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.

Ch6.38 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.

Ch6.35 Trust

Sky looks up from reading reports and other paperwork, catching up on a week’s worth in one double shift, to see the sunlight brightening through the window. Dawn. In two hours or so, Alma will be returning from her harvesting and Dion will probably be meeting her for breakfast, before the charming god of magic turns responsibility for the station over to the lovely goddess of death. Sky has worked almost through Dion’s graveyard shift, but he’s kept quietly to himself in his office, not wanting to bring down the ire of his sergeants who, protectively, don’t wish him falling back into old bad habits of skipping sleep. And they are right.

So he stands and stretches, but quietly. He is not, after all, alone. On his sofa, Mayumi is wrapped in a blanket, her eyes closed, breathing slowly. He pauses to look at her face, which in repose looks so at peace it brings a small smile to his face.

After the little welcome-home party, Mayumi had gone back to work while Alma and Dion had brought Sky completely up to speed. It wasn’t until later, after Sky met with Sergeant Machado and Corporals Lamore and Kaur for additional catching up and discussion of directions for the Popula, that Sky had settled into his office to go over reports.

Mayumi had brought those to him. And he had taken a break, and they had talked. She had told him, with sorrow-tinged excitement, that she had received word back from the Guardia Academy. She had been accepted. Sky had been silent at first, but simply embraced her and held her for a long while before he congratulated her, serious but heartfelt. As fast and efficient as the Academy’s training was, they both knew it meant a separation of six months. Six long Insula months, meaning six thirty-six-day months, six tenths of a year.

Sky is far more worried about Mayumi being apart from her family than about himself. Loneliness is something to which he long ago grew accustomed. In fact, he fears this love he feels for her more than the separation. He almost hopes she will find someone else at the Academy, someone more suitable than he. Liaisons between mortals and gods inevitably feature an imbalance, and by his nature, and hers as well, such an imbalance cannot be tolerated. It must be constantly corrected for, and this resistance makes such a relationship a source of great stress.

And he is not exactly a god. Or perhaps he is, in a way – he has been worshipped as one, and is able to function as one. But his origins…he feels wrong to become so close to her without sharing the truth of what he is.

She would be better off with another mortal. But she made clear, again, that she wants him. And he had given up resisting his own desire to be close to her following the murder of Stathos and his family. Life is for living. No matter how difficult that is sometimes. He will, he knows, have to tell her. Somehow.

And so after words and kisses, Mayumi asked if she could sleep in his office, and he agreed. She made sure he knew she wanted more, without pushing. She has accepted his explanation that, though affairs between subordinates are not explicitly prohibited – the privileges accorded to gods are naturally only barely restrained – that he wanted to wait until she graduates from the Academy and the matter of which station she will join is settled. If she returns to Three Rats, as is her preference, well, they will have to work things out somehow. Having her be an actual cop under his command will be even more awkward than the current situation. And if she’s sent elsewhere…the very thought makes his heart sink. Hopefully she will be nearby and he will be able to provide a portal she can use to reach the station here quickly and easily, living here and commuting to work each day. The very idea of the Bunnies’ family being broken up so soon after finding each other is enough to cost him sleep. But if she is assigned to one of the neighboring wards, such as Little Falls, that should not be too much trouble.

Speaking of which, he does not wish to wake her. But he needs to refill his kettle if he wants tea. He takes it and, conscious of Mayumi’s sensitive ears, slips out of his office.

The main office is early-morning quiet. Corporal Lamore is behind her desk. She looks up and gives him a nod and a smile, but returns to her work immediately. As he moves toward the canteen, Sky hears voices from the stairs that lead to the holding cells, and notes that the yellow rope has been unhooked and laid on the floor. The words are confusing at first, and then he realizes he is hearing Zwergen-ur, the language of the dwarves. He is not fluent, and it has been years since he had to learn it for a counter-assassination mission with Somrak, but knowledge of the language comes flooding back to him.

He sets the kettle on the counter in the small canteen, with its sink and small cooking range and single table jammed in the corner. Hmm, someone hasn’t been washing their coffee cup… He turns and follows the voices downstairs. It sounds like an argument about whether to wait or just go in and explore a little. Telling male and female voices apart is difficult with the Zwergen, but Sky is almost certain the one who wants to go into the hole is male.

Entering the room, the conversation abruptly halts, the two dwarves looking at him expectantly. Both have such advanced states of calcification that they find certain articles of clothing unnecessary, the female going topless, the male bottomless. Sky briefly wonders, as he has before, how reproduction and elimination of waste are managed in the male’s case, but he knows better than to ask. Tempted to greet them in their own language, the caution he has developed over two centuries of hiding his true nature and four decades of being one of the Commander’s ‘off-blues’ makes him reticent to reveal such an unusual skill. Questions about how a non-dwarf happened to learn Zwergen-ur would surely follow.

So instead he greets them in Urbia, extending his hand. “Mister Dwalkee, is it? I am Tuma-Sukai, Inspector of this station. I understand we have an unexpected development down here.” He looks at the large irregular hole in the floor, thinking grimly to himself, I’m going to have to squeeze through that, aren’t I? It looks just big enough.

The dwarf’s hand is like flexible stone, with a powerful grip to match. “Lad, if that’s what you wanna call it… If it’s up to me, we call it a hole and that’s settled.”

Sky shakes hands with the female dwarf as well, who gives her name as Metla Dwalkee. To them both, Sky asks, “Have you had a look inside yet?”

“Ya know, we tried?” the male says, annoyed. “Got the stuff ready, ‘bout to jump in and…zip! Other lass with the white hair said we better wait on you. I told her before you needed a sub-basement in here! Where’s the other lass, by the way?” He leans toward Sky and stage-mutters, “She’s nice in more ways than one, if you know what I mean.”

Mrs Dwalkee rolls her eyes. “Bruhn Dwalkee, you better not be bein’ permiscuous in front of me!”

In his normal volume, which is rather loud indeed, Mr Dwalkee replies, “No, shnookems! You know I always go ‘round your back when I can! ‘Cuz I’m sensitive like that.” Again he leans close to mutter to Sky loudly enough he could probably be heard upstairs, “She’s usin’ all them random long words she knows I can’t speak now but just you wait ‘till we get home and I get my hands on a dictionary. She’s gonna be cookin’ soup for a week!”

“I HEARD THAT!”

“No, Honeypie! I was just talkin’ to the Inspector ‘bout them new illustrated encyclopedias that just came out.” He mutters to Sky, “Eesh! Of all things to take outta her pappy, had to be them ears.” And resuming his louder voice, he says, “Aaanyway, wanna have a look in your hole?”

My hole. “Yes, let’s.” Sky is beginning to remember how noisy his and Somrak’s mission in the mines of the Zwergen was, and Mr Dwalkee seems to consider himself a comic who has found himself a straight man. “Is this room structurally sound?”

Dwalkee nods. “Provided you don’t expect the ceiling to stay where it is. Should be. Hey, can’t go any lower than that!” He jabs Sky in the hip with his elbow. “Ah, just kiddin’! I’m sure we can go in with a minimum of cave-ins. Here’s your hard hat.” He hands Sky a yellow helmet made of thick plastic, which Sky dons. “Here’s your light.” He gives Sky a lantern powered by compressed gas. “And here’s your rat on a stick to keep your teeth busy.” He hands Sky a grilled rat impaled on a stick.

Sky looks at the rat with a mildly nostalgic look on his face. Skinned, gutted, and grilled, but with the feet and head still on, and the tail traditionally wrapped around the skewer. He ate many a rat in his time with the Zwergen. “Looks delicious, and seeing as I haven’t had breakfast yet…” He takes a bite from its haunch. Ah yes, a proper Zwergen rat, bred for flavor. Delicious. “Speaking of which,” he says after swallowing, “why are you here so early?”

Mrs Dwalkee answers that. “Dwalkee is itchin’ to get in there. Came down here at sunrise.”

Dwalkee looks impressed that Sky took a bite, but says, “Hey, ain’t you gonna have that with ketchup?” He takes another out of a steel lunchbox that looks like it could survive a dinosaur stampede, squirts some red sauce from a small bottle, and offers the bottle to Sky while taking a bite. “Letsh hhwo, then?”

Sky indicates the hole before taking another bite and swallowing. “Lead the way, Mister Dwalkee.”

Using a harness and a pulley attached to the ceiling, Mrs Dwalkee lowers her husband into the hole. Moments later the empty harness is pulled back up and Sky is lowered as well. Mrs Dwalkee grunts with the effort of lowering Sky’s bulk, but dwarves regardless of gender are strong, and she is no exception.

He lands without incident on the floor of the room, strewn with rubble from the broken-through floor above. The ceiling is tall here, half again as tall as Sky, which is a relief for a god who has spent so much of his life ducking, or failing to duck and cracking his skull on doorways and rafters. He shines his lantern around, noting racks and shelves, barrels, an upright piano, and many, many bottles, all covered in a layer of dust as thick as the first joint of his index finger.

Their presence is kicking so much dust into the air that both spelunkers sneeze. Motes of dust dance fairy-like in their lantern beams.

“A wine cellar,” Sky says. “I wonder how long it’s been sealed away.”

Dwalkee picks up a bottle at random from a rack, wiping a blanket of dust off it. He twists the cork, pops it up, and takes a deep sniff, then opens his mouth wide. “Ah…Ah…ACHOO! Ugh, dust… Well this ain’t wine, lad. It’s whisky!” He holds the label in front of his lamp. “Balrog distilleries?! These bastards ain’t been around for over a hundred years!” He takes a swig. “Ah… The old stuff always holds better!”

The light from the room above is nearly eclipsed by a head and shoulders looking in. “BRUHN DWALKEE YOU BETTER NOT BE DRINKIN’!”

Crash! The bottle smashes to the floor, exploding, sending shards of glass and a bottle full of precious amber liquid across the floor and over both Dwalkee and Sky’s boots. “Gods damn it! Look what you made me do, you cross-eyed hag!” He murmurs loudly to Sky. “Can you turn her into a frog?” Even more loudly, he finishes, “At least she’d look right for her species!”

Sky kicks the broken bottom of the bottle off his boot, dismayed at the loss. The smell of whisky, a smell he quite enjoys but usually in less dizzying volumes, reaches his nose. “I can’t transform people into animals. I can attempt to damn something for you, but the effects are pretty subtle.” He squats down and picks up a large piece of glass that has the label on it, finding the date in fine print. “Over a hundred years?” Three Rats only became part of the Insula a bit over a hundred years ago. Or perhaps two hundred. There is disagreement. The confusion resulting from the parts of two cities breaking away from another Reality, fusing, and then crashing into the Insula – a strange process that is going on slowly but constantly – has left the exact time of Three Rats’ arrival in question. Whenever it happened, the locals must have very quickly started importing alcohol from other wards. And perhaps they even have bottles from their world or worlds of origin. Whether they came from the same Earth that he lived on has been a long-unanswered question.

“You know what you need here?” Dwalkee asks. “A bar! Got the booze, the tables, the piano, the rats. Add a few half-dressed barmaids, a fat barman, drench the floor in beer and let the red sauce run free and BAM! Old time tavern! Don’t say Dwalkee don’t help his clients.”

Sky drops the label, the glass backing it making a tink sound on the floor. “We have a bar on the property already, as a matter of fact.”

“You do?” Dwalkee shakes his head. “Then why the Hell didn’t you blow things up over there instead?”

“Mr Dwalkee, we did not blow up our own holding cells. That was an attack.” Sky goes to the piano and lifts the fall board to reveal the keys, which are almost dust-free. He presses a key and hears a deep, badly out-of-tune note. “Amazing.”

Above, the light is once again blocked. But a very different voice pierces the gloom, not quite as loud and far cheerier. “Mmmm, smell that whisky!”

Sky looks up. “Merri?”

Another voice, just as cheerful but with a slightly more cynical tone, adds, “I knew I heard a bottle shatter. Heard enough of ‘em. Can tell a dropped bottle from a mile away.”

At the same time that Mrs Dwalkee starts scolding the two Bunnies, Mr Dwalkee shouts, “Son of a bitch, I almost dropped another one! You gotta warn people before you scare the daylights outta them, lassies!”

Sky’s voice, backed with a hint of mana, rings out through the aural chaos. “Quiet!” In the absolute silence that follows, he calls out in a more normal voice, “Merri! Cherry! What are you doing here?”

The response to that is a slim body dropping down from above. Cherry lands easily next to Sky, her powerfully springy Bunny legs – looking quite human to anyone but a trained anatomist, other than the soft fur on her shins and the somewhat longer feet – easily absorbing the energy of the fall. She looks up and says, “Careful, baby! There’s some glass and rocks and stuff down here!” In a moment, Merri is next to her, straightening and looking around curiously. Cherry says to Sky, as if nothing is out of the ordinary, “Like I said, dropped bottle. Followed the sound.”

“An’ the smell hit us as we was comin’ down the stairs!” Merri finishes. “Oh goodness me! Look at all this!”

Mrs Dwalkee’s less-dulcet voice calls down from above, “Don’t you think you’ll be going down there without a hard hat, missies!” She extends an arm holding two helmets by the chin straps, and Sky, as by far the tallest in the room, stretches up and takes them from her.

“Oh gosh, sorry ma’am.” Cherry takes the hardhats from Sky. “Here, Merri, put one o’ these on.” She lays her ears back and crushes down her afro with the hat.

Merri laughs at her, but takes a hat herself. “How cute! GASP! A PIANO!”

Dwalkee looks at Sky. “Help clear somethin’ up for me here. Am I seein’ two young lasses with bunny ears? And did one o’ them actually say ‘GASP’ when she gasped? Balrog’s was famous for inducin’ hallucination.” He looks at the bottle, shrugs, then starts to open it.

“Hey!” Cherry cries. “Ain’t you on the clock? You already dropped one bottle! And how much is this stuff worth anyhow? You put that back where you found it, mister!”

Sky sighs. “Mr Dwalkee, these are Rosemary and Cherry. They are the proprietors and bartenders of the bar I mentioned. And–” He gives them a stern look. “–they are not supposed to be here. This could be dangerous.”

Cherry grins at him. “Dangerous? It’s a liquor cellar. We’re in our natural environment! This is like…our paradise!”

Merri’s voice drifts from behind a rack near the wall. “Oh aye! An’ look, Cherry! These are imports from all over the Insula. An’ beyond, I ken. We got wines, whiskies, bourbons, gins, cognacs, ports, sherries…”

“Sounds good, sweetie,” Cherry says, then turns back to Mr Dwalkee. Only instead of the stone-skinned, wisecracking dwarf, there is a hideous face, a crimson, twisted visage with tusks and a porcine snout, tufts of hair surrounding it. “UGA BUGA BUGA!” it shouts.

Cherry screams and, springing into the air, grabs onto Sky, her arms around his neck, one pretty brown leg hooked around his back, the other folded against her chest. The god had turned to see the horrific face at the same time as Cherry. He automatically puts an arm around her, and though he feels a momentary chill pass through him at the sight of such a hellspawn, he subconsciously knows it is no demon. If it had been, he would have sensed it much earlier.

Then the demon starts laughing. “Sorry, couldn’t help it! Ah, look on your face! Can’t breathe!” He slaps his knees, then looks up at Cherry with the mask still on. “Oh, don’t look at me with that tone o’ voice! Think this is scary, should have seen my mammy. Used to kill rats just by lookin’ at’em. Ah… good ol’ days…”

Cherry slowly climbs down from Sky and shakes her finger at Dwalkee. “You think you’re havin’ trouble breathin’ now, just wait’ll I get my hands around your neck! Now get that stupid mask off before you run outta air from laughin’!”

Merri calls out, “Cherry! This place is full o’ stage goods! Costumes an’ props! Oh, some of it’s fallin’ apart though…but some of it’s good! We could knock up a wee stage outta lumber an’ add it to the bar, don’t you think?” She emerges from behind the racks, dusty but smiling.

“A stage? Well, we were thinkin’ of havin’ musicians in… And this ward don’t have any decent theater. Pretty much just that place over in Jardins, and they hardly even try. Mostly just naked women dancin’ like they’re bored.”

“Oh, Cherry love, we’re gaenta put on plays!”

Sky puts his hands on both their shoulders. “That all sounds wonderful, but we really should get you two out of here.”

“But! But we gotta check out all this booze!” Cherry insists.

Merri nods her head rapidly, making her ginger curls bounce. “Oh yes! Can ye imagine how valuable it is?”

“Mr Dwalkee?” Sky asks.

The dwarf waves his hand casually. “Sure, we can take it all out while we make sure this place is safe. Need a staircase? We’ll throw in a staircase. Real beauty. Hardly been used.” He calls up through the hole, “Rest of the crew here? Hey, Jojy! Go get the spare staircase from the wagon!” He drops his voice to only its usual loudness. “Only one guy died on it and didn’t even leave any blood! Maybe that’s worth a coupl’a bottles? Don’t wanna add to your expense budget, an’all.”

Sky considers the possibilities. “The Guardia does own this land. I think these belong to it.”

Cherry pats his arm. “Listen, hon, let us figure out how much this stuff is worth first. Then we can figure out how much Mister Booga Booga Rockypants gets, huh?”

“An’ if we sell it in the bar,” Merri suggests, “little by little, we can be sellin’ it on commission like! Part o’ the money goes to the operatin’ expenses o’ the station!”

Sky shakes his head. “I’d better consult Sage and Cala on this. Anyway, for the moment, you two get out of here until we’re sure it’s safe.”

“Oh, all right.” Cherry looks up at the hole, then giggles when Sky puts his big hands on her waist, easily lifting her up until she can grip the edge of the hole and pull herself up.

“Oh! Me next! Me next!” Merri cries, bouncing in excitement. Sky lifts her up as well, and Cherry helps pull her up.

“Now that might come in handy,” Dwalkee says. “You wanna work for me, lad? You’d make a damn ugly dwarf but you’re a good ladder. Just uh… keep the helmet on, mind ya.”

Sky grabs a single bottle in order to investigate the age of the whisky further – which will naturally involve tasting it – then puts on the harness and is pulled up slowly by the dwarves. Dwalkee is soon back in the holding cells room as well. He sees two dwarves bringing in a disassembled set of wooden stairs. “What’re you bringin’ the staircase for? Take that back to the car! Didn’t you hear the man?” To Sky he says, “Sorry, ‘bout that. Hard to find good scholars to work construction nowadays.”

Ch6.32 Trust

Alma, Sky, Bunnies, Saira, Gwydion

The late-afternoon sun makes Sky pull his field cap down a little further to keep the light out of his eyes. Motes of dust glimmer in the light. Three Rats is on the morning side of the Insula, and whichever of the great Solar Clan deities who is driving the Sun Chariot today has already begun to go beyond the mountain. Night falls early and lasts long in this part of the Fourth Ring.

But still children play and merchants hawk their wares. Familiar faces greet him, and he pauses to speak to a few of the friendliest. Suspicion of his Guardia jacket – an everyday wool one, not the reinforced leather coat that had served him for years until its destruction in a recent battle – has faded somewhat. Many here may still see the Guardia as merely another gang, but they’ve proven to be the toughest gang, and the most reliable. When the Guardia say they will help, they follow through. When they say they will protect, they do, and ask for nothing in return. Months of holding to that code is beginning, finally, to have its effect.

No more bribes. No more extortion. No more rolling over for the mobs and being their cringing dogs. The Guardia here had been too few in number before, and underfunded at that, ignored by the top brass. Machado, as commanding officer, had done as well as he could, but some of his constables had not, and he had been unable to afford to lose any of them.

Things are different now.

Sky arrives at the front of the station, pausing to look at its façade. A fresh coat of paint would do nicely, tell everyone we’re doing fine, he thinks, and then laughs at himself. Even a week ago – no, two weeks ago, as he’d been asleep for a full week, recovering – such a detail would not have occurred to him. He’d been reeling with exhaustion, having burnt mana to put off sleep for a dangerously long time, happy to have Alma and Dion back to mop up the last of the shard gangs, the shattered remains of the Dukaine mega-gang that had fallen into a civil war upon the death of their leader, the Archon Nekh. Before that he had been for a time the only Dei in Three Rats Station, with little choice but to stay awake to support the Popula cops amid the chaos. And before that… So much had happened, so quickly. The theft of the Pearl. The attempts to murder the Bunnies. And now this necromancer business. He feels ashamed to have left in the middle of that, but there had really been no choice. Fatigue had made him more of a danger than a help.

Time to return to work. He opens the door and steps into the station. His station. Constables look up from what they are doing. A conversation between Patel and the Bunny Sage ceases, and the latter straightens, grinning broadly, and walks swiftly to stand between Sky and the others.

“Inspector, let me be the first to welcome you home,” Sage says, his soft voice filled with a touching joy. “You’re looking well.” Sky looks at the others, who are all smiling as well, murmuring “Good to see you, sir” and “Welcome back, sir.”

“Thank you,” he says to all of them with sincere pleasure. “It’s good to be back.” To Sage he asks, “Who is on command duty?” Ordinarily it would be Alma at this time of day, but the schedule could have been adjusted while he was out.

“Sergeant Alma, sir,” Sage says. They are friends, but like Mayumi, Sage, as a civilian secretary to the station, prefers to keep things formal while on duty, at least in front of the Popula. When Sky glances toward his own office door here on the ground floor, Sage indicates the upper floor with a movement of his chin. “In her office.”

Sky nods his thanks and proceeds to the stairs, noting a yellow rope tied across the door to the stairs leading down to the holding cells. Alma has been the commanding officer, not just for her shift but as a whole, in his absence, and according to Somrak she’s done a good job. Sky has no doubt in that report. But Somrak has also mentioned Alma’s stress, and though not exactly eager to resume the demanding role of leader, Sky does wish to relieve her of this burden as soon as possible.

The door opens before he can knock, and Alma’s smiling face welcomes him. Her delight at seeing him is apparent, but she doesn’t say a word, just grabbing his sleeve and pulling him inside, shoving the door closed, and then tightly clasping her arms around him, her face pressed against his chest. “Welcome back,” she whispers.

Sky puts his long arms around her slender body, kissing the top of her head. “I’m sorry I was gone so long. But I hear things went just perfectly.”

She laughs into his chest, and he laughs with her. She loosens her grip and looks up at him. “If that’s what you heard, someone’s been telling you fables.”

His smile fades. “I hope Somrak didn’t cause any serious problems. If there’s anything that needs taking responsibility for, I will do so.”

Alma pats his broad chest. “Don’t be silly. Everything has been handled and the reports are already sent.” She steps back and gestures toward her desk. “Kept the copies out for you to read later. She is all yours again, Inspector.” She puts her hands behind her back and smiles impishly, as if she is restraining herself from jumping with joy at being free of the burden.

Drily, Sky says, “Oh joy, paperwork.” He looks at Alma and takes her hands. “Thank you, Alma. You kept this place running through some very trying times, Somrak tells me.”

Her gaze falls as her smile vanishes. “I am afraid I didn’t do a very good job. No matter what Somrak may have said, I feel like I may not be a very good choice when it comes to leading a station.” With a tiny sound of anguish, she hugs him again. “I missed you, my friend.”

Sky envelops her in his powerful arms, wrapping her in a cocoon of affection. “I’m back. And Somrak and I have worked with a good many station commanders of a wide range of ability. The best leaders pretty much always have doubts about whether they’re a good choice for the job.”

Alma sighs happily in their embrace. “So…how much did Somrak tell you?”

“Let’s put it this way…I almost choked to death twice.” He feels his chuckling reverberating through her from his chest to his arms.

“Oh…that much, heh?” She giggles, then looks up at him. “Then I guess there isn’t much left to tell. He really tried to behave. Didn’t always succeed but he tried. And I’m glad you have him for a friend.”

Sky smiles sadly and he releases her. “We talked more as I was waking up than we had in the past couple years of working together. He seems…different.” He sniffs the air. “And…has someone been housing a dog in here? Or maybe…a lion?”

“Oh, that was just a tiger we rescued from the demon market. Somrak agreed to take the poor creature as a gift to my aunt. I wanted to keep him but…I have too many pets already.”

Sky can only stare, astonished for the twentieth time today. “Somrak forgot to mention the tiger. Such a minor detail compared to everything else.”

“Oh…” Alma considers. “I believe the tiger arrived here after Somrak was feeding you, if I have it all straight. So he wouldn’t have known about it yet.”

“I’m almost sorry you didn’t keep it… I wonder what other surprises are still to be found. I see there’s repair work going on downstairs.

Alma blinks before realization dawns. “Oh! Yes…The team repairing the cells has found a cellar. Maybe a sub-basement for storing goods that was sealed away for some reason. The think it may be quite large, but I told them to wait until tomorrow before going in.” She pokes his chest with a finger. “And by the way, you will be dealing with the contractors from now on.”

“Oh dear. Have they been rude?” He sounds like he might possibly become annoyed.

Alma laughs. “Worse. They have been dwarves…or dwarfs. Don’t ask them which one is right.”

Sky’s face lights up. “Oh! The Zwergen! Somrak and I had a fascinating stay in one of their cities once, during a mission. Yes, they can be…argumentative. It’s a cultural thing. Actually sort of hardwired into their language. You see…”

Alma interrupts, “Somrak mentioned it. Maybe you two can compare notes when he visits for the Year’s End celebrations and gift-giving.”

Sky feels surprised yet again. “Somrak is coming for New Year?”

“He promised he would do his best to be present. Although I know how it may not be possible. But if it is, we’ll see him again soon.”

Sky nods slowly. “I think he truly will do his best. Not that I would have believed it before our conversation this morning. But if he can’t…it’ll be because he really can’t.”

“Of course,” Alma says. “After all, the Year’s End will be in just a few days and he just left… But anyway, make sure to remember him during your gift shopping. Even if he can’t make it, we can always compensate later.”

“Gift shopping!” Sky feels almost light-headed. “Gifts… I haven’t bought New Year gifts for so long. Not since Somrak and I got the Commander gag gifts five…no six years ago. And no gifts for probably ten years before that.”

Alma bursts out laughing. “Oh the story of you two must be a rich one… Gift-giving is not really a tradition in my family. Each of us receives only one thing and it is always the same thing. For everyone. Our soul-collection log books. So, this will be new to me too. But the Bunnies want to do it and they will have anything they want for this first Year’s End together.”

Sky says seriously, “That’s right…their first New Year…oof. Pressure. And I’m terrible at choosing presents, too.”

“Well, maybe you can ask Gwydion for help. Which reminds me…He must be at the bar at this time. We should have a little meeting to make sure you’re caught up on everything. And I’m sure he will be happy to see you. Shall we go?”

Sky smiles as Alma takes his arm and he opens the door. “Of course. So who’s been using my office?”

“No one. It is as you left it. We all shared this office. I just told Somrak he could use my desk.” They begin to descend the stairs together.

“Oh you didn’t have to do that. I’m sorry for the inconvenience.” Sky notices that the main room of the station is empty. Strange.

Alma shakes her head. “It just did not feel right. Move into your office? And for a week? No. We were fine where we were. Whenever my desk was occupied, I just used Gwydion’s. He doesn’t mind my using it.” She squeezes Sky’s arm, smiling. “He was…really supportive during your absence.”

Sky pauses before the door to the breezeway, looking at her. “I am very happy to hear that. You know, Somrak, me, perhaps Dion as well…this place changes people.” He grins at her. “Or maybe it’s just the company we’re keeping.”

Looking please and slightly embarrassed, she replies, “There are good people here. And besides…Bunnies.” She chuckles and opens the door. “They’ll change anyone. Oh, I have had my first lesson with the infamous Master Pak.”

Sky closes his eyes and groans. “Pak… You know those dreams where you find yourself back in the Academy and it’s exams time and you’re late and you can’t find a pencil? Or your pants? I feel like that every time I remember I’ll be training with him again.”

Alma laughs softly. “You see, it is things like that that made me very worried about my first session. But he was…nice. Encouraging. Offered me tea. Very different from my we-don’t-believe-in-dull-practice-weapons training with the Fencer. And just so you can have an idea…this sword is my old practice sword from my times with her.”

“Well, Pak can take different approaches with different students. Definitely not a one-size-fits-all teacher. And you never know, next time he might be smacking you with a stick. One time–”

Sky opens the door to the bar and freezes at the ragged roar of “SURPRISE!” followed by calls of “Welcome back” and “Yay!” Alma steps away just as a slight body springs at him, squeeing, and he automatically catches Tulip as her arms and legs wrap around him. She plants a big kiss on his cheek and then hugs him tight. “Mmmmmm! You’re here! Do you know what? There was a big rat? And Somrak burnt the table? And I didn’t see it but I heard all about it and oh Somrak had a tiger?”

Sky rides the tide of words. Holding her brings back memories in a sudden flood, of children held, of presents and a tree and family.

“Come on, give the guy a break!” Cherry takes his hand and pulls him into the crowd, looking back at him with a big smile. Still holding Tulip, Sky sees Sage grinning with his arm around Constable – no, once-again Corporal Aliyah Kaur’s waist, apparently seeing this as momentarily off-duty. Merri is pouring drinks under a red paper banner covered in hearts and stars that reads “WELCOME HOME!” and Kori and Chime are helping to serve them out to the Popula constables from the office.

Gwydion negotiates his way through the mob and takes Sky’s hand from Cherry and shakes it. Then, seeing the overwhelmed look on Sky’s face, he lets go Sky’s hand and gives him a warm one-armed man-hug. “Welcome back, my friend. You were missed.”

Stunned, Sky returns Dion’s embrace while still holding Tulip with his other arm, as she chatters to him about this and that, and then Tulip shifts her grip to Dion and kisses the sergeant on the cheek and snuggles against him.

“Welcome back, sir!” Aliyah has approached and, perhaps unable to resist all this affection, she hugs him as well. A beer appears in his hand, given to him by Kori, who grins and darts away, and another hand takes his free one. He looks down to see Mayumi, who had been out of sight before, waiting until the others had their chance perhaps.

Her mouth moves. He cannot hear her above the tumult, but he knows she is saying hello. Her eyes crinkle in sympathy. She reaches up to touch his cheek, to touch the moisture that is spilling over. Oh…they’ve made me cry, he thinks. Mayumi’s nose turns a little pink and her eyes become wet in reaction to his tears, but it passes after a moment. She pulls him away, over to the sofa, where Saira has been sitting through all this, perched on one end. Mayumi sits him down on the other.

Saira raises her glass to him, leaning forward across Mayumi to tap his drink with hers. “I think they just might like you.”

Sky can do nothing but nod, holding Mayumi’s hand, the beer as yet untouched in his other. Merri brings a slice of cake, sees the tears, exclaims, “Oh!” and takes his beer, setting it alongside the cake on a table, twisting her apron around two fingers to pat his face dry with it. “Ye great silly…” the Bunny says, her voice full of affection.

Across the room, Sky sees Alma on the periphery of all this watching him with a small smile. Dion brings her a slice of cake, and though he does not put an arm around her, the way they stand tells anyone who looks that they are a couple.

“Sky?” Mayumi is looking at him, a little worried.

He gives her a watery smile. “I’m all right.” His voice is thick. “I’m home.”

Ch6.29 Trust

Darkness falls across the land…and it’s already half an hour late. The nice fellow driving the sun around must have had a few too many to drink this time around. Took his time moving the damned thing across the sky. Which is funny, come to think of it, because no one in their right mind would take twelve hours to drag a massive ball of fire across the heavens. No one even remotely sane would think of strapping it to a wooden chariot either.

Gods…

Daytime would probably last about three seconds if they gave the job to a mortal. And fireproof underwear had better be included in the deal. But darkness is a completely different matter. Darkness is good and steady. No need for a babyfaced god to sprinkle it over the place or for some heavenly lotto to decide who gets to drag it out of storage each day. It falls softly over cities and fields like a mother tucking in her child. In the wake of day, in the wake of light, darkness stretches from every corner, sometimes lazy and yawning, sometimes quick and pouncing. Always reliable. Always lying in waiting in its burrows, awake even during the day. Powerful even under the sun.

Light has to be sparked. But darkness is always there.

Night has fallen on Three Rats. To the untrained eye, of course, this may seem hard to notice. Many alleys in Three Rats see about as much light as a mole rat’s tunnel, after all. But the wider streets and plazas are a good place to start looking for nighttime. For one, they are dark now, sunlight replaced by the dim, buzzing light of the street lamps that spend more time going out than doing their job. Second, they are quiet. Well, quieter. Whoever thought of the expression urban jungle clearly knew what they were talking about. The traffic and babble of daytime have been replaced by hushed and drunken conversations (three words that don’t always fit together in the same sentence) that serve to build up the quiet of night in the same way a few noctivagous rodents, some very unlucky insects and the occasional romantically inclined frog band together to make jungle nights feel slightly less disturbing.

But the third thing about Three Rats nights… that is what makes them different here. Forget the stars and all that crap. Sure, they are pretty and shiny and distant and cold and you can get a great view of them on clear nights like this. But stars are like furniture in a landscape. Only ever miss it when you sit down and your rear end takes a bit longer to hit something solid. No, what makes the night in Three Rats is the breeze. That quiet, odorless breeze that brushes against the skin like lightning going by, that makes the heart rush, the blood pump, the brain think all sorts of crazy and dangerous thoughts. It carries the sounds of distant voices, the taste of different crimes. And on a good night, between all the things it brings, the unmistakable signs…of prey.

But not tonight.

Tonight the breeze wafts gently over the rooftop of the building annex to the Three Rats Guardia Station and curls around the sinuous figures that emerge from inside the building, through the access door. Instinctively silent by virtue of their trades, they cross the flat rooftop (not like there are huge downpours or blizzards on this part of the Insula) in the direction of the chimney. Against the coolness of night, the slightly warm bricks of the kitchen exhaust feel pleasant against their backs as they sit down against it. From here, the never quite sleepy ward sprawls away downslope, with its streetlights and with glimmers that go all the way to the Fifth Ring. On a clear day, the ocean would be visible, way down there. Now there is only blackness.

Somrak uncorks the whisky bottle he swiped from the bar downstairs and holds it up. “What do we do about glasses?”

Two whisky glasses clink in front of him almost immediately. He looks at his drinking buddy for the night with that typical male look of How on the Isle did you manage to hide that on your person? that men everywhere have used at least once when meeting a woman with sticky fingers.

“Here ya go,” Saira offers. “I was gonna swipe some ice but that might not have been a good idea…”

“Oh, this is fine whisky. We can have it neat.” Somrak replies, pouring a couple of fingers worth of the amberine liquid into each glass. Putting the bottle down, he takes his glass and raises it. “Cheers.”

Saira touches her glass to his. “Saúde.”

The first touch of the drink to her tongue is like a hot little wake-up call to her taste buds. She has to admit it, Sky does have good taste in the stuff. Smoky, peaty, with a strange hint of seaweed to it, the liquid sloshes happily against the roof of her mouth, on its way to her throat. Like an old friend come visiting.

If Saira had any of those left. She drinks in silence for a moment and so does Somrak. Truth be told, they hadn’t managed to be completely sneaky about this rooftop drinking thing. Damned Bunnies with their ears and noses had caught the jingle of the bottle or the smell of disturbed dust or something and nearly shut down operation Drunken Rat. But for some miracle or other, Cherry had apparently decided not to be a pain. Saira had caught her whispering a plea to Somrak not to let things get too out of hand. It’s equal parts sweet and unnerving for Saira, a self-made woman who hasn’t known a fixed address for decades and who has survived (and profited from) more gang wars than most high-class thugs can brag about, to be mothered by a Bunny. Times like this, it is even embarrassing, verging on humiliation.

She finds herself holding the glass very tightly between her fingers. A deep breath and she relaxes her grip. This kind of thing could be enough to set off another one of her…episodes. Glancing to her left, at where Somrak sits, she finds the god gazing at the landscape ahead of him, eyes half shut, whisky glass held lightly from a hand perched on his knee.

“Feelin’ better now?” she asks, more out of a need for a distraction than actual curiosity.

He looks at her as if he is just noticing her presence for the first time. The answer takes a while to come. “Mmm, yeah.” He turns his eyes to the greys and blacks of the sleepy ward. “I see why you like it up here.”

“I’d like it better if I didn’t have to worry about crampin’ up and fallin’ but that’s not gonna last long,” Saira replies bitterly. The feeling of entrapment in this cozy little home has been growing quickly in her over these last few days. She dismisses these thoughts and looks into her glass, twirling the whisky inside to release the scent stored in the drink. “You gonna tell me what that was downstairs or you just wanna enjoy the landscape?”

Again, that look like words are only barely registering for Somrak. He tilts his head in confusion, then straightens again. “Oh…you mean the rat and the fire and all that?”

Saira snorts. “Well, sure ain’t talking about glitter and goddesses stroking your hair, am I?” She catches him smiling at that.

Ha! Knew it. And totally oblivious to the fact that she’s taken, too.

She considers telling him about Alma and Dion but decides against it. It’s none of her business. All she’d manage to do is cause pain on an already bad night, anyway. Besides, gods are weird, always running around sleeping with cows and threatening people with long-range weapons until they fall in love. Who knows what kind of agreements they’ll cook up in these situations?

So she just sticks to the rat. “Face it, you went way overboard with the whole table burning thing. Looked possessed or somethin’.”

That one looks like it caught his attention. Somrak hangs his head a little and puffs out his cheeks, which makes him look just ridiculous enough for Saira to want to poke his face and make the air come out. But he releases the air before she gives in to that urge.

“Yeah… A long time ago, before I was born, there was a lot more necromancy going on all over the place,” he explains. “I mean, there’s still a little. There’s certain gods that have licenses to have, like, animated skeleton servants because it’s part of their…thing.” He sneers at this, looking disgusted by it. “But there were mortal wizards doing all sorts of crazy stuff, cultists who thought if you became undead you were immortal. And some of that stuff is infectious. The wards around mine, my homeland, got overrun by all sorts of undead creatures. The survivors vowed eternal enmity. I…because I have the power to burn such…abominations, to just destroy them, I was meant to be a sort of, well…holy figure. I mean, I’m a god so, naturally. But even more so.”

He shrugs, looking at her almost apologetically as if waiting for her to laugh at him. She doesn’t disappoint. “You…a holy man.” She pretends to appraise him, looking him up and down, then chuckles. “Love, you look like the devil come knockin’. Not very good marketing for holiness, if you ask me.”

Somrak smiles and sips his drink. “Anyway I guess the indoctrination didn’t completely fail to stick. Seeing that thing jumping at…” Words die in his throat, his eyes snap shut. He shakes his head, probably trying to dislodge an ugly mental image of rat teeth sinking into pale flesh. He takes a deep breath and opens his eyes again. “Well, let’s just say I want that necromancer more than ever.”

Saira nods, keeping her eyes on the rooftops, glass traveling to her lips almost without her noticing it. “Yeah, I know a thing or two about wanting someone like that. I know how it makes you blind. Of course–” She notices her glass run dry and sets it down by her side before leaning against the chimney. “–that’s not half bad when it’s just you. Keeps stuff in focus. Lets nothin’ distract you.”

Her voice trails off. Her thoughts get jumbled at her own words. They have been doing that lately, usually straight, simple thoughts getting all complicated and sticky like dirt mixed with water. She has been alone for so long… Of course there has been the occasional connection, the acquaintances she keeps and refrains from shooting at on a regular basis. But none of those have been friends as such, none have been companions, gang, family. She doesn’t know what that is like anymore. Really, she has never known. And just like anyone who is denied something like that, she has learned to disdain it.

But the last weeks with these strange people who have taken her in so eagerly, who accept new members into their group so easily, so openly, have dealt a hard blow to her resolve. She finds her own mind fighting to resist the old habit of rejecting bonds that might weigh on her. It’s frustrating. She knows how things go, she knows how it is like for her and people like her. Why on the stupid mountain would she now start thinking that it could ever change?

I’ve gotta get out of here. This place is messing with my head.

Like a sneaky echo of her treacherous thoughts, Somrak speaks softly, looking at her with what better be the empathy of a fellow rogue. “Do you want it always to be just you? Did you ever think about…joining a team again?”

Saira looks at him, wondering where this is going. “That sounds like a neat dream,” she says with a snort. She shakes her head, pushing back all those useless, distracting thoughts back to the deep dark spots where all doubts like to hide. Then, she takes the bottle that has been sitting by his right thigh to fill her glass and get her head to start moving in a straight line again. “No… I been dead since that day the Dukaines came. Dead people don’t dream.”

She takes a sip of the nicely warm drink and focuses her eyes on the rooftop ahead. This conversation is turning out to be a lot more uncomfortable than she imagined at first and she doesn’t want her eyes to betray her turmoiled inner thoughts should Somrak take a closer look. She is pretty sure he can’t read thoughts but faces are something that even mortals can read. Whatever it is he is looking to achieve with this line of conversation, she would rather be in control of what he gets. Through the corner of her eyes, she can see him looking at her for a moment. Then he looks to his side and she hears him refill his glass and very casually moving the bottle to his left, away from her. Had she truly been distracted, she would not have noticed it. She pretends that she didn’t. Somrak is probably just trying not to be too obvious about obeying Cherry’s soft-spoken orders.

“You don’t look dead,” he notes. “But there’s a lot of power in thinking of yourself that way. You can get a lot done. But you’re going to make yourself well and truly dead not much later, following that road.”

Ah… The you’re-throwing-your-life-away sermon. Settle down, find a bloke who doesn’t mind his wife being a heartless killer and raise a bunch of fat kids that are good for nothing except paying taxes and making more fat babies. Isn’t that the meaning of life according to most religions anyway? Honor thy god, make more worshippers to keep him rich and powerful? She has heard this so many times… When you’re a woman refusing to settle for that one-size-fits-all plan, you tend to hear it a number of times, usually as veiled criticism of your chosen lifestyle. How dare you be different from everybody else? It’s not even about wanting something more. Just, how dare you want different? Who are you to redefine happiness? How dare you question the rightness in settling for what no one actually wants in order to be what everyone wants you to be?

Ah, humans… No better than gods, really.

And it is not like gods even care if their worshippers are happy. But they do need them to be alive. Dead people don’t pray, either.

Saira turns her head to look at the fire god sitting by her side, her eyes half shut in humorless retort. “I’m mortal, hon. We’re all born to die, ain’t we?” The way he cringes ever so slightly at that almost makes her laugh. “And anyway, when did this conversation get to be about me?”

Somrak takes a deep breath, the former empathetic look in his eyes being replaced by a more serious, no-nonsense one. “Saira, I’d like you to join my crew. You’d be Guardia, with all the benefits that implies: backup, free healing, police powers. But Guardia with a difference, without some of the disadvantages.” He takes a sip of his whisky. “Many of the usual rules would not apply. You would have a rich array of targets, quite deserving of your expertise. And I’d make sure that you would mainly be sent after Dukaines. There are a great many of them all over the Urbis who need taking care of. More than you could ever track down on your own.”

“How tempting,” she replies dryly at the offer that sounds too good to be true. “What’s the catch?”

Somrak smiles at the question, his scar pulling it slightly off true. Come on, love, there’s always a catch. “The catch. Well, it would be a job. Responsibilities and such. But there would be pay, and a place to live.” He seems to think about it some more before shrugging. “Food’s not too bad.”

Saira snorts at that last bit. But there is something that he left out that she cannot afford to ignore. “And I can’t touch anyone the Guardia thinks is worth more alive than dead.”

Somrak hesitates for a moment, then nods. “There is that. And there’s been times I didn’t like it one bit. But I’m still serving, because I decided it’s worth it.”

Oh, man, this is almost too funny. Is he really trying to recruit her with all these worn-out lines? “Sure!” she exclaims, voice laced with so much irony that it could probably be picked up by a magnet. “Got nothin’ to do with what they’d do to someone like you if you decided to quit all of a sudden. I imagine no one would come lookin’ for you if you were to…” Her fingers flex and stretch like the flaring of an explosion blast. “Disappear?”

“I’ve thought about it. Now and then. But on balance, the things I do are necessary. They help people. They’re not always pleasant. But sometimes…they’re very satisfying.” He looks down and smiles that lukewarm, humorless smile of people coming to terms with a difficult truth. Recruiter or not, he truly seems to believe in what he is telling her. His eyes find hers again. “My Commander asked me to put the question to you, if I felt you would make a good addition to the team. But now that I’ve worked with you, I’d have asked him if I could invite you anyway. I want you on my team. Not just in the division. On my team.”

Saira looks at him, finding it hard to hold his gaze. Her doubts come rushing back. Of all the people she has met since the whole Pearl incident and now, after the demon, Somrak is the only one she has managed to feel a certain kinship towards. Sky is a nice guy but a bit too much of an idealist to her cynical, down-to-earth tastes. Dion is…well, Dion. Saira is still trying to figure out what Alma sees in the uptight, too pretty, always-looking-out-for-a-skirt-he-can-hop-into god of magic, in the first place. And Alma… Alma is a conundrum. The death goddess feels close and far all in one go, motherly and affectionate but distant and transcendent at the same time. It is like they connect on some deep level one minute and then a second later just pull apart for no reason. She can’t avoid caring for the goddess but it is like trying to reach for the moon with a piece of twine.

And the Bunnies…none of them could possibly begin to understand a life like Saira’s. Same thing for the Popula. But this guy, now… This fire god come out of nowhere, with his leathers and his loner ways, he has the best chance of understanding and being understood by Saira. She doesn’t need to learn very much about him to know the truth in that. She can see it, hear it, smell it on him. The emptiness of dark nights and empty days, filled with a purpose that almost no one can understand. Of all of them, Somrak is the last one she would expect to try to save her. Or hobble her. People like Saira can never be fully controlled. Sure, they can be steered but if their leash is too short, they will spend more time chewing on it than biting their intended target.

He knows that. Would he really make the offer if he didn’t know what it really means? What he is asking of her?

Too late, she realizes she has been staring at him through this entire internal ramble and swears. How much has he been able to catch of her digressions? He is looking softly at her again, almost as if she were a wild animal on the verge of dashing off. What has he seen on her face? No point in wondering. Too late to do anything about it. She tears her eyes off of his and points them at the distance and tries to find some way to gain some time. She feels tired. Mellow.

“Still one name on my list, love,” she says, taking a sip of her drink to hide the strain in her voice. “One guy I gotta send to Hell. Either that kills me or…” She exhales deeply at the not-completely-a-lie. “One name on my list.”

Somrak looks at her curiously at that, not even trying to hide the interest in his voice. “You mentioned him before. What’s the name? Who is this target?”

Saira shrugs, secretly grateful that he took the bait for a subject change. “I don’t know his real name. But all the Dukaines I put down knew about this guy. Famous among them, pretty high up in the gang. Called most of the shots, they said. And if they didn’t do what he said… straight to Hell with them. Everyone was afraid of him. Probably called him different names, dependin’, but here every gang member knows about a Mão Esquerda do Diabo.” She moves her glass to her right hand and raises her left, looking at it almost as if doesn’t feel quite like a part of her. “Devil’s Left Hand.”

Somrak glances off to the side as if thinking about it. Silence spreads for a pregnant moment. Then, “I’m heading back to my usual job tomorrow, after I rouse Tuma-Sukai. Figure he’s slept enough by now. And I can’t keep the Commander waiting any longer. I will look into this guy. We may have a cross reference connecting that nickname to a real name. Or another nickname, and that may lead to something. Anyway…I’ll share what I can with you. If you’ll promise to think about my offer. After all,” He sips his drink, “if you take this guy down and discover you’re not dead, you’ll need to figure out what to do next.”

Saira cannot help but chuckle at that. The reason why she has never made plans for the day after she catches that Dukaine bastard is simple enough: she has never planned to survive to see it. Someone like Somrak should know that.

“Confess. You just like my company, isn’ it?” she jests, turning her head to face him. “Other cops like you gettin’ to be too boring?” She looks at him and chuckles again. He actually looks embarrassed, like she just called him on his true intentions. But no, his expression changes quickly to one more serious. She lets her chuckle die off, empties her glass and nods. “I’ll think about it. Put my heart into it just for you, love.” She adds with a wink. “Now, don’t you be greedy! Lemme see that bottle!”

She stretches an arm and leans over him, almost lying on his lap to reach for the bottle he so badly tried to hide. He reacts and tries to fend her off with his right arm, while his left picks the bottle by the neck and stretches to keep it outside Saira’s reach.

“Hey, cut that out!” the god laughs when she nearly falls on his legs. “I’m not a pillow, you know!”

She twists a bit to grab his stretched arm and his bent one, the one pushing her away, hand still clutching his own glass, suddenly presses against her chest. He removes it immediately but the sudden release in pressure throws her off-balance and she falls, unsupported, onto his lap. She tries to use her hands to push herself upright but his body jerks with laughter just as she starts to push against the rooftop. Her hands slip and she falls again with a choked-up cry, making Somrak laugh even harder. She starts laughing too.

It really is a comic situation that would probably raise many questions, Saira lying full-length across Somrak’s lap, her chest caught between his torso and his left thigh, her knees pressing against his side, feet flailing uselessly. Get it on film and add some spanking and they could probably sell it as a really shady movie. But all they do is laugh, heartily and loudly and probably just a tiny bit drunkenly. Well, not drunkenly, they’re not drunk. Just a little buzz, maybe. Buzzily? Buzzily. If that’s not a word, then it should be. They laugh buzzily. For a long time.

Eventually, Saira manages to start breathing right again and tries to get up again. She manages not to fall this time. “Well, that was fun!”

That makes Somrak laugh a bit longer. “Yeah…” He rubs his eyes to clear a little laughter-induced tear and brings the whisky closer. “You really shouldn’t have any more of this. This is your first night drinking again and you’re already falling on me. Not that I’m complaining.” He adds that last bit just a little too fast for comfort and looks a little alarmed at the frown of irritation she is faking. That makes her chuckle which seems to reassure him. “Besides…I promised Cherry I wouldn’t let you have more than one and you’ve already had two.”

“Two?” She waves him off. “Nah, you counted wrong. First one was for practice. Besides, gotta drink to your impendin’ departure before everyone starts gettin’ ready to welcome Sky back from the dead.”

Somrak looks at her pensively for a minute, then tilts his head in agreement. “All right, but let’s let your body process it for a little bit, huh? Even I’m getting a little buzzed.” He holds up his glass to look through the golden-brown liquid. “Drinking Sky’s whisky with a woman while he’s asleep. Not the first time I’ve done that.” He glances at her as he lowers the glass to the floor. “How well do you know him?”

She takes a moment to think about this. How well does she know the guy? Huh…not much, apparently. “Can’t say I know that much. Shot some purple monkeys with him, fought some demons, saved some Bunnies.” She shrugs. “Standard usual, I guess. He’s nice an’ all but he’s usually too busy workin’ to hang out much. Worries too much. Bunnies like him. Cops like him.” Her hands go up in surrender. “Must be a good guy. You’d be better off askin’ Prettyboy. Or Alma. Definitely Alma.”

Somrak nods silently, eyes distant. Gods should be pretty much immune to alcohol but he doesn’t seem to have been kidding about that buzz. Melancholic drunk. Lovely… “She’s mentioned him a couple of times. And I saw the way they talked, before…when they were fighting to save the Bunnies. They’re close.”

“Oh, I heard a thing or two about some epic fights between them,” Saira assures him. Those rumors are a favorite among those Popula who have put some money on a Alma/Sky office romance. “But nothin’ like killin’ Dukaines to bring people together. Why are you asking?”

Again, a pregnant pause. “I’ve worked with him for decades. Longer than you’ve been alive. And he hasn’t had any connection to anyone in that time like he has with the people here. Including me. It’s hard to believe.”

He does not sigh at the end of that comment but he might as well have. His tone is sad, but more than that, like some part of it is glad for his friend but another is – what? remorseful? resentful? “You feelin’ jealous, hon?” Saira ventures in sweet tones that hopefully sound playful. “Gave him your heart and he gave it away?”

Somrak’s lowered head turns to look at her, and that lopsided smile returns. At her shrug and that universal facial expression of Hey! I ain’t judging! he just laughs and shakes his head. “No… It’s just hard to believe it’s the same guy. Then again…maybe he’d think the same of me.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Saira replies with a chuckle. She thinks about what to say next. “They like you here, you know? You’re gonna be missed.”

That doesn’t seem to fall too well with Somrak. “They’re going to miss all the chaos I brought with me,” he says bitterly, looking down. “Sure.”

“No, you idiot,” Saira scolds him softly. Self-loathing annoys her and normally, she would with be a lot less tolerant of it but his tone is broken enough to soften her tone. “They’re gonna miss their friend. You’re family to them.”

He opens his mouth but closes it again, seemingly lost for words. His eyes go forward and down to his glass, where it sits on the floor. He takes it, empties it down his throat and then stares into the empty glass as if he could read the meaning of life in the leftover drops of whisky. Saira looks at him for a minute and lets silence spread. Somrak is clearly fighting some internal problem of his own and she has no place getting in the middle of it. If only she had some whisky to keep her company…

After a while, he blinks and turns his head to look at the bottle. “Well, maybe a little splash to say goodbye for now.”

“Now, you’re talkin’!” Saira exclaims, nearly driving her glass up his nose so he will refill it.

“Hey!” A voice that is too Bunny-like to bode anything good suddenly rips through the night. “You said you’d keep her to one drink!”

Saira can’t help but cringe and Somrak even spills a bit of the whisky with the scare. “Ahh!” he complains, sucking the booze off his fingers so it doesn’t go to waste. “You Bunnies move way too quiet!”

Cherry looks at the two of them with a closed expression that is a scolding all of its own. Balled up hands on her hips, foot tapping the floor, she glares at them for what feels like a really long time. They wait for the mother of all lectures to start at any moment. Any moment now, a scolding that will leave their ears bleeding.

But all the Bunny does is sigh. “Just a splash, okay?”

She takes a couple of steps and sits facing them. A shot glass materializes in her hand out from…somewhere. They look at her, then at each other. Somrak looks a question at Saira, Saira looks a I don’t know at him. And, eventually, they both shrug and the whisky starts pouring again.

Ch6.28 Trust

Gwydion has to run hard to catch up with Alma. He calls out her name more than once, but she does not slow. Fortunately her ghostly white hair nearly glows in the light of three Moon goddesses high above, and even when Alma slips out of sight around a corner, he quickly finds her, at last, collapsed at the edge of a fountain in a square a few blocks from the station.

She is breathing hard, clutching the circular stone bench that circumscribes the fountain itself, knees on the flagstones of the square. Gwydion approaches, kneels, and puts his hands gently on her shoulders.

Alma does not turn to face him. Her voice is broken by tears. “They know my name. This is all my fault. It’s all my fault.”

“What? No…” Dion tries to gently talk her down from her panic. “Alma, your name is well known in Three Rats. Surely they know Sky’s name and mine too. Any low-level gangster does by now. They are just trying to get under your skin.”

“The bomb, Stathos’ family, this rat…” She looks over her shoulder at him. “You heard it. They were going after me. We thought it was against us all but… It all started when I–” She seems to realize her voice has been growing louder, and that the square, not entirely unpopulated, now has several people staring at this odd spectacle. “–when I killed Nekh. This is punishment. I shouldn’t have killed him. I shouldn’t have. The Council should have sent me to rot in Hell.” She curls in on herself, hands covering her ears. “At least it would be better than this.”

Dion holds her closer. “No no no… Hell is not better. The Council decided that your actions were justified. And I would never want you anywhere but with me. Alma, listen, this is not your fault.”

“He haunts me, Gwydion. Nekh. He haunts my mind at all hours, day or night. I can’t sleep, I can’t think. I can’t…” She breaks down in silent tears, her fingers gripping the lapels of his jacket, pulling him closer.

“Shhh, it’s all right.” He struggles to find the right words, knowing she is wracked with guilt, but still not quite believing she did the right thing in killing Nekh, no matter how glad he was at the Council’s decision. “He can’t hurt you. He’s gone and you’re here, with friends, with your family. You know you did what you had to do.” He has struggled over it a great deal, himself. He has come to accept that he both believes what he is telling her, and at the same time believing what she did was wrong. What she had to do was merely the lesser of two possible wrongs. And this guilt, this pain, is the punishment.

Alma nods against his chest. “I did. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“Shh. There’s no point in torturing yourself over it. These people are just gangsters who want this ward for themselves. We’ll deal with them like we always have. Now breathe. I’ll keep you safe.”

Alma slowly begins to calm down. “Forgive me. I…I shouldn’t have run away like that. If they were watching, they’ll be laughing about it now. Of how their plan worked.”

“They won’t be laughing for long,” Dion insists. “We shall have the last laugh.”

The goddess lifts her head to nod at him, her eyes red from the tears. “Thank you.” She puts her arms around him, holding him tightly. “You are so gentle,” she whispers.

“Only with you,” he whispers back. He smiles at her wryly, hoping for a smile in return. “Don’t I get a kiss?”

Giving him a small, wan smile, she lays her head on his shoulder. “Yes.”

Dion cups her cheek and raises her head slightly, his eyes closing as he kisses her.

With all his dalliances, the kiss has been one of his favorite moments, a work of art in miniature, a minuet compared to the symphony that is sex. The kiss, ah, now there is intricacy, a conjuration of just the right amounts of delicacy and passion balanced against each other. He is in control and does all he could to leave his companion faint with pleasure, using nothing more than his lips. His kisses, he knows, are memorable.

But with Alma, all that has disappeared. Though the muscle memory is still there, restraint and thought are gone. Each time they kiss, he loses himself in her, as if diving deep, only to resurface, breathless. Faint.

There is applause across the square as some joker cheers them on. “Brava!” The drunken woman’s companions shushes her.

Dion mutters, “Let’s get back home. Where we can have some privacy.”

Alma nods, and allows him to help her to her feet.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“Ye’re no’ gaenta burn a perfectly good table!” Merri insists to Somrak as he carries the rat-impaled table into the small patch of dirt behind the bar. Sage has been turning the former dumping ground for trash into a garden, and little furrows have just started sprouting green leaves next to the sickly mango tree.

Cherry counters, “Merri, it has undead rat guts all over it!”

“That’s nought but a wee mess. It’ll clean up fine with soap an’ a scrub brush!”

“Zombie rat guts? Uh-uh, no way our customers are eatin’ offa that! I’m with Sommy on this one.”

Somrak sets the table down away from the plants and ends the argument by smashing the table to kindling with one powerful kick. Not looking at the suddenly silent Bunnies, he says, “You choose a replacement. Anything you want. Put it on my tab.” He fishes his dagger out from the wreckage, carefully removes it from the body of the rat, then pulls out a handkerchief from a pocket and wipes the dagger clean.

Then he looks at the dagger and the air fills with the scent of burning and the sound of crackling fire. His hair blows in the wind. The dagger’s blade catches fire briefly, a blue cleansing flame that dies after a moment. He sheathes the dagger, then looks at the remains of the table and the rat corpse, setting them afire, and tosses the handkerchief onto the flames.

He squats, watching the intense blaze, and barely notices Cherry’s receding voice saying, “Man, gods are weird.”

The flames dance and crackle. Like all things in this magical world, they have a spirit. Elementals, gods, muses. Even devils, dragons…even mortals. They are all, at core, the same. Spirits, embodied or not. And fire, fire in its brief life has an eternal perspective. Like still water in a silver bowl under the light of a moon, fire can tell stories of the future and the past, to those attuned to listen.

The flames dance and hiss. Gold and red, sparks and shimmers of heat in the air, devouring wood, oxygen, and corrupted flesh. Somrak listens.

But a voice from behind him, sardonic and tough, interrupts his communion. “You…are an idiot.”

Somrak holds up a hand, silent, staring into the blaze. Saira’s voice, after a pause, invades his reverie again. “Nice day for a barbecue. Rat’s gonna be a bit on the charred side, though.”

Somrak hangs his head, then holds his hands out to the flames as if warming them. The fire rises higher, higher, burning white hot, reducing table and rat to the finest ash, then dying away in moments. He stands and turns to see Saira leaning against the wall, arms crossed.

“Sorry, were you saying something?” he asks.

Saira grins and shakes her head, like she can’t believe him. “I was asking if you were enjoying yourself.”

“Not really. I was,” he gestures vaguely, “talking with the flames.”

Saira gives him a skeptical look. “Yeah, I’ll bet that’s fun. Got your priorities set straight there and all.” She shakes her head in disgust and turns to leave. “Man, and they say I’m cold.”

Somrak snaps at her, “I was trying to divine some sort of lead to find this necromancer. To do something useful.” He mutters to himself, “Everything I’ve tried to do here has fallen apart.”

Saira turns back at this. “Where’s Alma?” she asks, her voice bereft of emotion.

Confused, Somrak says, “She…went out.”

“Yeah. Wasn’t just your leads that fell apart there, huh? But here you are, burning a table instead of watching out for someone you actually seem to care about. What a hero…”

“I’m trying to help her!” Somrak almost shouts. “This necromancer is going to kill again. And she seems to have a grudge against Alma. You heard what the rat said.”

“And what if Alma ran out that door and into a trap?” She lets that sink in, once again leaning against the wall. “She was out of her mind, I could tell. She’d be a real easy target, lured out like that.” Saira shrugs. “Heck, we may never see her again.”

Som looks shocked. “I…I didn’t think she–” He starts to walk past Saira to reenter the bar, but she puts a hand on his chest to stop him.

“Prettyboy went after her. And I didn’t hear any loud booms or calls for help. They should be fine. And yeah, you didn’t think.” Saira’s dry voice softens slightly. “And you know what? I wouldn’t have either just a few weeks ago. This ain’t the lone life, love. This thing they got here is a freaking family. It’s weird but it kinda works. And if you want in on it – and trust me, you do – you gotta change your game.” She straightens up. “Anyway, I said my piece. You look decent enough to be worth saying it to.” She turns to go back in.

“So all that about her possibly needing help…”

Saira grins. “Got you to listen.”

Somrak pauses, then asks, “Think you can handle a shot of whisky?”

“I can handle two,” Saira says. “Gonna drown your sorrows?”

Somrak shrugs. “Just thought…it’d be nice to talk for awhile longer.”

She appraises him. “Yeah, all right. You can apologize to Mer and Cher for their table while I sneak the bottle out from behind the bar. Let’s go up on the roof. Good view up there.”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

A golden portal opens and Alma and Gwydion step out of it into the Burrow’s kitchen, only to hear “GAH!” and the sound of breaking glass as Rosemary drops an empty pint glass she had been putting away.

“Sorry! Sorry…” Alma says as she bends to pick up the bigger shards.

Rosemary launches into a nerve-wracked tirade. “Yeh broke two glasses earlier, then Sommy burnt me table, an’ ‘e says ‘e’s gaenta replace it but it was still a perfectly good table even if it were rescued from a rubbish heap–”

She takes a good look at Alma and stops talking. Whatever she sees in the goddess’ face makes her ears droop and her eyes soften from anxiety to concern. “Oh dear…” The Bunny grabs a bowl and holds it for Alma to drop the glass fragments into, sets it aside, and then embraces her mother.

Alma holds onto Rosemary, laying her cheek against the Bunny’s curly red hair. The warm feeling of connection is doubled when another pair of arms hugs her from behind. Alma feels Cherry put her face against her mother’s back and sigh. Their touch is so reassuring in its sincerity that she finds it impossible to let go of them right now. Or maybe even ever. Maybe they could stay like this until the world stops spinning and starts making sense for once. And that could take a very long time, indeed.

Ugh… I hate it when you get like this, Nekh gags in her thoughts. Your mind tastes like molasses left too long in the sun.

Then go lick something else for a change, Alma replies but even that retort is weak, exhausted. She needs silence. So badly. Just silence. Abandonment. To vanish, yes. Hide away from everything. Wouldn’t that be a blessing?

Behind her, Gwydion whispers to the Bunnies, “She just needs to rest.”

Rest… Yes… That would be good too.

Alma feels the two Bunnies nod, and then after a moment of squeezing her tighter, they let her go. And as they do, it is as if Nekh has left with them. Maybe he can sense her weakness, how she is too beyond sense to fight him and squirm under his taunting and give him what he wants: pain. She has none of that left in her right now.

After giving Gwydion a quick double-Bunny squeeze, to which he responds with a smile and an arm to momentarily cuddle each of them, Cherry says, “Now y’all scat. I gotta go make sure Sommy don’t let Saira drink any more o’ that whisky.”

The thought of Saira drinking whisky hits Alma with a strange intensity. Something in her moves, feeble and uncertain. She feels like she should be bothered by the information but it doesn’t move her enough to elicit a response. She decides to file it away for later. Unresisting, she follows the warm, gentle touch of Gwydion’s hands as they guide her to the pantry door, touching it to activate the entrance to his sanctum, before ushering Alma in. She catches him glancing back at Rosemary, and the Bunny’s nod of understanding: that no one, particularly younger Bunnies, will be disturbing them.

As the door closes, Gwydion moves his hands to Alma’s shoulders and she erases what little space was left between then, holding him closely, the need for physical contact unsated since her Bunnies awoke her to it. She sighs in pleasure, head on his shoulder, standing relaxed in the arms that wrap around her like silk spun around a caterpillar. “Thank you. It all seems less dark with you close.”

Gwydion’s voice is gentle against her ear, and she can hear the smile in it, as clear as the curve in his lips as they touch her cheek. “I can draw you a bath, if you like? After all that running, it would help you relax.”

His tone is so soft, so tempting, like a glowing lure in the pitch-black depths. Her mind races to wonderful memories of warm, scented water and a bathtub made for two. She almost says yes. But when she opens her eyes and raises her head to look at Gwydion, she finds her vision blurring, her head shrieking in pain at how intense the soft light in his room suddenly feels. She sighs and shakes her head. “If you don’t mind, I just want to rest for a little while. I feel so tired…and I have harvests to do later.”

Gwydion nods and touches his cheek to hers. If there is disappointment there, he keeps it out of his voice. “Rest it is. I’ll be right here with you until it is time to return to duty.” He releases her, much to her agony at the breaking of the embrace, and leads her to the bed.

Alma lies down on the sheets, not bothering to remove anything but her shoes. She looks at him, waiting for him to join her, anxious to feel him close again, her skin feeling cold where the contact broke off. As soon as he lies down by her side, she slides her way to him and snuggles comfortably against his exquisite solidity, reveling in the texture of his shirt, in that scent of his cologne now mixed with sweat. She holds him and he holds her back, his leg slid between hers to bring her closer to him. In any other occasion, sleep would be the last thing on her mind.

Gwydion kisses her delicate ear and whispers, “You are safe. Nothing will disturb you here, darling. Sleep.”

And that is that. Slumber envelops her like quicksand. Smiling, already half asleep, her lips breathe, “I love you.”

The mind attached to them doesn’t even register the arms that wrap even tighter around Alma just a moment later.