Ch6.41 Trust

The first day of Year’s End, and the Sun overhead seems well aware of it. The Urbis is awash with clashing traditions, but most of them agree that this day, the first of five, is a day for eating outdoors. Perhaps somewhere over the Insula, storm gods are mischievously ruining someone’s fun, but here in Three Rats they have stayed away, and today’s Sun seems determined to make the residents know that She is there with them.

She? Mayumi pushes her hair back from where it has fallen across her face and wipes the perspiration from her forehead with the back of her hand. Everyone around here thinks of the Sun as male, and it’s true, the greater portion of those gods are. But where she grew up, in a quiet dream-district that had once been part of a land called Nihon, the Sun was worshipped as female. Mayumi, her knowledge of the nature of the Urbis Caelestis limited to little more than the people and the handful of gods of her ward, had not even realized that there was an entire clan of sun gods until her recent arrival in the waking world, suddenly finding herself in daily contact with people from very different cultures and beliefs and levels of knowledge about the nature of this bizarre mountain-universe. The fact that many of those people are members of her own family left her for some time even more off-balance, but she has, after many difficulties, come to a degree of peace with it.

And just in time to upend it all by leaving. As she unpacks the wicker basket filled with delicious rye sandwiches, empanadas of various kinds, still-warm potatoes wrapped in foil, fat triangles of onigiri riceballs, deep-fried acarajé, bowls filled with cut-up chunks of fruit, savory vada donuts, and more, she pauses to watch Kori and Chime kicking around a worn-out ball with their bare feet, Merri dashing between them to intercept and giving them a surprisingly good run for their money. Sky arrives through a magical portal that has been set up, wearing dark-green shorts and a flowery shirt, bearing with ease two huge watermelons, one on each shoulder. He smiles at her and she returns it, but that only provides a contrast to the melancholy she feels at the thought she will soon be leaving all this for six-tenths of a year, in pursuit of a dream of becoming Guardia.

Then as she watches the ball shoots right between Sky’s legs, closely pursued by Merri, Kori, and Chime. Sky spins like a drunk trying to dance, actually going up on one leg as Chime dashes beneath him. Mayumi bursts into laughter as the tall god barely recovers enough so as not to drop a melon.

“I have a feeling we could feed a small army with all we’ve brought.” Mayumi turns to look at Alma, bent to help her unpack the food and lay it out on a sheet. The goddess grins at her, with a brief glance toward Sky. “I’ll take care of this, Mayumi. It looks like Sky needs some help.”

Mayumi looks gratefully into her mother’s eyes. She knows what Alma is doing. Despite the goddess’ misgivings about her mortal child being involved with an immortal, she wants Mayumi’s happiness, and the Bunny doesn’t have much time before she leaves. Still, she hesitates until Alma insists. “Go on!” With a smile, Mayumi obeys.

“Need some help?” she asks Sky as she approaches.

The tall god looks happy to see her. “Just trying to figure out where’s best to put these. In the water?”

Mayumi nods. “If we put them there,” she says, pointing to the edge of the falls, where two rocks create a miniature pool big enough for the two melons, “they won’t float off and they will be cool until we’re ready to smash them.”

He follows her toward the waterfall. “Smash them? Not slice them up?”

“Oh we can slice them,” she says. “But when I was a child, we always took turns wearing a blindfold and trying to hit the watermelon with a stick to break it open.”

“Sounds messy,” he says, “but fun.”

“It is a little messy,” she agrees. She pulls her lightweight dress off over her head, folding it simply and setting it on the grass. The grey bathing outfit she is wearing underneath is not the one Cherry picked out for her. That one was tiny and…well she was going to keep it for some other time, when it is just family. Though as Cherry reasonably pointed out, why bother wearing anything at all in that case? But no, today she has on a more reasonable swimsuit, with a top more like a jogging bra and a bottom that provides a bit more coverage than the strings-and-a-scrap-of-cloth that Cherry favored.

She steps into the pool and reaches up to take the melon. Sky looks doubtful – each melon is almost as long as her torso – but he slips the first one off his shoulder and, bending to the side, lets her take it. Something about the way their muscles connect makes Bunnies stronger than humans of a similar size would be, especially in the legs, and while she does grunt with the effort, she manages to lower the melon safely into the water. The next one is easier, as Sky can use both hands.

As he helps her out of the water, her ears catch Cherry’s arrival through the portal, the Bunny complaining about the weight of the cooler full of beer and ice she is carrying. But Cherry is the strongest of them all, and isn’t really having trouble.

Suddenly a webbed hand grasps her ankle from beneath. A moment of childhood fear about the kappa, a carnivorous water spirit like a cross between a turtle and a duck, flashes through her, but surely the Oracle would not let such a creature live in her waters. Resisting the urge to kick, she looks back and sees a familiar face rising from the water.

“Boo!” Doria, half-naiad priestess of the Oracle, laughs and releases Mayumi’s leg.

“Priestess!” Mayumi is delighted to see her. Doria had been briefly a guest in Alma’s living quarters, back when all the Bunnies lived there together.

“Please, May – call me Doria. Hello, Inspector!” She smiles flirtatiously at Sky.

“A pleasure to see you again, Doria.” Sky’s voice is warm. “Is the Oracle joining us?”

“Of course she is.” A penetrating voice unfamiliar to Mayumi, bearing echoes of centuries that make the light fur on Mayumi’s forearms stand on end, emerges through the falls. A tall otherworldly figure follows it, her eyes white but not seeming the least bit blind, her skin showing fine iridescent scales at the curve of her jawline and on her temples, blue-green hair falling down past her shoulders and concealing her breasts. A diaphanous, scaly wrap skirt hanging loosely on her hips is her only clothing, aside from jewelry of gold and gems on her forearms and throat. “It seems we are late already.”

“The Oracle, late?” Doria asks with mock astonishment as she smoothly mounts the shore. “Impossible!”

“Oracle…” Sky’s voice is filled with respect. “Thank you for letting us hold our picnic here.”

“Oh, Tuma-Sukai,” she says with a laugh. “After what you did for me, and this ward? I owe you far more. And who is this?”

“This is Mayumi,” he replies.

Mayumi bows. “It is an honor to meet you,” she says humbly. She has heard that this is one of the most ancient goddesses still active on the Insula. Although she had heard that the Oracle took the form of a fish-tailed siren.

The Oracle must have caught Mayumi looking at her legs. Or perhaps Mayumi’s thoughts are easily snatched from the air by such a powerful goddess. In an amused voice, the Oracle says, “Taking on more form than one is not a rare ability for such as we.” It takes a moment for Mayumi to realize that the Oracle is speaking to her in the language of her childhood, with an easy fluency and a somewhat archaic dialect.

Sumimasen,” Mayumi says with a bow to apologize, though exactly for what she was not entirely sure. It’s just…how she was raised. When in doubt, apologize. Cherry makes fun of her for it, but Merri thinks it’s sweet. Mayumi herself sometimes finds it annoying, how easily she does it.

“Such a polite young woman,” a creaking, sardonic voice calls out. She turns and sees a face she has noticed on the streets of Three Rats more than once, but she has never done more than nod to this wizened, scraggle-bearded elder. She has noticed, however, that he resembles less a native son of Three Rats – as variegated as the residents of Three Rats are – and more a wise man straight from the ancient scrolls of her own ward.

He is approaching in the company of Alma, and shadowing them is a young woman who does not look happy to be there. She certainly looks like she could have grown up with Mayumi. Indeed, they are roughly the same age, though the woman is taller and lacks Mayumi’s non-human ears and tail. But the face is similar, and the woman is looking toward Mayumi with a similar curiosity.

Sky turns and says with a moderate bow, “Master Pak, welcome.”

Alma introduces the Oracle and Doria. Before she can introduce Mayumi, Pak interrupts her. “Ah, who does not know of Nevieve, the Oracle? It is a privilege to meet you.” He bows to her, but Mayumi cannot shake the feeling that his amused tone speaks of a shared joke between Pak and the Oracle, as if they have really known each other for quite some time.

She feels a cool hand on her shoulder. The Oracle says, “I might well say the same of you, Pak. But let me introduce my new-met acquaintance, Mayumi, who I believe will soon be a student at your old Academy.”

Mayumi’s eyes go wide. How does she know…? She dismisses the thought. Of course the Oracle knows. Mayumi bows and expresses her sense of honor at meeting a Guardia Academy instructor.

Pak smiles and then looks annoyed at Alma and Sky. “Why did you not tell me you had a recruit for the Academy? I could have trained her. Well, this is Kumiko. The Sergeant and the Inspector have already met her at my home. I believe she and Miss Mayumi speak the same tongue. Perhaps they would enjoy conversing in their native language.”

And with that the gods begin talking about the current state of affairs in Three Rats – though is Pak a god? It is hard to tell. Mayumi is tempted to stay nearby to listen in, but she can tell when the mortals are being dismissed. It is annoying but…Pak is right. She and Sky speak her language together sometimes, but he is rusty and inelegant, though his mistakes are often hilarious. It would be nice to talk with another native speaker.

She and Kumiko go off a little way, and Mayumi bows and introduces herself politely, to which Kumiko gives the correct response, her voice low. “Have you met any of the others?” Mayumi asks. When Kumiko shakes her head, Mayumi takes her toward the sheet of food. “How long have you been in Three Rats?”

“A few years,” Kumiko replies.

She seems uncomfortable, her words blunt, so Mayumi does not press for more information in that direction, instead opening the cooler. “Like something to drink? A beer?”

Kumiko looks at her quizzically. “You’re old enough to drink beer?” She has a rough way of speaking that makes Mayumi think she grew up in more difficult circumstances than herself. Her accent, too, is different from Mayumi’s. She adds ‘sa’ to the ends of sentences, something Mayumi has never heard before. A dialect of some kind.

“I’m not a child. Just shorter than most humans. Here.” She hands Kumiko a bottle after lifting the cap off with an opener, and opens one for herself. “Kanpai.

Kumiko raises her bottle in salute. “Kanpai.” As she takes a drink, Kori and Max, a human boy Mayumi knows from helping out at the orphanage, go running past them both, laughing, and leap into the water, making huge splashes. Ewá Nanã, smiling in the way she only smiles around the children under her protection, watches as she walks past Mayumi to go speak with the other gods nearer the falls. Merri and Cherry are prying Tulip away from Dion, who seems to want to join Alma, and getting her to join them in swimming. Sage and Aliyah are off to one side, kicking around Kori’s football and taunting each other.

Mayumi’s ears twitch back toward the waterfall. She turns her head a little to glance that way while sipping her beer. “Nothing better for a child who has grown too fast than a child who is yet to grow,” she hears Alma say. The goddess has left the little knot of immortals and is talking with Ewá Nanã, the two of them watching Kori and Max splashing around. “You look happier yourself,” Alma says to the tall lawyer-turned-foster-parent.

“I am,” Ewá replies. “But tired. I am glad we could place all the children with families just for a day or two of the New Year, and I’ve already heard that two will not be leaving those homes to return to us. Well, the family who had agreed to take in Max changed their minds… He has had a difficult time.”

“It cannot be easy at times, to be looking after so many children. But what you are doing is important.”

Ewá looks at Alma with a small smile. “It is the hardest thing I have ever done. But at moments like this,” She looks back to see Max and Kori clambering out of the water and joining in on Aliyah and Sage’s game of ball, “it is the most satisfying.”

Alma squeezes Ewá’s hand. “I must return to the station now. We can’t leave it without a Dei presence for too long. But please enjoy yourself, and I will be back in a couple of hours.”

As Alma breaks away to walk toward the portal, the Bunny sees past Alma’s shoulder. Ewá is watching the goddess, knowing Alma can’t see her. Not aware she is being observed, Ewá gives a little sigh of longing and a rueful shake of her head. Oh… thinks Mayumi. Well. She manages to keep her giggle internal as she turns back to Kumiko. “Like to swim?” she asks.

Kumiko looks at Mayumi’s swimsuit. “Didn’t bring anything to wear.” She has on a loose blouse and a pair of shorts.

“We could go back to the station and get you something,” Mayumi suggests. “Merri has something that might–”

“No. I don’t want to swim.” Kumiko pauses for a moment and adds, “Pardon me,” though it does little to soften the abruptness.

“That’s all right.” Mayumi’s voice is a little smaller. But she feels a kinship with Kumiko that goes beyond language. The woman’s discomfort and resentment at having to be here reminds Mayumi of how she felt for weeks after waking in Three Rats – a feeling that has never entirely disappeared, though the love of those here have made it less painful. If that kinship will ever be more than a feeling… “Kumiko-san, this is the first time I’ve met anyone in this world who speaks my language as a native. Please…where do you come from?”

Kumiko looks at her as if evaluating, measuring. Mayumi wonders if she will measure up. But before Kumiko can decide how to answer, if at all, the gods from near the falls are returning. Gwydion says, “Excuse me, May,” as he reaches past her to fish two beers from the cooler, handing one to Sky and the other to Pak.

“Oh!” Mayumi grabs the bottle opener and hands it to him, then gets two more beers, giving one to Dion. The Sergeant tips it towards her in thanks as he, Sky, and Pak walk off, continuing to talk.

She offers the other to the Oracle – Nevieve? – who wraps her hand around Mayumi’s on the bottle. The Bunny feels a mild jolt, like a buzz passing through the goddess into her. She looks up to see the Oracle’s eyes glowing white.

Doria sees this and chuckles. “It’s normal to ask the Oracle a question, after giving her a gift.”

Mayumi cannot look away from Nevieve’s captivating eyes. They seem to fill her whole world, and she cannot think about what she wants to ask. So she simply asks without thought.

“Will I be with my family, after the Academy?”

As she hears her own words, she realizes that they spring from her fear that she will be assigned far away. But Three Rats needs Guardia, desperately, and the Guardia command usually honor requests to be stationed at hard-luck assignments like Three Rats, where nobody but a local would ask to be assigned.

Nevieve seems to enter a trance, her eyes glowing brighter. When she speaks, the words carry a deepening of that otherworldly, alien quality than before.

“You will be separated from them, but one will go with you. You will not return home until his child arrives.”

The light fades, and Nevieve blinks her white eyes as if she was unaware of her own prophecy.

Mayumi gapes at her. Then she remembers to breathe. “Ch-child?” It’s not possible. The Bunnies are all infertile, by order of the Council. And…separated? But someone…Sky? Am I going to have a child with him? It is not something she has seriously considered. They haven’t even made love, no more than kissing and cuddling and napping together on his sofa. Cherry and Merri couldn’t believe it when she told them, but going slowly has been a pleasure, infused with frustration though it has been. Agreeing to wait until after her graduation from the Academy – that has been harder. But there is a pleasure in delaying gratification as well. The lip-biting frustration, the restrained passion, has been, in its way, excruciatingly delicious.

She looks for him. There he is, Sky, laughing with Gwydion, practicing some kind of combat block while trying not to spill his beer, while Pak observes. He doesn’t seem to have overheard. Only the Oracle and Doria have heard…and Kumiko. The human woman is looking more uncomfortable than ever, her carefully neutral expression not quite successfully covering up a look of despair at being an unwilling eavesdropper.

The Oracle nods. “A child, yes. I am afraid I know no more than that. There were no details other than what I told you.”

It seems like a boilerplate answer that she has given thousands of times before. She must be used to seekers of prophecy who demand explanations. And so Mayumi holds her tongue, though she feels about to burst with questions, harsh, angry questions. Instead, she chokes out a thank you, then turns and ascends a slope to a ridge that leans almost over the water, little more than a body-length above it.

She sits, putting her forearms on her knees, resting her chin on her arms, staring out over the water where Merri and Cherry and Tulip are playing, but seeing nothing really, her thoughts in turmoil. Just as they escape one prophecy by fulfilling it – “In the hands of a Bunny, death looms for an Archon” – now here is another. Granted, it is much smaller. It will not get them executed. Or will it? A chill freezes her heart. A Bunny having a child without the permission of the Council…that could be enough to cause the Archons to vote for extermination. She groans and hangs her head, putting her forehead on her arms.

“Want to finish your beer?” The words are in Japanese. Mayumi lifts her head to see Kumiko, offering a half-finished bottle of beer with her left hand, holding her own in her right. Kumiko makes a subtle gesture, asking for permission to sit. Mayumi nods, and the woman sits beside her, putting a hand slightly behind her on the grass, legs stretched out straight.

They sit in silence for a time, taking the occasional sip. Then out of nowhere Kumiko says, “A Fourth Ring ward, far from here. About a quarter of the way around the Insula, maybe, to windward. My father refused to pay the gangsters.” She shakes her head and whispers, “Baka…” Fool. “They made an example of my family. Only reason I’m alive is I wasn’t home.”

Mayumi stays quiet, listening, watching. Kumiko isn’t looking at her. She takes another drink of beer, draining the bottle. For a moment she looks as if she’s going to throw the bottle, but she drops it next to her, on the grass.

“Then they did it again.” Kumiko’s voice is as neutral as she can make it, but the rage is there, like a roaring blaze hidden on the other side of a locked door. “Here, in Three Rats. Another gang. Killed my friends. Almost killed me.”

“Is that why you’re with Pak-sensei?”

Kumiko nods.

“I’m going away,” Mayumi says. “In a few days, I’m leaving.”

Kumiko looks at her, her eyebrows slightly raised to ask why Mayumi is mentioning this.

Mayumi shakes her head. “The people here…they care.”

“I don’t want anyone to care.”

Mayumi says nothing to this. She knows that Kumiko knows it is not entirely true. That she is here, sitting with her, gives the lie to it.

She finishes her beer. To Kumiko she asks, “Okawari?” Another? The woman looks a puzzled for a moment. Perhaps they don’t say that where she comes from. But she seems to understand after a second, and she shakes her head. Mayumi nods.

They remain next to each other, listening to the joking and the laughter and the playful screams, around and below their island of now-comfortable silence.

Ch6.40 Trust

“All right, that should take care of your gift problems,” Lyria announces cheerfully.

“Yes, and of the carpeting problems I did not know I had,” Alma notes, looking down at her bedroom floor.

Where there once was good, solid stone, now there is fresh green grass just tall enough to make a soft, fluffy mat that covers most of the floor. The scent of it must have captured Lexie’s attention, because she has woken up from her daily nineteen hours of sleep and is now trying to stretch herself all the way down to the floor without actually leaving the safety and warmth of the bed covers. Both forepaws on the edge of the bed, the cat sniffs suspiciously at this strange, new green thing that was definitely not there this morning. Hopefully she will not interpret this as an extension to her personal little litter box.

“Well, you needed some way to practice, did you not?” Lyria counters. She takes a deep whiff at the certainly fresher, greener scent in the room. “Oh, that smells wonderful! All that vibrant new life! Ah… Bare stone floors are a thing of mausoleums, if you ask me.”

Alma chuckles and grazes her sole of her bare foot against the grass. The sensation she gets is that of walking barefoot in a lawn, without the unsavory effects of getting one’s feet covered in dirt or rubbed against slithery creatures. Maintaining it will be a slight extra drain on Alma’s mana reserves, but not so very much. In fact, Lyria’s little lesson has been mostly about teaching the young goddess how to use her life sphere more efficiently, spending less mana to achieve the same results. And some of the things Lyria has shown her… Alma had never even considered such things were available to her, let alone attempted them herself. There will be hours of practice to follow up with it, that is certain.

“It is…strange. But not at all unpleasant,” she concedes. “If the Bunnies like it, I just might keep it.”

Lyria’s face lights up at the mention of the Bunnies. “Oh yes! Time to go see my grandchildren!” She raises an eyebrow. “Or do you have another project to keep me stuffed away in here?”

Poor little Lyria… Alma thinks as she chuckles. “But I thought you were too busy with the Dawning to stay for long, Mother,” she notes in sweet tones, a grin blossoming on her lips at Lyria’s obvious look of irritation. “Come, let us go see what your grandchildren are up to.”

A short pause to put her shoes on (Alma had discarded them at Lyria’s command) and the young goddess guides her mother to the door. As soon as they open it, they hear a commotion of voices from above. Cherry’s voice…and Rosemary’s as well. Alma and Lyria exchange a confused glance and swiftly climb the stairs, past the bar and straight to the first floor. Whatever is happening, it is happening in one of the Bunnies’ bedrooms. They can hear Tulip’s voice now, annoyed and whining. Cherry’s and Rosemary’s are distorted with laughter.

What on the Insula is going on?

The goddesses arrive in Tulip’s room just as the youngest of the Bunnies is darting out the door. Her head turned back to glare at her siblings, caught between laughter and cries of “Aww, is nae so bad!”, Tulip nearly rams into Alma as she stomps her way down the hall.

“Careful, little one!” Alma exclaims, gently holding Tulip by the shoulders. “What is going on here?”

“Oh, you gotta see this!” Cherry cries, looming by Tulip’s bedroom door. “Look at her face!”

Alma looks down at Tulip. “What is wrong with your face, dear?”

But Tulip just lowers her head further and looks away, seemingly hiding her visage from Alma’s sight. With a confused look at Lyria, the goddess kneels and cups the Bunny’s cheek with her hand, gently bringing Tulip’s face up toward her mother’s. The sight is something between shocking and hilarious. Tulip’s face is covered in makeup of all types and colors, everything spread and blended so chaotically that the Bunny looks like a canvas for an abstract piece of art. Dark rouge is spread along her pale forehead, eyeshadow is smeared in various shades across her eyelids and the bridge of her nose. Bright red lipstick is pretty much everywhere. There is even some makeup on her ears!

Surprise quickly gives way to an almost overwhelming urge to laugh. It takes all the self-control in Alma’s body to keep her amusement down to a smile. “Oh Tulip…”

She tips Tulip’s chin up so that Lyria can see what is going on. A soft gasp and almost immediate giggling fill the hallway.

“I just wanted to see if it’d make me look better!” Tulip protests, frowning and nearly crying, her hands clenched in fists, her long ears plastered back in anger at being laughed at.

Alma strokes the Bunny’s soft, white hair to soothe her. “Well, you may have overdone it just a little bit. Where did you get all that makeup, anyway?”

Tulip looks down, ears drooping, shoulders hanging low, all of the anger gone from her frame and replaced by a different type of nervousness. This is clearly an uncomfortable question and Alma already suspects the answer. Even if she does not wear makeup with any level of frequency, the goddess has always somehow felt an urge to keep a box of it close. Just a silly instinct, as if it were almost expected of her to do so. Tulip must have taken it. She could have kept it for months before Alma eventually found it missing.

“I’m sorry…” Tulip whimpers.

Alma cannot help but smile and wrap her arms around the Bunny, careful to keep all of that makeup away from her clothing. “You could have just asked me, little one. Now, why don’t you go wash your face and I will show you how to do it, if you like?”

She feels Tulip’s hug tighten around her before the Bunny releases her and steps back. A quick kiss from Lyria to Tulip’s forehead and the young Bunny dashes off happily toward the bathroom. Cherry and Rosemary are just now moving closer, having witnessed the exchange from Tulip’s bedroom. Eyes held down, ears at half perk, they look abashed before the goddesses, probably as much from witnessing Tulip’s anger and hurt feelings as from the scolding look Alma is giving them both. The oldest of her Bunnies can be rather childish in some respects. This is one of those times that puts forward so clearly the fact that, albeit being twenty-four years in age, the twins have only been awake to rationality for half of that time. They are grown-up children. And children can be so cruel…

“You two…” Alma whispers, shaking her head.

“Oh, don’t be too harsh on them,” Lyria intervenes. “It’s clear they already feel bad enough about it.”

The older goddess opens her arms to her granddaughters and the Bunnies rush to hug her tightly in a double-sided embrace that brings a warm, contented smile to Lyria’s face.

“Why don’t the three of us go downstairs and you can meet us there when little Tulip is done washing?” she asks.

Alma nods. “We will be right down.”

Cherry and Rosemary do not follow Lyria right away but pause to hug Alma. She holds them tightly. “Silly Bunnies” she whispers. “Go on, now.”

That earns her two bright smiles and soon she can hear Lyria chatting happily with the twins as they move downstairs. Done with the herculean task of removing all that makeup from her skin, Tulip eventually joins her mother, and looks at her expectantly. Alma tells her to go fetch the box of makeup. She could have easily gotten it from the little Bunny’s room but a childhood spent in a house where privacy was something that happened to other people has taught her the value in respecting some boundaries. Tulip’s room is meant to be her little haven and, without a proper reason or the Bunny’s approval, invading it would feel a bit like breaking and entering.

Makeup kit safely held in her hands, Tulip follows her mother downstairs, where the lighting is better. Cherry and Rosemary seem to have disappeared into the kitchen. Lyria already sitting on the sofa, apparently caught in the middle of a lively chat with Nataniel, who is sitting with Syron, at a table nearby. Alma catches but the end of that conversation but it seems to be about some sort of plant extract. The way Syron is paying such close attention to it has Alma wondering what exactly the extract is meant to do but she does not get a chance to figure it out. As soon as they notice her presence, goddess and mortals fall silent and turn to look at her.

“Ah, much better!” Lyria cries, putting her hands together. “Ready for your first makeover, Tulip?”

Tulip nods and takes a seat at a table, halfway between the sofa and Nataniel’s table. She opens the makeup box, spreading all the pencils and brushes and the various pull-out drawers of compressed powders and waxy pigments with great care. Then she waits, looking intently at Alma as the goddess picks a chair and brings it closer to the Bunny’s. Cherry and Rosemary choose that moment to leave the kitchen carrying trays with juice glasses and pieces of a delightfully fragrant carrot cake. Tulip’s head shoots to glare at them but Alma gently brings the Bunny’s face to look straight ahead. The older Bunnies serve Nataniel and Syron with soft-spoken words of friendliness and, with glances at Tulip and Alma, sit down by Lyria, one on each side of the goddess and holding a treat for their grandmother.

Alma picks a soft, wide brush from her array of tools and strokes Tulip’s cheeks with it, making the Bunny giggle with its tickling touch. Then she dips it in a faintly tan powder and starts applying it close to Tulip’s jaw, to accentuate her delicate frame, still too round and childlike.

“Tell me, dear, why the sudden urge to experiment with makeup?” the goddess asks, picking a slightly different shade that will go on the cheeks.

“I don’t want to look like a kid, anymore!” Tulip replies with an energy that nearly has her headbutting the brush off Alma’s hand. “I want to be pretty.”

Alma tilts her head at this. At her young age, Tulip is already stunning. Of course, she is a stunning child but her features are all promising of a budding beauty that will probably capture many a man and woman’s fantasies. Almost an exact copy of Alma at the beginning of her transition into adulthood, even prettier for the healthy light and warmth that radiates from a child never burdened with chronic, life-threatening fevers, Tulip has nothing to complain about in the beauty department. “But you are pretty. You are, in fact, quite beautiful.”

Tulip scowls at that. “I’m pretty sure you have to say that, being my mom and all,” she mutters

Lyria’s laughter erupts at the swift response from the Bunny, bringing to Alma’s mind some old conversations from her own childhood, around this same issue. For as much as Alma is aware of her beauty and form now, this was not always the case. Lyria is probably enjoying seeing the proverbial shoe being shoved over the other foot.

With a slight glance at her mother that has both goddesses rolling their eyes and smiling in sympathy with each other, Alma stops applying the powder meant to highlight the softness of Tulip’s forehead. “Don’t scowl, please.” She looks intently at Tulip as she waits patiently for the Bunny to relax her face. “Why would I say it, unless it was true?”

“And it is true, guapa,” Nataniel volunteers.

Tulip turns her head to shower him with a bright smile. The soft-spoken mortal doctor is a favorite among the younger Bunnies, doting on them and spending time showing them some of the more mundane wonders of nature whenever his work-filled schedule allows. Although extremely careful not to step over his limits, Nataniel has thus far revealed a talent for storytelling, using old tales to teach the Bunnies important lessons about life and mindfulness of others. If spoken in the right tone, his words carry the weight of law with them.

So Alma does not take it amiss when Tulip seems to accept his comment so readily after dismissing hers with barely a thought.

“Did you look like me when you were my age?” the Bunny asks, turning back to Alma.

“No, I looked much younger at age 13,” the goddess replies, glancing at Lyria. “Mother?”

“Oh yes. Much, much younger,” Lyria confirms with a nod. “Why, it took her decades to look like you, Tulip.”

Not turning so that Alma can apply the eyeshadow, Tulip nevertheless narrows her eyes, making Alma exhale in mild frustration. “How old were you, then, mom?”

Alma tries to remember exactly how long it has been since she last looked that young. “Hmm… I had probably seen a little over thirty – maybe forty turns of the year by then.”

Tulip’s eyes widen in shock. Alma can barely avoid poking her in the eye with makeup brush. “Forty?! How old are you now?”

“Tulip!!” Cherry cries, fanning her face in simulated shock over a background of Lyria and Rosemary’s laughter. “A proper lady don’t ask those things!”

“It’s fine,” Alma replies, chuckling herself. “I am one hundred fifty-three years old, little one.”

“Wow…” Tulip whispers, making the goddess smear the lipstick she was trying to apply on the Bunny’s lips.

“Tulip…” Alma breathes, licking her thumb to wipe the peachy pigment off her daughter’s cheek.

“Sorry…” Tulip apologizes. “Just, that’s really, really, really old.”

That makes Alma chuckle. She looks at Lyria intently. “I am really, really, really old.”

“Oh, dear me!” Lyria jests, the back of her hand pressed dramatically against her forehead. “I do not dare think how many more reallies I would warrant at my age.”

“Och, but ye two look so young!” Rosemary coos.

“Yeah, how do you manage?” Cherry asks.

Just as Alma is about to answer that, she hears a soft mutter from her left. She looks a question at Nataniel, who very subtly jerks his head in Syron’s direction. The technician-slash-scientist is not even looking at Alma or at any other person in the room, for that matter. His eyes are distant, as if he was thinking about something else and simply happened to react at some word that caught his attention.

“Syron?”

He looks at her, seemingly returning from so faraway place. “Species-linked metabolic divergence.”

Silence spreads around the bar. Six pairs of eyes focus on the man, all probably waiting for him to start to make sense.

Syron rolls his eyes and breathes deeply. The kind yet often cluelessly dangerous genius is used to speaking to audiences that do not understand him.

“If I may, lady,” he starts. “The prevailing theory around that is of species-linked metabolic divergence. It is quite a fascinating comparative work on the life expectancies of different species. Imagine a…” He seems to hesitate for a moment. “A rat! And a man. Anyone will rush to say that the average man lives longer than the average rat. But take that man and that rodent and count the number of times each of their hearts beats in a minute, an hour, a day. Now, multiply it by the number of days their lifetime lasts. You will find that the final number you obtain is similar.” His fingers tap the wooden table, punctuating his words. “Conception, gestation, birth, growth, mating, reproduction, aging and death, they all fit in a rat’s two years just as well as they do in a man’s seventy. So it is my understanding, and that of some esteemed colleagues, that rats don’t live shorter lives. They live faster lives, exhausting themselves in less time than men. The same happens between men and gods, where men are the proverbial rats. Gods only seem to live much longer lives than us, maturing slower, aging slower, effectively living slower.” He looks meaningfully at Alma. “Is this not what happened to you, lady?”

Alma smiles at him. The mortal scientist can barely be bothered to treat anyone by their Guardia rank titles, usually addressing his fellow mortals by their first names. But when it comes to gods, and especially to Alma, the inveterate atheist has always shown a delicate reverence, all the more charming because he barely seems to be aware of it.

Sadly, she cannot confirm his strange theories. “Not entirely so, I’m afraid. Gods age pretty much at their leisure. Some never do. Some are created fully grown. To a god born of gods, age does not necessarily link to maturity or physical appearance. We may age overnight, go from young to wrinkled in minutes.” She turns to face Tulip again. “I looked very much like you for a long time. And younger than I look now until Cherry and Rosemary were born.”

“What happened?” Tulip asks. On the sofa, Cherry and Rosemary are looking expectantly at Alma, hanging from her every word.

The young goddess looks at them, lowering her gaze as she moves from one to the other to avoid locking eyes with Lyria. With a sigh, she replies, “I realized that I was not a child anymore? There was no pregnancy, no time to adapt. Suddenly, I had two babies in my arms, whose safety and well being depended on my being able to take good care of them.” She puts the makeup brush down. “I was forced to grow up, and so I did. My face soon followed my mind in that aspect. In a few months, I was looking years older.”

“Oh…” Tulip’s ears droop at the melancholy in Alma’s voice.

Cherry and Rosemary are both holding Lyria but Alma does not look at her mother. Lyria was there, the day Arion left the Insula. She knows better than anyone about the original deals struck to ensure the Bunnies’ safety, about Death’s anger at knowing that his daughter had once again created forbidden life forms. And Alma knows what she will see in her mother’s eyes if she looks that way: empathy, regret, disappointment and a bitter, hardened pride.

The young goddess smiles softly at her youngest child. “I am very glad I grew up. It brought me here.” Her smile widens at the sight of Tulip’s ears slowly perking up. Alma strokes her cheek to remove a little speck of misplaced makeup. “There, all done.”

Tulip’s eyes widen and she rushes to pick up the makeup box so that she can see herself in the mirror. Her jaw drops, making Alma chuckle. “Wow… I look…”

“The way you will look in a few years, most likely,” the goddess completes the sentence. “And those years will pass in the blink of an eye, little Tulip. There is no point in rushing them.”

“But I look…beautiful!” Tulip insists, turning to look at Lyria. “Don’t I?”

“Gasp! How lovely!” Rosemary gasps.

“Dang, you look gorgeous, girl!” Cherry chimes in.

“Ah, little one, you have always been beautiful!” Lyria exclaims with a giggle at the Bunny’s enthusiasm. “Even without the makeup.”

“Well…” Tulip hesitates, looking at herself in the mirror again.

Alma strokes the Bunny’s hair, wanting to freeze this moment in time, to keep her little Tulip always this age, always this innocent and sweet. And yet, at the same time she is curious to take the rest of the journey with the young Bunny, eager to watch Tulip blossom into her early adulthood. What will that be like? Who will Tulip become? She catches movement at the edge of her sight and looks in the direction of the kitchen to sees Gwydion entering the bar, coming from his room, looking like someone still trying to drown away the sweet sirens of slumber.

“Ask Gwydion if you don’t believe us, little one,” the goddess suggests, jerking her head at him. “I know you treasure his opinion.”

Tulip’s head shoots back to spot Gwydion, nearly turning 180 degrees in the process. The young Bunny dashes off to stand just in front of him, hands clenched behind her back, face looking up at him with intense anticipation. “Hi…”

Gwydion smiles pleasantly at her, although Alma detect some hints of uncertainty in that smile. “Hello, flower.”

“Notice something different?” Tulip asks, standing on tiptoes to bring the god’s attention to her face.

Gwydion’s expression freezes suddenly. Any man who has ever interacted with women for any given amount of time will know and dread moments like this. He looks at her appraisingly for a long time, inspecting her clothing, apparently sniffing the air around her. Alma tries to signal to him but he seems too focused on his inspection to notice her.

Finally, he speaks, “Hmm… is it the hair?”

Alma cringes even before Tulip’s cry pierces through the room. “No! I’m wearing makeup!” Her ears droop in a most heart-wrenching fashion. “You don’t think I look better than before?”

Gwydion glances at Alma, who smiles and shrugs helplessly at him. “I can’t quite tell. You have always looked absolutely stunning.” He recovers with barely a pause. “However…”

“Yes?” Tulip squeaks, beaming at the compliment.

“It is never pleasant to kiss a cheek that tastes of makeup,” Gwydion notes. “You look older than your years. It seems to me that the makeup robs you of that vital part of your natural beauty, your youth.”

“But I look like a kid!” Tulip shrieks, flailing madly.

“No,” the god states firmly, placing a hand on her shoulder and raising her chin with the other, so that the Bunny focuses on him. “You look like a young lady. And soon, you will look like a grown woman and then like an old woman. I would understand it if you tried to look younger then than older now.”

Tulip’s eyes move down. “Well…”

“You already know what you will look like,” Gwydion notes in those soft, charming tones of his as he guides the Bunny’s face to look at Alma. “Look at your mother. It will not be long before you look like her without need for any makeup.”

“Yeah, but…How old will you be by then?” Tulip argues meekly.

Gwydion seems to consider this. “Hmm… Not much older than I am now, it seems. A decade, maybe?” He looks at Alma for confirmation and she nods at him. “It may seem like a long time to you but it will go by in an instant to me.”

Tulip looks somewhere between confused and slightly hopeful. “Oh…” She shrugs. “Well, this all seems like too much trouble to put on every day, anyway.”

“Now, there’s a smart girl!” Cherry quips.

“You’re just saying that because you don’t wear any makeup either!” Tulip retorts.

“Does it look like I need it?” Cherry replies. She immediately adds. “Don’t anybody answer that!”

The room explodes with laughter. In a glance, Alma catches Gwydion looking inquisitively at her and makes a little mental note to reward the god later for his outstanding performance.

Ch6.39 Trust

It is the day before the Year’s End week and all around the house…

Everyone seems possessed! The bar is decorated like something out of an interior designer’s worst nightmares. Everywhere, ribbons and garlands and banners of all colors and tablecloths painted with flowers and stars and, for some reason, sheep. Scents clash in a battle for dominance of the bar and the station. All sorts of holiday drinks and sweets are being prepared. No ward on the Insula should be able to unite so many different seasonal recipes and traditions. Everyone seems to have a different song to hum at all times of day or night.

In their attempt to bring together all of their traditions and mix them into a single one, the Bunnies have created such a rich and diverse plan that Sage and Mayumi have spent the last two days organizing all their different activities into a color-coded schedule. They will probably need an egg-timer just so that everything they want to do gets, in fact, done.

But Alma is determined to give them whatever they want for this first Year’s End together, even if it is sure to drive half of the station into exhaustion. Of course, the Dei will have to take shifts to balance enjoying the festivities and keeping the station and ward under close watch. With the ever-present threat of this psychopathic necromancer and his soul bombs and zombie rats, they cannot afford to let their guards down completely. The same for the Popula. But everyone, absolutely everyone is looking forward to tomorrow. This is a precious celebration to them, all of them, Bunnies and Popula and Dei and all of their friends. Just months ago, their lives were so different… And in Alma’s case, so lonely. So empty. So…

Hopeless.

But all of that is behind her now. She has her Bunnies, new friends who would, literally, put their lives on the line for her and her children, some rather pleasant mortals to work with and a ward that shows all signs of actually starting to appreciate her presence, albeit with a little cringing at her non-Guardia activities. Bones of the trade. And… Nekh is gone from her thoughts! How wonderful it has been to taste every new event without his poisonous words ringing in her ear. She has found herself filling in for him at times, especially when her insecurities attack, but Sky’s return to active duty has relieved much of her stress and left her with more time to be with her children and her – dare she call him? – her boyfriend?

It just sounds so strange, calling Gwydion by that title. Boyfriend is not a word of gods. Gods have lovers, often more than one and often involving some way of stretching such a complicated, mortal thing as love through an eternity of whether passionate physicality or undying memory. Gods get bored easily. And then again, gods can love forever. One of the problems of becoming involved with mortals.

Boyfriend…The word rings almost childish in her ears. Alma is young for a goddess, her maturity and adulthood recent things. She was only in late Transition, what in human terms could be called the late teens, when she met Arion, a quarter of a century ago, after all. It had taken her over a dozen decades to reach that point. Now, only twenty-five years later, she is well into her Ripened Age. A century and a half…to reach where a human gets in little over thirty years. Some gods don’t take half as long. Others take much longer. Some never get there.

Either way, Gwydion is her lover, her companion and a very dear one indeed. She had forgotten how sweet that could be. And even though there have been other lovers, safe, trusted, occasional, rare lovers, and even with this unexpected attraction toward the deadly but curiously comforting and broken, Textbook-Example-of-a-Bad-Decision Somrak, the last person she has felt this close to was… Arion. The distant father of her children. Her dreams haven’t taken her his way in quite a while. She feels awful for it but… wasn’t he the one who left? Who kept their love on hold for so long, asking her to accept their impossible situation? He cannot return permanently to the Insula and she would not survive in the Void and maybe – maybe her heart has managed to understand what her mind still has such difficulty conceiving: that their dying love must change in order to survive. She loves him still, she knows, but differently now, no longer with the dreams and hopes of his return. It is not with him she would choose to share a future but there is still room for him in it. At her side. But at a distance.

As Cherry would say, gods are weird. All these thoughts go through her head as she hides one more gift from the Bunnies’ eyes in one of the many hidden recesses in her room. She shakes her head, grinning at her own silliness. Such a strange time to be thinking these things…

Especially when she is only one present short of a fully checked list: Gwydion’s present. And for as much as she has been struggling, she has failed to find the perfect one for him. Everything feels too shallow or too…binding? She sighs for the fiftieth time at the silliness of all this secrecy around their affair. All the Bunnies know, after all. Sky and Saira know as well. And a few other people probably suspect. But it had seemed like a good idea at the time and they had both agreed to it from the start. Now she just cannot find it in her to bring it up with him. It would feel like she is pressuring him into it. Like she’s not scared of what comes next. Of all people to fall in love with, she had to pick a philanderer. Stupid heart with its wants and needs.

What on the Insula will she give him?!

I give up.

She walks up to her vanity mirror and places a hand on it, conjuring a mental image of her mother. The mirror, which doubles as a portal attuned to Lyria’s essence is, like many things in this room, an old companion, one of those intrinsically magical objects that are independent of Alma’s magic even if she must recreate them every time she relocates. Considering how many times she has relocated already, some of these items have created and recreated so often that she can no longer remember how she came to own them in the first place.

“Mother,” the goddess calls in a whisper.

“What is it, little soul?” Lyria’s voice replies after a few seconds of unnerving silence.

“I need your help.”

A sigh from the mirror. Moments later, Lyria is standing in front of Alma, looking flustered and impatient.

“I am rather busy with the Dawning, Alma,” she announces in warning tones that say This better be important or at least amusing.

Alma hangs her head. Suddenly, the idea of asking for her mother’s help does not sound so attractive. After all, Lyria is major life goddess regardless of the internal quarrels generated by her choice in husband and part of the responsibilities for organizing the Life Clan side of the Year’s End ceremony, as long as the annual get together of the two usually estranged clans, falls heavily on the older goddess. “I know and I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have–”

“Is life in the Fourth Ring making you forget how to pronounce words properly?” Lyria interrupts, her naturally warm and amiable voice sharp as a blade.

Alma curses inwardly at the pompousness of upper ring speech and sighs. An irritated Lyria makes for a particularly stern one when it comes to proper etiquette. “Forgive me, mother. I should not bother you when you are amidst preparations for the Year’s End ceremony but I am on the verge of desperation.”

This seems to hit a nerve with Lyria. She tilts her head at Alma, suddenly looking very concerned. “What is wrong, Alma? Please, do not tell me this is about that terrible necromancer your father has you chasing.” She starts pacing around the room. “I asked him and asked him to keep you away from–”

“No, mother!” Alma cuts her off in a panic, holding her mother by the upper arms to stop her from pacing. She guides Lyria to sit on the bed and, as the older goddess looks at her quizzically, breathes deeply, feeling utterly silly for all this. “No, it is nothing like that. I am afraid my motives for calling you are far less…noble in nature.” She fumbles with her fingers. “My children are set on fabricating their very own Year’s End traditions.”

Lyria’s face lights up in joy as she puts her hands together in delight. “Oh, but that sounds wonderful! For a moment there, you looked like you were about to announce the end of the world.” She notes, looking at Alma in utter confusion. “Why are you so desperate?”

“Well, the celebrations include a gift exchange,” Alma explains.

“Ah…” Lyria nods in knowing sympathy. “Exchanging gifts was never something your father endorsed.” She taps Alma’s hand in dismissal. “Still, you love to shop for gifts! I seem to remember very good ones.”

“Yes, it is usually easy to pick,” Alma concedes. “But in this case, I just keep hitting a wall. I need your advice.”

Lyria leans forward in expectation, a sly grin dancing on her lips. “And who is at the receiving end of this gift giving conundrum?”

Alma breathes deeply and braces herself for what comes next. Stupid, stupid, stupid. You should have asked Sky instead!

She closes her eyes, cringes slightly and says, “Gwydion.”

She can feel Lyria remaining very still. “Math’s nephew.”

Alma opens a fearful eye. “Yes.”

“And why is it so difficult to shop for him?” Lyria asks with horribly fake innocence. “A nice shirt, a tie are all simple, easy choices. Unless…” And here her grin stretches into a wide smile, soon followed by a giggle. “Oh, I see…”

Ah, there it is, the triumphant giggle.

“Mother…” Alma sighs, rolling her eyes.

Still, Lyria is having too much fun to let go of the easy prey. “You do not want an easy choice, you want one with meaning.” She pats Alma’s hand with obvious pleasure. It feels odd, this fast acceptance of Gwydion, the god fled from the First Ring for his promiscuity, as a proper companion for one’s only daughter, but Lyria has always seemed to operate on a different scale of sane as everyone else. “Math was right in saying the two of you were getting to be very close.”

“You are just torturing me now,” Alma mutters.

And in that light, smiling, icecold way of hers, Lyria jabs the dagger in. “You lied to me before.”

It always hits home.

“I did not lie,” Alma argues, dismissing the shiver that is shaking her spine. “I merely…postponed telling the truth. Things were rather confusing at the time.”

“And now?” Lyria prompts her, her voice sweet again.

Alma shakes her head in frustration. No way out of it now… “Fine. We have been together romantically. For weeks. Just not publicly and not…” She glances at Lyria. “Exclusively.”

“Because of Arion?” Lyria asks quietly.

Alma shakes her head again. “Because of my tendency to create Bunnies and of Gwydion’s tendency to pursue multiple lovers.” She considers the question again. Arion had not been the first of their concerns when the deal had been struck. “And because of Arion as well, I guess.”

“You guess…” Lyria echoes in a whisper. “Has he even been in your thoughts lately?”

“Mother, my life has been hectic lately–” Alma starts.

“Still, you have found time to date someone new,” Lyria cuts her off with surgical precision. “Have you found time for Arion?”

She hasn’t, of course. Still, admitting it before her mother, who was always against their relationship, is a fat toad to swallow. “No…”

“Finally!” Lyria cries out in joy.

“Mother!” Alma hisses.

“Oooh, kitten!” Lyria suddenly coos as she seems to notice Lexie for the first time.

Lounging in a ball of fur on Alma’s bed, as has become her habit, the cat opens an eye to look at Lyria and stretches languidly, twisting her spine in a sinuous shape, paws stretched and lazily unsheathing their curved claws. Then, she turns, rises and stretches again, yawning at her own feline leisure before approaching the life goddess and rubbing against her side, purring like a bear snoring in a cave. Lyria dotes happily on the friendly animal, completely ignoring Alma as the cat rubs and paws and tosses herself onto the sheets and plays every existing card in the feline handbook to captivate Lyria’s attention. All animals are friendly to life gods. Of course, Lexie is usually friendly to begin with, apparently seeing each new person in her world as another source of petting and adoration. She is a queen, after all, and a queen can never have too many subjects or servants.

Feeling like this has gone for too long, Alma clears her throat, startling Lexie. Lyria looks blankly at her for a moment before realization dawns.

“Anyway, gifts…” the older goddess says as if the conversation had never been interrupted. “Something meaningful but not too meaningful. That will remind him of you but not scare him away with commitment.” She glances at Alma. “Although I will bet he is a lot more committed than you realize…”

“And why would you bet on that?” Alma asks, petting Lexie by way of apology for startling her.

“Because, you fool, he keeps coming back even though he knows you cannot give him what he is used to wanting,” Lyria states as if this is the most obvious thing on the isle. “But enough of that. Is there something he desires? Besides you, that is?”

Alma thinks about this for a moment. There in not much lying beyond Gwydion’s reach in terms of material possessions but their private conversations have brought to light deeper, more metaphysical desires. “Knowledge about his parents? His past?” She looks a plea at Lyria. “You knew them, didn’t you?”

“Alma, I was sworn to secrecy,” Lyria warns her. “I cannot reveal any more than you already know. For your beloved’s sake, do not ask me to bend the limits of my vow any further.”

“He has no memory of them,” Alma insists.

Can I even imagine what that must be like? she wonders.

“He was very young when it happened,” Lyria concedes with a nod. “Old memories get buried easily. But who knows? Maybe something will light up a spark.” She rises suddenly, making Alma hope for a change in her mother’s mind. “Hmm…maybe jewelry? Something he can wear?”

The suggestion rings disappointment. For once, Alma had hoped for one of Lyria’s careful slips of information.

“I thought of that but buying something seems a bit…impersonal,” the young goddess notes.

By her side, Lexie has decided that a warm spot on the bed is not something to be disdained and is already curling up where Lyria once sat.

“Then why not make it yourself?” Lyria suggests. “Did I not offer you something like that a few years back?”

Try half a century, mother, Alma snorts.

“Do you mean, my living bracelet?” she inquires. And then it hits her. Of course! That bracelet is not just a pretty thing that plays songs from her childhood, it is also deeply infused with Lyria’s essence, connecting the goddesses with a link made of memory. “Oh, that would be perfect! Could you make one for him?”

Lyria bobs her head pensively. “I certainly could but…it is such a personal gift, Alma. You should make it.”

Alma’s eyes widen in a mild panic. She has learned to create, of course. Against Death’s wishes, Lyria has managed to nurture Alma’s Life sphere with simple, often secret lessons that the young goddess has since used to develop her skills in a self-taught kind of way. But this is much more advanced than anything she has ever been taught. “I…I don’t know how.”

“Well, it is about time you learn, then,” Lyria, replies slightly flustered. “You are an adult, after all. No one can forbid you from learning to use a sphere properly anymore. And besides, you already have some experience with plants.”

Lyria gestures at Starfax’s verdant cage. The sight of the phoenix perching quietly among the leaves sparks a sudden, treacherous memory in the goddess.

“Ugh…” she mumbles. Somrak…

“What is it now?” Lyria asks.

“Make that two gifts I will need you to help me with,” Alma explains, rubbing her eyes to hide her discomfort.

Lyria’s eyes widen in amused surprise. “Oh, another meaningful gift, you mean?” She giggles. “I want to hear all about it! But first… I want to see my grandchildren.”

“Oh no!” Alma exclaims. “First, you help me, then you can go frolic with the Bunnies.”

Ch6.38 Trust

A door creaks open and in walks a pair who might be seen by those unfamiliar with them as opposites in nearly every way. One is tall and ethereal, so pale as to seem almost ghostly, her long snowy hair flowing in waves over her shoulders and down her back, her arctic-blue eyes capable of hypnotizing or terrifying depending on her mood. Unless she is purposefully suppressing her divine aura, any citizen of the Urbis Caelestis will recognize her instantly as a goddess, and even if she were to encounter some visitor who has stumbled by chance through a crack in the walls between worlds, the new arrival would be agape at her breath-stopping, immortal perfection.

Her companion, standing beside her and appraising the dusty room, is shorter and darker, her jet-black kinky hair forming a halo around a face that is a study in browns: soft fawn skin that looks warm to the touch, large darkly mischievous eyes that shine like highly polished gemstones of hazel shot through with red and gold striations, and tempting full lips that look as if kissed they might taste of chocolate. It is a face that would not stop breath but rather quicken it, cause a heart to race rather than skip a beat in awe. Her mortal body appears fuller and more voluptuous than goddess’, but only because she lacks so much stature, the tips of her midnight-furred Bunny ears barely topping the shoulders of the alabaster deity.

Yet a closer, deeper look will reveal similarities beyond the way both are, at the moment, dressed for menial labor, in simple clothes and aprons, bearing buckets and cleaning rags and gloves. Despite the goddess’ initially cool and forbidding appearance, a warmth shines through in her smile that matches that of the mortal, as does a lurking potential for mischief. Those whose perceptive vision have taken them this far will find themselves only mildly surprised to learn that these two are mother and daughter, though the taller looks barely older than her child.

Cherry, the Bunny, sets down her bucket with a slosh of water spilling over the side and onto the floor. “Well will you look at this place! Used to be full of old boxes, and now it’s almost ready for paintin’. Geryon’s gonna love it. Especially that balcony, now we got the railing removed.”

Alma places her bucket on the floor more carefully and walks across the room to the wide glass-paned doors, working the rusty latch. “I could change it a bit more. Unh! Add some greenery, some space.” The recalcitrant latch comes free and she begins to fold the doors open. “Are you sure you want it as is?”

“Way you explained it, makin’ a room bigger on the inside than out sucks away your whatchacallit-mana stuff. Your god-juice.” Cherry laughs. “You got enough of that goin’ on with your room, don’tcha?” She goes to help Alma with the doors as fresh air begins to flow into the room. “Cleanin’ these windows is one of the first things we need to do. But hey, you sure you wanna help with this kinda thing?” She looks up at Alma, reaching up to touch a slight shadow under the goddess’ eye. “You’re lookin’ tired. You need more rest.”

“I’ll be fine,” Alma says with a smile, tenderly cupping her child’s face. “Especially now that Sky is back, I can resume my usual schedule. Rest more. Be with you more.”

Cherry smiles broadly, her eyes almost squeezed shut in pleasure. “That’s good to hear.” She looks around. “Naw, all this place needs is a little more elbow grease. And some paint. But first we gotta get it squeaky clean. Then Geryon can have his own place.”

“Hmm.” Alma begins to clean the filthy window panes. “Are you and Rosemary finding your room a bit too small to share?”

“Oh it wouldn’t matter if we had ten times as much space. Our place is ours. Cuddly Birdy-Kitty’s welcome to stay over now and then, but we ain’t keepin’ his toothbrush in the bathroom.” She giggles. “Not that he has a toothbrush. Or teeth. And not that we have our own bathroom.” The Bunnies’ rooms are all on the floor above the bar, in rooms that were used as storage and were considered for use as temporary sleeping quarters for constables. Only a small dressing room and its attached shower are still communal, however, and even there the Bunnies mostly prefer the far more luxurious bath in Alma’s magical garden-filled room in the basement. “But you know what I mean. Merri and I love him to bits, but he ain’t movin’ in.”

Alma chuckles almost inaudibly. “And what’s next after these windows?”

“I figure let’s tackle the baseboards. So much dust…” Cherry pauses, opening her mouth and shutting her eyes, then sneezes. “Dang! Speakin’ of dust. But this won’t take long with two.”

“Baseboards it is,” Alma says cheerfully. “This is still so much better than paperwork…”

Cherry laughs. “Guess you ain’t got as much now Sky’s back. And Mister Smokin-Hot Trouble-on-Two-Legs is gone.”

A single laugh bursts from Alma’s lips. “What does that mean?”

“Well…” Cherry pauses in polishing a pane of glass. “I got the impression – surely mistaken – that he was havin’ a little bit of trouble fittin’ into the way things’re supposed to be done round these parts.”

Alma, not looking at her but smiling, says, “Oh well… It would be asking too much from someone like him to know how to work in a station. His type usually operates alone or in very small teams. Not like our little team, here.”

Cherry nods. “Mm-hmm. Still, he sure did seem to like it here. Or maybe it was a certain someone he liked.” She grins.

Alma looks at her quizzically. “Hmm? Who?”

Cherry stops cleaning and looks at Alma conspiratorially. “Like you don’t…” She cuts off at the honestly confused look on Alma’s face. “Well bless…you don’t! You really don’t, do you?”

“Are we talking about Saira?” Alma looks thoughtful. “He did seem quite interested in her… And then again, they are very much alike.”

Cherry’s mouth opens for a second, then she shuts it and shakes her head while muttering, “And people pray to gods for wisdom.” Louder, she continues, “Girl, you didn’t notice the way that guy was lookin’ at you? Or not lookin’ at you, all on purpose? And the scent of him…woof! Made me quiver.”

Alma seems to be looking inward, as if remembering. “I’m afraid my nose isn’t that sensitive…” She gives her head a quick shake of ‘no’ and says, “He was just…friendly. True, much more than I would have expected from someone like him but…” She smiles a little, her cheeks turning slightly pink. “I didn’t think more of it.”

Cherry looks skeptically at Alma, feeling sure that the goddess is, now at least, protesting too much. “Every time you come into the room when he was there, I’d get a blast of ‘I want that’ offa him so powerful that I was about ready to drag him into bed myself. And I woulda, if it’d been directed at me. And then when you’d speak, blammo, there it was again. How the hey did we get such good noses when yours is missin’ out on so much?”

With a shrug, Alma says, “You must take after your father in that department.” She pauses, thinking. “I guess… I see why Gwydion was so worried about Somrak. Maybe his nose is better. All I could sense was this great loneliness. Constant sorrow even when he is laughing. Just…broken.” The goddess becomes downcast, her sympathy obvious.

Cherry rolls her eyes. “Bad boys and sad boys…I never could resist ‘em either.” She sighs. “For a joker he sure does have a lotta dark goin’ on underneath.”

“Bones of the trade, I guess,” Alma agrees.

Cherry grumbles, “Me and Merri already got Geryon for ‘happy on the outside, sad on the inside’.”

They are both quiet for awhile, cleaning in silence. But after a few minutes, Alma asks, her voice soft, “So…what else does that nose of yours tell you?”

Cherry stays silent, thinking, until she finishes her last windowpane. Then she sets down the rag and looks at Alma. “Y’know, havin’ some sharper senses than y’all, sometimes it’s hard for us to figure out what we’re gettin’ that you guys ain’t gettin’. And then we go too much the other way, like when Tulip was always shoutin’ ‘cause she thought all the ‘small-eared people’ couldn’t hear hardly at all. But, well…I guess we all knew for awhile that you and Dion were a thing. I dunno, maybe even before you two were sure.”

Alma’s smile is small and fragile. “It was that obvious, huh?”

Cherry returns it in half-apology, half-sympathy. “Sorry, sweetie. ‘Course, none of us can keep secrets from each other, either. Sage and Aliyah, May and Sky. Well, not like Sage was tryin’ to keep that a secret. But you know what I mean. It can be annoyin’ for us, too.”

“It is as it is.” Alma takes a deep breath, her reluctance to ask the next question showing. “Anything else I should know about currently wafting scents?”

The look Cherry gives Alma is akin to that of a psychologist to a patient, a hairdresser to a client, a bartender to a customer. “Thing is, it ain’t just Sommie who’s puttin’ out puffs of ‘oh-my-goodness’ when you two are in a room together. You’re kinda doin’ that yourself.”

Alma looks away, the delicate flush of pink returning to her face. “I guess…I hadn’t thought of it that way. Well, I’ll admit he is attractive in more ways than one but… Something in him just makes me want to help. To heal.”

Unable to resist, Cherry takes three steps to Alma and touches her fingers to the goddess’ fine jawline, to encourage her to turn to look into the Bunny’s eyes. “All that and he looks great in leather pants, too, huh?” She giggles softly when Alma smiles sheepishly at that. “You don’t have to worry about why. It happens. Ain’t no need to feel embarrassed or nothin’. Heck, I fall head over heels for, like, at least, uh, twice as many people as I let on. Just ‘cause it’d be borin’ to mention it every dang time.”

Alma’s breath snorts out and she stands, stroking Cherry’s cloud of curls before putting her arms around her daughter’s shoulders. “Well, I think I’ll stick to Gwydion for the time being. We seem to go well together. Unless you’re smelling something strange on him?” The final sentence starts out joking but ends as a half-serious question.

Cherry laughs and puts her arms around Alma’s waist. “Oh boy. I am startin’ to think us Bunnies got a responsibility to act like, uh, y’know them kinda priests that some folks think they gotta tell all their secrets to. Which come to think of it would be a great racket…think of all the blackmail potential! Anyway, I don’t think you got anything to worry ‘bout there. Dion’s Dion, so he notices everybody in a skirt and most of the ones in pants. But that don’t mean he’s gonna chase ‘em. He is really wild about you! But, um…” She sighs. “There’s, like, some frustration comin’ offa him? It’s cause you’re worried about goin’ all the way, ain’t it?”

Alma bends down to kiss Cherry’s forehead. “For as much as I love all of you, I cannot risk creating any more Bunnies. The Council would come for me if I did. And for all of you. And if I lay with him, there is a very real possibility that that would happen.” She sighs, holding Cherry closer. “Which, yes, is a terrible source of frustration on both sides. But…he is free to be with others who don’t have to worry about such issues.”

Cherry rests her cheek against Alma’s chest. “Listen, if anything starts seemin’ off, y’know, I’ll tell you.” But she looks up at Alma, on the verge of saying something more.

Alma looks down at her, a look of curiosity stealing over her face. She strokes Cherry’s cheek. “What is it, dear? You look like you are thinking very loud thoughts.”

It takes a moment for Cherry to compose the words she wants to say. “It’s weird… I’m still havin’ trouble gettin’ used to some things, and…” She takes a deep breath. “Look, can I just do this? Probably gonna make you laugh. Ahem.” Embarrassed, she forces herself to gaze into Alma’s eyes. “Mom,” she states. Just that. Then again. “Mom. Mother. Mommy.” The last one comes out at a higher pitch, and she grimaces. “Mama? Meemaw. No that one’s right out. Maw. Mom. Mom…yeah…Mom.”

Where earlier it came out flat, almost unnatural, as something she was unused to, now the word contains the depth of warmth that is so often present behind Cherry’s speech, no matter how cynical or sarcastic it might be on the surface. “Mom…Mom?” In her vision, Alma’s face, the cheeks and now the tip of the nose flushing, begins to waver and blur. “Oh man…Mom…” Cherry presses her face against Alma’s chest as tears start rolling down her cheeks. Into Alma’s apron, she mutters. “Sorry, I’m sorry… I didn’t see the tears coming…”

Alma holds her closely. “You have nothing to be sorry about.” Her voice is thick with emotion. “I am still getting used to it myself. But whatever you feel comfortable calling me, I already love hearing it.”

Cherry sniffles. “I just… I guess I had to figure out what felt right. Little kids don’t have to do that, right? Or maybe they do – they just don’t have to think about it. But wow…didn’t think I’d start bawlin’!” She looks up at Alma. “Sayin’ it wasn’t just sayin’ it, y’know? It was like I was really gettin’ it through my skull that, ‘Holy moly, you’re my Mom!’ And I…I’m a daughter. It feels…really good.”

Looking at her tenderly, Alma says, “I have waited for so long to be free to be your mother… Wondered so often about all of you, how you were doing, would you like me, would you be able to forgive me, would I be – was I being a good mother to you… And now we can figure all those things out together and I can still barely believe it is true.” Abruptly she embraces Cherry tightly. “No lover could ever mean to me as much as you. You will always be more important to me than anyone else.”

Cherry returns that almost desperate clasp, her cheek against Alma’s chest, breathing out and just relaxing against her. “I know anything you did that was hard, you did it so them bastards wouldn’t just kill all of us before we hardly knew we were alive. You did what you had to do, Mom. I’d like to say we don’t need to forgive you, but I guess we do ‘cause it did hurt. But we do forgive, we all do. We have. ‘Cause we understand why it had to be that way. And we all love you, y’know? We really do.”

A drop of liquid falls on top of Cherry’s head, followed by another, and by the slight hitch of Alma’s chest, Cherry can tell her mother is crying. “I know. And that alone makes everything worthwhile.” Alma’s tight hold relaxes, becomes more gentle. “My beautiful daughter…”

Cherry, in a very small voice, says, “Awwww,” and she snuggles against Alma, holding her for a full minute in silence. Then sighs and looks up. “Shoot. We ain’t never gonna finish this cleanin’ job at this rate.”

Alma laughs and releases Cherry, quickly wiping under her eyes with her wrist. “Very well…back to work?” She tries to make her voice normal, but the tears still live in her throat.

“Back to work!” Cherry shouts, making a gesture of cracking a tiny invisible whip at Alma while making a ‘Sh-kow!’ sound.

Ch6.36 Trust

“Welcome again to my meager abode, Sergeants.”

Pak is again seated, legs under him, on the woven-straw mat of the dojang, looking up at Alma and Gwydion with a solemn expression. His posture perfectly aligned, back very straight, deep lines on his face tracing flexible features that can go from ire to laughter in a moment, rather like a particularly sage monkey, the short, going-on-fat old man looks in everything like the perfect stereotype of an aging master of martial arts. Almost as if it is a carefully crafted façade.

Except for his awful grooming habits (or lack thereof) that always leave his long white hair looking rather unkempt, even oily near the roots, and his long beard full of pastry crumbs. Not conducive to veneration of the master at all. Still, his words are often spoken as if they were a weapon on their own and the last cordial sentence could just as well have been used as a bamboo sword to whack the two gods into sitting down and making it quick. Seems that the master is keen on starting tonight’s lesson.

“It is our honor to be here,” Dion replies, bowing respectfully and lowering himself to imitate Pak’s sitting position.

Alma, as usual, seems allergic to bowing. She nods her head with a pleasant smile at the master before sitting as well. “Good evening, Master Pak.”

Amazingly enough, Pak does not seem the least bit affected by her less-than-formal attitude. Instead, he nods his head back at her, unsmiling but not at all unpleasant.

Ah… It seems we have a case of differential treatment here, Dion thinks sourly. Wonder if it has anything to do with that box of Kyri’s pastries that Alma is carrying.

In fact, the master is looking at the string-wrapped box with the winged-pot logo of Kyri’s Copper Pot with ill-disguised anticipation.

“Would you like some tea?” Pak offers.

“That would be lovely,” Alma replies, already busy untying the string.

Dion bows his head, out of habit. “Thank you.”

He can barely suppress a chuckle. Bribery…must remember that for next time.

Pak looks above their heads, in the direction of the door, and nods at…someone? Dion turns his head to see who it might be but the door is closed by the time his eyes focus on it. A very meaningful noise of someone intent on clearing his throat of what sounds like soot and tinfoil forces Dion to turn his head back to Pak, straightening instinctively as if he had been scolded.

“It is a pleasure to see you today,” Pak speaks warmly to Alma while still managing an irritated glance at Dion. “I am sure Dion will be kept quite busy with today’s exercises, however.”

No joint lessons yet. Pity.

Not that Dion or Alma had been expecting one. The master has made clear before that this is Dion’s scheduled time slot under Pak’s exclusive attention. No distractions allowed. Still, a friendly confrontation on the straw mats could potentially become very…stimulating.

The engaging mental images sparked by these thoughts almost make him miss the rest of the conversation going on outside his dreamful mind. “Oh, I will not be staying long,” Alma announces. “My other duties await. But my children are planning a Year’s End picnic and so I am here to invite you and your ward to join us before we start tallying how much food and drink will be needed.”

Ward? Dion cannot keep his confusion from his face. What ward?

A very discreet sound behind them. A door has opened.

“We would be delighted to join!” Pak suddenly says, grinning like a trickster god at whoever is now standing behind the Dei. “Won’t we, Kumiko?”

Dion turns back to look at the young girl standing there, holding a tray with a small ceramic teapot and three cups handpainted with a motif of lotus flowers. She is reedy, just about as tall as Pak, long black hair tied back in a ponytail. Dressed in simple, silken, light-grey pants-and-shirt pajamas, she looks only vaguely familiar as she stands glaring daggers at Pak through her almond-shaped black eyes. Those black eyes… He would know those eyes anywhere.

He watches her move to Pak’s left side, closer to Alma. It is as if she were actively trying to avoid the god. Her eyes are no warmer when she glances at him than when she was staring at Pak.

“The kunoichi…” Dion can’t help but murmur, eliciting a questioning glance from Alma.

Tray already safely placed on the floor, the girl – Kumiko? Isn’t that what Pak has called her? Kumiko starts serving the tea with a now very blank expression. Sitting opposite the girl, Alma smiles a greeting at Kumiko and places the now-open box of pastries in the middle of the assembled group.

“You have found her,” Dion breathes, somewhere between a statement and a question.

Alma looks a question at him again before turning her confused gazed toward Pak.

“She found me,” Pak replies laconically, looking more interested in the peach-flavored pastries than in any of his guests. “And she is here, and can explain herself if she so desires.”

Kumiko narrows her eyes at this but finishes pouring the tea and serves both master and pupils with well-honed manners. Pak makes a point of ignoring her as he picks a pastry from the box and bites into it with clear delight. That beard will be fresh full of crumbs in just a few minutes, Dion can tell. Alma accepts the cup of tea with a progressively more worried expression. There is a tension in the air that makes the hairs on the back of Dion’s neck rise in anticipation of something unpleasant. The girl does not seem to be happy with him at all. And then again, she had tried to kill him on their first encounter. And then kissed him the next morning.

Oh well…opinions can change.

“I met this young lady at the Singing Cockroach on my first night in Three Rats,” Dion explains as Alma offers him the box of pastries so he can choose one. He glances at Pak before indicating the goddess with a subtle jerk of his head. “It was Sergeant Alma who recommended I go there.”

At this, Alma’s eyes dart up and to the right, her lips twitch ever so slightly into a mischievous smile. She lets her gaze fall on Kumiko and the young woman looks at her intently, almost appraisingly. Is that a wink that Alma dispenses her?

The goddess lowers the box and takes a pastry herself. “You found Master Pak there. I would say it was a good recommendation.” She pauses, looking straight into his eyes, pastry halfway to her lightly curved lips. “One you very much deserved.”

Dion snorts, holding her gaze. “The reward I get for being friendly.”

He bites through the heavenly mixture of fine, crackling dough and glazed peach. Through the corner of his eye, he can see Pak happily finishing his pastry, making a show of not looking interested in an exchange that is very clearly capturing his full attention. The only thing keeping Dion from bursting into laughter is the unhealthy amount of powdered sugar that Kyri tends to sprinkle her pastries with.

“As my father would say: one should never trust others to play one’s game by the same rules,” Alma states as if reciting from a book, clearly amused.

“Sound advice,” Pak intervenes, breaking the chain of lighthearted conversation that was threatening to make the gods forget about the other people in the room. “Ah, there are many things that Three Rats lacks, but Kyri’s pastries make up for a great deal.”

Pastry gone, Dion reaches for his cup while trying not to lose his staring match with Alma. As he brings the cup to his lips and takes a sip, he tastes…water? But he saw Kumiko pour tea for all of them. Huh.

“How odd…” he mutters, looking down at his cup.

“Everything all right?” Alma asks.

“I could swear my tea is suddenly lacking in, well, tea.” He tilts his cup so that Alma can see the clear liquid that should definitely not look as colorless as it does.

Pak looks half amused at this. “Interesting. Why, if someone had wanted to poison you, that would have been considerably easier than entirely replacing your tea with water.”

He glances meaningfully at Kumiko, who is preparing another pot of tea and doing her best to look like the most innocent person on the Insula. She is not exactly succeeding at it.

“This is why I always keep my magical defenses against poisons active,” Dion replies, grinning slightly at the trace of irritation that crosses Kumiko’s face.

“And who would want to poison Gwydion?” Alma asks, making a point of not looking at the girl.

Pak’s expression suddenly darkens. His words carry the edge of a blade with them. “Again, that is her story to tell, not mine.”

His tone sends ice down Dion’s spine. He thought he had been able to dispel tension with his lighthearted banter with Alma. But no. For a moment, he is barely aware of his own heartbeat. He sits, staring at his master, blood drained from his face. The previous moments of tension in the room were nothing compared to the leaden silence that now falls over the four people gathered here. His skin feels uncomfortably cold, riddled with goosebumps. He becomes painfully aware of how afraid he is of the next few minutes. A treacherous thought has him wondering if Pak manufactured this moment to force him to learn a bitter lesson on the consequences of his actions. It seems that beating some weeks ago wasn’t enough.

Alma looks at him with an unspoken What did you do? in her eyes. Dion cannot help but hate Pak for doing this in front of her.

From where she sits, Kumiko glares at him. There is an almost palpable sense that she is about to attack him with deadly force, so strongly does her posture convey a murderous thought. Dion cannot help but visualize a sudden strike.

He sighs. Best to accept some level of responsibility and get it done with. “I am sorry for my behavior that night, Miss Kumiko.”

He can see her legs tensing muscles wound like springs around a light frame. Still, all Kumiko does is glare at him before she speaks, her voice barely above a whisper. “My mind is my own.”

“It was a reflex, a moment’s choice,” Dion insists.

Why are you defending yourself when she’s clearly not sorry at all for trying to cut your head off? his inner voice counters bitterly.

“You used a mind-altering spell?” Alma’s voice cuts straight into his internal monologue, level and incredulous.

It is her choice in words that awakens him to the real matter being discussed. Kumiko’s apparent hatred is then based on his choice of spell to subdue her, to stop her from attacking him. He had interfered with his mind to confuse her into submission. And in doing that, he had – he had toyed with her emotions. Something he has made a point of never using love spells for. If he has been so successful in his past conquests, it is due to his own skill at seduction, not his magic abilities. Whatever his lady friends have felt for him, it is a product of their own eager and bored imagination.

Dion cannot help but feel ashamed as he nods in confirmation. “A love spell.”

“Oh Gwydion…” Alma’s murmured disappointment plunges into him like a knife, all the more painful for being so quiet.

Still, what he did was in self defense. How can that be so crudely dismissed? He raises his head to look at Kumiko with as much dignity as he can muster, keeping his tone sincere but firm. “I used that spell only as a defense. Nothing more was intended. Either way, I am sorry for any harm I may have caused and beg your forgiveness.”

Kumiko stares at him for some time, her expression and posture changing little. “You have lived longer than I ever will. And yet you try to justify using a spell to make a person fall in love with you. How can that seem justifiable to anyone?”

She closes her eyes and shakes her head in exasperation as if this is impossible to understand. Still, some of the tension in the room dissipates, much to Dion’s relief.

“One can be a fool at any age, Kumiko,” Pak tells her. Dion can barely hear him muttering to himself, “This I know well.”

“Some are fools at all ages,” Alma adds with a soft sigh.

She rises to her feet and Dion reflexively rises with her, unable to hide his concern at her reaction. Still, she smiles at him with what seems to him like a mixture of disappointment and tired resignation. “I should go. I will return at the end of my harvests.”

A glance down at her hand finds repressed anger in her clenched fingers. Dion moves instinctively to accompany her, wanting to explain himself or at least lessen some of the damage, but Pak speaks, freezing him in place.

“These two have much to teach each other,” the master says in a voice that allows no doubt. Dion is to stay and endure the rest of this ‘lesson’. “If they are both wise, your healing arts will not be in much demand on your return.”

Alma nods at Pak. “Hopefully, they can resolve their differences with minimal injury.” She smiles at Kumiko, pleasantly but without warmth. “It has been a pleasure. I hope to count on your presence for our Year’s End picnic.”

Kumiko looks at her, unsmiling, but not unfriendly. “It seems I am to attend.” She bows her head at Alma, keeping her eyes fixed on the goddess. “Thank you for inviting me.”

Alma nods in reply. “Your choices are your own. As is your heart.” She merely glances at Dion as she turns to leave. “I will see you later.”

He could swear he can see her exerting considerable effort to resist storming out of the room. As soon as the door slides quietly behind her, the god’s head whips to glare at Pak, accusatory and enraged. His muscles are taut, ready to strike. These strokes of sudden, boiling anger are rare to Dion, invested as he is in maintaining self-control at all times. But the calling of more primal forces, of less-civilized times in his youth can be hard to resist at times. It is all he can do to keep from letting the reddish-grey haze of full-blown rage from blinding him.

Pak seems unphased, almost amused by his reaction. “Well this may be one of the more interesting lessons I have given. Let us begin…”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

The walk from Master Pak’s dojang to the station is an uncomfortable one. The silence between them is like a wall which both fear ramming their heads against. Gwydion walks with his eyes fixed on the ground ahead of him. A slight tilt to his shoulders indicates discomfort, possibly from a particularly strong blow. His bruised and swollen right eye also makes for a sign of an intense practice session. Kumiko must have been intent on showing him what a magic-free combat against her would have been like. And, in spite of Alma’s best efforts, the god has so far refused to be healed. Could this be some sort of self-punishment for his actions?

Alma struggles to find words to start a conversation. The revelations of the previous hours were unpleasant but…they should not have been shocking, should they? After all, Gwydion is a known player of the seduction game, to no shame of his own. But, to use love spells… Love spells interfere with the mind, intoxicating the part of the brain that takes care of such pesky things as emotions so that, temporarily or permanently, the person affected comes to believe he, she or jy is, in fact, in love. Although not considered a crime, they should have long ago been forbidden. Taking someone affected by a love spell to one’s bed is no better than getting someone drunk before having sex with them. It is, for all purposes and intentions, rape. Unfortunately, love spells usually leave their victims confused about the whole affair, their effects commonly lingering for awhile after the spell is cancelled if there was even mild attraction to begin with, so the victims seldom complain, thinking themselves prey to bad judgement. Of course, people permanently affected by love spells don’t complain at all. So love spells are a sort of legal grey area, more limited by goodwill and common sense than by any sort of legal apparatus.

Hearing that Gwydion had no scruples in casting such a spell on a young, mortal girl was extremely disappointing. Mortals are so frail when it comes to magic! But he would not have needed to use a spell to seduce this girl, would he?

“I am sorry you had to see that,” he says, finally breaking the icy silence formed between them. He does not look at Alma as she walks by his side, his eyes kept low, expression guarded.

“Are you truly sorry for what you have done to that poor girl?” Alma asks, almost afraid of the answer.

Gwydion sighs, shaking his head. “I am. Even if she was trying to cut me into pieces at the time. You must understand, I used it as a defensive spell to stop her from wanting to attack me. I cancelled it as soon as it was safe to do so, just before I left the tavern.” He stops walking, looking tired as if the issue leaves him exhausted. “I had never been forced to deal with the aftermath of such spells.”

Alma looks at him in silence for a moment. He seems sincerely upset by all this, his shoulders hanging low, his hands hidden in his trouser pockets. His right eye nearly swollen shut, he keeps his left one focused on some point just at the tip of Alma’s boots.

The goddess exhales deeply and lays her hands on his upper arms. She was angry before, when she left Pak’s dojang to do her harvests. She was very, very angry. Disappointed. Her mind was racing to create all sorts of unpleasant scenarios. Even if Nekh is now gone from her thoughts, it is so easy to think the worst things about people… Especially when we don’t want them to disappoint us, when we fear they might hurt us. It is as if our minds suddenly decide to sabotage us.

But thinking those things without knowing the whole truth hurt her even more and so she has made a great effort to wait and get her thoughts to settle.

“What I don’t understand is, why love spells?” she asks, trying not to sound accusatory. “Of all people I have met, you are the last I would expect to need them.”

“Once, I thought I did,” Gwydion answers, slowly, subdued, eyes looking above her shoulder. “Then, I would not have been able to attract even a moose in heat.”

Alma’s hands stroke his arms as they move down to his wrists. “You? Can I even imagine smooth, charming Gwydion being unattractive?”

Gwydion snorts derisively at her attempt at comedy and finally looks at her. “Well, it was a long time ago. I was desperate.” His hands move to hold hers. “But I could never do it. My mentor…let us say he knew how to put things into perspective. I assure you, that I have never used love spells to bring anyone to my bed. I am not completely amoral.”

He releases her hands, his arms hesitantly encircle her. She holds him in return and his embrace tightens. She can feel his heart pounding in his chest. Whether embarrassed by the faults he is being forced to admit to, or afraid of what she might think, his body speaks of truth. And she is deeply relieved by it.

“I am glad,” she breathes, relaxing in his arms, feeling his heartbeat – not slower, for his heart always feels like a hare rushing through a field – but with less force. He is relaxing as well.

“I have never used them on you either,” he murmurs in her ear.

Alma cannot help but chuckle at that. It had never even crossed her mind. Gods are not as easy to manipulate and they remember magic cast upon them. “My dear, had you done so, Kumiko would have found nothing left to be angry at.” She calms down and pulls away from him to look into his eyes. “This has been unpleasant but necessary.”

He nods, cupping her cheek, stroking her neck, a small smile on his lips. “I must say I half expected you to be rather angrier at me for this one, though.”

“I was,” Alma concedes. “Angry and disappointed and afraid of finding some horrible fault in you. But…harvesting often helps bring things into perspective. It forces me to think of other things. Reminds me that we all have our sins.” She looks down, remembering the darkness in her own life. “I have done my fair share of awful things, after all.”

Gwydion says nothing but touches a finger to her chin, raising her head and her eyes to look at his. He smiles sweetly at her and she smiles back at his temporarily deformed face, wondering how she could ever have thought him so cruel or amoral to be a magically-assisted rapist. “Well, I do solemnly swear I have not cast a love spell since that night nor will I cast another in the future…” He grins. “Unless absolutely necessary.”

Alma slaps his chest in irritation. “Gwydion!”

“We can never know when it may become imperative to do so!” he argues with an edge of amusement to his voice.

Alma shakes her head and starts walking again, muttering, “You are incorrigible! What will I ever do with you?”

“You have to admit, it does make for a powerful defensive weapon,” he insists, catching up to her. “An attacker is much less likely to keep attacking if they suddenly start to like you. The shortest moment of confusion can be enough to save your life.”

“True…” Alma concedes. She has to admit that except for a few exceptions, Gwydion’s tactics do seem promising. If only the aftermath wasn’t so ugly. “Is that why you never stopped using love spells?”

“Pretty much, yes,” Gwydion admits with a nod. “They are a little unorthodox but they get the job done. They work on males, females, states in between. Even on animals and on other less…rational opponents.”

“It seems like a strange weapon to keep in your arsenal,” Alma notes.

“For a long time, I forgot it was there,” Gwydion explains. “And then one day, in the middle of a skirmish, completely lost for ideas, the spell just…pops to mind. I didn’t even realize what I had done until it was all over. And then I thought ‘Hmm, this works wonders!’”

The story, along with the god’s funny facial expressions, made all the more hilarious by his wound, has Alma laughing. “Very well. I guess I’ll have to agree with you.” She resumes more serious tones.“But…please try to refrain from casting such spells? You have seen what it does to people.”

Dion nods. “I promise. Does this mean I am forgiven?” he asks in hopeful tones.

“It is not I who must forgive you, my dear,” Alma replies in more serious tones, slipping her hand into his. “But I am not upset with you. Shall I he–”

Her words are suddenly cut by a gasp as he pulls her by the hand into the shadowy recess of a doorway, a long, secluded outside vestibule of an abandoned building. The station is just around the corner. He pulls her into the shadows until his back is against the wall, his hands on her waist. Thankfully, no one else has had the same brilliant idea as he tonight. Alma’s eyes, adapted to darkness, take a moment to adjust before focusing on his grinning, welcoming face.

“Sorry. You were saying?” he inquires.

“I was going to ask if I you will let me heal you now and spare you some uncomfortable questioning by the Popula,” Alma says, feigning annoyance.

“Ah, true. Soon my shift will begin and you will be taking some much-needed rest,” he starts in a soft, whispered voice, gently pulling her closer to him. “Maybe we can negotiate something that will make me worthy of your care and leave us both going about our lives with a smile?”

She grins back, entering the game. Her arms drape over his shoulders, her fingers playfully stroke his scalp. “A bargain, then? And what are you trying to tempt me with?”

The tip of his nose rubs against the side of hers, his words are breathed against her lips. “What would you like?”

Alma’s thought processes freeze at his kiss. “Hmm–”

She does her best to prolong it, releasing her power into him to restore his bruised body, feeling him respond to the thrill and intoxication of healing that is sure to leave an almost addictive aftertaste in his mouth. She opens her eyes at the end of it and smiles to see him fully restored. What was the question again? Oh, yes…a trade.

“How about…” Another kiss, deeper than the first, almost begging for more of her magic but not wavering when she refuses to dispense it.

 

He is too close, too distracting to her senses. Gods, let me think! Too much…of you…and your–

“Your scent,” she finds herself saying.

Gwydion looks as surprised as she is at her own words. Thankfully, considerably less used to seeing in the dark, he cannot see her all that well. “My cologne? It would smell wonderfully on you but…” His lips course to the curve of her neck. The pleasure of the healing must have sparked other ideas. “There is the matter of application.”

Alma shakes her head minutely. Her brain is just starting to make sense again, although severely hindered at the moment. The strangely enticing scent that is part of Gwydion’s charming arsenal, the one that only a few months ago she found so cloying for its exaggeration, is due to his cologne and he always seems to be wearing it. And even if it has become alluring for being so very tangled in her mind with the memory of him, the emotions he sparks in her, how much sweeter would it be if he would just be his true self around her? “I mean your real scent. The one underneath all those exotic oils.”

“My dear, you make some of the strangest requests I have ever heard,” Gwydion says with a slightly nervous chuckle, straightening to look at whatever it is he can see of her face.

“Will you humor me?” she asks sweetly.

I want to know the you that hides under all those ruses. Isn’t that what she has been trying to do, little by little?

Gwydion looks at her in appraising silence for a moment, then shrugs. “If that is all it takes to please you, how could I refuse?”

A whispered word and Alma’s nostrils become acutely aware of a sudden change, an absence of scent. At first, it is as if all scents have disappeared but slowly she realizes that the more mundane scents of stale urine and rotting trash are still very much part of this doorway’s bouquet. The cologne is so engaging, imposing even, that its absence comes almost as a shock to the senses. And this means that Gwydion’s natural scent is much more subtle, closer to the skin.

She leans to sniff his neck, pleasantly surprised to see he has also cancelled the lemony smell of the soap with which Pak’s students shower after practice, at the master’s training hall. Her nose breathes in a spicy, warm, primal scent, only very slightly musky, pleasant and subdued. Much better than its artificial camouflage. She touches her lips to his skin, as much in sampling as in revenge for his taunting, tongue tasting this unadulterated delicacy as air travels to spark receptors on the roof of her mouth. A memory of dark forests and old books comes to mind.

“Hmm…” the goddess murmurs in pleasure, savoring the merry chorus of her senses against the quiet background of Nekh’s still too-striking absence.

“Does this mean you like it?” Gwydion asks with a strange edge in his voice.

She nods. “If only I could bottle it up.”

Gwydion chuckles. “You are strange!”

Suddenly, she feels him relax. Only now does Alma become aware of how tense he was against her, his arms still around her but barely moving with her as she took her whiff of his scent. Was he afraid she might not like it? No…that would have been too adorable to bear.

“For liking you better without cologne?” she replies, poking a finger at his chest. “Are you strange for liking me better without clothes?”

“Oh, straight through the heart!” Gwydion exclaims with a chuckle before his arms snuggle comfortably around her. “I surrender.”

One last kiss and Alma slowly pulls away from the embrace. “I wish you a light, peaceful shift.”

“If it is light enough, maybe I could join you in bed?” Gwydion suggests with a mischievous grin that has Alma chuckling.

“Don’t push your luck,” she jests, taking a step back. “Good night.”

He sighs. “Good night.”

Ch6.34 Trust

Magic books are among the trickiest forms of recording knowledge. Naturally magical by virtue of their content, some of them can only be read on special occasions, like the solstice of a particular star. Some require a peculiar state of mind or the humming of a specific tune. Some hum, themselves. Some are a random jumble of letters that reorganize themselves at their own leisure, sometimes quickly, sometimes at a rhythm of one word a day, and require an especially persevering student with a lot of time to waste. Some books can only be read by their writer and/or descendants. Some require specific spells to be cast, spells that are invariably locked in other magical books that take forever to read.

And all of this means that the chances of opening a random book on a drunken whim and casting a spell to, say…turn a friend into a gryphon, are about one in a million. Fate seems to like those odds.

Dion sighs in frustration. It had been his decision, upon hearing of the death of Edine, his first and only love, to cancel his magical defenses and get drunk in a foolish attempt to drown his grief. Geryon had just gone along for the ride on that fateful night. And Geryon had paid for it. Now, it is a veritable scavenger hunt for the right spell to revert the changes.

A knock at the doorframe of the pantry wakes him from his scholarly investigations. It is a soft, subtle knock, one he has come to recognize almost unconsciously. Alma.

He cannot help but smile. The latest events during Somrak’s stay have only brought them closer in their ever-growing bond of affection and intimacy, in spite of Dion’s reticence at the apparent complicity between Alma and the rogue fire god. The thought of that still bothers him. Through their hardships, Alma and Dion have managed to create a mutually dependent partnership, their own little world of shared secrets and unspoken understanding, and the magic god cannot help but fear the invasion of that sanctum by some outside presence. All of his (very limited) experiences with things like this tell him that betrayal is imminent, after all. But now that Somrak has left, life has returned to normal and so he has mostly been able to keep that fiery ghost at bay and go back to enjoying the deliciously slow, slightly less committed blossoming of what is still a developing and ill-defined relationship.

His concerns fade away for now. She is here, smiling at him from where she stands by the door. Without even noticing, Dion closes the book he was just reading. His mind is already elsewhere and nowhere near his studies. He even forgets about Gryphy, hovering quietly by his side, plush wings flapping slowly and needlessly.

“Yes?” he asks softly.

“I have a favor to ask of you,” the goddess replies, walking toward him, her head tilted in apparent curiosity. “Who is this?”

She seems to be focused on a point above his shoulder and Dion glances sideways to remember, all too late, that Gryphy is in plain sight for the first time since being brought from Math’s estate and kept hidden from Geryon’s mocking and questioning eyes. The god curses himself for forgetting to hide the doll. Embarrassed from being caught in the possession of the childish toy, Dion feels his face become unusually warm. Alma’s smile at seeing him blushing only makes things worse. He breathes deeply to regain his composure and purposefully forces the blood away from his cheeks, refusing to let a plush gryphon ruin his nonchalant façade.

“This is…Gryphy, an old friend,” he says in what he hopes sounds like a casual tone.

Alma looks at the soft toy as if absolutely entranced. Over a century old, Gryphy has lost much of his previous charm. It is only by the sheer care that Dion has put into keeping it whole that the doll has survived thus far. But even without an eye and sporting patches of missing faux fur, the way Gryphy hovers and tilts his head to imitate Alma has the goddess smiling at it and leaning slightly forward, like a child looking at a friendly puppy. She reaches for the doll but stops, turning her gaze to Dion.

“May I?” she inquires.

Asking for permission to touch a doll… Dion chuckles in thought at the silly concern in her voice. How adorable. It is just a doll, dear, not a pet or a child. Why would I even care if–

His brow furrows. Surprisingly, he finds that he does care. He is, in fact, very much hesitant to let her touch Gryphy. Not that she would damage him or be cruel. It is just that… Gryphy is Dion’s friend, no one else’s. He has always been just his. His friend…

Dion shakes his head. Close to him, Alma retracts her hand, taking his reaction for a ‘no’. At a silent order from the god, Gryphy flies down and lands on Dion’s lap, beak turned up as the one-eyed doll looks, expressionless, at the god. A heavy silence spreads around him.

What am I doing? Dion wonders, shaking his head again at his own silliness. She is my friend too, is she not? And she won’t hurt you.

Animated by spells so familiar to Dion that he no longer has to utter them, Gryphy nods and takes flight again. Acting very much like a living, breathing creature, the plush doll flies toward Alma and hovers by her, seemingly waiting for her to grab it. Her face again lit up, Alma raises her hands, palms up and watches as Gryphy lands on them. She holds him carefully to her chest, cradled like a baby and strokes his exposed belly.

“He looks suspiciously like Geryon,” she notes after a while. “Seems to be rather old, though.”

Dion nods, watching an excited Gryphy snapping his soft beak at the goddess’ fingers. “He is nearly as old as I am. I was told that my mother made him for me. It is the only thing I have left of my parents.”

Alma stops playing with Gryphy at those words. Her eyes soften, her shoulders hang slightly lower. Her hold on the doll becomes lighter, more careful, as if she suddenly realized she is holding a relic, Dion’s most beloved treasure. He tries to think of something to say to return to the conversation, but the proper words evade him. All he can do is watch her caress the magically-animated ancient Gryphy and feel as much tenderness and warmth towards her as she spends on the raggedy doll.

“Do you remember them?” she finally asks.

“No,” Dion replies. “Nothing more than broken memories. Nothing I could possibly trust to be true. All I have is Gryphy, my little companion of all hours. I brought him with me when we returned from the First Ring.”

Alma glances at him, smiling sadly. It occurs to Dion that her own children were forced to grow up without their mother and are only now beginning to know her and learning the meaning of the word family. He wonders for a moment if she sees mirrored in him the pain that was inflicted on her Bunnies.

Alma holds out her hand and he takes it, squeezing gently as he leans to kiss her wrist. Her eyes drift to the cover of Dion’s book and it’s golden letters against burgundy-red leather that read Transformation and Cancellation: The Magic in Shape Shifting.

“I heard it was you who transformed Geryon into a gryphon,” she comments almost conversationally.

“An accident, really,” Dion explains, releasing her hand. “And for all I have tried to change him back, I am no closer to an answer now than I was when it happened.”

“You will have a hard time succeeding,” the goddess states. In her arms, Gryphy seems to sleep, snoring lightly. “His soul has already adapted to its new vessel. And souls carry a great deal of inertia.”

“So, he may be stuck,” Dion sighs. “I feared as much.”

“Is he really that worse off as a gryphon?” Alma asks. “He is stronger, faster, able to fly. Even his magic seems to still work.”

Dion considers the question. “I think… He is trying to figure out if he is blessed or cursed.”

I would still like to be able to give him a choice… he thinks. Cursed or not, it is my fault he was turned into a beast.

Alma looks silently at Dion for a moment as if trying to read his thoughts. Her attentions go back to Gryphy after Dion diverts his eyes from her probing gaze.

“Maybe all he is, is changed,” she replies, stroking the doll’s head. “He is absolutely adorable.”

“Geryon?” Dion jests, trying desperately to bring some lightness into the conversation. “I guess he can be, if you are into the type.”

Alma chuckles at this. “Silly, I meant Gryphy! Although Geryon does have his moments.”

Dion chuckles in return. For the first time since the trial, the goddess seems truly relaxed. The fleeting, sudden expressions of irritation and tiredness that would occasionally mar her beauty, and which Dion had thus far attributed to stress and guilt at Nekh’s death, and lately the rat episode, seem to be completely gone.

“What about you?” he asks, leaning back in his chair. “Any childhood toys tucked away in a secret corner?”

Alma’s smile remains on her lips but her eyes speak of nostalgia as she answers, “We mostly made our own toys. Dolls, puzzles, little figurines we used to play out huge battles. With so many children around, it was a better way to teach us household skills, history, mathematics… Some toys, we inherited. And most of our toys were eventually passed on to younger siblings and cousins.”

“Surely not all of them,” Dion insists.

Her smile fades. “When I left my father’s house with Rosemary and Cherry in my arms, I left most of my life behind. Some of it, I recovered in subsequent visits. But some things were just…lost, I guess.”

She gently sets Gryphy down on the desk. “I was never too fond of dolls, anyway.”

The sleeping Gryphy stops snoring and raises his head, looking around as if missing something. He quickly takes flight again and nearly tackles Alma, curling up against her chest and leaving her no choice but to hold him again. Soon, the snoring returns.

“Some dolls seem to be fond of you,” Dion notes.

Alma smiles. Of course she knows that Gryphy has no will of his own but she maintains the illusion by humoring and stroking the doll, prolonging the sweet charade with which Dion reveals his affections. For a moment, her lips purse as if holding back some uncomfortable secret but then they relax again.

“I did, however, have a bunny rabbit,” Alma says in a low, hesitant voice. “For a little while. Cotton.”

“What happened?” Dion asks softly, encouragingly.

“I was very young,” the goddess starts, turning her eyes to Gryphy for comfort. “Some details are fuzzy. But he was the sweetest, most beautiful creature I had ever seen. I guess I thought he would feel lonely, with no other bunnies around. So I created them, filled my mother’s garden with bunnies, just like him. It was the first time I created life. But something was wrong with them and once they were found, they had to be…removed.”

Sadness pours from her like water. “It was the first time I harvested a soul.”

Dion’s eyes widen with realization. His heart falls to his feet. Words evade him. The cruelty and suffering implied in the revelation rob him of things to say. So he just leans towards Alma and wraps an arm around her waist to pull her gently to his lap. She sits sideways on his knees, leaning against his chest, head laid comfortably on his shoulder.

“That was when my taint was discovered,” she continues. “Everything changed from then on. I became an aberration to my clan. And I have only managed to prove them right since, it seems.”

“You still long for their approval,” Dion notes, stroking her hair.

Alma snorts. Her warm breath brushes against his neck. “I never said I was sane.”

She straightens herself to look at him. “You asked me before what it was like to have a sphere. The truth is that it can be just… stifling. The gods know what I would have given, not that long ago, to be relieved of one of my spheres. Or even both of them.”

The spells that animate Gryphy break as Dion’s attention becomes focused on holding Alma, on touching his lips to hers, on kissing their shared melancholy away. The doll is just a doll again for that bittersweet moment in which they drown their sorrows and seal the sacredness of their shared secrets.

Since the trial, this has been becoming the core of their relationship. Albeit infused with a strong physical attraction that Alma’s limitations keep them from exploring fully, it has been this growing need for companionship, this relief in being weak and broken with someone who will not judge but sympathize that has kept them together.

Much to his surprise and against his fears, Dion has yet to grow bored of her company or touch. If anything, he wishes they had more time to share together. For as much as his other hungers keep being satisfied in the beds of occasional one-light lovers, it is her touch that he craves when his mind is unsettled.

How her lips always feel slightly cooler than other people’s. The way her pulse brushes against his skin through the tips of her fingers, lazy and serene, and slows down his perennially racing heart as she rests her hand on his chest, exposed by his open shirt. They are welcome sensations, comfortingly familiar, reassuring and soothing in their constance.

And whether a happy occasion or a moment of melancholy, any excuse is a good excuse to steal a kiss from her.

“Thank you,” she whispers as their lips part.

“You seemed to need a kiss,” Dion replies.

“And you?”

Dion shrugs, faking nonchalance. “I just wanted one.”

Alma grins. “Scoundrel.”

Dion smiles and strokes her cheek. He does not mind the word. It was spoken softly, sweetly, like a pet name. “Yes, pretty lady?”

The goddess rewards him with a long, passionate kiss. By the time she breaks away, the look on her face strongly indicating that there are more being kept where that one came from, a locket is dangling from her left hand. “Did I mention I need a favor?”

Ch6.33 Trust

Alma walks into her room, her mind set on finding a present for Saira among her things. The goddess has had an idea about that and she is certain that she already owns the perfect main component she will need to make the gift. However, something makes her pause even before she gets through the flowery privacy screen that covers her door.

The room is frozen.

It is not just a matter of temperature. In fact, the room does not feel that much cooler than normal. But the air is still. The usually wavering light reflected by the pool is dull and grey. The fountain has gone quiet. Time has stopped here.

Alma breathes deeply. Not many people could enter her sanctum uninvited and produce such changes. And only one person, in fact, could suck the life out of this flowery haven with his presence.

“I need to start sealing the entrances,” she mutters to herself.

“And then how will your little mongrels walk in here wagging their tails and asking for sanctuary?” a pleasant yet dry voice asks in return, through the screen. “You just can’t resist helping the fallen, can you?”

Ooooh, look who has come to visit… Nekh coos from his cozy little spot in Alma’s mind.

Alma does her best to ignore the winged haunt and steps through the flowers. Her eyes linger for a moment on the figure that stands beyond it, just two steps away from the pool. His long, pitch-black hair carefully pulled away from his face and tied into a loose ponytail with a satin ribbon to compliment a clean-shaven and pleasant face, allied to the pristine long black coat wrapped around his tall, slim body and fastened all the way to his neck with silver and mother-of-pearl inlaid buttons, paired with the carefully chosen trousers and boots, presents an amiable and delicate image to the public, far less frightening than the depictions of Death that Alma is used to seeing in temples and holy texts. No. Her father is a Senator, a politician, keen on becoming an Archon. And it is all a popularity contest, really, as much about looks as it is about wisdom or actual power.

Skin of a sheep, heart of a wolf, mind of a snake, the goddess thinks as her gaze travels up and down his elegant figure.

Aawww… You missed your daddy, didn’t you? Nekh taunts her. Knight in charming armor that he is.

Shut up, Nekh, Alma growls. Or I will surrender you to him.

To Death, she says. “The simplest act of kindness can save a life. But what would you know of such things?”

“I tend to the dead, child,” Death replies, stepping closer to his daughter, his pale skin contrasting so sharply against his jacket, that he seems to hover like a ghost amidst the shadows surrounding him. “As should you, being what you are.”

He reaches a hand to her and takes her chin between his fingers, holding her head higher until his black eyes stare into hers and she can see the delicate greenish-blue aura of his power glowing faintly at the very rim of those deep dark pools. “But you are always caring for the living…” he whispers softly, his every word laced with poison. “You are so much like your mother. So…primitive. Like an animal waiting to be tamed.”

“Was it you who tamed mother?” Alma ventures, her every thought focused on resisting the alluring darkness of her father’s eyes, like a mouse facing the hypnotic gaze of a snake. “Or was it she who tamed you?”

Can you say ‘dysfunctional family’? Nekh comments.

Silence!

“Do your new friends know this side of you?” Death whispers, placing a hand on her cheek and stroking it with his thumb. His face moves closer to hers as he adds, “Will they stand by your side when they find how poisonous your beauty can be? How many walls and traps are hidden behind it?”

Seriously, it’s just like watching two snakes mating! Nekh exclaims, clearly amused.

“Are you contemplating adding me to your harem, father?” Alma asks in a derisive tone. “Is your only daughter to become one of your concubines?”

She places a hand on his chest. Under her touch, he feels cold and quiet. Death has no heartbeat.

He chuckles quietly, taking obvious delight in his daughter’s insubordination. “For as much as I would like to go through the pleasure of breaking you to suit my whims, little soul, my current concerns are of a far more practical nature,” he replies, letting go of her and stepping away. “You are investigating a Soul Bomb.”

It is not a question.

“I knew this was not a courtesy visit,” Alma mutters, her arms crossed over her chest. “We were attacked with one, yes. The incident was recorded in my book. And Varah will have told you all she knows by now.”

Death nods. His back turned to the goddess, he seems to inspect every corner of her room as if trying to memorize it. “I read your report. Impressive, Alma. But very stupid. It would not be the first time a dismembered soul destroyed a death god. Especially, a weak one.”

“I had never even heard of a Soul Bomb before,” Alma notes in chilly tones.

“None has been used since the time of the Cleansing, when we made sure all the necromancer scum were wiped out,” her father explains, turning back to face her. “Is that not so, Nekh?”

At a snap of Death’s fingers, the vulture-headed deceased Archon materializes in the room, not two steps away from where Alma is standing. For the first time since his murder, the goddess can clearly see him instead of being haunted by images of where he would be standing and what he would be doing if he were, in fact, solid. Seeing him does not make his presence any less unpleasant.

“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised,” Nekh says, trying to sound confident and derisive.

“You really shouldn’t,” Death states, his tone dry as an ancient tomb. “But I should have predicted you would not go into the Wheel quietly. Has this piece of his soul been latched onto you since the attack at the Curia?”

“He first manifested some two weeks later,” Alma answers. Although he is still looking at the former Archon, the question was clearly meant for her.

At this point, there is no gain in lying. She could never have hidden Nekh from Death. A glimpse at her was really all her father needed to know her secret, even assuming the Fencer had not told him about it yet. And she would have told him…along with a number of other things. Alma can already see the wheels turning in his mind, calculating the best way to use Nekh’s soul to his advantage.

“I see,” Death whispers to himself. He finally looks at Alma. “And why did you not call me to remove him?”

Alma snorts. She puts herself between her father and Nekh, walking slowly towards Death, making sure he looks at her as she retorts, “Why? Would you have helped me, then? The way you did not help me when the Council came for my head?”

Her face is a finger’s width away from his when she whispers, “Daddy?”

“Ooooh… Look who’s throwing her claws out!” Nekh calls, clapping his hands in mock applause.

Death ignores him, looking impassive at his daughter’s accusations. “Why are you so stressed? They did not take it, did they?” His eyes lock on hers again. His words are charming but commanding. “Surrender him to me, Alma.”

“No,” the goddess denies him.

“Raaooowwwrrr,” Nekh jests.

Anger flares in Death’s eyes like a storm brewing on a moonless night. “You do realize I do not need your permission.”

I do, Alma thinks to herself, feeling somewhat guilty to be enjoying this so much. But for the first time in a long time, I am not afraid of you.

“He is latched on tightly,” she says. “And we both know that if I hold on to him, you will be forced to extract half of my soul just to take his. Is that what you want to do? Finally, finally end my miserable, shameful existence?”

“You go, girl!” Nekh cheers.

“Shut up, Nekh!” Alma and Death cry in unison.

“Birds of a feather…” the dead Archon sulks.

“Find me something I want and you can have him,” Alma offers, wondering how much longer she can keep this up. “I am sick of his whining and grumbling, anyway.”

Death chuckles. It is a most disturbing sound, like the lid of a sarcophagus sliding to let a cursed mummy out. “You have learned a few tricks. Now let us see if you can actually be useful. The necromancer. I have reason to believe it has killed your cousin Nashina. I want it eliminated. Not arrested, not tried. Destroyed.”

“Nashina? So that is why she would not reply to my calls!” Alma exclaims, eyes wide in disbelief. Her eyes narrow as anger begins to replace shock. “I will need information.”

“It will be provided,” Death replies.

“And the ceremony?” the goddess asks, cursing the question for sticking in her throat, making her sound desperate. “The one you ordered me not to attend.”

Death shrugs, seemingly unphased by this. “Your aunt has already bothered me too much about the issue. I will tell you what I told her. I could not care less if you show up or not. You have never been necessary for it, anyway. The souls you collect have always been mine to process.” He tilts his head, grinning softly. “And I am not the one who has to take the walk of shame in front of the whole clan.”

“It would not be the first one,” Alma hisses.

Death nods and snaps his fingers. A small pendant made of crystal shaped like a teardrop appears in his palm. Glancing at Nekh for no more than a second, he hands his daughter the jewel. “Throw him in there. I will not have his filth pollute the ceremony. Or cloud your judgement.”

In the blink of an eye, he is gone. And in his wake, light returns, sound returns, time once again ticks away. The room returns to normal.

Alma breathes deeply in relief. Her conversations with her father are always exhausting. His games drain her but, in her family, not playing means losing and no one wants to lose against Death. She feels sorry for the thousandth time that she can only seem to make him smile when she is fighting him. And speaking of fighting and being tired…

She holds up the jewel her father gave her.

Nekh’s eyes widen with realization. “Wait, what are you doing?”

She lowers her walls, relaxes her hold on Nekh’s soul.

“No!” Nekh cries.

At a whispered command, the crystal begins to glow, a vortex appears in its center.

“Noooo!” Nekh screams, trying to hold on to Alma against the overwhelming pull of the crystal.

He doesn’t stand a chance.

“Waaaaaaait!!”

He disappears, sucked into the heart of the crystal. Infused with his soul, the once colorless, transparent stone turns a vibrant, dark brown. Alma sighs in relief, enjoying the wonderful silence inside her head.

“Thank you, Father,” she whispers.

Her torture finally over, she rushes to find what she was looking for inside her jewelry box and leaves the room in search of better company.