting for?” Sharia yells at them. “The Wheel is turning!”

Awakened by her words, Death gives the order and the ceremony begins. With a deep breath, each death god and goddess in the room calls forth every soul collected throughout the year to leave the realm of the dead, acting as a channel through which the souls by them released are brought back from their restful, biding sleep in the spectral realms and guided into the Wheel. One by one, the souls converge to the center of the room in a beautiful, eerie aerial dance, attracted by the alluring call of the Wheel, swarming to its heart, Alma.

“Don’t fight them, child!” Sharia advises her. “Let them through. First time is always the worst.””

It feels like the Soul Bomb all over again. The young goddess is like a beacon to these souls and they race to tackle her, enter her, move through her. But this time…

They race to leave her as well, to shoot in all directions through the gaping skylight above. None of them tries to hold on to her, none tries to steal her core. Instead, they each leave something behind and take something away, melting into Alma and then out of her, slightly different, slightly changed, clean and renewed.

It is all Alma can do to keep hold of herself in the swift, chaotic trade that threatens to completely rearrange her soul.

WhatWhat is? she manages to think. Speaking is completely out of the question. Throat and lungs are needed for that and she left hers on the floor, down there. Will she get them back?

She is confused, scared and yet, something in her core tells her that she is safe, that nothing of what she is will be lost. It is a knowing, wizened piece of her that was not there before.

“What’s happening?” Sharia guesses her question as if she could hear her thoughts. “You found your place in the Wheel. Now… let it turn!”

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Ch6.49 Trust

The trip back to and through the portal is a bittersweet one for Alma. There is happiness in granting Mayumi the joy of meeting her adoptive father for the first time since the Bunny’s awakening into the realm of vigilance. Mayumi’s reaction at seeing the ward she remembered from childhood, the wave of joy her nimble body spread around her, as palpable and seering as heat from a flame, distorting the air around it, had been very close to overwhelming for Alma. And the meeting of that old man, whose years will not stretch much longer, had left the goddess glad to give Mayumi the chance to know him and be with the real him beyond the frail, fraying edges of her childhood dreamworld.

That the man is older than his dream version, Alma already knew. She had sensed it before, when Arion had arranged for their first meeting. But his condition is worse than the goddess had expected. The passage of time has taken a heavy toll on him. The risks of a life spent in the Guardia Popula and mostly likely resisting the idea of turning to gods of healing for help resolving minor problems of youth that have now degenerated into near-crippling illnesses of old age. Alma knows that for all her skill at healing, she cannot keep the man alive indefinitely.

It is not a matter of skill, really, not to her. Ageing is no more than the accumulation of tiny mistakes, and bigger ones as well, that little by little band together and force the body to adapt to their presence, straining its ability to cope, making it injure itself to sustain itself until, eventually, it is too damaged to function. Such mistakes do not afflict gods much, because the memory their bodies have of themselves is strong and detailed and capable of shifting of its own accord so that they may look different but be no less healthy for it. Unless they will it so. And the gods of healing have such memory of other bodies, of other races and species. And they can remind bodies of what they once were and truly are and drive them into changing to stay true to that memory. Healing is sometimes no more than sparking the memory in a body of what it felt like to be whole.

To be young. If done correctly, even age can be healed. But eternal youth hinders mortality. If mortal lives lasted forever, ending only through sudden trauma or untreated illness, the Insula would be far more crowded than it already is. And considering how much more plentiful mortals are, compared to gods, this would pose a serious threat to the latter. For the gods need worship to sustain their power and existence but mortals can adapt to a life without gods. They might even realize their full power, these creatures once created to entertain the whims of bored divinity. It is only by sheer dumb luck and carefully crafted politics that they have not done so yet. If mortals were to enslave their gods, keep only the ones they needed and feed them just enough worship to keep them functional but too weak to fight back…

And they could, in theory. For a while, at least. Nature knows its own doing. It is not out of cruelty that it allows mortal bodies to degenerate and weaken. Mortal minds were not made to endure the ages. Mortal souls are not stable enough to last the eons. Immortality is not just a thing of the flesh. A god’s soul is a self-sustaining force, constantly shifting and reshifting the balance of its energies, of the eight thick elemental layers surrounding its core, flexible but stable. Many mortal souls would need be consumed to forge even a minor, single godly soul. With their flimsy, simpler levels of energy, the souls of most mortals are not even strong enough to sustain themselves for more than a century or so.

And so, even if their bodies remained unmoved by the stretching decades, their souls would age still. And with them, their minds. The gods would soon have found themselves slaves at the hands of more than half-mad masters. Death would become something to pray for. And the gods would listen and grant mortal prayers, be eager to do it for once. Balance would be re-established, things returned to the time when gods had no one to pray to them, their divinity weakened but not erased. Everything would start all over again, with Hell taking the opportunity to break free and make the whole fine mess even worse and plunge things back into the Age of Nothingness for another few millennia. New mortals would come, new prayers to keep evil at bay uttered, another war against the devils. The Wheel of Fate turning endlessly and happily around its unshifting spokes.

So laws have been passed to stop this from happening, laws kept hidden from the mortals, who might take offense at them and not understand the long-term consequences (mortality tends to come with tunnel vision), and known only to gods of life, death and healing, to gods skilled enough to prolong life beyond the limits drawn by nature. No one is to heal damage caused by the natural progression of organic degeneration. Better not to tempt Fate.

And that is why Alma cannot save Mayumi’s father from his impending death. Even the healing she performed on him, unclogging some of the blood vessels feeding his heart and setting proper pace to one of the little energy-pulsing units that keeps the muscle contracting in proper order, was a bit of a stretch on the interpretation of the law. She estimates that a decade, maybe two, that is all he has left if he takes proper care of himself. The countdown of his life reminds the goddess of how short Mayumi’s years will seem, how quickly her daughter’s lifetime will fade away compared to Alma’s own.

It is with this dark thought hanging over her head like a storm cloud that Alma steps through the portal at Sawara-machi and out the one at Amarta. The lavish, colorful and busy streets greet her with their usual carefully groomed ignorance of her presence. Amazing how even gods and divine creatures, by all accounts as difficult to kill as a young star, are weary of death gods.

She misses Three Rats already. At least the people there have good reason to fear her but try, sometimes with some level of success, to be friendly and observing first of who she is and not just what she represents. How quaint that mortals, too simple-minded in their views of the universe to fully understand it, are more prone to try and understand it, to see things for what they are, than gods, who actually can.

Too bad their nature does not allow them to live long enough to do it.

“Now there’s my dangerous criminal!” a friendly voice startles her out of her grim contemplation.

Alma manages not to jump too high in her fright. She smiles in stoic endurance of Pavia’s gleeful snigger at a prank well achieved.

“And there is my faithful escort,” she replies once Pavia steps out of the shadow of the portal and into Alma’s line of sight. “Thank you so very much for escorting me, Pavia. I hate to pull you away from the celebrations.”

Pavia snorts at this, bending slightly to look at Alma through her short eyelashes. “You kidding? I got the short straw this year. On duty all week. Between the festival and the influx of visiting relatives from other wards, that place becomes a nightmare! Remember Trial Week at the station?” She stands shoulder to shoulder with Alma, facing away from the goddess, stretching her arms and raising her hands as if to frame a picture in midair. “Rich boys. Rich boys everywhere, getting waaaaaaay too drunk all week long!” She glances up at Alma. “You sure you don’t want to get back to that?”

Alma laughs at the all-too-accurate description of the Year’s End here. “Now that you mention it…no.”

The Amarta Guardia Station had been her first placement in the long list of stations that the goddess has worked in. And so far the longest as well. She had not chosen it, would not have chosen it for herself, not by a long shot, not with it being so closely positioned to her father’s home, but Pavia’s placement there had made it impossible for Alma to refuse staying. Pavia, her former roommate at the Guardia Academy, had been the only person Alma truly considered a friend at the time and, even though the goddess would not have done worse for the loneliness of being on her own, it would have felt like betrayal to leave Pavia in Amarta, all by herself.

Of course, her time at Amarta had not lasted longer than four years but those had been good times. Painful times of readjustment to Arion’s departure, to the Rosemary and Cherry’s – and later Mayumi’s – incarceration in stasis, to life away from her childhood home (though that was not really all that painful, no), but the work in a ward that was her own, with as good a friend as Pavia by her side, had brought warm flashes of momentary light into what was a nearly constant grim and dark mood brewing deep in Alma’s core.

Still, she does not miss all those spoiled, drunk brats reeking of the Fates-know-what expensive beverages they have just had and throwing up the contents of their divine stomachs into the paper bin before claiming that they could not spend the night in prison on account of being some powerful senator’s first born, that much. But ahh, how Alma had enjoyed proving them wrong every single time.

“I can’t join you,” she says to Pavia. “I have family business to attend to.” She sighs. “The annual meeting.”

Pavia’s gold-furred lupine ears twitch minutely before turning and dropping slightly as realization dawns on the demigoddess. Her voice loses its playfulness for a moment. “Oh… That old shindig.”

Alma nods resignation, marvelling still, after over two decades of knowing Pavia, at how the wolf-woman’s whole body radiates her state of mind so easily and completely. It is a trait of her kind, Alma knows, of the wolf-people, to be straight-forward and hold as little of their emotions in secret. Powerful warriors, aggressive and hot-headed but loyal to a fault, to family, friends and masters, they are great friends to have. And awful enemies to make.

They are predators and equipped as such. Not the feeble, human-type predator, with its flat teeth and very little in the way of physical weaponry or power, but sharp-toothed, sharp-minded creatures with amazing senses of smell, sight and hearing and a pair of legs made to run swiftly and leap efficiently for the kill. And, of course, they hunt in a pack. Surely, nowadays there isn’t so much hunting left to be done, because the simpler, kill-or-be-killed ways of their ward have been weakened by a certain lust for luxury items (though the wolf-people’s standards in luxury are certainly not in synchrony with the rest of the Insula) and the universal need for money to acquire them. But mercenary work is almost just as good as hunting and it does allow for their predatory instincts to be satisfied, so most wolf-people have turned to it. And, of course, now more and more of them are “moving on with the times” and beginning to crave less “primitive” lifestyle. Progress…

But Pavia is a wonderful specimen of her people and – possibly because this is one of those times of year when it pays to remind civilians of why they don’t want to do anything that would surely get them in trouble with the law – today, she has it on display. Her brown shorts edged in Dei blue reveal strong, muscular legs, lined at the back with a strip of soft, brown-grey fur, and always slightly bent at the knees, making her walk with a slightly springy, almost childish gait. Powerful thighs allow her thunderous bursts of speed. Her feet are long, with long toes hidden by the simple, malleable leather shoes she must wear to allow for a smooth transition between a humanoid plantigrade walk and a lupine, fully digitigrade run. Alma had found inspiration in the memory of those shoes when she had worked with Syron to make footwear for the Bunnies.

The torso, covered in a simple Dei-blue tunic, is lean and compact, not much endowed in the way of breasts but certainly not missing the trouble that such mostly decorative (and only temporarily functional) lumps of fat tend to cause for women with a habit of getting into fights. The arms are lean as well, darkly tanned, as is the rest of her body, and lined at the back with more of that short but soft fur. Her lovely, darkly tanned face is slightly elongated, the bridge of her nose wider than what humans would consider the norm to enhance her scenting. The eyes, large and bright with round pupils and yellow irises accented with orange, veiny details, are made to see movement a mile away – though Pavia has at some point confessed to having trouble distinguishing detail in people’s features if they are standing more than a couple of steps away.

All in all, the demigoddess looks every bit of what she is, a hunter at the service of the Guardia and, Alma would swear by it, the best tracker the force has at their beck and call. With the benefit of not being half as prone to fits of murderous rage as some of her countrymen (though Alma suspects the aggressiveness to be a result more of their humanoid minds flirting with the powerful build of their lupine bodies than the other way around. Non-human animals rarely slaughter for sport).

And now all of Pavia’s powerfully built body, from the amazing ears tilted downward to the long, bushy tail hanging still and tense, is showing her unease at the look of uncomfortable resignation on Alma’s face. Thankfully, awkwardness never lasts long with the demigoddess. She shrugs. “Well, could be worse, I guess. You could be missing a nice escort back to Dad’s place.” A bright smile lights up her face. “Come on… You always look better when you’re smiling. Or grinning. Probably grinning. Always know something interesting’s gonna happen when you grin.”

Alma cannot help but smile as they move to a quieter corner of the plaza where the portal is set. “It’s good to see you. Last time… I’m sorry we couldn’t spend more time together.”

Pavia shrugs nonchalantly. “Heh, I get it. You had the big hunk looking over your shoulder.” She glances sideways at Alma, a sly grin on her lips. “And liking what he was seeing. He make a move yet?”

Alma’s smile widens and she feels the slightest warm blush tinge her cheeks as she looks away, eyes turning upward with recollection. “Maybe…” She looks back at Pavia, wondering how long she can keep up the charade. “How are you? How is the family?”

“Oh, don’t you try to throw me off like that!” Pavia scolds her, tail whipping self-righteously. “Details. I want details. The dirtier, the better!”

“Pavia…”

It is useless to try and keep secrets, Alma knows. But the game is fun and Pavia’s expression of intent, anxious curiosity with those big yellow eyes looking up and shining, has always amused the goddess. Like a puppy after a toy…

The previous night, with its troubling start full of thoughts of Mayumi’s departure and then Somrak’s unexpected and mind-jumbling kiss, had taken a very pleasant turn indeed, in the quiet haven of Alma’s office. She had fallen asleep there, on the sofa, in Gwydion’s arms, after more than a few kisses and soft words and a mildly uncomfortable discussion on how to prevent more Bunnies. They had not reached any conclusions, too concerned with the possibility of failure to try any of Gwydion’s spells, but the conversation had left them more at ease with the subject and certainly even more eager – if such a thing is possible – to find a solution. At some point, the god of magic had left the sofa to return to work, leaving Alma to sleep peacefully, wrapped warmly in a blanket and in the comforting familiarity of his scent. The goddess had returned to her room only in the greying hours of morning – strange that Saira had been nowhere to be found – feeling radiant and at peace with the world, to bathe and change clothing before waking up Mayumi.

But that is not something to share at the first opportunity.

“Come on!” Pavia insists, ears perked and jaw dropped, flashing a sharp-toothed smile. “It’s all males at my station now and they’re too embarrassed to talk to me. Haven’t heard any real gossip in months!” She lets out a whimper of excitement. “Help a girl out…”

“I am not going to–” Alma starts, trying not to laugh.

“Fine, don’t tell me,” the demigoddess cuts her off, moving closer to Alma. “I’ll just find out on my own.”

And with that, she takes hold of Alma’s wrists, making the goddess stiffen as Pavia stretches to her full height and stands on the tips of her long toes to sniff the scents on Alma’s neck. Shorter than the goddess by a good hand’s width, Pavia leans against Alma as her nose searches avidly for clues of the goddess’ dalliances. Her warm breath, loud against Alma’s ear, tickles the goddess’ skin into startled laughter.

“Pavia!” Alma cries out mid-chuckle.

“What? You’ve never minded that before,” Pavia notes, still busy sniffing. Alma relaxes, allowing the demigoddess an easier search. “Well, that’s unexpected. Who’s the girl and the old guy? And…” Her nose crinkles against Alma’s cheek with a final, deep breath. “Ah… there he is… Alma, Alma, Alma… Didn’t know you had it in you.”

“I need to ask him for a spell to remove all scent…” Alma mutters as Pavia moves away. But it is not Gwydion’s scent on her skin that makes her mutter. She had never told Pavia about the Bunnies. “The girl… The girl is my daughter.”

“Well, that was fast!” Pavia exclaims, amused at her rash assumptions.

The amusement drains from her, however, when Alma takes her time to reply. The goddess breathes deeply and prepares to hurt the feelings of her old Academy companion. “She is twenty-two years old, Pavia.”

“Oh…” Pavia’s eyes look down in consideration. She looks up again. “Oh! But then…” She shakes her head. “No, I would have known. Your scent would have changed. We were still working together back then, how did you manage to keep a pup hidden like that?”

Alma shakes her head, guessing at the thoughts that must be rushing through Pavia’s mind. “I was never pregnant. I…created them.” She sighs. “It’s a long story, and a painful one. I was forced, by the Council, to seal my children away, magically. Until a few months ago, I had not seen them since their births.”

Pavia looks as befuddled as anyone would be expected to be at such a story. “Oh… Why would the Council do that? And…” Her brows furrow in confusion. “Children? There’s more than one?”

Alma nods. I wish… I wish I could tell you everything. I wish I told you before.

But she cannot. And so she places her hands on Pavia’s shoulders and looks down, deep into the demigoddess’ eyes, hoping she can see honesty in Alma’s gaze, in spite of the secrecy. “I am sorry I didn’t tell you. It just… It never seemed to be safe enough to do so.”

Though I know…you would not have failed me, her own guilt-burdened thoughts add.

“It is an awful mess I got myself into, before I ever enrolled the Academy, Pavia,” she tries to explain as best she can. “And…it hurt too much to even think of it, for a long time. I have seven children. And…I actually cannot say why the Council ordered me to separate myself from them. I am forbidden to discuss what happened prior to the current situation. Just suffice it to say, I would never have obeyed if I had been given any other choice.”

Her voice turns grim and steel-edged at those last words, her eyes trying to convey how limited, and for the most part fatal, Alma’s choices had been at the time. And how they can still be, really.

Pavia looks at her in silence for a long time, eyes serious and fixed in deep thought. Then, they soften and Alma can almost feel the first breath of a newborn decision.

“Is that why you were always so sad before?” Pavia asks, voice low, tail hanging low and barely moving.

Alma breathes deeply, closing her eyes against the wetness of tears. “That my children were growing up among dreams, enduring pains and fears, experiencing joys and love, all without me?” She nods.

She does not mention Arion. She had told Pavia, once, on a particularly difficult and lonely night, about her lover, departed to a place too far away to reach. She had not spoken Arion’s name or revealed what he was. And she had never mentioned him again, since that night.

Pavia strokes her hair, perhaps guessing at what Alma has not mentioned. Stretching, once again on her toes, she nuzzles the line of Alma’s jaw, hiding her face in the goddess’ soft, silver-white locks with a low, drawn out whimper of empathy. “I wish you’d told me.”

Alma wraps her arms around the demigoddess, stroking the back of her hair, where the spine joins the skull. She can barely keep the tears at bay but forces herself to do so. Pavia has never seen her cry. “I wish I had. I should have. But at the time, it was a pain I needed to hold close. I thought…that I was standing alone against the whole world. Even against people who cared for me.”

She feels Pavia’s arms wrap tightly around her, pulling her against her chest, the steady beat of the wolf-woman’s heart reverberating fullforce against her body. They have not stood this close in years, not since Alma stopped visiting and allowed herself to become lost to Pavia, knowing her to be comfortable in Amarta, with a partner and a family, thinking it would be best not to taint Pavia’s life with the bleak, hopeless presence of a friend with no real prospect of ever finding joy and happiness. Pavia deserved all those things, the sweetest blessings of life, and Alma had had no faith in them. She had allowed herself to become lost to memory, a ghost of the past, for Pavia’s benefit. But the way the demigoddess holds her, tightly then relaxing as if some great burden has just fallen off her shoulders or some old binding has become loose, tells her something entirely differently.

She had thought it her fault. Pavia had thought it her own fault that Alma had left. All this time, she had carried that fear and guilt in her.

Oh, Pavia…I am sorry. I am so sorry… I’m the one who is to blame. I should have… I should have been better to you.

“I would have helped, you know?” Pavia whispers against her shoulder. “Somehow…”

There is such relief there… Alma can barely imagine what a weight it has been. For someone whose nature is loyalty to believe she might have failed a dear friend… And to feel abandoned by someone she has chosen to be loyal to. Alma feels sick to her stomach to realize this. It was her who had not wanted help or the pain of becoming close to someone only to have them removed from her life.

“I know…” she breathes.

“I always stood by your side,” Pavia says. “You always knew where to find me. But you never told me where you were.”

Alma fights down the urge to cringe as that additional pike plunges into her heart. “Three Rats. It’s a little place down in the Fourth Ring. Almost Fifth. I will be there for quite a while. Council’s orders.” She pushes Pavia away a little so that she can look at the wolf-woman’s face. Wolf-people don’t cry but they look no less sorrowful for it. “So now you know where to find me,” she says, smoothing the fur on one of Pavia’s ears.

The demigoddess instinctively shakes her head to free her ear, making Alma chuckle quietly. “Man, you really must have messed up to end up that far down,” she notes.

“I’m afraid I really did,” Alma concedes, stroking Pavia’s neck again, scratching the patch of short, thick hairs there and feeling the unease begin to recede, replaced by an almost dizzying lightness.

Pavia looks up at Alma, her expression friendly again, tail wagging slowly in quiet bliss. “You know, I never thought you’d pick a middle-aged mortal to have kids with,” she says in contemplative, half-amused tones. “Changed tastes, did you?”

Alma freezes, surprised at the question, trying to figure out what on the Insula Pavia is talking about. And then it hits her… Sueyoshi. She snorts. “He’s… He’s not the father. Well, he’s her father, her adopted father I mean. I just met him for the first time today. Well, second. First time in…” She waves it off before things get too complicated again. “Never mind! He’s not the one.”

Pavia laughs at her fumbling. “All right, all right! So… who is?” She cocks her head in expectation. “Don’t tell me it was the rich boy. And talk about him! You do know all the stories about him, don’t you?” She looks at Alma with just a hint of worry. “Half the female population in the First Ring wants him dead for sneaking out of their beds and not calling them the next day. Seems that he collects lovers like some girls collect shoes. Never stays the night, never beds the same girl twice.”

“He is a scoundrel, yes,” Alma admits with a soft smile. “But that last part of the tale is not really true. At least, it has not been with me.”

“And to think I told him he didn’t stand a chance with you…” Pavia says with a mischievous grin. “All right, Alma! I knew you’d land some rich boy, eventually, you being…yourself, but I never thought you’d reel in a playboy hooked by the lip!”

Alma shakes her head, smiling at Pavia’s cheers. “Anyway… It’s not him. The father has been far away since the Academy. Visited a few times but even that, I guess, is over,” she says with a slow shrug of resignation.

“Oh sure, complain away in the arms of your hot new sergeant!” Pavia exclaims, making Alma chuckle. “Anyway… We’re gonna make you late.”

Alma sighs and nods as they start walking toward Death’s estate. “Something tells me I’m going to end up wishing I’d just let this whole thing go and stayed talking with you.”

Pavia looks down but snorts at some passing thought. “Remember that time we were late to…what was it? Oh! Animal control class! And we let half the backup critters out their cages just so no one would notice us sneaking in?” She laughs heartily at the memory. “Ah, Instructor Marun all covered in angry squirrels!”

“That was your idea!” Alma cries, chuckling.

“Oh, come on!” Pavia exclaims, crossing her hands behind her head. “That was epic!”

Ch6.48 Trust

“Mayumi…”

“Mmph…” The Bunny snuggles deeper into her blanket.

“Mayumi…”

There was a dream. There was a dream and now it’s gone.

“Mayumi, wake up.” The voice is amused, on the edge of laughing. Mayumi feels the blanket pulled away from her face. “Time for your present.”

The dream, if there was one at all, fades from memory like frost off a cold glass set out in the sun. Mayumi’s large brown eyes open to see Alma looking down at her with a smile. She can feel the goddess’ hip against her back, sitting on the futon on which Mayumi sleeps. “Hello,” the Bunny whispers to her mother.

“Good morning, dear.” Alma strokes Mayumi’s hair away from her face. Her amused expression transforms seamlessly into something more tender, tinted with sorrow. “Time to wake up and get dressed.”

Mayumi simply looks up at Alma in surprise. This has never happened before. She has woken in Alma’s room, sometimes by her mother, but this is the first time Alma has come into her tiny, almost closet-like room when Mayumi was asleep. Bundled up in a blanket, she wonders how she looks to Alma. Is that the reason for the tender expression? Does she look like a sleepy child? She smiles uncertainly up at her mother and asks, “Did I sleep late? Are the others already up?”

Alma shakes her head, a hint of amusement creeping back in. “No. We are going to sneak out today, go somewhere special.”

Mayumi’s eyes go wide. “Just…you and me?”

Alma nods. “Just you and me.”

The Bunny blinks twice, trying to process it. Since Mayumi awoke to this world, she hasn’t really gone anywhere with Alma, not just the two of them. The goddess has been incredibly overworked, and aside from that, she was imprisoned in the First Ring for weeks. And the younger Bunnies have been more in need of attention. And Mayumi has not exactly made things easy on Alma at times. There was a time when they were hardly speaking.

But now, Mayumi is due to leave for the Academy tomorrow. She hadn’t expected to be taken somewhere. She knows her decision to go away for six months has been as painful for Alma as it has been for herself. And not only the two of them. Last night near the end of the party, she caught Cherry in the kitchen holding Merri, comforting the sobbing, tipsy redhead, barely able to speak herself, saying, “Come on baby, May’s gonna be all right,” and not sounding at all convinced of her words. Mayumi went to them, too sorrowful at the grief she was causing to speak up, but they soon noticed her and pulled her into their embrace.

The younger Bunnies, Kori and Chime and Tulip, don’t really have a grasp of what six months away will mean, so they aren’t as worried about it. But Merri and Cherry had been without her for years, somehow knowing they had others out there who were family, and have only just been united with her. Sage, too, must have heard them and had broken away from Aliyah to join them, wordlessly holding Mayumi as if he couldn’t trust himself to speak without begging her not to go. The look on his face – that alone nearly broke her resolve to follow through on her decision to become Guardia.

Sage eventually went back to Aliyah, and Mayumi had meant to spend the night with Sky, but in the end she went to him to explain that she needed to stay with Merri and Cherry longer. He understood, of course. He told her to go, be with them. She promised to be with him the next night, her last, for at least awhile. They could walk together, talking. But the three oldest Bunnies spent last night laughing and crying together, talking, telling their former lives, and falling silent but for soft moans of pleasure.

Mayumi returned to her own room a few hours before dawn, leaving Merri and Cherry asleep in each other’s arms, Mayumi intending to try to hunt dreams of her father – and now here is Alma, promising…something. Mayumi finds herself grinning. It doesn’t matter what they do. Just time together, just the two of them, that is exactly what she wants right now. “Just a moment!” She springs from the bed and whips off the long shirt she wears as a nightgown, quickly changing into shorts and a simple blouse – “smart casual” as Merri would call it – from a footlocker, looking to Alma for approval, in case it is too informal for what she has in mind. But the goddess merely nods after a moment’s consideration, and Mayumi dashes off to the communal bathroom to brush her teeth, before presenting herself ready.

“Ready?” Alma asks.

Mayumi nods, then remembers. “Oh, the futon!” She quickly flips the bottom third of the bed up, then rolls the rest onto the top third, shoving it away neatly. She’s momentarily irked at herself for leaving the blanket and pillow trapped inside so sloppily, but she can fix it later. Then it hits her. This is the second-to-last time she will do that. Two nights from now she’ll be sleeping on a hard Guardia Academy cot, her bed for the next two hundred sixteen days, well over half of the Insula’s ten-month calendar.

She turns and looks at Alma. “Ready.”

“Let us go, then,” Alma says. “Before the others wake up.”

Slipping out of the bar does not prove difficult. Nor does making their way through the streets, heading toward Little Falls. They talk pleasantly of the previous night’s party, and of the next morning, when they will be walking this very route. Alma will bring Mayumi to the Little Falls portal.

“Do you want me to accompany you?” Alma asks, hesitantly.

“To the Academy?” Mayumi shakes her head. “That would be kind, but no. I…should make the journey on my own. I will be all right.”

Alma looks pleased, and Mayumi feels that she has passed a sort of test. They pass a road that Mayumi knows would lead, if they took it, into the tangled warren where Sky’s apartment is located. She still hasn’t been inside. Sky’s reserve sometimes makes her wonder why he is holding back. Is it only that he wants to take it slowly, and his reticence at being involved with a civilian employee of the station? Technically she is not under his command, but she understands that. And yet, there is something more, things he holds back from telling her. There is some secret, she feels, that causes him to fall into silences.

Will he, in this time apart, find someone else? She hopes so, and she has told him, though the thought he might no longer want her makes her feel sick. It would make things easier, simpler. But she has given up so much already. She glances at Alma, beside her. All the years, twenty-two years, apart. And those years in a dream that she can now only catch in fragments here and there, that too almost completely lost to her. She does not want to give up anything more that she truly does not have to.

But she is doing that now, isn’t she? Giving up six months with those she loves to pursue a dream. Why?

She steels her resolve. She is Guardia. She was in her dream life, and she will be again. Any doubts are unworthy of her. This is her path.

“You’ve been quiet,” Alma says.

Mayumi snaps out of her reverie. “Oh, I…I was just thinking about tomorrow.”

Alma looks at her, sympathy written on her face. “You’ll be fine, Mayumi.”

“It’s not me I’m worried about.” Without looking up, she reaches out and catches Alma’s hand, squeezing it, and feeling a reassuring squeeze in return.

“We will be all right too,” Alma says. “You just focus on your studies. If you were to need to repeat for another six months…” She shakes her head, unwilling even to consider the thought. “No.”

Mayumi feels the soft ruff of fur on the back of her neck rise, as if a mild electric charge were in the air, or had just left it. Has the magical level changed a bit? She looks around. “Are we in Little Falls?”

Alma nods, and then nods again toward the plaza ahead of them. It is a plaza Mayumi has seen twice before: once in the light of morning, like now, with Sky, when he took her to several other wards to make sure that she and the other Bunnies would not fall ill in low- or high-magic environments; and once with Alma and Gwydion and all the rest of Alma’s children, bodies of assassins and thugs scattered about, Saira’s arrows sticking out of them like deadly pins, slashed wounds by Alma’s sword and Gwydion’s magic, and Mayumi holding her own blade, standing before Cherry and Merri, also armed, ready to fall to the teeth of hell hounds to protect the others.

Three Rats does not have its own portal. Little Falls is by far the older ward, having arrived at the Insula Caelestis longer ago than anyone Mayumi has spoken with can remember. And the portal, here in the plaza, is just about as old, the silver-and-brass oval frame simple, less elaborate than those in some of those other wards. It sits on a raised platform, three steps from the street. Already this morning there are people using it, tearing expensive tickets from small books that can be purchased for those, often merchants who have need of long-distance travel. The people of Little Falls are barely more prosperous than those of Three Rats, but trade must go on.

Mayumi looks at Alma, the question plain on her face, but she doesn’t ask. The mischievous smile on the goddess’ face tells her that the surprise will remain a surprise until the right moment. But the smile, Mayumi sees, is fragile, just barely shaky, with nervousness.

“It is our turn now,” Alma says. “Ready?”

Feeling her heart pounding, Mayumi nods. Together, still holding hands, they step through. As a goddess, Alma has no need of tickets. She pays directly, in the mana needed to power the portal, paying just a little extra to bring her mortal companion through. And a little extra beyond that, as Sky has told her, as a tax. The portal system was built by gods, for gods. There had been a time when mortals had no way of using it at all, and even now the enchanted tickets are only sold to mortals reluctantly and with considerable paperwork, so that users can be tracked.

As they step through, the portal flashes gold, and Mayumi’s stomach flips as she feels just for a moment that she is falling, as if she’s missed the last step on a stairway. Then they are elsewhere.

The portal they step out of is more complex than the one in Little Falls. It is the color that catches Mayumi’s eye, causing her to turn her head. She would call it simply red, but in Three Rats they would consider it red-orange. It is the color that Mayumi learned to color the sun in drawings, though the orphan children at Ewá Nanã’s home choose yellow. Her eye follows up the thick wood frame, its inner edge only made of the alchemical silver and brass that is part of all the portals she has seen. At the top, she can see a cross-strut with a plaque on it bearing kanji characters saying Sawara-machi, or Sawara Town, a name that shakes her so that she nearly does not see that they have just exited from a portal in the shape of a torii, a free-standing, sacred gateway, in the myōjin style, the upper crossbar above curved upwards at the tips. She knows it. She knows it well. She releases Alma’s hand and steps backward, away from it, her eyes wide and fixed, until she gets far enough away and yes, she can see, atop the kasagi, the upper crossbar, are stones. Small stones, tossed up by children, sometimes adults. It is very difficult to get a stone to land atop the kasagi and stay there, but those who manage it experience great good fortune.

She managed it once, when she was fourteen.

Her heart is beating so hard that it hurts. She can hear it distinctly in the throbbing capillaries of her ears. She is nearly hyperventilating. She turns, looking over the rooftops that spread below the ridge they are on. The Insula, a mountain floating in a sphere of Reality amid the endless Void, is steeper here than in Three Rats, and the streets are a maze of slopes and steps. The roofs are made of interlocking ceramic tiles, glazed black or a near-black blue, many trees and small gardens scattered among them, a swath of parkland, a large square building with a wide open space on which children are running, playing, racing each other, one class following their teacher in calisthenics. She can’t hear the music or see exactly what they are doing – it is a bit too far for that. But the muscles in her legs twitch in a desire to do those exercises that she has done so many many times before.

She suddenly sucks in a deep long breath, putting her face in her hands to shut out the overwhelming vision. She does not know whether she is about to scream, or moan, or laugh. Two hands come to rest on her shoulders, and she turns and throws her arms around Alma’s waist, her fingers almost painfully digging into the goddess’ back, and her body decides to weep, powerful, silent sobs shuddering through her frame.

The gentle stroking of her hair and ears slowly brings her out of this deluge of disabling emotion. She becomes aware enough to start controlling her breathing. A stab of shame – You are acting like a child! she accuses herself – is washed away by the thought, It is real! It is real! My home is real! She leans back slightly, and looks up at Alma, blinking away vision-distorting tears.

The goddess, worry becoming happy relief, smiles and says softly, “Happy Year’s End, Mayumi.”

Mayumi looks up at her, shaking her head slightly. “I…” She pauses, swallows. “You could not have given me a more precious gift.”

Alma’s smile turns into a grin of pleasure. “I wasn’t certain if the real Sawara Ward and the dream one would even resemble one another closely enough to be recognizable.”

Mayumi releases her and looks around, her mind and eyes clearer. The portal is on the grounds of a shrine to the god of rice and fertility and alcohol and general good fortune, the main gate guarded by two stone foxes. The houses below are less colorful, perhaps, the trees not quite as large. Is it simply her memory that is amiss? Or is it truly different? Perhaps both.

“It does look a bit different,” she says, “but I would know it even if it were far more changed.” She wipes her eyes with the back of her hand, and laughs at herself. “I’m sorry. I…overreacted.”

Alma shakes her head, still smiling. “Care to give me the tour, then? All I know is how to get here.”

Mayumi nods. She hesitates, looking toward the main altar of the shrine to Inari, but not wanting to keep her mother waiting, resists the urge to make a prayer, promising herself she will return later to show her respect to the god. She bows instead, hands pressed together, then turns and takes Alma’s hand, leading her down the long stairway and into the ward.

Its narrow, winding streets are still far more orderly than those of Three Rats, far easier to negotiate, clean and well maintained. The people resemble Mayumi, superficially – her pale-olive skin tone, the gracile build, dark hair and eyes with epicanthic folds, face flatter than most people in Three Rats – though they are taller than her and lacking her Bunny ears and tail, the black, soft fur on her calves and forearms. Those who see them pass bow reverently to Alma, who, though not especially tall for a goddess, is still taller than the average human woman and somewhat towers over many of the Sawara residents. Her white hair and ethereally pale skin, along with a mild but noticeable divine aura, mark her as a goddess. The mortals hardly notice Mayumi beside her, and their whispered expressions of wonder fade as the pair walk further into the town.

“I can see that people are not very used to gods here,” Alma mentions as she looks around. “It is a pretty place.”

“We have a few gods here, but they stay hidden from the people except for special occasions.” Mayumi wonders at her unthinking use of “we.” This waking-world version of Sawara Ward – she has never been here. But she lived nearly her whole life in the dream version of it. She shakes the thoughts away, her ears knocking against each other, and continues, “Only the priests and shrine girls get to speak with them regularly.”

Alma nods. “I know a cousin of mine is in charge of this ward. But she will not be here today.”

Mayumi glances at her, eyes a little wider. “There is a Shinigami, a Death Goddess. She appears to us in the summer festival of the dead. I had no idea she was…your family.” She does not mention that the people here only speak of her in hushed voices, afraid of attracting her attention. Mayumi herself had always wanted to meet her. She did not at the time that know that her mother was a goddess at all, much less of the Death Clan, but she still somehow felt drawn to the unnamed goddess known only as the Shinigami.

“All death gods are my family,” Alma explains. “One way or another. Some are brothers, others are cousins. My uncles, aunts and my father’s other wives usually stay in the Inner Rings.”

Mayumi smiles. The way Alma speaks casually of family. She knows, from things Alma has mentioned, that relations with her family are not always perfect. But Mayumi had only known, growing up, that somewhere, somehow, she had a mother, and that this mother yearned to be with her. She could not say how. If she ever dreamed within the dream-world, she cannot remember. But she knew, though at times she wondered if she were merely fantasizing it.

And here she is, in that same ward. With her mother beside her. She feels a swell of love for the goddess that makes her feel she could almost burst. She feels her face flush, wanting to say it but…not here, in the road.

“Well, this is the school. It…looks rather different from the dream version. I remember it as far larger. But still, in a way it looks the same. And that is the Guardia station. And down this lane…”

The low walls along the narrow lane are the same, just the same. They are made of blue-glazed brick, topped with the same sort of curved, interlocking shingles as the roofs of the houses. In the walls are small wooden gates leading to the gardens in front of every house here, with flowers and berry bushes, plum and cherry trees, bonsai looking like miniature ancient pines, gnarled and twisted by ocean winds that have never reached this ward, here in the Third Ring. There is an overfed cat watching them curiously from atop the brick pillar beside one open gate.

She knows, just down this lane, is the house she grew up in. Will he be there? Is he well?

Will he know me?

Her feet feel as if they are set in concrete.

Alma squeezes May’s hand reassuringly. “Why don’t you go ahead, and I will follow?”

Mayumi looks up at her, swallows, and slowly nods, squeezing her mother’s hand tightly, feeling a mix of dread and excitement. For a long moment, Mayumi continues to hold Alma’s hand, but finally, she drops it. She turns, takes a deep breath, squares her shoulders, and walks ahead down the lane.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

Ishijima Sueyoshi, Guardia Popula Inspector (retired) for Sawara Ward, sets down his little kama hand-scythe and sighs despondently. The garden is dying. Rust is spreading through it like fire, discoloring leaves and killing the flowers and herbs he has labored over for years. Even his beloved old friends, the four trees, one at each corner – Ume-chan, the plum tree, whose blossoms are so lovely in spring and from whose late-summer fruits his neighbors make a delicious liqueur; Mikan-chan and Nashi-chan, who bear for him tart mandarins and juicy pears in autumn; and Sakura-chan, who produces no fruit but whose cross-pollinated cherry blossoms bloom snowy-white and nearly-red in gorgeous unpredictable patches, out of season, always during this most sacred of times, the New Year, for longer than Sueyoshi has been alive – they too are being devoured by the rust.

His legs folded under him, he lets his shoulders slump. He has been retired now for sixteen years. He had not wanted to retire; he was only sixty-two, a good thirteen years younger than his father, the previous Inspector, had been when he retired. But the irregularity in his heartbeat had become worse, and though being an Inspector is mainly a desk job, he had thought it for the best to allow young Sergeant Ueda to ascend to the position. And Ueda, the first woman ever to lead the Guardia of Sawara Ward, has done an excellent job, though Sueyoshi had to have a word with a few obstinate individuals to explain the errors in their overly traditionalist thinking. His heart might be weak, but his ability to convince others not to gainsay him is still strong.

So his retirement had been a good decision. That is what he has told himself for sixteen years. And it is true. A good decision for the ward. But…a bad decision for himself. His heart, which supposedly needed rest, has only become weaker. The touch of the priest of Ebisu, channeling his god’s healing power, only temporarily relieves the pain and shortness of breath. Sueyoshi can no longer drink that sweet plum liqueur, can no longer drink coffee, can no longer eat some of his favorite foods.

And what, really, is he living for? He has no wife, no children. His parents are gone. He was an only child. And his longest friends are dying off, one by one, with few remaining. His neighbors are kind. They care for him. And his officers – formerly his officers, that is, the ones he commanded and trained and polished carefully into the pride of the Guardia – they drop by, bringing vegetables harvested from their families’ gardens or other gifts: clothes and wooden carvings, magnificent ceramic bowls and, his favorite, books of fiction and poetry.

He had been embarrassed when they found out his secret pleasure, long before, but rather than finding it silly, those who knew him found it endearing and almost competed to bring him the latest books, or the rarest. And this helped him get through the first few years. But as he weakened further, and as he found himself suffering from a mind-killing insomnia, he truly began to wonder if it was not time to abandon this body and reenter the Wheel of Souls.

That is when the dreams began. That is when Mayumi, his dream-daughter, came into his life.

He cannot remember all the dreams, especially the early ones, but he is sure he remembers the first. He had been dreaming of some mysterious plunderer devouring his plants, night after night, and when he finally caught her, she had turned out to be a young girl, perhaps ten years old, wild-eyed and mute, with long furred ears. He brought her into his home, bathed her, dressed her, fed her. Her fear had quickly given way to a guarded trust, then attentive devotion, though it had been months before she smiled and finally spoke, telling him that her name was Mayumi.

He had found that, since Mayumi came into his life, he had slept like a stone in a gentle stream. Having someone to care for sent him to bed early, sleep effortlessly dragging him into its embrace. He had never married because the girl he had loved, in his youth, had chosen another, and he had never quite recovered from it. He had put all his energy into his work, and then, far too soon, his work was gone, leaving him with nothing. Mayumi gave him purpose again. And in the dreams she had laughed and cried, learned to control the white-hot rage that sometimes seized her, learned what he could teach her. He did not know much beyond the Guardia, however, so he taught her justice. His father, after all, had named him Sueyoshi: The Leading Edge of Justice. He tried to live up to that name, and to show her the same path he had learned.

She had learned well, and had become Guardia. But now…for months she has hardly been in his dreams. Only for moments does she find him, telling him she will find a way back to him, and then she is gone. Something has happened. Something has gone wrong. Or perhaps she has just become an adult, and gone off to her own life.

And he feels he has let her down as well. The insomnia is back, worse than ever. He does not sleep for days at a time. And his heart pains him. Although the cool air is a relief from the unseasonable warmth, he should not be working in the garden. And he must admit, he cannot save it on his own. He will have to call upon others for help. What point is there in going on if one cannot take care of one’s own garden? And though he has always refused even to consider whether or not Mayumi has some sort of real existence, he cannot stop the doubts that tell him he is losing his mind, imagining that which he could never have in reality.

Then, on the little low door set into the garden wall, the wooden catch rattles. The door begins to open, but it sticks, like always. But with effort someone pulls it open. Even this short visitor must duck her head to enter through that door, though her ears brush the lintel.

Her ears. Black-furred, rising from the sides of her head through straight black hair, parted in the middle to reveal a young, frightened face. For a moment, she looks just as she did when he found her in that first dream, seeking something but scared of what she will find. Then she sees him. Her eyes widen, her face lights up, though she is not smiling. She looks at him, almost unbelieving.

It is a dream. It must be. But that is no matter. It is so very, very good to see her. He stands, slowly, and then he feels that familiar pain, and things become dark.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“Mother!”

The loud, carrying voice is not directed toward him, obviously, but it rouses him nonetheless. Had he fallen asleep in the garden? Is this one of the neighbor girls calling for help? “I’m fine!” he insists. “Just…fell asleep.”

Then it registers: she had called “Mother!” in Urbia, not Japanese. But then the voice, more quietly, speaks to him in his native tongue, shaky and frightened. “Father…you’re going to be all right.”

The arm around his shoulders is strong, and he turns his head slightly to see the soft, black fur on the upper side of her forearm. He straightens, still sitting with his legs folded under, and looks at her face, tears filling her eyes.

“Mayumi?” He cannot summon any more words. It can’t be. It can’t be real. Have I died? They say that those who dream deeply live on in the land of dreams after death.

She nods. “I told you,” she says. “I told you I would find you.” She smiles weakly.

A shadow moves across them, and a cool hand touches his back. “Mayumi? What happened?”

Her eyes look up at the newcomer, past Sueyoshi’s shoulder. “He saw me and… I think he fainted.”

“I am all right.” His voice is weak, he knows, and he grows irritated with himself. “I…felt dizzy.” He shifts to look at this “Mother” and sees someone who is unmistakably a goddess. Her subtly luminous beauty, her hair white but not from age, her eyes glowing like copper reflecting the light of a crackling fire. “I have seen you…” A dream, almost forgotten, comes flooding back. The hawk that died. The black horse. The goddess on the hill. He looks back at Mayumi, stunned.

A touch of healing power reaches into him, like that of the Ebisu priest, but so much finer, gentler, as if being careful of his old heart. The dizziness disappears and he feels better than he has in years. He barely hears the goddess saying, “Emotions can be overwhelming. Where can we sit, Mayumi?”

They both help him stand, and Mayumi, murmuring, “Over here,” guides them to the wooden deck he built himself twenty years ago, after the old one had begun to rot. Up three steps and then they help him sit on a comfortable chair beneath the overhanging balcony above.

“I am fine, really…” And he is. He feels years younger. His head is still spinning, but it has nothing to do with his heart. How can this be real?

“I am sure you are,” the goddess says. “But you would be even better after a drink of water.”

Mayumi cries, “I’ll get it!” and dashes inside, for all the world as if she lives here.

Sueyoshi watches her go, then looks at the goddess in wonder. “Is this a dream? Or have I died?”

She smiles and shakes her head slowly. Though so pale that she seems almost transparent, her expression is warm. “No. This is the Wakenworld. I brought her to see you, as I said I would. It is her Year’s End gift.”

He nods. “You did.” Even using the more formal Urbia “you” sounds rude and inadequate to him. “Divine one, I cannot say how grateful–”

Mayumi returns, handing him water. “How are you feeling?” She says it in Japanese, in a familiar tone.

“I am well… You…are here.” It is half-question, half-statement.

“Yes.” She smiles, though her warring emotions render it fragile. Then looking from one to the other, she says, “Mother, this is…my father. Father, my mother is, well, a goddess… Her name is Alma.”

Sueyoshi nods. “Yes, we have met.” He looks at Alma, feeling now the slightest bit amused, her kindly manner toward him beginning to overcome his awe of her.

“A certain black stallion showed me this ward in a dream and told me where to find your father,” Alma explains.

Mayumi looks astonished, then pleased, causing Sueyoshi to wonder who this stallion might be. Some god, perhaps, who watches over her? “That was kind of him,” she says, then looks back at Sueyoshi. “I…I can’t believe it.” She smooths his longish grey-white hair, which he has allowed to grow out since his retirement. He feels conscious of his wrinkles. He wonders how she saw him in their dreams. He feels as if he might have been much younger, old enough to be her father, but not, as he is now, her grandfather. Her face flushes, her nose turning pink in the way it always did when she was fighting her way back from the verge of tears.

Sueyoshi takes her hand, comforting her by murmuring, “Yes, yes.” This radical adjustment in reality will, he is sure, take time to sink in, but it is time to treat it as being as real as it so obviously is. He asks Alma, “Divine one, can you both stay? I…I did not prepare the usual feast, being alone…but I can gather some things from the neighbors.”

Alma shakes her head. “I brought Mayumi here to spend the day with you. I, however, cannot stay. There is a family ceremony I must attend in the Second Ring.”

“You can’t stay?” Mayumi asks, distraught.

Alma shakes her head. “I am afraid not. Every year, on this day, all the Life and Death gods meet to part with old souls and prepare the new lives for the coming year. It is our most sacred ritual. And I will see many family members I have not seen in a whole year.”

Sueyoshi feels a pang of pride at seeing Mayumi’s disappointment turn to stoic acceptance. “Thank you, Mother. For bringing me here, for…” She closes her eyes, words failing her momentarily, then opens them again. “For everything. When will you return?”

Alma hesitates a moment, thinking. “Well before sunset, I think,” she says. “Enjoy your time here.”

Sueyoshi stands. He nearly sinks to the floor again in order to perform a full prostration of the deepest respect, but something about Mayumi’s closeness to her, the lack of formality, and what he remembers of the goddess from his dream makes him change his mind and instead perform only a standing bow, albeit one with his back fully bent, his palms pressed together in gassho, as if in prayer. “I will be more prepared when you return. Though whatever repast I have to offer will be far humbler than you deserve, I hope you will join us then. My deepest gratitude for this gift of time with one I have only known in dreams until now.”

He feels those cool hands on his shoulders, nudging him upright. He straightens slightly and raises his head to see her bowing herself, not deeply, but to him. A goddess, bowing to him. He feels reality crumbling further. But then, this is the person his daughter calls Mother, just as she calls him Father. What world has he tumbled into?

“It will be my honor to join you then,” Alma says. “And I assure you that I was never one for feasts. I prefer quiet moments.” She hesitates as if remembering something. “By the way…” She looks up, and Sueyoshi follows her gaze, to where a slightly darker patch of blue moves across the sky. It comes closer until it resolves into yet another figure from a dream, the phoenix, glittering in the sunlight, a flash of some jewel dangling from its neck catching his eye. The magnificent wings spread, cupping the air, and the bird lands on the almost-black age-gnarled branch of the sakura tree, the weight shaking the branch so that a number of rust-eaten leaves fall. The phoenix begins to preen its feathers back into place, the brown, tear-shaped gem at its throat gleaming. “I truly am sorry for your hawk,” the goddess says. “It seems that Starfax has guided him to…different skies.”

Sueyoshi realizes his mouth is open, and closes it. The hawk, yes, which he had found injured, which he had hoped to give to Mayumi, in dream at least, and which had died. “I am happy to know that poor but noble bird was helped by such a magnificent creature.”

His eye catches movement beyond the bird. The heads of his neighbors are peering over his wall, staring at the astonishing visitors, the white-haired goddess and the rabbit-eared girl. He glances at Alma, hoping she is not bothered by his nosy neighbors, but though the way her eyes crinkle in amusement shows she is aware of them, she does not seem to mind. She favors him with another smile, and turns to leave. “Have a lovely day, both of you. I will see you this late-afternoon.”

The wind picks up, and the air fills with the scents of the unblooming flowers of his garden. But they are not unblooming. Even those which are out of season are, within moments, budding and then opening fully. Leaves along nude branches burst out in seconds, healthy and green, and blossoms of cherry and plum are covering their trees as Alma walks past them. Around the edges of the garden, hydrangeas and cosmos bloom, and the other two trees are beginning to bear mikan and nashi, mandarins and pears.

By the time he looks back, he sees the goddess has already passed through the low doorway, gone, leaving behind her gift of life. He looks at that gift, beside him, smiling at him and taking his hand. He encloses her slender hand in his, the memories of walking with her, hand in hand, in her childhood, once again robbing him of the ability to speak.

On its perch, the phoenix Starfax prunes a rebellious feather back into perfection, and then with a glance of her ambarine eyes at Mayumi, opens her wings and takes off into the heights.

Ch6.47 Trust

Dion stretches in his office chair. The party is over. Granted, some pocket of resistant partiers may still be trying to make it last until dawn back at the bar but, for Dion, duty has called for shorter lasting merrymaking and a much less entertaining return to work. For as much as the past few days have been mostly peaceful (something unusual for a holiday season), the station cannot afford to close and the Dei must keep with their duties alongside the Popula. Differential treatment and greater flexibility in schedules because of their nature is one thing but stretch that line too far and resentment between mortal and god is bound to show.

So, no night off for the magic god. No ending a day of partying and gift-giving on a sweet note of not-exactly-sleeping under satin sheets, closely held by a preferably naked death goddess and collecting the delightful success of his gift from her cool, soft lips. Shame… She is probably on her soul-harvesting rounds right now or maybe she has returned and is resting already. Either way, she’ll be having a better time than he is having at the moment, immersed, for lack of something more exciting, in mind-numbing paperwork.

But there will be other opportunities. For now, his eyes fall on the green and brown bracelet that hugs his wrist. He strokes the golden charm shaped like a sleeping dragon that adorns its intricate, leathery surface with the tip of an index finger, smiling at the detail of it and the attention that Alma obviously pays to things concerning him. And it would take some attention to notice Dion’s love of dragons. Other than a single tapestry hanging on his bedroom wall, he lets almost nothing show of it and of the reasons why he loves them so. That story mostly brought him trouble and heartache anyway, but he cannot avoid looking back in tenderness at his early years and the first great adventure of his godly life. When he was young and witless enough to believe that great acts of valor would win him the heart of one whom everyone said could not care less about him but whose love he craved above all.

Foolish him. On a whim, after hearing her speak of how much she believed that love was conquered and proven by great deeds, he had set out to the wild Dragon Lands, dangerous and teeming with colossal beasts, to tame a dragon for her. It hadn’t worked. But those four months there, equivalent to three decades here – for time runs much slower in the Dragon Lands – had shaped the skinny, insecure boy he was then into the charming, strong, confident adult he is. And they had taught him not to believe in love, not to want it for himself and never again to allow it to make him so weak, so vulnerable to harm.

And maybe because he is now remembering this, as his finger absentmindedly strokes the jeweled spine of the dragon charm, the soft music that rings in his ears is one of flutes and wind-chimes.

Of leaves and branches shaking in the wind. Rushing water. Pouring rain. Fire crackling in a narrow cave.

A memory of a cold, stormy night in the place where dragons roam free…

It had not had gone the way he thought it would. Surely, when one decides to embark on a noble quest for the favor of the fairest lady in the world, there are expectations to be met. One should find loyal companions along the way, learn great secrets of the universe, be trained by mystical masters. Certainly not end up in a damp cave, soaked to the bones and shaking with cold, huddling over a small fire while trying to ignore the stench of the dirty, middle-aged man in clothes that must not have seen any water other than rain for at least a few months, sitting with his back against the wall.

“So let me see if I got this right,” the not too tall, filthy man asked, using long, blackened nails to scratch a thick, curly beard that probably harbors half of the lice population in this place. “This girl…”

“Not just any girl,” Dion cut him off with the still too high-pitched voice of his adolescence. The damned thing was taking too long to change. “She is the most beautiful, amazing–”

It was the man’s turn to interrupt him, waving his hand dismissively as if to cut through Dion’s words. “Yeah, yeah, you’ve told me how great she is already.” He threw another damp stick into the fire and settled down again to clean the dirt under his nails with a nail on the other hand. “Anyway, she won’t give you the time of day and keeps flirting with this other guy so you decided you’d come here and capture a dragon to impress her.”

He hated to hear his tale of love and valor reduced to the man’s blunt words. Sure, Edine was willful as the sun was bright but she was also young, dreamful, beautiful and filled with a sweet inner radiance that would blind the world if only she wouldn’t keep it hidden. They were soulmates, he knew. The constant grimace of boredom and mild disgust on her face was just a mask she put on her full, perfectly drawn lips to hide a quiet, candid soul. Her choice in short, draping dresses that hugged the budding curves of her breasts and the sinuous rises of her hips only to reveal her long, shapely legs and the flawless flatness of her back almost all the way down to the tip of her spine was just a ruse. Her sensuous body was just the armor she chose to distract people from how scared she was, from how much she yearned for a strong presence to stand between her and the world and conquer life and greatness for her, a man to be firm and brave so she could be fragile and docile and innocent, as every woman secretly yearns to be.

And the way she spoke at him, so dry and hostile, telling him to grow up, was but a veiled cry of help, asking him only to grow strong enough to save her from a world of frivolous attachments and arranged marriages. He would grow stronger, yes, and prove his worth. And then she would trust him to hold her in his soon-to-be powerful arms and show her the warmth of true love. She would feel safe enough then to pour out the sweetness she was afraid to show and be all he dreamed she could be to him.

So he truly took it to heart that this grubby, sour man would dare attack his lady, reduce her blonde, green-eyed, gentle grace to the simple, peasant name of girl.

“Do not speak of her like that!” Dion snapped, the veins on his skinny, fair-skinned neck throbbing in anger. “You do not know her like I do. She is confused, that is all.”

“You just said she told you to take a hike, lad,” the man noted conversationally, apparently unmoved by the threat brewing in Dion’s bony, thin frame. “That sure don’t sound like confusion to me.”

“If I return with this proof of my valor, she will surely change her mind,” the young god insisted, jutting his chin forward in firm resolve.

That made the square-jawed, primitive-looking man sigh and shake his head. “Look, lad – you have a name?”

That made Dion’s head spin for a bit. Surely he could not risk revealing his true identity, lest this hairy, talking primate know his uncle and send him home before Dion could reach his goal in this place. “Uhh…” he stuttered and cursed himself for it. “Heliwyr. Heliwyr, yes. Heliwyr.”

He liked the name. It was the name of his favorite fiction hero.

The man glanced at him appreciatively as if measuring him for a straightjacket. “I guess lad will have to do.” He muttered. “Draig here. Did you tell anyone you were coming here?”

“Of course!” Dion replied, too, too fast. “Yes… Not as such. I left a note.”

Draig’s fingers traced the ugly vertical scar running over his left eye in what looked like troubled contemplation. “You left your parents a note saying you were coming to the Dragon Lands to tame a dragon for a girl…?”

“My parents are dead,” Dion said, glaring at the man as if he were supposed to know such trivial things. “All I have is an uncle and a mentor. I left them a note.”

Draig snorted derisively. “Oh, I can just see that one. ‘Dear Uncle, I decided to travel to the Dragon Lands to prove my worth to this girl who just told me to go carve a melon with a toothpick’.”

“Look, will you help me or not?” Dion snapped again, feeling miserable and clammy and freezing right down to his bones. “I can always just go back to the Ker-mah, you know?”

“Sure, you can,” Draig replied, visibly unimpressed. “And you can spend the next few months in their bloody company, reading every book in their library and learning everything there is to know about dragons without ever seeing one up close and personal. Isn’t that why you wandered off into the jungle in the middle of a rainstorm?”

“It wasn’t raining then…” Dion mutters.

Draig was right, though, even if Dion would not admit it to save his life. The Ker-mah, gorgeous, charming creatures, bred of god and dragon blood, had received him well and welcomed him into their midst. They had promised to help him in his quest. But after two weeks of nothing to do but read their books and learn the commandments of their culture, Dion had become quite convinced that field experience would not be a thing of the near future. And so, after a very pleasant with the delicately featured head of the order, in her – no, jys – for the Ker-mah had no defined gender, like the dragons from which they descended, hovering instead between male and female, leaning toward one or another at their leisure and need – jys silk-lined chamber smelling of strange scents that made his adolescent mind curl around lustful thoughts and his body tingle in beckoning, slightly embarrassing ways, he had packed his backpack and walked into the night to continue his quest…

Only to end up in this goddamned cave, saved from the pouring wrath of the skies by a man so filthy that water rolled over him as if he wore a waterproof jacket.

Damn all of this to the seventh Hell…

“Look, I could send you out there and let you drown in rainwater or end up in some toothy maw but messing with the Ker-mah’s plans it too entertaining to pass up,” Draig offered, oh-so magnanimously. “So, fine. I’ll teach you to find, capture, tame, heck, even cook any type of dragon you fancy. Fire dragons, water dragons, wind dragons, you name one, I’ll teach. I’m not gonna be fancy about it and you’re gonna have to make yourself useful.”

Dion nodded. “I will do whatever it takes.”

“Good, take those high-class clothes off,” Draig ordered.

“I WON’T DO THAT!” Dion shrieked in shock, wrapping his own arms around his body in demure outrage. Damn the gods of puberty!

“Fine, freeze in those fine, drenched linens,” Draig grunted, rolling his eyes. “See if I care. But try and keep your teeth from chattering too loud while I teach you. I don’t like to have to repeat myself.”

Scowling at the man in deep suspicion, Dion proceeded to unbutton his shirt and lay it carefully over his backpack, welcoming the warmth of the fire on his skin but trying not to look to obvious about it.

Draig merely snorted and threw another stick in the flames. “Now, if you wanna capture a dragon, you gotta learn what goes through their heads.”

Dion nodded, thinking about this. “I see… I must know the dragon.”

“Yes.”

“Learn its habits,” Dion added.

“Aye,” Draig nodded dryly.

“Its weaknesses,” Dion said, feeling like he was getting the hang of things.

“Good, good,” Draig mumbled.

“I must become the dragon!” Dion cried, shooting to his feet in triumph.

“Wha–?!” Draig roared. “Why in the blasted Hells would you do that?!”

This left Dion utterly confused. “Uuh…So I can capture a dragon?”

“And you think you could become one, a bony piece of flesh like you?!” Draig exclaimed, gesturing at Dion’s narrow, half-naked exposed body. “You look like an overpriced canape!”

Dion rolled his eyes and slumped back down to the floor, his legs crossed. “I was speaking metaphorically,” he muttered, propping his cheeks on his closed fists.

Draig snorted again. Dion was beginning to think the man would be doing that a lot. “Ha! Shows what you know. Dragons don’t do metaphors. They don’t do sarcasm either.” He paused in contemplation. “Or baths. Definitely not baths. Moving on… What do you know about dragons?”

Dion considered pointing out Draig’s own lacking hydrophilia but decided against it. “Dragons are noble, highly evolved reptilian creatures of the genus Draconem,” he recited instead, proud at his ability to memorize the information in his uncle’s books.

“Right, nothing then,” Draig replied dryly. “The first thing you need to know about dragons is…they are sadistic, arrogant bastards.”

“Somehow that part of the definition has not yet made it into the books,” Dion muttered, looking despondent at the man’s dismissal of his hard-earned academic knowledge.

Snort and Mutter. That should make for an interesting team.

“Oh, they can be charming, mind you, in the same way a snake can be charming to a mouse,” Draig assured him, looking serious. “They’ll say whatever you want to hear just so they can get what they want from you – that is, if you have anything they want – and they’ll be mighty serious about it too…until they eat you whole.”

“Thankfully, I have never met anyone like that,” Dion noted, feeling slightly disgusted at the thought of acting in such a manner.

“The Bearers are the worst,” Draig continued, apparently oblivious to Dion’s commentary. “Guess, you’d think of them as females. They’re the sneakiest, meanest critters and if you find one, lad, run! Don’t try to catch it, don’t try to tame it, and unless you can talk your way out of it, just run! Personally, I’ve used that piece of advice for all sorts of females but you’re a young lad. You’ll get why soon enough.”

“I’m sure I will…” Dion rolled his eyes at the obvious jab.

“You know, you interrupt too much,” Draig complained with a sneer. “Anyway, if you want to capture dragons and bend’em to your will, you’ll need to attack their weakest spot. Know what that is?”

This made Dion brighten a little. Time to show off his knowledge of dragon lore. “You mean the part of their skull just behind the left ear?”

Draig nodded his head, pondering. “That could work…That could work…You see, the problem is…Not all dragons have ears. Try again.”

“Their eyes?” Dion offered.

“Yeah, ‘cuz those are just protected by bunker-grade eyelids.”

“The center of their chest where a single scale is missing from their armor?” He was sure he had read that somewhere.

“The heck kind of books have you been reading?!” Draig cried out in bewilderment. “Fairytales?!”

“Fine, then!” Dion gave up. “What is their greatest weakness?”

Draig’s yellowing teeth glinted in the flame-light, too sharp and amused for comfort. “Why, lad, their greed….”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

Dion blinks at the soft metallic catch of the latch in his office door lock opening as someone turns the old-fashioned spherical brass doorknob. He turns his head to see who it is, his memories quickly fading back into the dark recesses of his mind at the first glimpse of long, white hair. Alma peeks in, looking at him almost apologetically before entering. She looks tired and, most of all, worried, but the smile she gives him is pure warmth. Without the smallest exchange of words, Dion knows that she came to be with him. The thought makes his heart skip a beat.

“Hi,” she half-whispers as she closes the door.

“Hi,” he replies, touching his hand to the wall behind him and murmuring a short sound-proofing spell. “Thought you might be resting by now.”

“Yes, I should…” Alma concedes, taking the few steps needed to cross the room and stand just beside his chair. “But as I was returning from my harvests, I decided that I don’t want to go to bed all by myself.”

Dion snorts at a passing thought. “You won’t be. Saira will be there.”

Alma rolls her eyes but smiles at the joke. “Let me make it clearer.” She touches her hand to his leg in a signal for him to move his left leg enough that she can sit on his thigh, sidesaddle. Their office is so small that his desk barely has enough room between it and the wall to allow for Dion to sit down and rise without advanced contortionism but, still, he manages to humor her and she manages to squeeze herself into the tight space available. Her arms drape over his shoulders as she breathes in his ear, “I don’t want to go to bed without you.”

His lips curl in pleasure at the little kiss she leaves on his earlobe. “Ah… Well, I could recommend the sofa,” he says, reaching up to stroke her cheek. “But this feels much more pleasant. If you can sleep like this.”

Her body shakes with a quiet snort before she straightens to look into his eyes. “I very much doubt your leg would enjoy that.”

“I’m sure I know a spell or two to stop my leg from ruining my fun,” Dion replies almost immediately, making her chuckle at his wit.

She leans to press the bridge of her nose to the side of his face and her arms squeeze him gently. She snuggles close to him, breathing peacefully against his jaw, and he holds her closely as silence spreads between them. He can sense that all is not well with Alma. It hasn’t been, all day. Her stress has been showing in small ways, here and there, even though she has tried to hide it, and the opportunities to sit down and relax, truly relax without party preparations and people hovering around, have not been many. So to feel her tense frame loosen against him and hear her little sigh of bliss is a great relief to him.

How strange that this would be so. How alien that a simple hug like this could ever feel to him as precious as a night of lovemaking. More, even, for he and Alma haven’t been allowed that level of intimacy yet. Four months ago, it would have barely registered as a short step to taking a woman to his bed. That he could ever spend all day craving this affectionate, completing touch, knowing that he cannot take it much further into passion is… He has spent decades diving into women’s beds to emerge triumphant but unmoved. Hollow. But…hadn’t life given him such an early warning about the dangers of falling in love? About how deceptive and disappointing it can be?

And yet, here he is, heart overflowing with pleasure and empathy at an innocent touch that just leaves his body wanting. Who would have thought that? Who would have thought that the great, romantic lies of love could come true?

In the quietness of their office, the sound of her deep, slow breathing so close to his ear is hypnotic. He has closed his eyes to enjoy the moment and barely notices the thinning and blurring of his thoughts as he loses track of time and drifts off into shallow sleep.

Some time must have gone by, though, because his leg is tingling with discomfort by the time he feels himself surface from that gentle lull. He forgot to cast that spell. A few light taps to the underside of his thigh produce the expected result: nothing. Still holding him closely, Alma seems to sleep soundly. He does not really want to wake her but his leg is starting to scream obscenities and now it is too late to do anything about it other than moving it to restore proper blood flow. Maybe he can somehow work out the geometry of lifting her in his arms while he raises himself on just one leg?

Fool, he admonishes himself. You have magic, don’t you?

A quick fumble through some dusty pages of his memory and he finds what he was looking for. His thoughts wrap around a levitation spell that encircles Alma and lifts her, still in very much the same position, from her perch on his leg. He rubs his aching limb as he makes sure she does not float up high enough to hit her head on the ceiling.

But something in her must sense the magic because she stirs, her eyes fluttering open in that haziness of waking. She looks around, then down at him, her eyebrows rising in surprise. She rubs her eyes with the back of her hand almost as if she were trying to get them to see straight and visibly stiffens when realization dawns.

“Am I… floating?” she asks in a voice still tinged with sleep.

Dion rises immediately to take her in his arms, cringing ever so slightly when canceling the levitation spell adds half of Alma’s weight to the load that his currently recalcitrant left leg has to bear. “You must have been dreaming very light dreams.”

Alma raises an eyebrow at this as she drapes her arms around his neck. “Your leg fell numb, didn’t it?”

“I didn’t want to wake you,” Dion replies, avoiding a full admission. “But now that you’re awake…sofa?”

She nods. “Yes, please.”

He gently eases her legs to the floor. Carrying her to the sofa would probably be the epitome of romance in this situation but the small office crammed with breakable things sitting on the desks and tables, waiting to be knocked down and shattered into a hundred pieces, is not really all that amenable to epitomes in general. So he lets her walk to the sofa and sit before he sits down by her side and wraps an arm around her shoulders.

She folds her legs up onto the sofa and reclines against him, hugging his chest and making a show of snuggling into perfect comfort. “Hmm…And now I’m not letting you go.”

Dion chuckles, delighted at the choice in words. “I was hoping you would say that.”

She straightens and smiles at him with that enticing look in her eyes that usually precedes a kiss. Her lips make good on that promise, interrupting the conversation with sweet, busy silence. They eventually break away from kissing to settle again into tranquil – if mildly tense with pent-up desire – snuggling.

“The streets were so quiet tonight,” Alma says conversationally as she plays with one of the delicately handcrafted buttons on his shirt. “As if everyone decided to stay inside for once.”

Dion nods. “Strange, isn’t it? I would expect a lot of intoxicated people and rowdy party-goers, like in other wards.”

“Oh, yes,” Alma agrees. “I’ve been through some pretty bad shifts on nights like this. Happy people make for very stupid people too.”

Dion chuckles at this. “I’m willing to bet that tomorrow will not be half as peaceful. If there are bad days to be Guardia, Death’s day off is the worst of them.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Alma replies, her voice suddenly edged with nervousness and sorrow. “I’ve always spent it at Father’s.”

She had told him before that she had decided to attend the ceremony at Death’s estate. The authorization to leave Three Rats for the day had arrived just two days ago and all the arrangements had been made to allow her to spend the day away without much interference on normal station life. But her anxiety at facing off her father’s suggestion that she should stay away this year – later revoked apparently on a sudden, surprise visit from Death himself – has been clearly growing these past few days. Dion has been half expecting the goddess to give up at the last minute.

“It will be all right, Alma,” he states softly, tightening his embrace a little. “Sky and I will stretch our shifts and take care of things here and all you will have to worry about is attending the ceremony and showing that their opinion matters very little to you.” He kisses the top of her head. “We will be here waiting when you return.”

A small whimper escapes her throat as she squeezes him in her arms. “Thank you.”

“Are you still taking May with you tomorrow?” he asks, more to change topics than to know the answer.

“Yes,” Alma says, still fighting the thick layers of emotion in her voice. “Can’t bring her present to the ward yet so I’ll have to take her to it.” She sighs. “Now there is another piece of heartache.”

“Six months go by very quickly,” Dion notes. “And she will be safe. You know that. The Academy is a highly controlled environment.”

“I know…” she concedes. “But I have been without her for so long and now that we have finally found each other and started getting along, she’s leaving. And the other Bunnies are all heartbroken to see her leave.”

He falls silent at that. He cannot understand her pain, not really. Surely if he were to suddenly find out his parents were still alive and nearby, he would not want to leave their side anytime soon but that is a bit of a what if kind of empathy, the only type he can feel in that situation. Or perhaps…if he were to be forced to leave Three Rats and all the people he has met here, all those familiar, friendly faces. Of course, he had never pined for the day he would see them for the first time but to lose them now, even if temporarily, would be painful. And the longer he spends with them, all of them, the more painful it becomes to imagine letting go. His bonds to this station, to the Bunnies, Sky, Alma are like chains attached to his emotions and while he welcomes the sustaining anchor they provide, he is terrified at what having them ripped away one by one might do to a heart not used to loss of any kind.

The thought of it shakes him, making him hold her tighter. Could I even stand it if you left?

“I am not going anywhere, dear,” she says.

The words are like an electric shock. He stiffens immediately, looking at her in surprise. She squirms a bit in his tight embrace to look up at him as she explains, “You were murmuring under your breath. Asking me not to leave.”

“Oh…” He feels his stomach tie in a knot, his cheeks become dangerously warm. He is ashamed of his weakness, of letting her see him so vulnerable to her, so needful of her. To have his own body betray him into such an admission makes him want to…to…leave? Run away from her influence? Destroy what they have so it won’t make him any weaker?

Gods, how can he be so afraid of something he wants so badly?

“You do that sometimes,” she notes quietly as she strokes his chest, making him wonder if she is becoming telepathic. “Murmur sweet things when you are not paying attention to what you’re saying.”

Relief. This time his mouth has not betrayed his thoughts. “When will you be back tomorrow?” he asks to try and change the subject.

“The ceremony should take until noon, then a little mingling, then I have to pick up May, walk back here…” Alma makes some mental calculations. “Around early sunset?”

“Perfect. I’ve spoken to Sky,” Dion tells her. “Asked him to trade shifts tomorrow, so we can spend the evening all by ourselves, enjoying each other’s company. That way, even if the ceremony turns sour, we can always end the day on a high note.”

Alma straightens at this. “Oh…and he agreed? I think he was planning on spending Mayumi’s last night here with her,” she points out.

“I…did not think of that,” Dion admits. “But he immediately said yes and did not seem very bothered by it.”

“Well, then…” She looks haughtily into his eyes, lips barely keeping a grin at bay. “Are you inviting me to a date, Lord Gwydion?”

He chuckles quietly at the ridiculously out-of-place use of the old-fashioned, polished First Ring ways he was brought up on. Still, he joins the game. “Would you deny me, Lady Alma?”

The prim and proper façade falls smoothly into a wide smile. “Never. What will we do, then?”

Dion shakes his head, denying her access to his plans. “Just leave everything to me.” He strokes her cheek. “Think you can rest now?”

“I’ll do my best,” she replies with a mischievous grin.

He finds that strange but still removes his arm from around her shoulders so that she can lie down. Which she instead takes as an invitation to lean in closer for a kiss, putting her hands on his shoulders for support. He accepts it without hesitation, thrilling at it in the usual way, letting the freshness of her mouth drive away his worry. She is like a siren, crawled out of the water to drown him in bliss and those tender lips are her song. How could he not want to keep her?

He casts that levitation spell again to hold her up, making her giggle while he turns and reclines fully along the length of the sofa, and opens his arms to receive her body on top of his.

Comfortably settled into the familiar position, he pretends to scold her, “That was not sleeping.”

“Well, sleep was not coming easily,” she blatantly lies, grinning like a child caught being naughty. “Wasn’t that restful enough for you?”

Dion chuckles at that, reaching a hand to stroke her hair and nudge her closer. “You know what I would be doing if we could.”

“One of these days, we will not be able to restrain ourselves,” Alma notes.

“Maybe it is time we discussed our options,” Dion offers, going through the mental list of spells he has been researching for the occasion.

Her nose stroking his cheek, Alma nods agreement. “Yes…”

“We can do that now,” he says, kissing the lips that hover so close to his.

“Hmm mm….”

Where was he again? Ah…spells. Research.

Just five more minutes, he thinks as they fall once more into a whispered, passionate silence.

Ch6.45 Trust

The bar is filled with music. Most of the people who can sing (and definitely all the ones who can’t) have joined in Kyri’s musical challenge and are happily singing holiday tunes of all sorts and origins, from the sweet and soft Hail the Lord of Heavens kind of tune that some more monotheistic wards tend to favor to a couple of songs that Breowan has brought into the ensemble, reminiscent of a cat being shaved with barbed wire.

Alma, on the other hand, is struggling to keep up with the rest of the partiers. Her family has never been one to sing much about things like the Year’s End (or any other thing, truth be told) and the quarter of a century she has spent outside the walls of her father’s estate has lead to so much moving around from ward to ward as Sergeants and Inspectors strove to make her some other station’s problem that she has somehow managed to bypass Year’s End celebrations in most of them. So she does not know the lyrics or melody to most of the songs being sung which has her mostly humming to the tunes and being content with watching the others having fun and laughing at her younger Bunnies’ attempts at learning the lyrics to all of these new songs in record time.

“Hey, Mom!” Tulip’s sudden, loud voice in her ear makes Alma jump in her chair. The young Bunny is still trying to master her inside voice but, apparently, not trying too hard. Still, Alma refrains from scolding her, not wanting to sour the party for anyone. She looks quizzically at Tulip, who is holding a sheet of paper, one of the many she has been handing around, and looking somewhere between confused and concerned. “Where’s Uncle Som? I wanna show him the drawing I made of Uncle Sky.”

“Well, he was just here a few minutes ago…” The question makes Alma look around the room. Where is Somrak? She had left him attacking the food trays and half expected that he would be sharing a drink with Sky by now. But Sky is happily talking and exchanging sweet caresses with Mayumi by the bar and Somrak is nowhere to be seen. An instinctive feeling in her chest has her looking toward the door that leads to the breezeway. “He may have gone out for a moment. Let me go check.”

“I’ll go!” Tulip volunteers immediately.

But Alma manages to grab her by the wrist before the Bunny dashes off. “Tulip, no,” she says quietly but firmly. “Let me, yes? Uncle Somrak might want to be alone.”

“Oh…” Tulip’s ears droop slightly in disappointment with a hint of worry. “Is he…all right?”

Alma struggles to answer the simple question without lying. Somrak is wounded in more ways than one, and their short conversation before had left her heart heavy with concern for the rogue fire god. But she does not want Tulip to worry. Considering how Bunny psyche tends to handle such situations, Somrak might find himself at the bottom of an overwhelming, long-eared pile of affection instead of enjoying the quiet solitude that she suspects he is craving right now. “He will be. Don’t worry about that. I will be right back.”

She rises from her chair and crosses the room toward the door, glancing behind her to make sure that Tulip won’t follow. She sees the Bunny looking at her uncertainly but nonetheless taking the chair that Alma was occupying before and joining again in Kyri’s musical merrymaking.

She steps outside. To the right of her, Somrak is leaning against the wall of the bar, weight on one leg, the other crossing at the ankle. A fine cigar is hanging loosely from his fingers, a long stream of aromatic smoke slithering slowly from his lips. The back of his head resting against the wall, he has his eyes raised to the strip of night sky framed by the tops of the station and the bar. The sun has set quickly since the fire god’s arrival at the party. The sound of the door closing behind her makes his eyes swivel in her direction. He lowers his head slowly, lazily turning it to look at Alma. The nightly shadows heighten his gaunt appearance, darkening the edges of his bruises, sinking his eyes deeper into their sockets. He looks surprised and uncomfortable at first, perhaps not expecting that his absence would be noted, but then his gaze softens and the smoke-filled breath he had been holding is gently released in a more relaxed acknowledgment of her presence.

Alma stands by the now closed door, looking at him, uncertain of what to do or say. She is torn between wanting him to exorcise whatever demons are haunting him tonight and leaving him alone with his thoughts. Who is she to impose her presence in his life? What does she know of him, who is she to him that she can possibly claim the right to intervene? Maybe she should just let Sky talk to his old partner and deal with things in whatever way has worked for them in so many decades.

And yet…yet she feels the calling to reach out to him, a palpable need to say something, whatever it is, to drive his pain away, if only for a moment. The way he held her when he arrived, when she said those silly little words “Welcome home”, not even knowing why she was saying them to someone like him… She felt his heart begin to pound against her chest then and she can almost feel the same strangled sensation now as he looks at her. If he rejects her help, sends her away without so much as an explanation, that will be his right. But it is her hope that he won’t.

His eyes are becoming worried now. She realizes how long it has been that they have both been silently gazing at each other. What to say? “Needed some fresh air?”

Fresh air? With that cigar puffing ash into his lungs? her conniving thoughts betray her. Good thing that gods are not prone to disease.

She admonishes herself for the thought immediately. It is a sad truth that even with Nekh gone from her mind, the echoes of his caustic presence still taint her thoughts. But Somrak seems to share in her mind’s humor.

He raises the cigar, a smirk dancing on his lips. “Yeah, but… This somehow found me instead.”

He turns the unburning end of it in her direction, in a silent offering, but Alma is not a big fan of such things, preferring water pipes herself if smoking is of the essence, and so she just waves her hand in a gentle no.

“Thank you. I favor other bad habits.”

She takes a couple of steps towards him and leans against the wall just by his left. The silence that falls between them is crammed with unspoken words but it somehow feels comfortable enough that she can relax in his company. She breathes deeply, her eyes closed, letting the vibrant agitation that has surrounded this whole day flow out of her, driven away by the cool night air. She turns her head upward, to look at the stars. Somewhere among them, godly horses gallop through the endless Void, looking down on the celebrating Insula. Will Arion be watching his children, even if he has failed to keep his promise to meet them?

For a moment, she is barely aware of Somrak still leaning against the wall by her side, of how he casually extinguishes his cigar by putting his index finger on its smoldering tip before slipping it back into the silver case that Sky gave him, and tucking the whole thing away in a jacket pocket.

He does not press for a conversation but Alma cannot help herself from saying what she has not dared confess to anyone yet. “Twenty-four years…” Her own voice sounds old and tired to her. “I have waited twenty-four years for this day. And I have spent most of it trying to convince myself that it is real. A part of me just wants to run away before it all comes tumbling down to rubble.”

She can see him studying her face through the corner of her eye. “You run away, and it’s guaranteed to turn to rubble.”

She nods, chuckling quietly, bitterly. “I know. I am still here, aren’t I?” She turns her head to face him. “It is just that some days, I get tired of fighting. And others…” she turns to glance at the door. “I remember what I’m fighting for. And on days like this…”

Words evade her. What can she say? That she is scared? That all of this feels too good to be true, to be hers? That for all her outward strength, she is still a terrified young girl with a couple of newborn babies in her arms and the world spinning under her feet?

And why tell him this? Why not Sky or Gwydion? Why even say it? Just admitting to it feels like such a betrayal to the family she has worked so hard on protecting, on bringing together. It shames her to feel this way. To be frightened of her own happiness when so many people would steal and kill for a single, remote shot at it.

A gentle touch to her hand makes her turn her eyes to him again. His fingers are wrapping around hers, squeezing them softly. His eyes close for a second, betraying the pain that his shattered arm causes him. When he opens them again, she sees it. His pain. Not the pain in his body but the one that torments his soul. For that moment that the eyelids take to rise fully, his defenses fail him and the turmoil in his mind flares like a comet’s tail.

And even though he remains silent, she cannot resist the urge to detach herself from the wall and stand closer, in front of him, her right hand still in his, but the left stroking the marks of newly-healed cuts on his face, the bruises that mar his handsome features. “What have they done to you, Somrak?” Her voice is very soft, almost a whisper. As if anything above that could scare him away. “There is so much pain, so much anguish in you.”

Somrak’s eyes are on her face, half shut at her touch. Her question makes him sigh, draw a shuddery breath. “I had to kill someone.” He looks down as if he cannot bear to look at her. “Someone I knew. Someone on my team.”

Alma tries to keep any accusation away from her voice as she asks, “Why?”

He shakes his head. “That…is classified. But.” He shrugs. “She betrayed us. Murdered her partner, who trusted her so much that she tried to give her a chance.” Another sigh. “Even so, I wouldn’t have done it if she hadn’t been trying to kill your aunt.”

Alma tries to wrap her head around the concept of being desperate or foolish enough to attack the Fencer. By Guardia standards, that is the very definition of suicide by cop. “If she did that then you must know…the Fencer would have not let her live anyway.” She tries to bring some light into both their moods. “Did my aunt like the tiger?”

The flash of grief that crosses Somrak’s face immediately makes her regret that question. “Yeah. She loves the tiger. Named him Khun. Gets all gooey over him and then looks at me like she’s going to kill me if I ever tell anyone.”

Alma cannot help but chuckle. “Ah, yes…Welcome to life with Varah.” The joke makes him snort, which brings a smile to her face. She releases her right hand from his gentle grip to wrap both arms around him, closely though minding his wounds, and presses her forehead against his. “It will be all right. Maybe not perfect, maybe not good. But it will be all right. Yes?”

His forehead rests on hers fully, as if he is too tired to keep his head hanging straight. “I don’t expect perfection. I don’t expect good, either, except in moments. But yes,” his right hand reaches up to stroke her hair, cup the back of her head. They stand quietly, noses touching, sharing in each other’s breath. He feels pleasantly warm against her as the scent of his skin, of the tobacco he usually smokes, creeps into her senses, stroking nerves, ancient, primal parts of her brain. And for some reason, it makes her feel safe. Cared for. The fear of upcoming misery in her heart settles for a moment.

She understands all at once why Sky finds this kind of thing so sacred and intimate. “It’s over now,” she whispers to Somrak, almost unthinkingly. “You are home.”

His frame shakes with a half-choked breath. “I don’t know…how to be home, Alma.”

“You’re not the only one,” she concedes. “I’m…we’re all still learning. All I know is that there’s warmth and safety and always someone to make me believe that it can be all right. And I don’t have to run anymore.” It is almost painful but she forces herself to pull away just enough that she can look at him. “Do you not want that for yourself?”

He looks back at her, all the pain in the world seemingly pouring into those deep, black eyes. “I do. I just…”

She can almost see his thoughts engraved in his expression. His mind is torn by the concept of someone like him being permanently bound to a station. Stifling a sigh, she touches two fingers to his chin, to hold his head up before he can hang it down. Her eyes lock on his in what she hopes shows sincerity, not aggression. “You don’t have to stay here. Home is people, Somrak. Just…don’t let go of us. And you’ll always have us to come home to.”

He holds her gaze, questioning, doubting. She knows that look well. It is the look of someone who has learned to believe that he is not entitled to bliss and who is just now struggling to hope that maybe, this time, if only just this once…he could be wrong. His left hand rises toward her cheek. As his fingertips graze her skin, the smallest of flinches betrays his pain at raising his injured arm that high.

Alma takes his hand and brings it lower before moving her own to his left upper arm. For as much as she has been trying to let him regain his mental strength and decide himself when to be healed, she can no longer pretend to ignore how bad his injuries are.

“May I?” she asks softly.

He nods, looking almost frightened at the prospect of a healing. That makes her hesitate for a moment. Healing is as painful and uncomfortable as it is pleasurable. Anyone who has ever been injured knows that. The pain, the itching, the sting of exposed flesh, the pulling of scars. And then the absence of pain, the relief as the body becomes whole again. But all those sensations are drawn out, taking days, months, years to show and resolve themselves, allowing the body time to adapt and become almost numb to them. A magical healing is a brutal fast-forwarding of all those events, speeding them along, reducing days to minutes and giving the body no chance to be even fully aware of all that is going on.

A poorly-skilled healer can cause so much pain that healing quickly becomes a nightmare compared to a natural mend. There has to be balance between pain and pleasure, to numb discomfort with relief. And though good healers cannot eliminate pain altogether, they can leave such a blissful aftertaste to their actions that the memory of pain is completely erased, exhilaration left in its place. Alma knows that, after years of experience and care, her skill in healing has reached that plateau.

So why is he so worried? Has she not healed and left him elated before?

“I will take it gently,” she reassures him.

He nods again and straightens, resting his hands on her back. Again, she presses her forehead against his, her eyes flaring the reddish-gold glimmer of her life sphere, scents of spring and of cool nights invading the air as she calls upon her healing power. Her magic begins to pour into him, slowly, scouting out what is broken, torn and bruised, what is misplaced and healing in the wrong position. Her senses know him well by now, the memory of his previous healing still fresh in Alma’s mind. She reminds herself to leave his facial scar in place but everything else, all the marks of horrible aggression, of crushed bone and cut skin and bruised internal organs are flagged to disappear.

Her energy courses through him, renewing fractures to shift bone fragments into their proper positions, stretching tendons and nerves to pull them back into their natural grooves, rechanneling the blood vessels that had been grown to replace ones that had been destroyed. His hands grip her tightly, breath shuddering at the pain that she cannot avoid causing him. But pain is not all he feels. At each necessary aggression, she responds by urging his body to produce substances that induce pleasure. She uses the relief of tension on previously distended tendons and tissues no longer being compressed by bone fragments, the local cooling as inflammation is reduced and cancelled. She overwhelms his brain with signals from all over his body to distract it from the pain.

He raises his head to the sky, eyes transfixed, mouth gaping open as his breath catches in his lungs. Soon, it is done. His hands release her and he falls against the wall, leaning his weight against it, breathing heavily, shaking. He looks at her, eyes wide and searing, paralyzing her with their intensity. She wonders if her skills have failed her this time.

And suddenly, his hand is cupping her cheek, the other pressing the small of her back, pulling her toward him. His lips are pressed against hers. She stiffens, surprised at the sudden kiss, at the hunger with which he tries to compel her to join him. She takes his invitation. His need, the dark mood of their conversation, the lightheadedness of the deep healing…she kisses him back with the passion of her own fears. She cannot resist this rogue, this daredevil who toys with his own demise, whose mere existence taunts her very essence, who offers himself to her and begs her to take him with a kiss that threatens to consume her.

It is frightening and exhilarating and all she wants is more of it. She wants to hold on to him and heal the wounds in his soul. Show him that he is not alone in the dark. But something inside her is screaming in alarm, begging her to stop. The part of her that is always watching is begging her to pay attention, to see that this is not right. That Somrak is not acting like himself. Is he just kissing her because of the healing? Is she taking advantage of him?

She tries to pull away, managing just enough breath to call his name. “Somrak…”

“Shhh…” his lips cover hers again.

“Somrak…” she breathes amidst kisses.

Oh gods, he is not making this any easier on her. She has to pry herself from the exquisite warmth of his mouth. “You’re not…” she fights for breath, “thinking straight.”

His eyes are glazed, as if he has a fever. And considering how hot his body feels against hers, he just might. “Like I care.”

He kisses her with renewed passion. She can taste his anguish mixed in with the smoky aroma of his tongue as it strokes hers, sparking bolts of pleasure that course through her, shutting down her better sense. She feels the world twirl around her with dizzying speed. And then she feels the solidity of a wall pressed against her back, the fit frame of his body pressed to her front, pinning her in place. His hands are on her sides now, strong and hungry, pulling, always pulling her to him. Her own hands are on his back, relishing in the feel of his muscles, of how his body craves for her and offers itself to her touch. His heart pounds strong, leaping deerlike against her chest as if trying to invade it.

Memories of such desperate need awaken the darkness in her. She feels the shadows in her own soul creep forth, stretching to merge with his, luring him further into her hold, enveloping them both in their cloak. He is a daredevil and she is death incarnate. And she will devour him whole for toying with her and making her want him so badly. He cannot escape and neither can she.

A faint sound of wood knocking softly against wood rings in her ears with the intensity of a whole building crumbling to the ground. It is like ice cold water poured down her spine. The bar door. Must have been.

Her eyes shoot open, the blackness in them winking out of existence. What is she doing? This… No, this is not how things are done. This is not who she is.

She pulls away, what little she can pull away considering he has her trapped against the wall, and touches her fingers to his lips to stop his next kiss. “Wait. Please,” she nearly begs. She is lightheaded, fighting for breath. Her body feels weak under her weight.

He pauses and opens his eyes, looking at her as if he is just waking up from a fugue, just now realizing the world exists outside of the two of them. He looks shocked to see the wall behind her. He must not have realized before, how in his need, he reversed their positions to stop her from pulling away.

Trembling, he forces himself to loosen his hold on her, to pull himself away just enough to give her room to stand straight. His hands move to her shoulders and stay there, his craving for her touch not entirely sated. He looks at her in confusion.

She looks at him, her fingers gently grazing the skin on his chin and throat as they travel to rest on his collarbone. Though she is fighting the impulse to kiss him again, she feels their moment of passion already fading away. Her thoughts have settled back into their axis. What her inner self had been trying so desperately to tell her before becomes clear in her mind.

“You’re not thinking straight, dear,” she says. “And I don’t want to wrong you.”

“Wrong me?” He shakes his head as if to clear it, blinking in confusion. “What do you mean?”

“Well, for one, taking advantage of a patient,” she says with a meaningful look at his left arm. “And second…” She exhales deeply, knowing that she has to tell him about Gwydion. “There is someone else.”

He seems even more confused for a moment, looking at her, then shaking his head. Eventually, confusion fades, replaced by…guilt? regret? He meets her eyes again. “Dion?”

His voice is weak, almost fearful. “Yes,” she confirms with a nod. “We keep it secret and non-exclusive but…we have been together since our return from the First Ring.”

Probably the worst kept secret in all of Three Rats, considering how many people know about it by now, she cannot help but muse.

He drops his head so that his chin nearly touches his chest. A single almost-silent bark of laughter shakes him for an instant. “I…have been blind. I saw it and discounted it.” He shakes his head, muttering, “Amazing what desire can do.”

His words have her intrigued. It is not surprising that Somrak would have missed it. He had only spent a week in Three Rats and it is not like anyone would have said anything. So… “What did you see?”

“When Dion confronted me over Rio Novo,” Somrak explains. “We…well we had a very brief ‘who’s the bigger dog’ moment.”

“Oh gods,” Alma sighs, rolling her eyes at what might be coming next.

“I’m afraid your desk may have been slightly scorched,” Somrak says with a sly grin that still manages to be somewhat apologetic.

“Somrak!” she hisses, lightly smacking his shoulder.

He breathes a soft chuckle. “Dion repaired it. But I noticed he was very careful not to repair anything that had been there before. All the little marks and dings that made it your desk.”

Which would explain why she did not notice anything different with her desk other than it being extremely and unusually clean.

“I just thought he was an obsessive perfectionist at the time,” Somrak notes with a shrug. “You know…wizards.”

“He does that sometimes, when he thinks no one is paying attention,” Alma says, incapable of keeping her affection for Gwydion away from her voice. “These incredibly sweet things that you wouldn’t notice unless you know what to look for.”

The way Somrak’s expression softens and saddens, makes her cheeks flush with remorse at the her own words. It is never pleasant to hear from the lips of someone you want for yourself that he or she loves another. And though Alma is free to accept Somrak’s affections, though their kiss was not wrong or unwanted, she knows that she must let him down.

“I care for you, Somrak,” she says, looking into his eyes, hoping he will believe her. “But everything is so recent, so fragile. And even if keeping you would not be cheating Gwydion, it would hurt him. And I would not be able to stand that.”

She lowers her gaze to her hand, resting on his chest. “It has taken me over two decades to remember…how good it feels to allow someone so close to me. To give myself in return.” She touches his face and looks into his eyes again. “I don’t want to cheat you. I’m sorry.”

Emotions play over his face: denial, shame, humor, pain, anger, all momentarily surfacing and fading. In the end, what is left is a small smile over a mask of deep regret. “You don’t need to apologize. I blinded myself.”

His hands briefly squeeze her shoulders before he lets go of her. He holds up his fully healed left hand, flexes his fingers, looking at it, then at her. He seems about to say something but the words die before they exit his throat. After a couple of heartbeats, he says, “Alma…I have nothing but gratitude for you.”

“I don’t want to be the one who drives you away,” she breathes, surprising herself with how broken her voice sounds.

He touches her cheek, smiling sadly as his fingers stroke it. “I’m ready to return whenever you need me.” A pause as he raises two fingers before her but not so close that the flame that erupts from them can harm her face. In its wake, a small white card bearing a single, mystical glyph flashes into existence. “If you ever need me to come back, burn this. Write a message on it if you have one for me, but message or not, I will come running.”

She raises a hand. Her fingers wrap around his and the card. Her lips curl into a smile. Somehow, this small gift is so much more meaningful than the daggers or the shirt. For as much as those reminded her of the complicity of shared jokes, this little card is a promise and an assurance that he will not vanish from her life.

“How long do the rules say I should wait before I call?” she can’t help but jest.

He shakes his head, rolling his eyes slightly at the obvious joke. “Keep that for a rainy day, sweetheart,” he replies, prompting a chuckle from her. “Or for when you find that necromancer. I want to be there when that happens. In the meantime…take care of Sky. You’re good for him.”

A sudden impulse has her wrapping her arms around him tightly, her forehead pressed against his. “Take care of yourself. And remember to come home. Every once in awhile. Please?”

He nods, his eyes closed, arms holding her closely to him. “I promise.” His voice is rough with emotion. Slowly, almost hesitantly, he loosens his embrace, moving his hands to touch her upper arms and very lightly push her away. He straightens, takes a deep breath, and smiles. “There’s some presents for the Bunnies under the tree. Only Tulip got hers so far. And, uh…” He reaches into the ever-present satchel that he didn’t bother to put down since his arrival, to remove a small, engraved wooden charm hanging from a satin ribbon and hand it to Alma. “This is for Saira. I’m going to…”

A jerk of his hand indicates that he is leaving. Alma does not even bother trying to keep the sadness and guilt to see him leaving so soon and because of her, away from her face. Still, she nods and lets him go, saying, “I understand.”

“Hey…” He smiles encouragingly at her, reaching to stroke her hair. “No being sad for the New Sun. It’s bad luck.”

She smiles weakly back at him. “It’s the Year’s End for me. Tomorrow, all that is dead will be gone for good to give way to new life.” She sighs and shakes her head, keeping her fatalistic thoughts to herself. “Stay safe, Somrak. And tell your go-to healer to come see me for a few lessons in doing his job right.”

Somrak smirks at that. “Now that I would like to see.”

The smirk fades and he stands looking at her in silence. For just a fraction of an instant, she can see his pain again, loss stealing across his features. And then he is turning away and walking down the breezeway and turning the corner without even a look back at her.

Alma watches him go with a heavy heart, saddened and worried and remorseful. Finally, he disappears from sight and she sighs her acceptance of what must be. She could not have handled this any other way, even though she wishes she could. She walks to the door that leads into the bar, breathes deeply, puts on her mask of all is well, and returns to the party.

Ch6.44 Trust

The setting sun makes Somrak squint as he strides into view of Three Rats Station. He pauses. He can see the lights in the window of the bar, not quite hidden behind the station. He can hear laughter. The party is still going on, as expected. He hasn’t missed it.

He really thought he would, for awhile there. Trapped under tons of ice in a collapsed glacier tunnel, bones broken, he’d really thought he might not see another New Year at all.

He clenches his left fist, feeling the pain of the recently healed bones, humerus, radius, ulna, all shattered. The joints, too, elbow and wrist. The staff healer, called simply ‘Butch,’ short for ‘butcher,’ by the off-blue agents, is a quick-and-dirty repairman, using the magical equivalent of gaffer tape and baling wire to get agents back into the fight as soon as possible. When he has time, he takes it more slowly and carefully, but Somrak was in a hurry, and the mission had left Butch with his hands full. So the left arm and four ribs on that side are having their say now, complaining loudly. Somrak almost suppresses the pain, but recalls what happened last time he did that. Though it’s unlikely he’ll find his flesh melted away by demonic blood this time, it’s still better not to get in the habit of turning off the warnings that pain offers.

Pain is a familiar companion. He’s been in a great deal more, and it’s not something that frightens him. But that laughter, now, that is intimidating. When he was last here in Three Rats, in no more than a single week he had found himself pulled in and enveloped by something he can’t describe as anything less than a family. Alma, Dion, Saira, Cherry – and Sky as well, though as Guardia partners for decades, they already had that deep connection, even if they had never talked much – and even the others he spent less time with, like Tulip and Lamore and Kaur and Sage, they all had treated him with a genuine warmth and made him feel as if he would be welcomed just as warmly on his next visit.

And now here is that visit, and they’re celebrating with joy, and he comes to their door bearing darkness.

It had been a bad mission from the start. A mole had been feeding information to Hell. The extent to which all levels of government have been infiltrated is unknown, but the off-blues had at least figured out there was someone in their little organization who was a traitor. But just who it was needed to be determined.

And so the Fencer, Alma’s aunt, had called on him. A certain training exercise was being put together by the Commander. It would be Somrak’s job to figure out who the traitor was.

How did they know he wasn’t the traitor? Somrak’s former partner is a devil, after all, a traitor to Hell. But he didn’t ask that. Probably another agent had been told the same thing, and that agent would be watching Somrak.

Had the mission been a success? The leak had been stopped, that’s for sure. Stopped with great finality. But three agents were dead, all of them – the traitor included – people he would miss. He’s long operated on the belief that getting close to another person is a weakness, and this mission reinforced that idea unambiguously. But here he is, coming back to the place where, for a few days at least, he’d let his guard down. Entombed beneath the ice, he could not think of anywhere he’d rather be than this cheery, warm bar before him. Now only a few dozen steps away, the only thing keeping him from fleeing is his promise to Alma that he would come if he possibly could.

He pats his satchel to make sure it’s still there, takes a deep breath and takes a step forward.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“Somrak?”

Sky’s voice is the first one he hears directed towards him. Somrak had come in and found the bar populated more lightly than he’d expected, just Corporal Lamore and Doc Nate talking in a corner, sitting with their chairs pulled close together, knees nearly touching. No Saira. Maybe she avoided coming. Lamore had glanced up and given him a smile, but she seemed wrapped up in the conversation. Sergeant Machado was at the bar with a couple of constables – his look was decidedly less welcoming, but at least Somrak received a nod without a frown. He’d departed Three Rats with Machado not quite hating his guts, an improvement over their relations following the Rio Novo incident. Somrak nodded back.

But now Sky is coming down those narrow, steep stairs with a parade of Bunnies and gods and cops and a gryphon behind him. The look on Sky’s face is slight surprise mixed with pleasure, very honest pleasure. That’s something this place has done for Sky: his emotions are close to the surface. He does little or nothing to hide them anymore. Three Rats may have wrecked the guy for off-blue work. Somrak wonders how much longer it will be before he starts letting secrets slip out. He’ll have to have a talk with Sky, remind him of the dangers.

Despite the way the burly god blocks the stairway from anyone getting past him, the youngest Bunny, Tulip, manages to squeeze past him in her impatience. Sky laughs as the teen wriggles between his hip and the wall, pops free, and reaches a home-made portfolio leaning against the wall beside an evergreen tree. She grabs it and is throwing her arms around Somrak’s waist in moments, her exuberance making him grin in spite of his dark mood.

“You came! You came!”

“I did!” he agrees, hiding any external indication of the jolt of pain her embrace causes. As she looks up at him with a big smile, he cannot help but mentally erase the cute ears and see in her the face of a much-younger Alma, as he first encountered her over a century before. “And what’s this?”

“I have a present for you!” Tulip shouts. She unties the top of the portfolio, which is merely two large sheets of cardboard taped together at the bottom, with an old shoelace at the top to keep it closed, and a couple of loops of rope for handles. He helps her open it and sees within several sheets of paper of various sizes and qualities, apparently scavenged from wherever she could get them. He recognizes pictures of Kaur and Sage, of Lamore, of that Voice, Ewá Nanã, who brought in the tiger, shown in the drawing as standing surrounded by the children she cares for.

“Here it is!” Tulip announces. She pulls free a sheet, holding it close to her chest so he can’t see it. For a moment a shyness passes over her face, an uncertainty, almost as if she regrets doing this. Her eyes look up into Somrak’s and he can see it, that fear of exposing her act of creativity, her dream, to him, to be judged. He can see the fragile hope there. Will he like it? Will he hate it? Worst of all, will he pretend to like it while truly being indifferent?

Somrak hasn’t dealt much with children. Growing up, he lived primarily among immortals, and he was the only child-god that he knew. His mother, cold despite her fire-goddess passions, wanted him to be useful, choosing a career for him that he had no interest in. He did his best to grow up quickly, therefore, not having any friends at the same point of development, but instead of obeying orders, he left the Court of Flame, and fell in with a bad crowd, a very bad one indeed, as it turned out. Later, in the Guardia, there were missions that sometimes involved children, particularly slavery cases. And there was babysitting the Commander’s daughter, which was always good for a laugh. Sky had become his partner by then, and though the big god was usually so emotionally shut down, when it came to children he showed an unexpected tender side.

So now Somrak finds himself asking What would Sky do? as he is faced with this Bunny yearning for approval. He sinks into a squat, easily balancing on the balls of his feet, resting his forearms on his knees, maintaining eye contact with Tulip. Such amazing eyes the Bunnies all have. That’s another point in which Tulip differs from her mother. The eyes are the same arctic blue, and no more beautiful, but they are larger, creating a look of permanent wide-eyed wonder. He holds his hands out. “May I?”

She nods, and hands the sheet to him, turning it so it faces him right-side-up. He holds it and makes certain to truly see it, not just give it a cursory glance. And he finds he does not need to turn on the charm at all. No need to wear a false mask, something he’s become quite skilled at in the course of his work, but that he hates to do outside of it. The smile that grows is sincere. Tulip’s skills are still coming along, her line quality and ability to handle noses and hands not quite there yet, but the energy in the drawing indicates a swiftly growing confidence. Somrak is no real judge, but he wonders if this might turn into something more than a soon-discarded hobby for her.

He looks back into her eyes, which seem to have lost their fear almost entirely. He remembers that with her sensitive nose, she would probably be able to tell if he were lying anyway. And though she may not need the words to know how he feels, he says, “I love it. You’ve really captured me.”

“Really?! I drew about eight or nine pictures, and I tried posing you like you were fighting and stuff, but this was the only one I really liked. It’s just you sitting at the bar, but…”

“No. I love it. I look so…relaxed. Happy.” And he feels happy. The darkness is still there, no denying that, but he realizes he is very glad he came. The fire god studies the picture again, dwelling on the contented smirk he’s wearing. She really has him there. He chuckles at the self-satisfied look.

“Uncle Sky gave me a whole box full of art stuff! And paper! Really good paper! And some that’s just pretty good, for practicing!” Everything she says sounds like it is astonishing. Somrak wonders if he ever had half that much energy and enthusiasm. “It’s the first present I ever got!”

“Really? No one ever gave you a gift before?” He sounds skeptical.

Her ears dip slightly and she bites her lip while smiling. “My first Year’s End present!” she corrects herself.

“Lucky him, to be the first to give you one. Well let’s see what I have for you.” He opens the flap of his leather satchel and carefully prepares to put away the drawing in it.

Tulip gasps. “You got something for me?? Wait! You’ll wrinkle the picture!!”

Somrak laughs. “No, no, I would never do that. See? I’m putting it into this narrow pocket and…it’s just going right in.” Though the paper is not too wide for the opening, it is longer than the bag, but it enters smoothly and with no bending.

“WHAT??”

Tulip’s state of astonishment makes Somrak burst out laughing. He has to remind himself that though she has been alive for thirteen years, she only became an aware, thinking being a few weeks ago. It’s no wonder the world is such an amazing place to her. “It’s bigger on the inside. You know…magic. Well, I couldn’t find presents for everyone. But…Ah…here. This is for you.” He pulls out a small box wrapped in newspaper with a ribbon made of twine he had found in his desk drawer.

Tulip’s large eyes become even wider. “For me?” She holds the box as if it is a precious treasure for a moment, then attacks the wrapping with all the care of a cat in heat, shredding the paper. In a moment she is holding a bracelet made of pinkish seed-pearls arranged in a complex pattern. She starts jumping up and down with excitement, almost dislodging a daisy that, apparently alive, is entwined in her hair and partly wrapped around one ear. “Oooh, it’s so pretty!! Thank you!!” She hugs him again, then dashes off to show off the bracelet to Cala, not noticing the tiny grunt of pain from Somrak.

“I’m glad you’re here.” Somrak looks away from the elated Bunny to see that Sky has moved closer. Sky’s words resonate with concern as he studies Somrak’s face.

“That bad?” Somrak asks.

“The Butcher had to put you back together again, didn’t he?” Sky carefully puts a hand on Somrak’s left shoulder. The big god is poor at healing magic, but he concentrates a moment, and a hint of ocean breeze wafts across Somrak’s senses. Sky blinks in surprise. “Oh, Somrak…”

“I’m fine.”

“Fine? You shouldn’t be out of bed.” Sky keeps his voice low. “And you haven’t slept in days, have you?”

“You’re one to talk. Anyway, if you think I should go…” Somrak turns slightly as if he’s about to leave.

Sky grips his shoulder more tightly to hold him there. “You’re not going anywhere. Besides, I have a present for you.”

Somrak rolls his eyes. “Since when do we get gifts for each other?”

“We’ve exchanged gifts,” Sky reminds him. “At least a half dozen times.”

“In almost forty years of being partners, yeah.” Somrak accepts what Sky hands him, weighing the wrapped box, a little longer than his hand and about as wide. He sniffs it and looks at Sky questioningly. “Enabling my bad habits?”

“Just open it,” Sky grumps, prompting a chuckle from Somrak.

He doesn’t rip the soft, handmade paper off it, instead removing it with care, thinking Tulip might like to recycle it into an art project. “Nice jacket, by the way,” he mentions to Sky, then whistles low as the silver case, embossed with a pattern inspired by tobacco leaves, comes into sight. Snapping it open, Somrak admires the five fat cigars within, and lifts one out to inhale the aroma with his eyes closed in pleasure. “Oh now… That’s an Angelino Gold.” He looks at Sky. “Wasn’t the whole crop destroyed by rampaging elementals last year?”

“These are from the year before,” Sky says. “Kept in a time-stasis container, so they’re fresh. I got lucky. Seller didn’t know what he had.”

Somrak slowly spins the cigar with his fingers. “Well, two can play at that game.” He reaches into the interdimensional space in the bag, gropes around, and pulls out a bottle wrapped in newspaper.

Sky takes it, looking touched. “You got me something, after what you went through?”

“Hah. No way. I got it before, thank goodness. I wrapped it after, but I couldn’t possibly have made it here in time if I’d had to go shopping.”

Sky tears the newsprint free to reveal a familiar label. “Caol Ila. Somrak…this is imported from off-Insula…from Earth.” Sky’s voice is stunned.

“You’re not the only one who got lucky,” Somrak says. “Couldn’t pass up the price. Got a bottle for myself, too.” He’s lying. He couldn’t have afforded a second bottle even if there had been one available. But he knows Sky loves those off-world whiskies. Well, just the ones from the world Sky had lived on for a century and a half.

Sky looks at him suspiciously, but he knows better than to press. He hefts the bottle. “Thank you. Join me in a drink later?”

“Whisky and cigars. Sounds perfect.”

Somrak feels a hand on his shoulder, and then a kiss on his cheek. Even before he looks, he knows it’s not Alma, not Saira. Too much pull on his shoulder as the short Bunny stretches to reach his cheek, and the curls tickle his neck. “Hey there, Ponytail,” chirps Cherry. “Merry Christmas.”

“Now there’s a nice present,” he replies. “Precious and portable.”

“Oh, you want more where that came from?” Cherry grins in challenge, then points. “See that bundle of green hangin’ over the bar? You stand under that, you gonna get kissed. It’s tradition.” Then without looking, she snatches the bottle from Sky. “Yoink! I’ll keep this behind the bar for you, sweetie, like the other bottles. Now give Cherry some sugar.” She puts her arms around Sky’s waist, the bottle tapping against his bottom, and looks up at him expectantly, a sprig of living honeysuckle curled around her left ear.

Sky bends down and wraps his arms around her, straightening and lifting her, and kissing her on both cheeks. Cherry giggles and gives him loud smacks back, “Mwah! Mwah!” before he sets her back down, and she goes dancing off into the party, vaguely toward the bar, waving back at both of them.

Somrak shakes his head and looks at Sky, who just shrugs. “Family?” Somrak asks.

Sky lowers his gaze introspectively, then with a look into Somrak’s eyes, answers simply, “Yes.”

There is a moment of silence, silence even though it is filled with the background noise of the party: Kyri’s laughter and Kaur’s big voice describing some encounter with an inebriated priest, Tulip giving another drawing away, to one of the constables that Somrak never got to know as they were never on the same shift in his week here. But for a few hours-long seconds, Sky and Somrak say nothing, until the latter finally asks, “What’s with the flowers?” He points at the side of his head, about where Cherry’s ears emerge from her afro.

“Oh, Geryon crafted them,” Sky explains. “No need for water or anything. They live off the life aura of the wearer. Symbolic. Uh, Tulip’s daisy is for innocence, Cherry’s honeysuckle is for generous affection…like that.”

Before Somrak can respond, Dion’s gently scolding voice breaks in. “Come to apologize for disappearing without a proper farewell, Sergeant?” He is holding a cocktail in each hand, which he gives to Somrak and Sky.

Somrak smirks. “Oh, you were having your beauty sleep or something. How’ve things been around these parts?”

“Quiet. Peaceful. No demons at all.” Dion shrugs with a smirk of his own. “Must be a coincidence.” He says to Sky, “Merri says she needs your help in the kitchen. Something about ‘pralines’?” As Sky raises his glass to Dion and Somrak and strides off to the kitchen while taking a sip, Gwydion produces a thin box wrapped in enchanted paper with shifting hues of blue, red and purple. “I don’t know how well these will fit you but I thought they might go with your preferred apparel.”

Again Somrak unwraps it carefully, planning to save the paper for Tulip. Inside the box is a pair of fingerless leather gloves. “Oh, now, those look stylish.”

“I aim to please. They are fireproof, by the way.” Dion’s smile fades. “You look like you’ve been in an awful fight? No more demons, I hope?”

Somrak’s eyes flick downward momentarily. “Not exactly. But…I’ll be fine.” He forces a smile. “Oh, I found something. Came across it in a shop soon after I left here.” From the satchel he hands Dion yet another newspaper-wrapped object, this one obviously a book, almost too large to comfortably heft with one hand.

On unwrapping, Dion blinks in surprise. “De Dimond’s On the Binding and Banishment of Eight Score and Three Demons and Seven Devils. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one outside the Academy of Magic.” He looks at Somrak with sincere gratitude. “Thank you. I’ve been trying to find time to go back and consult this book there. Now I don’t have to.”

Somrak nods. “The magical theory is way beyond my level. Figured you could use it better than me.”

Tulip dashes in and grabs Dion’s hand. “Come here! I wanna show you something!” She attempts to drag him away, something he can only resist with some effort. Even the smallest of the Bunnies is stronger than she looks.

“Tulip!” Dion gestures helplessly at Somrak, who waggles his fingers at the two of them as Tulip pulls Dion away toward the bar and that bundle of green that Cherry pointed out, to the apparent amusement of Cherry, who is coming around the bar and waving her hands at Tulip. The curious phrase “Hold your horses!” rises above the background noise to reach Somrak’s ears.

He sips his drink, which is up to Cherry’s usual high standards. And its strength makes him recall the near-complete lack of nourishment in the past day. That combined with being healed, which always leaves him light-headed, makes him head toward the tables bearing food.

It is a sumptuous spread, with cookies and cakes and pies and tarts and mochi and puddings, roasts and loafs and stews and pilafs, and other dishes he cannot immediately categorize. But then he remembers the other presents he has, and decides to add them to the ones under the heavily decorated tree. The ornaments are hand-made, for the most part, and clearly there was not much of a budget for buying materials, but a surfeit of creativity. As he sets his drink on the corner of the table and takes out the boxes of charmed bracelets that he bought from a temple for the Bunnies all in a rush – charms of luck and protection and health – he thinks, Next year, I can bring ornaments, and that thought gives him pause. Will there be a next year? These Bunnies have passed through so many rings of fire already. And Somrak himself, assuming he is still alive – will he still be welcomed?

He places the last of the boxes under the tree and turns to find Alma standing right behind him. Her face is level with his, their height being so nearly the same, and he cannot find a thing to say as he meets her penetrating gaze.

He hears his heart beat three times before she speaks. “Who should I complain to about your being returned to us in such poor condition?”

Somrak feels the familiar tugging on the scar across his face, signaling the return of his accustomed smirk. “I probably shouldn’t say. But she did give me something for you, with the warning I’d be a lot more damaged if I lost it.” He pulls a narrow case out of the satchel, much longer than the bag. It is made of wood covered with rough sharkskin, colored a dark grey, with two silver clasps on the side. A deep-crimson ribbon is tied crosshatched around its length, and instead of a bow it is fastened with a wax seal of the same hue, reminiscent of the Fencer’s red eye. He holds the case horizontally in both hands, presenting it to her.

Alma receives it with an air of curiosity, but instead of opening it she sets it aside, leaning it against the wall. Then, swiftly but gently, she wraps Somrak in an embrace. “Welcome home.” Her breath tickles his ear as she breathes the words.

A mere two words, simple and common, but they set off such a cascade of emotion within the fire god that he freezes for a moment, not trusting himself to return her embrace for fear – of what? That he might never release her? That he might burst into tears or laughter? It is the exhaustion, the injuries, the hunger, the drink, the trauma of the past few days. The dislocation of being there beneath the ice, clearly and consciously deciding to kill the traitor, the former teammate, and now, less than a day later, here, among warmth, friends, presents, sweets, ornaments, singing – yes, now Kyri is starting to lead people in singing – here. Home. What home has he ever known?

He surrenders to it, to her, his hands – powerful, calloused on the knuckles, metaphorically drenched in rivers of blood – finding her back, the right feeling her shoulder blades through her dress, the left, weaker, on the inward curve just above the waist. The tension drains away. He squeezes his eyes shut more tightly and whispers, “Home.”

He feels her nod against his shoulder. Her voice matches his whisper. “This is home. And we are all happy to see you back.” She holds him like that for a few seconds longer, as if sensing that he needs to compose himself, then moves a hand from his back to his cheek while pressing her lips to the other, lingering for a heartbeat before she pulls away slightly to look him over. She smiles as if trying to lighten the moment, and holds up an admonishing finger. “And I will not let you leave without a proper healing. But it doesn’t have to be right away if you need to take a moment.”

He chuckles. “Yeah, maybe…a little later. Thank you. Um…” He fumbles with the satchel. “I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to give these to you.” He pulls out a box about the size of large book and hands it to her.

“Oh, you didn’t have to,” she says, sounded pleased, pausing only a moment to pull the string free and tear the newspaper away, then opening the thin-cardboard box. Inside is a folded piece of cotton clothing, Guardia Dei indigo, but clearly wrapped loosely around something more solid. She sets the box on a nearby table and gives Somrak a curious glance, then lifts the bundle out and flips aside the cloth to reveal a pair of curved knives with hardwood grips and pommels carved into the shape of dragon’s heads. “Oh, Somrak…” She sets the cloth and one of the knives back in the box and draws the other one from its plain leather sheath. The blade, black with a crimson hue, is not metal, more ceramic, even organic, and serrated on the inner curve. “These are beautiful…”

“The blades are dragon’s teeth. Highly heat- and acid-resistant. Supposedly they’ll never need sharpening.” Somrak shrugs. “After what happened to your weapons when you fought the demon, I thought you needed something more durable.” He picks up the other one, drawing the blade and demonstrating a reversed grip. “Different fighting style than usual, though – block with the outer curve, cut with the inner.” He hands it to her, pommel first.

She takes it and holds both blades the way he demonstrated, so they protect her forearms. “Hmm, less reach this way, but I see what you mean. I’ll have to practice with Master Pak. I wonder what he’ll make of them.” She sheathes the blades and picks up the item of clothing, which turns out to be a standard Guardia Academy t-shirt, except that it is big enough for Sky to wear. On the front, covering much of the shirt aside from the Guardia seal on the right breast, is an outline of a tiger, posed as if stepping down from a rock, forepaws lower than the rear, tail curling over the shirt’s shoulder and onto the back behind the neck, looking off to one side. A few lines of glitter hint at eyes and mouth and stripes.

Alma starts to chuckle and then laughs fully, loud enough to make others at the noisy party look their way. “Oh, where was this when I attended the Academy? It would have been a success! But…why so big? Oh…a nightshirt?” Somrak nods. “Convenient.” She holds it up, turning it around to admire the other side, and gasps to see a phoenix portrayed on the back, wings spread and rising from flames. “Really?” She clutches it to her chest, grinning at him.

Somrak points at the shirt. “That took way more time than finding the knives. If you need extra shirts, I have three more where I messed up with the glue.”

Alma hugs him again. “Thank you. I will treasure it. And I’ll carry the blades with me at all times from now on. Ah… Your present is here.” She releases him, stepping back while looking past his shoulder at something. He hears a flap of large wings. “Someone wanted to give it to you personally.”

Somrak holds still, not quite sure for a moment what is going on, but not surprised at the impact of the phoenix landing on his shoulder. One wing bats at his face a little as Starfax folds it. Somrak turns his head to see the imperious gaze of the water phoenix, who is wearing a leather collar, or rather a thin leather strap wrapped several times around her neck, with an asymmetrically fusiform seed, tapered at each end and bulging in the middle, hanging from it like a pendant. “Oh, hello again,” Somrak says. Starfax looks pointedly at the god’s arm and starts to edge onto it, so Somrak raises it. The bird sidles along until she is perched on his forearm, making Somrak glad she chose to land on his right shoulder instead of his recently-injured left.

Alma reaches to loosen the leather strap enough so that she can remove it from Starfax’s neck and give it to Somrak. “For you. I thought it would go well with your fiery personality.” The seed, about the weight of a peach pit but a little longer and narrower, somehow seems to burn with an internal flame under its lustrous golden-brown exterior, a flame unseen and unfelt but nevertheless sensed – a potentiality, a dream of fire.

Somrak holds it in one palm, fascinated. “I’ve seen one of these before. In a collection. Some half-mad botanist Sky and I were investigating… Oh Alma, it’s so beautiful.”

“I’m glad you like it.” Her voice almost purrs with pleasure. “It is called a Dragon’s Heart. The originals are native to the Dragon Lands but I managed to turn a more common seed into pretty much the same plant. After more than a few failed attempts… Still have a lot left to learn about my Life sphere, I’m afraid.” She takes the necklace and motions at him to lean forward. She places it around his neck. “There. May it ward off danger and remind you that you’re never alone.” There is a sound of wind in leaves, and Somrak feels a sort of tremor from the seed as a minor divine blessing spreads into it.

Somrak puts his hand over it, gratefully. The darkness within his thoughts feels very close to the surface, but so does the warmth brought forth by Alma and all the others here. “I don’t know what to say. Just…thank you.”

Alma smiles. “That is more than enough.” She glances at the long case that Somrak brought, and finally picks it up again. “Let us see what my aunt has sent.” She touches the crimson seal and a silvery phoenix appears, flying across the surface of the ribbon, causing it to unspool as the wax liquefies, drips away, and disappears entirely before it hits the floor. Alma takes this in stride as if she’s seen it before, then flips the clasps to open the case. Inside, in inset depressions, is a sword and its sheath, side by side. The sheath is simple but masterfully worked black leather with silver trim. She removes the sword, holding it up by the grip.

The blade is narrow and thin, light for swift movement, needle-pointed for penetration. Like Alma’s usual weapon, this is not meant for slashing and chopping through armor and bone, but for subtle slipping past the heaviest defenses via an unnoticed weak spot, puncturing vital organs, then withdrawing for another fatal stab before the pain has even registered. It is a surgical instrument for bringing about a state of quietude. Narrow as it is, the spine of the blade, between the razor edges, is etched with a few words in an ancient script, and the handguard is a protective but not restrictive half-basket formed of steel leaves and two long-tailed birds chasing each other among the greenery.

Alma studies it in awe. “Oh dear… Thank you for bringing this to me.”

Somrak is equally fascinated by the weapon. “I’m just the delivery boy,” he says softly. “That is beautiful. I don’t recognize the script… Is that an enchantment?”

Alma shakes her head. “No. It’s an old language. A poem about life, death and oblivion, the true ending to all life. These are the last three words of it, ‘On the way’. As in ‘You died on the way’. A bit of a favorite with my clan.”

Somrak smiles. “Nice and grim. I like it.”

One of the Bunnies, the athletic teenager Kori, is suddenly beside Alma, grabbing her arm. “Mom! Kyri’s starting another singalong. Chime’s gonna play the harmonica you gave him! He wants you there…”

Alma looks at the boy affectionately. “Oh, I can’t possibly miss that.” To Somrak, she asks, “Will you join us?”

Somrak picks up his cocktail. “I think this is more my style than singing. And I was just about to grab something to eat. I’ll listen.”

Alma gives him a smile and lets herself be dragged away by Kori. The singing begins shortly thereafter, Chime’s harmonica and Sky’s ’ukulele providing a musical accompaniment, the song one of those about the closing of the year and the birth of a new one, letting go of fears and renewing hopes, about saying farewell to those we have lost and holding on to those still with us.

Somrak drinks to that. He drinks to the lost agents, even to the demigoddess – or demi-whatever she was – that he had worked alongside for twelve years without knowing she was an agent of Hell. The line about lost friends and family stabs him to the hilt, and he curses the urge to weep. He gulps the rest of the drink in three swallows, glances at the small presents for the Bunnies, then stalks swiftly to the side door and quietly takes his leave.

Ch6.43 Trust

The Year’s End. Renewal Week. Victory and Remembrance Week. New Year’s Dawning. Christmas. Prophet’s Ascension. Turning Time. Insular Equinox.

Many are the names by which this week is known around the Insula. It is a week like no other. For gods, mortals and all creatures in between, this week is the most sacred on the insular calendar. Many are the reasons for which it is celebrated. Some celebrate the greatest of victories over Hell’s devilish spawn, some celebrate the birth of prophets, others their death, others even their awakening to higher purposes. Some greet the spirits of their departed ancestors, some release them finally into non-existence. Some pray and fast, others are prayed to and feed hungrily on the concentrated prayers. Some make the mother of all parties to greet the new year, others see the dying year into its grave with solemn reverence. Some are busy fighting yearly battles to ensure the rising of a new sun, of a renewed moon, the resetting of the walls that keep Hell at bay. Some see to the birth of all that is new or the extinction of all that must be eliminated. It is a time for contemplation, for penitence, for sacrifice, for debauchery, for promises, for hope.

All over the great mountain hovering amidst the chaos that is the Void, this is the most magical time of all, the one that every soul must observe. And even for those who manage to remain atheist among so many divine beings, it is a week to be with one’s family, to enjoy street festivals and watch an old sun set for the last few times before it dies.

So join us now in our trip to the Insula Caelestis, the Island of Heavens, and the great city that sprawls over its mountainous profile. It has been a long time since we have seen it from such a distance. From here, among the stars, where the moon gods are carefully aligning their pale homes into neat patterns amidst the infinite swirling darkness of chaos, where Void Riders gallop to herd blooming pieces of reality toward the ever-growing mountain, we can see all of the immense Isle. It is a single peak, a volcano erupted from nothingness, angry and glorious and ever-young yet ancient, blooming with possibilities, with life, with that greatest of powers that goes so far beyond what can be touched, seen or measured. The power of thought, of creation, of things in waiting to be and do. The power of all that is in spirit, mind and body. The power from which all life and creation spring.

The power of Reality.

The mountain has existed since the dawning of time. It has seen many ages come and go, many different dwellers, many wars, many armageddons. Here, time has ended and begun, again and again. But let us not focus on the past. The mountain no longer spits fire from its churning belly. Its sides are cool, carved by mighty rivers, covered in forests, in grass, in sand, in cobblestone. Now, as we look at it, the Insula is inhabited by all kinds of creatures, magical and otherwise. Gods revered in many different worlds have their homes here, for gods seldom like to live away from their kind for too long. Immortality has its consequences. A certain distrust of change is one of them. And so gods find a haven in this divine home, where they can be as they always were even after their worshippers die off elsewhere, after mortals reinvent their gods or forsake them altogether, where Time and its swirling currents are less ruthless. And other, smaller gods, younger gods who have never known any other worlds, live here too. Along with the creatures of our Earthly myths, of other planets, with any being the mind can create. And mortals. Countless mortals. Humans, like us. And humans unlike us. Animals long extinct in this planet. Others yet to find their place among us. The Insula is very, very vast indeed.

And at its heart, at its beating, fiery, still booming heart, the hosts of Hell are imprisoned for their crimes. What crimes? Who knows? The original war was so long ago. The reasons are lost, the original victors long gone from the Insula, deceased or ascended into the Void as all truly ancient gods must. All we know now is that the gods won, the devils lost and the hatred remains. Old hatred, distilled by the eras, honed by age. Pure, immortal, without cause or meaning. Blind. Deaf. The kind that burns through reason, that festers through oblivion, that keeps Hell plotting and fighting, and Heaven fearing the return of its enemies.

Today, they are plotting as they always plot. Their agents are active, busy, hidden in plain sight among the crowd of innocents that is happily celebrating the coming of yet another year. But leave them be. In this story we weave, this account of a world so much like our own, even Hell will have its time to take the stage. Someday.

But not today. Today, great farming regions bless their newborn animals, metropolitan areas call priests to exorcise the accumulated negative energies of the old year. Oceanshore people send wooden canoes filled with flowers and food to ask for a bountiful year. In all five rings, from the poor, overcrowded skirts of the great mountain to the privileged mountaintop estates, today is a day of peace.

And, ah….here is what you have come in search for. The mountain has rotated and now we can see it. Down there, in the Fourth Ring, almost Fifth. A ward like any other ward. Poor and forgotten by the great gods of the higher rings. Well, mostly. Not completely. It has become rather interesting lately, don’t you agree? So busy. So… attractive, for some reason. Such a strange little place, to which trouble and intrigue seem to flow like a stream descending a steep hill.

Welcome to Three Rats. Let us walk its streets, busier today than any other day of the year. Decorated in garlands of bright colors, compacted earth roads sprinkled with colorful powders, flowers and sheets hanging from the balconies. Our feet take us through the darker alleys and out into the stone-floored plazas, around fountains, across the market, past derelict buildings. At the end of our journey, stands the Three Rats Guardia Station, newly painted unlike most other constructions in the area.

And just behind it, another building awaits. A brand new wooden sign hangs over a door. The image of a rabbit has been engraved and burnt onto it. From inside, the sounds of a party well on its way.

This is our true, final destination. Welcome to the Burrow.

Let us go in and join the party. The place is brightly decorated with paper garlands and signs announcing merry wishes in a variety of languages and religious tones. At a corner, a tree which has probably never seen brighter or greener fields (but certainly carries some level of genetic memory of such things) is leaning slightly against a wall in its red vase. Paper decorations and strings of popped corn hang from its crooked branches with all the mirth the poor plant can manage. A little orb of glowing, golden light hovers softly at the top, bathing the tree in glittering highlights. Under it, boxes and boxes, of all shapes and sizes and wrapped in all colors of paper are waiting to be delivered to their respective recipients. Many already have.

All around, the tables are covered in hand-painted paper towels. A tall, thick candle shines in the center of each of them. Plates with pastries and salads, meats and appetizers have been placed on every available surface and some are even now empty, in need of being replaced with the next delicacy.

Everyone looks happy to be here. Conversations buzz and sizzle between the various guests. The mortal officers that man the station next door all have dropped by to join in the celebrations. Some are just taking a brief moment of pause from their shifts. The station cannot be left unattended, after all. But most of them are not on duty at all. They have just come to spend some time with their colleagues after enjoying a warm family gathering at home. For this is their family as well, bound not by blood but by hardship, by the everyday sharing of a common, dangerous burden. They are the guardians of others, keepers of peace, vigilants of all hours. And no one can truly understand their struggles and fears but those who see the streets through the same darkly tinted eyes that have seen the worst a mind can throw at the world.

Our Bunnies look radiant. Surprised a few hours ago with gifts from their favorite god of magic, each of them is wearing a brand new outfit, of fine cloth and carefully designed to fit their bodies and personalities. A short dress with a pleated skirt for Rosemary, a pair of close-fitting trousers and a stylish vest for Cherry, an adorable frilly ensemble for Tulip. Ah, and a simple, demure summery dress with a knee-length skirt for Mayumi. She was difficult to plan for… A fine shirt and tailored pants for Sage, shorts for Kori and Chime. They look like the stars that they are in this celebration that, this year, is all about them.

And the gods? Well, two of them are currently in the kitchen and trying to make their way in and out of it, carrying trays of food and empty glasses for refilling. Even gods should be helpful, after all. The space behind the counter is small for the five people currently in it. Sky has to lift the tray that Merri has just prepared for him so that Alma won’t hit it as she squeezes past him on her way back out of the kitchen. The goddess doesn’t even hesitate before ducking under his arm. It is almost like a dance.

“Ye look like ye been at this for years!” Merri notes, laughing happily.

“It does feel like years, doesn’t it?” Alma says with a soft laugh, stopping to look at god and Bunny. “Who would imagine it was only months?”

Sky nods. “Teamwork! Ends up working in all sorts of – yow!”

Two dashing figures nearly trip him on his wait of the kitchen. It seems that Tulip and Chime expect everyone to be as agile as themselves. The tray in Sky’s hand wobbles dangerously but here is another helping hand to catch it and smoothly lower it to a table nearby.

“Guess Master Pak can’t hang up his shoes yet,” Dion comments with a chuckle as he samples the little balls made of chocolate and condensed milk paste sitting on the tray that Sky was carrying.

The tall god looks at him appreciatively. “Nice catch – yeah, I still need dancing lessons from him.”

“Well, I could offer to teach you, but you seem to have picked a partner already,” Alma teases as she brushes by carrying a jar of fruit juice. She stops, her nose twitching. “Wait a minute…” She stands on tiptoes to sniffs Sky’s neck, grinning mischievously as she asks, “Wearing scents now, are we?”

Poor Sky… His face reddens almost immediately. “Well, uhm…”

“Now, ye’ve gone and made ‘im turn red,” a giggling Merri says, watching the scene from just a few steps away.

“Oh…” Alma chuckles. “Well, I think it suits your personality. And it’s very pleasant, indeed.”

“Aye. Fer Bunny noses too,” Merri notes with a wink at a red, red Sky.

Maybe it is best to leave our sheepish Inspector for now. Something you should see is happening just across the room, where most of the Popula have been enjoying their time off and talking about…well, mostly about work. The Guardia, like so many other professions, tends to become food, drink and air for the people in it. But at times like this, they mostly share the funny stories, the little everyday events that make people laugh. Machado, Aliyah, Cala, Wallace, you know them all. There are a few others too. Like Kiko Silva and Harinder Patel, from the night shift, both young constables, both arrived from the Academy less than a year ago. We don’t know them very well yet but give it time. They will find their voices. They all do. Like Deesh. Remember Deesh, kind, quiet, red-skinned and tongueless Deesh? He is here too, smiling and laughing silently at his fellow officers’ stories. And Syro…well, he is not truly Popula but he is just as Guardia as all the others. He does not have as many tales to share but he is quite happy just listening while tinkering with a small collection of fine tools and gauges he has just been gifted by the Dei.

Their happy laughter dwindles for a moment at the mention of an old story, from the times of the old station, before the Dei arrived here. The Popula go silent. The last year has brought many good things but it has taken good away as well. A reverent pause in remembrance of their fallen companions. Stathos and his family are quietly revived in a solemn toast. All but Cala join in. Her faith has her fasting during the day, this week, and never allows for alcohol in any case. But she closes her eyes in prayer.

There is someone missing. Where is our beloved Nataniel? The new clinic, the only real place where mortals can go for proper medical treatment in this ward has been keeping him quite busy. Three Rats has many people who cannot afford to be sick or hurt. And the neighboring wards are just learning about Nataniel’s clinic. The people who live closer to the borders are beginning to flock to the already overworked doctor’s doorstep.

But he seems to have managed to pry himself from the clinic. The bar door has just opened to let him through. He looks flustered with the effort of rushing not to be too late for the party but his lips part into a bright, friendly smile at the immediate cry of “Nate!” that the Popula shower him with. He may not like being called Nate but he loves his friends. And this is home.

His eyes widen at the sight of a god of beer dressed in a velvety ale-colored suit trimmed in white faux fur, plush jacket open around his beer belly, silly hat topped with a fuzzy pompom and tilted over an eye, walking around with a load of presents cradled on his thick, heavy arms, handing out Ho-ho-ho’s and colorfully-wrapped boxes. Breowan seems to be having fun with Sky’s imported customs. And everyone is already talking about making it a yearly tradition. Maybe Brew will bring good little boys and girls some customized beer mugs next year.

But back to Nataniel. He seems to have just remembered something very important. Such as the fact that, with all his work and distractions, he has not bought any gifts to give. Seeing his panic, Aliyah rushes to his side and envelops him in a tight, friendly hug that leaves the man’s chin pressed against the tall woman’s collarbone.

“Pretend I’m just sayin’ hello and tell me real quick: what did ya get for Cala?” she asks in a slightly too-loud whisper.

“I, uhh…” Nataniel hesitates but it is useless to deny it. His head hangs helplessly as they straighten from the embrace. “Nada. No me acordé.

“Oh man…you are gonna owe me.” Aliyah chuckles and rubs the back of her head before putting a hand on his back and guiding him toward the others. As they walk past a chair covered in wrapped presents, she takes a thin box decorated with a purplish ribbon and touches it to his back so he will take it. “She was lookin at that in a shop window the other day,” she tells him, mouth barely moving with the words. “Merci’s, if she asks.”

Nataniel stops and looks at her in shock. “Oh, Aliyah.. No…No puedo… I can’t…”

Aliyah immediately puts her hands on his shoulders to force him to turn and walk again. “Will you stop makin’ a scene?” She asks through a smile that is all teeth. Then she laughs nervously before whispering, “Here we go. Pretend I didn’t tell you that she smiles silly at you when she thinks you ain’t lookin.”

If the good doctor were not completely befuddled before, he surely is now. His handsome countryside-tan face has turned a nice dark raspberry shade and his mouth is drier than many deserts out there. And now his gaze is fixed on a certain large and curvy corporal that turns his head like no goddess of classical beauty has yet managed to do. It seems our kind and shy Nataniel has a little unconfessed office infatuation going on behind those friendly brown eyes.

“For you,” Cala says to him, holding up a soft package wrapped in blue crepe paper. “I saw you needed a new one to wear at the clinic.”

Nataniel takes it with his right hand, his left one nervously appearing from behind his back, where it has been holding the package Aliyah so selflessly gave to him. He holds the thin box in front of him as if it might explode if he so much as looks at it. “For you. Because… I see you… saw it … at Merci’s…thing.”

By his side, Aliyah’s hand moves to cover her eyes so quickly that she nearly slaps herself. Too late, she remembers herself and instantly puts her hand behind her back, failing very badly to look innocent when Cala glances a question at her.

Now, a good, experienced Guardia is not easy to fool. It takes the sensible, intelligent corporal less than a second to realize what is going on. But she plays along and unwraps her gift, smiling at the wine-red shawl lying inside the box. “It is very beautiful, Nate. Just what I was wanting.”

She kisses Nataniel’s cheek in a common sign of affection for both their cultures. Still, it nearly makes him drop his brand new surgical pajamas. Cala took some time embroidering his name on the shirt pocket. “I…thank you. I was really needing these.”

Aliyah tries not to laugh but her broad smile betrays her amusement. At a sign from Machado, she moves past Cala, winking at the corporal and quickening her step when Cala squints at her and reaches out to lightly slap her rear. After a chuckle and a few meaningful glances that make two pairs of cheeks warmer, the mortal pair is not-so-subtly left alone in the middle of the crowd.

Such a lovely scene… And such a lively party. It is hard to keep track of all that is going on in the room. Conversations fill the air, too many to follow. Food is being eaten, drinks are being drunk, gifts are being gifted.

And look at that! Young Tulip is ecstatic with all the presents she has been receiving. This is her first Year’s End, after all. She is currently on the worn-out sofa, showing Saira all the brand new crayons and watercolors that Sky has gifted her with. And the great Tales of the Urbis book that her mother bought for her. And the beautiful, flowery purse that Sage took so much care in sewing. The pretty headband that Cala found at a used-items shop. Oh, and the gift of gifts: the dress that Dion designed and that makes her growing, adolescent curves look a little less childish. The young Bunny cannot stop smiling and hopping happily around and poking people to show them her brand new treasures. In the blink of an eye, she is leaving Saira alone again to go and gawk at the simple capoeira outfit that Sergeant Machado has customized for Kori. But Saira is not alone. Chime is with her, rehearsing a few bars on a shiny new harmonica. Breowan is lounging on the sofa too, his jolly hat perching on his knee, jacket now fully unbuttoned to reveal a slightly, just slightly stained undershirt, hand curled around a frosty beer mug.

And Lexie, you ask? Well, the fluffy cat has decided that this is just too much agitation for her a few hours ago and is currently relaxing in the peaceful haven of Alma’s bedroom.

Speaking of Alma…where is our lovely death goddess? Ah! There she is! Right by the bar, enjoying a drink with Sky and Dion and radiant with all the happiness that fills the room. The three Dei look around them, at the buzzing party, and then at each other with contented sighs and shaking heads like old veterans watching children play. Any of them has seen more Year’s Ends than two or three of the other merrymakers combined. But this is something new for them as well. It is their first Year’s End together, in Three Rats and with all of the Bunnies and humans of the station. And what a year it has been for them! Less than a year, actually. Much, much less.

So much has happened, so many ups and downs. They raise their glasses in that quiet toast of friends of a lifetime that says We survived another one and drink in tranquil fraternity.

Sky is the first to break the silence. “Well, uh…Alma. I have something for you.” He is carrying a purple felt bag that bulges with an ominous curvature. He holds it up for Alma to take.

The goddess looks at the bag, which looks strained by heavy contents, and carefully takes it, feeling its weight. “I hope it’s not a ball and chain,” she jests as she opens it and peeks inside. With an expression of great curiosity, she places the bag on the bar counter and carefully slides it down to reveal a blueish sphere about the size of a cantaloupe. Her eyes widen at the beauty of the hollow, handcrafted orb, filled with clear water and lined with a sandy bed and some pretty rocks decorated with flowing seaweed. “Oh, Sky… It’s beautiful. What is it?”

The god’s dark skin takes on a slightly redder shade at her sincere admiration of it. “I found the sphere while shopping with Dion,” he explains. “I was able to fill it with seawater, and a very careful balance of plants and tiny sea life, sand, shells. If I did it right, and it receives the right amount of sunlight, it should last many years. Uh, only in a high-magic environment, though.”

Alma seems entranced by the exquisite mini-habitat. Even her eyes smile in awe as if she were a child looking at an aquarium for the first time. “Oh, look!” she cries, pointing a few glittering shapes out to Dion. “There’s even fish!”

Sky nods. “Yes, teeny tiny ones. They glow in the dark.”

“Oh, I love it! And I know exactly where to put it!” Alma hugs him happily with a single arm. Her other hand is currently too busy making sure the orb doesn’t roll off the counter. “Thank you.”

“It seems that Mister Cannot Choose a Present to Save His Life was just goading us all along,” Dion notes with a chuckle.

“Ah…I really am terrible at it,” Sky insists, absentmindedly rubbing the back of his neck, his eyes flicking down for a moment in an endearing show of shyness. He seems to remember something. “Oh…I have something for you as well.” A quick trip to the makeshift Christmas tree and he returns holding a small wrapped packet, that feels compact and solid when Dion takes it. “I hope you like it.”

Beneath the simple paper, a wood box carved with intricate knotted patterns lies in waiting. “Beautiful craftsmanship,” Dion compliments it. His uncle has always favored these designs. For some reason, they seem like something that is very intrinsically theirs. Inside the box, there is a small, thin, double-edged dagger with no handguard and a handle carved to look as if it were wrapped in leather straps, now polished and worn with age and wear. Its sheath is made of engraved leather. Dion whistles quietly under his breath as he inspects it. “Gorgeous. Should make for a loyal secondary blade.” He pats Sky’s shoulder in friendly appreciation. “Thank you very much, Sky. I really like it. I just hope it doesn’t mean you have a good reason for me to need it anytime soon.”

“Considering the way things have gone in our lives?” They both chuckle at the little attempt at comedy. “It’s usually tucked into a boot top, traditionally, but it’s a good jacket-pocket blade. Called a sgian-dubh. It was a present to me long ago.”

Dion looks concerned at the revelation and carefully puts the knife down on the counter. “Oh Sky… I certainly don’t want to deprive you of a good memory…”

Sky shakes his head, smiling and gently pushes the dagger closer to Dion. “The way I look at it, it’ll serve me even better in your keeping than in my own. To know a friend has it, and that it might help him in a tight spot – that gives me comfort.” He shrugs. “You know how I tend to worry.”

Dion’s next exhalation is short, quick like a mocking snort but his eyes betray his esteem of the god of rebellion and his precious gift. He stores the dagger in his shirt pocket and pats it. “Thank you.”

Alma watches the scene with tenderness. One of her hands is twitching as if wants to be somewhere else, like stroking a certain magic god’s back, but instinct is trumped by reason this time and it stays where it is. Well…for a little while. Alma needs it to hold a wide, rectangular box that has been waiting for her, behind the bar. She sets the mysterious gift on the counter, just in front of Sky. “Speaking of tight spots, that takes us to your gift, Sky. We hope you like it and that it serves you well.”

Sky looks a question at her before opening his present. “Oh…” He looks surprised but pleased to see what almost looks like a casual jacket neatly folded inside. It is impeccably trimmed, modern and stylish and, of course, Guardia Dei blue. “Oh now that…that is beautiful.” He carefully pulls it out of the box, as if it might fall apart in his hands. The sleek jacket artfully crafted with many visible and hidden pockets and tailor-made to fit the Inspector’s long arms and beefy, somewhere-between-fit-and-fat torso looks more like something to wear on a fun night out than what it actually is: an armoured jacket. Whoever said that one cannot look good while walking into a fight? “It’s so much lighter than my old one but…” He strokes the fabric with his fingertips. “Is that Balva mesh?”

Dion shakes his head. “Ballion, a hybrid of it. Less vulnerable to piercing tips but not as flexible. Fortunately, you don’t seem to favor the more…flowing designs. It should manage to keep you safe when you forget to keep your guard up. Even cutting and sewing it is a nightmare.”

“Gwydion infused it with all sorts of protectives charms as well,” Alma adds. She urges Sky to get himself into the jacket. “Come on, try it on. It should look a lot better on you than that ugly thing you requested from Headquarters.”

“Oh, I suppose the one from HQ can be a backup, if they ever send it,” the god notes, slipping an arm into a sleeve.

Dion clears his throat with a meaningful, complicit glance at Alma that has the goddess chuckling. “I am afraid your request for a new one got…misplaced, somehow.”

But Sky doesn’t even seem to have heard him. He is too busy twisting this way and that, rolling his shoulders and raising his arms, flexing his elbows and somehow trying to bend his neck in ways that it is not meant to, in an effort to look down his own back. “Oh, this fits perfectly. It’s plenty flexible enough for me.” He looks at both his sergeants with tender appreciation. Are those tears welling up in his eyes? “Thank you both. You went to so much trouble. I love it.”

“Oh, all we had to do was misplace the little piece of paper with your measurements,” Dion says with his usual nonchalance as he takes a sip of his wine.

Alma is smiling and enjoying her cocktail, some new invention of Cherry’s. The joy around her truly warms her heart. But the occasional, subtle look toward the door that leads outside betrays a twinge of anxiety. Someone seems to be late.

She puts her glass down and turns to Dion. She has a gift left to give. “Well, now, what did I get for the god who has everything?”

“Hopefully not a bottomless chest,” is the god’s immediate, well-humored response.

“Not quite,” she replies with a chuckle. Holding one of her hands out, the other forgotten behind her back, she adds, “For my next trick, I will need your wrist, please.”

Dion looks at her open hand and raises his eyebrows in mock concern. “Uhm… Sky, could you check if she’s hiding a saw behind her back, please? I’m not so sure about this present.”

“A saw? Or perhaps a pair of shackles?” Sky chuckles and makes a show of peeking behind her back and shaking his head reassuringly at Dion.

“Oh, you two are just silly!” Alma complains. But she is not upset with them at all. Still, the goddess is looking a little nervous about this gift and when Dion holds out his wrist, she cannot help but confess as she places her hands on either side of it, thumbs touching the skin, “I hope I get it right… I did not have much chance to practice on proper subjects.”

Dion’s wrist moves back immediately. “Well, then maybe…”

But it is too late. Alma is already gripping it firmly. “Shh… I need to focus,” she admonishes him.

What happens next is a little thing of wonder. A soft scent of flowers and grass wafts in the air as Alma’s life sphere is activated. Soon, her fingers begin to glow with a coppery light that stretches in many, many lazy tendrils, twisted and intertwining, tracing complicated patterns on Dion’s skin, curling around his wrist. The brilliant light starts dulling and fading almost immediately, revealing a slim, flexible bracelet, almost like tree-bark tanned as if it were leather. On it, over a background of browns and greens, a golden, metal charm of a dragon curls in sleep, its spine traced in tiny reddish beads.

Alma looks at the final result of her efforts as if she cannot believe this is her own doing. “It worked…” she breathes.

She is not the only one who looks impressed and pleased with the final result. Dion brings his wrist closer to his face so he can admire the fine details, his fingers tracing the delicate twirls of the sturdy fabric that binds his wrist and testing the simple clasp that keeps the bracelet in place. “It surely is unique. And beautiful. Thank you.”

That has Alma smiling with ill-disguised pride. “It is also alive and aligned with you. And if you rub the beads in a pattern like so…” she taps the head of the dragon charm and then traces its spine from tail to neck, “music begins to play.”

“That is some very complex life magic,” Sky says when the music starts. “Amazing.”

It is a soft song, simple but very pretty. Like a nursery rhyme. The kind of thing that we hear in youth and then seem to forget until the time comes to sing it to our own children. It makes Dion’s eyes widen in surprise and confusion at something he did not know he remembered. “I…I think I know this song.”

“I hope you do. All the songs it plays are drawn from your memory,” Alma explains. “Things you’ve heard, even if long ago. Lullabies, nursery rhymes, songs from your first night out. Mother made one for me ages ago but…it can’t be made beforehand.” She strokes the bracelet, making sure she can’t spot any flaws in it. “It needs to be woven around its wearer to work properly. I’m glad you like it.”

A mocking frown and she holds a finger up at Dion in false scolding. “You are not easy to shop for.”

The song that Dion did not expect seems to have moved him deeply, even if he does not quite understand why. Still, he chuckles at Alma’s taunting. “I’m not sure I can top this but…” he produces a long, exquisitely wrapped box from a jacket pocket. “I hope you will like this.”

Alma unwraps and opens it, peeking inside with curiosity to find a beautiful crystal flask shaped like an elongated teardrop. She opens the flask and takes a whiff, closing her eyes in pleasure at the soft, willowy scent with notes of lilac and jasmine that take her back to sunny days of reading in her mother’s garden. “Oh… this brings back memories. I love it. It’s so light.”

She does not really see the small empathetic smile and nod that Sky gives to a very glad Dion. “I’m going to go show off my lovely jacket.” The tall Inspector knows to flee a scene before he becomes one witness too many to clandestine romance. “Thank you both, from the bottom of my heart.”

He moves away from his sergeants after a nod from Dion and a gentle pat on the arm from Alma. A subtle glance over his shoulder will tell him that he was right to leave. The couple is already lost in its little bubble of sweet, low-voice words and tender looks that are lipless kisses all of their own.

But, look out, Sky! Too long a glance and you will bump right into Mayumi, right in front of you!

Oh, good… He has managed to turn just in time. Collision is averted. A quick look around the god’s torso to see what he was looking at and May’s eyes are on his, exchanging a knowing smile with him that is like a shared secret. She takes his hand and guides him to a slightly less-crowded corner of the room.

“Thank you for the stationery,” she says in a voice that carries a note of uncertainty. “It’s really beautiful.”

“It’s enchanted,” Sky explains. “After you finish writing, it will disappear, and then appear in my office.”

“Oh…” Mayumi’s lips curl into a soft smile as realization dawns. “I suppose this means I’ll be writing a lot then.”

Gladness and sadness in her voice. Soon, Three Rats will be saying goodbye to one of our Bunnies. But worry not. The others will not forget about her so easily. And neither will we.

Let us leave her to enjoy as much of Sky’s loving company as she can. The sun is beginning to set outside and one of our more noctivagous friends is beginning to look a bit impatient. Saira is growing tired of so many people and so much friendliness all at once. This many people in one room usually means a fight to her.

So she is looking toward the stairs that lead up toward the first floor, thinking of going up on the roof to catch a breath of slightly less second-lung air. But someone is about to delay her plans. Cherry has just taken a seat by the unsettled assassin and is leaning against her shoulder. She is carrying a small box that she hands to Saira.

“Here, hon,” the Bunny says. “For you from all of us.”

Saira looks at the box as if it might snap a toothed lid and bite her hand off. She doesn’t take it. She barely even seems to breathe. “Why?”

“Snap! Because we love you, of course!” Cherry replies as if even asking is nonsense. She takes Saira’s hand and places the box in the woman’s palm. “Come on, open it.”

Saira does. Slowly, carefully. Inside the simple box lies a silvery locket, not much bigger than a quail’s egg. Its surface is delicately engraved with the image of a perching bird calmly grooming its feathers. It looks exquisite and expensive and fit for a goddess. Certainly not for a lowly mortal like Saira. Or at least that is what she thinks. People can be pretty silly about those things.

She glances at where Alma is still sharing a drink and a conversation with Dion. Cherry sees where she is looking and answers the question that Saira does not ask.

“Mom gave the locket, Dion threw his mojo on it. Everyone else…” she picks up the little piece of jewelry and opens it. Inside, soft lights project three-dimensional images, holograms of every member of the Three Rats Station family. Even Lexie is there. “We kinda gave ourselves. Everyone thought it should be me to give it to you.”

Saira takes a long time to find her voice again. It is difficult to find words when half of us wants to cry with bliss and the other half is trying to run for the hills. This stay of hers here has shaken beliefs that she thought were indestructible. And now, she does not quite know what to do with herself anymore. “It’s…pretty. Thanks,” she finally says, looking sideways at Cherry. “So, you’re callin’ her Mom now?”

The Bunny shrugs. “Eh, I’m warmin’ up to it. It’s nice havin’ a mom. Ain’t never had it before, you know?” She smiles apologetically at Saira and the woman can’t help but ruffle up her hair, making her pull away in fake irritation. “Hey! Don’t mess with the hair! That’s definitely not the right way to mess with a girl’s curls.”

That has Saira laughing. And suddenly, Rosemary is standing just in front of them and grabbing Cherry by the hands.

“Och, have ye forgotten, ye daftie? We need to show darlin’ Geryon his gift!” she exclaims.

Cherry’s eyes widen. Her full lips curve in a perfect circle. “Oooooh, right! Gotta go do that!” She gives Saira a quick peck on the cheek. “Gotta go, babe. Talk later.”

And then, they are off to find their furred and feathered lover, who has been solemnly posing for another one of Tulip’s drawings. Each of Alma’s oldest daughters grabs one of his forelimbs and they both cajole and drag him, past the couch – huh…where has Saira gone? She was just there a minute ago – and in the general direction of the stairs that lead up, where all the bedrooms are. The gryphon looks rather enticed by such a treatment.

But look, Tulip is coming along. And Sage and Aliyah and May and Sky. And Dion and Alma too. Geryon’s initial excitement is quickly fading away. It seems that he is not getting the present he was expecting. Such is life. But a room of his own is not a bad present to get at all. Will he like it?

Guess we will have to return later and find out. For now, it is time to make a little pause, stretch our legs, go outside, enjoy the sunshine and let this enchanting scene fade to black.