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.

Ch5.52 Shards

“Hey Mistah! You Stathos?”

The squeaky voice is like fingernails on a slate. Corporal Stathos looks down to see a young land cuttlefish looking up at him with its huge eyes. The weird pupils always remind him of a grimacing mouth.

“I am. What are you doing in here?” Stathos asks. “We are quite busy, as you can see.” Actually, the chaos in the station has decreased considerably. The Inspector had sent two constables to the warehouse to guard the site so that the Dei could go over it more thoroughly for clues in the morning, and then told Sergeant Machado that he could send home as many off-shift Popula as possible. The place was returning to normalcy. Stathos was starting to think he might get home in time to sleep briefly before escorting his daughters to school in Little Falls.

“Yeah, yeah. Mah uncle Cal tol’ me ta tells you’s bluefish dat da Inspectah’s headin’ ovah ta da warehouse on da corner a Catinga an’ Sharva.”

Stathos sighs. “The Inspector, young mollusk, is upstairs taking a shower. He and many more of us visited that warehouse hours ago. If you are expecting a reward for this uselessly late information, you are mistaken.”

“Hey, I got delayed!” The land cuttlefish throws some of his tentacles in the air. “It ain’t mah fault! I’m a growin’ kid! I gotta eat every half hour or I keel over dead!”

“That is fascinating, but I am far too busy for a lesson in cuttlefish husbandry.” Stathos takes a report from a constable, checks something, then signs it.

“Well I got somethin’ else!” Stathos feels his trouser leg being jerked by a tentacle.

“Are you still here?” He looks at those disproportionately big and somehow cynical eyes and sighs. “Very well, what is it?”

“As I was comin’ in, some two-legs outside gimme a hekte ta tell ya he needs ta talk ta yas.”

Stathos huffs his impatience. “Oh? Well he can come in just as you did.”

“He said it’s about where da other kids is,” the cuttlefish whispers conspiratorially. “Said he’d only tell it ta you’s, alone.”

Stathos looks doubtfully at the cephalopod, weighing this story. There are informants that Stathos has cultivated, and they are quite reluctant to be seen entering a Guardia station. Still, something seems wrong about all this. He considers whether he should bring along backup, even at the risk that it could scare the informant away.

Just then the goddess Kyri returns. She had been there earlier, arriving just after the remarkable departure of Sergeants Alma and Gwydion on the backs of dreamlike steeds, and Cala had sent Kyri to the bar to take care of the Bunnies before she could start all the Guardia cops singing and dancing like some stage show. Now she was back with baskets full of bread and bottles of milk and other nourishment for the children.

“I’ve found six houses that are willing to take in children,” she chirps to no one in particular and everyone at once as she sweeps through the room like someone twice her actual diminutive size, “and I can manage a half dozen of the dear little things at my café for a few days, I daresay! Oh what fun it’ll be!”

Although she seems to be on the way to the bar, Stathos decides to make himself scarce, in case singing starts again. “Very well,” he says to the cuttlefish. “I’ll go speak with this person. Now you get out from underfoot.”

“Whaaaat, no tip fer me?”

Stathos sighs and fishes in his pocket, then tosses the youngster a third-hekte coin, the smallest denomination of money in the Urbis. “You’ve already been paid, so that’s a bonus. Now scat!”

Without further hesitation, Stathos strides out the door.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

They maimed him. Took his thumb. But he deserved it. He deserves so much worse. He has harmed so many, ruined their lives, ended their lives, and for many others death would have been a gift compared to how he left them. The enslaved, the prostituted, the murdered, the sacrificed, the raped, the abused, the tortured.

His victims. Oh his myriad victims.

Their cries echo through his mind. If his hands were free of these shackles, and if he had a sharp instrument, he would stab his eardrums, but he knows that would do nothing to stop the wails, the begging, the pitiful screaming. He had built a castle of uncaring, and that castle had been reinforced by his master, his teacher, to preserve his master’s secrets. But this god, this Inspector, has washed it all away, a tsunami of compassion, and all those memories, all his understanding of how they would feel, floods him, breaks the chains, tears down the walls, and now he is drowning, drowning.

He knows he will tell them everything. It will feel so good, to help them, to expiate some tiny, tiny fraction of this guilt. He will never be rid of it, though. He wants to die. His soul, of course, was promised to Hell, and he will enter a timeless age of suffering, but he is already in Hell, in his mind.

There is a knock at the door. The tall, gangly redheaded constable who has been nodding off in a chair outside the cells rises, looks through a small window, and unlocks the door to allow another to enter. No, this one is of a higher rank. The sorcerer sees how he kindly but firmly tells the younger man to get himself something to eat.

The constable hesitates. He senses dimly what the sorcerer, with his newfound oversensitivity, notices readily, that this superior officer is terribly worried, on the edge of panic, in fact. His face is pale, breathing shallow and rapid. He is holding a package, wrapped in paper and twine as if it had been mailed, holding it as if he suspects it contains vipers.

The sorcerer recognizes the paper. A particular shade of pale yellow which had been purchased in bulk, used to wrap packets of drugs, or lunches, or anything else that Margrave’s gang needed wrapped in the daily flow of business. Not that such paper isn’t common, but…what is the likelihood that a Guardia corporal, in a state one step above shock, would come to deliver him a package that was from some random admirer?

In the next cell, the old harridan wheedles, “Oh, won’t ye bring Granny somethin’ tasty?”

“Wallace, go on now,” the Guardia officer urges softly. “I’ll watch over them.” He starts to close the door, then pulls it open again. “Wallace! Wait a moment.” The officer pulls out one of those little notepads that the blueshirts carry, and a little pencil, and quickly writes a note. As he writes he says, “Give this to the Inspector. After you eat. There’s no hurry, but don’t forget.” He tears it off, pauses, then hands it to the younger man. “Go on.” He locks the door behind the departing constable before turning to lock eyes with the sorcerer.

“Is that for me?” the demon-summoner asks.

“Yes.” The Guardia’s voice breaks and the word barely makes it out of his throat.

The sorcerer sighs, half in pleasure. His cheeks are wet with tears shed for his victims. He rises puts his shackled hands through the bars. “It’s all right,” he says. “I don’t mind.”

“I don’t know what’s in it,” the Guardia says. “I don’t want to know. But I have to give it to you. They’ll kill my–”

“I know. Really, it’s all right.”

The Guardia steps toward the cell and holds out the package. It seems heavy. The sorcerer looks at him and tries to smile again. He reaches out with his unwounded hand and says, just before he touches it, “I am sorry.”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

Sky finishes buttoning his pressed Guardia shirt, hair still wet from the shower, combing it with his fingers and trying to get a look in the fogged mirror at the patch of burnt hair on the back of his head, annoyed with himself at forgetting to bring a brush. He’d thought about using the secret doorway to his own extra-dimensional apartment, but explaining how he’d had a bath in his own office would be awkward. And he had been very tempted to don an aloha shirt and a relaxed pair of chinos instead of uniform, just to celebrate the safe return of Sage and being reunited with Alma and Dion, but there is still a prisoner to interview, and depending on what information he gives up, Sky could well be gearing up again for a raid.

Just one coffee at the bar with his sergeants, his friends, and then back to work. He is still running on mana-fueled wakefulness, and he feels like too little butter spread across too much bread. The deep bite wounds and broken bones of his left arm are mostly healed, and though the belly wound still hurts, the demonic poison is mostly cleared from his system. He grips the small sink, closes his eyes, hangs his head, and fills his lungs with the steamy air.

The sound of children’s voices outside makes him raise his head. There is a knock, and Mayumi’s voice calling out, “Is anyone in there?”

He chuckles and opens the door to see a hallway filled with a small group of the rescued children, all the girls who had not been taken in by people in the neighborhood, each of them holding a towel and some Guardia-blue clothes. Mayumi is actually taller than all but one of them, an unusual sight.

He smiles at her, and she returns the smile nervously. “I’ll get out of your way,” he says. “I’m sure they want to get to bed as soon as possible. It must be going on two in the morning.”

Mayumi nods and gets the tallest girl to take one of the smallest ones in first, while Sky squeezes past them in the narrow hallway. As he does, Mayumi touches his arm. He looks back at her, and she says quietly, “I’m sorry…about going to the warehouse.”

He sighs. “We’ll talk about that later. After things are quiet again. Until then, whatever happens, none of you, none of you, leaves the premises without approval from myself and Sergeant Alma. Plus a Guardia escort. Tell the others. Someone wanted to buy a Bunny. Someone–”

There is a powerful bang that causes the building to shake. Mayumi’s ears go down and she crouches to steady herself, eyes wide, and all the children freeze as well. There is a moment of silence as every mortal in the station shares a collective thought: What was that?!

But Sky falls to one knee, one hand to his head, the other against a wall, groaning. He feels a larger explosion than the physical one, a blast wave that hits his soul like a sucker punch. He has never experienced anything like it, and is stunned and confused.

He comes back to his senses after a moment, to Mayumi shouting his name, her hands cupping his face. He looks up at her. “What happened?” she almost shouts. He merely shakes his head and puts one hand over hers for a moment, then stands and charges down the stairs.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

Dion’s search for a distraction from the mind-wrenching task of choosing to either stay or return to the First Ring has him outside, helping in coordinating attempts to find an at least temporary home for as many orphans as possible. The rumor that the child slavers had been captured and a number of children saved from some terrible fate has spread like a summer fire on dry pasture and the people of the ward, long suffering with the loss of children to disease, gang wars and, occasionally, kidnappers, have been reacting to it by offering the vacant rooms in their homes and the food in their pantries to help the rescued infants. The sight of these people arriving at the station with blankets and baskets full of whatever little they can spare, and still looking guilty that they cannot spare more, is equal parts touching and disturbing to Dion. Even after having, like Sky and Alma, sent instructions to local merchants to deliver food and clothing at the Dei’s expense, he feels humbled and petty before this show of utter generosity. It will never cease to amaze him how the terminally poor can be so giving when they have barely anything to give.

“Excuse me, young man,” a rough, worn voice with just a hint of an underlying pulmonary condition calls him back to reality. “I hear you’ve found some lost kids?”

Dion turns to his left to see a bent old man with the body frame of a once well-built young man looking up at him. His calloused hands with swollen knuckles, that he rubs continuously as if afflicted by constantly cold fingers tell a story of hard, repetitive work. The deep lines on his face, spotted by age and perhaps some liver disease, speak of a once jovial, smiling nature long buried in great sadness.

“Yes, we have, sir,” Dion replies. “Are you looking for a lost child?”

A sudden fit of coughing makes the old man shake and wheeze for a moment. Dion rushes to put his arms around him, but the old man gently waves him away.

Breathing deeply, he says, “No young man. Only child I could be looking for was taken over ten years ago. She’s nowhere near, by now.”

The sadness in his eyes looks greater than any mortal heart could bear. Dion wonders if he could ever accept that burden with such submissive, resigned dignity. “I am very sorry for your loss, Mister…”

The old man seems to wake up from a daydream. “Oh, I forget myself.” He extends a hand. “Gabriel Castro Alves, woodworker.”

“Sergeant Gwydion, Guardia Dei,” Dion replies, shaking the man’s hand firmly but gently. “What brings you here, Mr. Alves?”

“I came by to ask if you need help finding a home for the children,” Gabriel explains. “I hear most of them are homeless.”

Dion brightens up slightly. “Yes, indeed, we are looking–”

A sudden blast from inside the station shakes the building behind Dion. He spins around on his heels, breathless as if he has just taken a direct hit to his chest, eyes wide with shock.

“Oh dear…” the old man whispers. “Maybe you should go see what happened.”

But Dion is already running into the station.

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The hairs on the back of Nataniel’s neck rise all of a sudden and he shivers. Which is strange. The room does certainly does not feel any cooler but his spine feels icy cold. He looks at Cala, who is staring at the goosebumps on her arms with a surprised expression. She looks up at him and shrugs.

Aire, he surmises. Just a draft.

A whimper and a low thud makes them look to their left and rush in the direction of Sergeant Alma’s closet to catch the goddess just in time and stop her from falling. Sweating and pale, wheezing and bloodless, the goddess looks like she has just been shot through the chest. Her eyes stare widely at Cala as the strong woman helps the goddess steady herself.

“What is it, Ma’am?” Cala asks in a panic. “What’s going on?”

“Souls…gone…” Alma wheezes. “Ripped apart. No, no, NO!”

Suddenly, as if possessed by some devilish spirit, the goddess shoves Cala aside and half-runs, half-stumbles toward the door. Hissing some strange word that Nataniel does not quite catch, she disappears, enveloped in an icy-blue light, behind the flowers that hide her bedroom door. Looking at each other for answers, Nataniel and Cala shrug again before walking toward the door. Even though they had not heard it open or close behind the goddess, Alma is nowhere to be found.

Carefully, Cala opens the door.

Shrieking and wailing floods the room. The children sound terrified.

Ay, Virgen… Nataniel thinks, crossing himself. What now?

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The waterfall parts like a curtain, allowing Ewá to step through without getting drenched. Doria gestures with a web-fingered hand. “I hope you received that which you sought, Ewá Nanã.”

“Thank you, Priestess. And may you–” Both of them gasp as a ripple passes through them, some sort of shockwave, attenuated by distance but touching their souls nonetheless.

Doria goes pale. “What…?”

“I fear I know where that might have come from,” Ewá says.

Doria looks quizzically, then her eyes widen just before a groan of distress echoes from the grotto. “The Oracle! She is more sensitive to such things!”

“Do you need my help?” Ewá asks, though she longs to rush to Three Rats Station, imagined death and destruction filling her thoughts.

Doria shakes her head, droplets of water scattering from her hair. “Thank you but no! Please go – I must attend to my lady!”

With that, Doria disappears into the passage, and Ewá Nanã moves swiftly into the open air.

Ch5.51 Shards

“Ewá Nanã, Seeker of Justice, Guardian of Truth, Voice of the Ketu and lately Eye of the Council, has come to seek guidance from the Oracle!” In announcing the visitor, Doria’s voice is not loud, but it carries throughout the tunnels of the grotto. The pale naiad priestess turns to Ewá with a bright smile, her hair and one-piece bathing outfit perpetually damp. “Don’t be nervous,” she says in a softer tone. “I’ll see you out when you’re done.” She turns and slips into the stream that runs toward the mouth of the Oracle’s underground temple, her broad shoulders and powerful back muscles flexing as she swims without effort through the water.

The advice is well-meant but only heightens Ewá’s tension. The stories she has heard about the Oracle paint her in so many different ways: transcendentally wise, mind-gaming schemer, maternal figure, empire toppler, majestic, over-proud, savior, traitor. Some of the factions within Ewá’s clan originated the very day the Oracle abandoned the Ketu, and though they appear united to outsiders, within they are riven into ever-shifting alliances and oppositions.

Thus it is that after parting with Sergeants Alma and Gwydion at the Little Falls portal, she took care of her immediate business. She had to wake up her soon-to-be landlady in order to rent a certain house, and then rouse a shopkeeper down from his upstairs apartment so that he would reopen his clothing store just for her. This all cost her extra money, but she was being well funded. Fortunately a flower shop and then a bakery – she had tasted Kyri’s pastries and was not surprised to learn that the Oracle enjoyed them – were both open, and she was able to acquire those without additional effort.

And now she is present, her tall form draped all in white satin, her hair held back by the white sash hugging her head just behind the ears, only her dark-brown feet, arms, and face revealed in striking contrast. Holding a wicker basket filled with pastries and flowers, she walks barefoot into the center of the chamber, the surrussation of the rustling folds of her clothes and the dripping of water echoing off the walls.

Then she hears movement in the water, like a large fish swimming languorously. In the echoes of the water drops, she hears her own name, “Ewá…”

Hiding her nervousness, she says forthrightly, “Honored Oracle, I come with offerings to seek your wisdom. And your blessing.”

“Come closer, Ewá.” There is still no one to be seen.

Trying not to think of all those stories of people who obeyed such entreaties from mermaids and ended up drowned, Ewá moves nearer to the pool. She sees faint sinuous shadows swimming deep within the pool, at first seeming like the tentacles of a single creature, then separating into three, one pale and glowing greenish-blue in the dark, its profile traced in faint lines of light; another of iridescent gold, its scales glinting and scattering the light from its ghostly sibling; and a third, larger, of light-devouring black, its head sporting sharp spikes. They rise from the depths. Six pairs of eyes spy Ewá. The largest opens its long, fang-filled maw and hisses at her, but the pale one nudges it, and the dark one falls silent with a sidelong glance at the other two.

Still, no Nevieve.

Then two cool hands are on her shoulders from behind. Ewá Nanã prevents herself from gasping only by pressing her lips tightly shut, but the sudden intake of breath through her nose betrays her. She stands still, however, not turning.

“What is your question, firefly?” the Oracle asks, her mouth near Ewá’s ear.

She closes her eyes to regain calmness. “It is not exactly a question. I have come to ask, Oracle, for your blessing.”

The Oracle walks around her. Of course she has legs, Ewá reminds herself, when she wishes. “My blessing? And what is it you wish me to bless?” The Oracle is wearing a rainbow-like sari as a shawl over a dress of simple design but of the metallic blue and searing white of tropical birds.

“Being who you are, I am sure you have already seen why I am here in Three Rats, Ancestress. I have been sent by the Ketu. Or by…some in the Ketu. They have their agenda, to bring this lost fragment of our family back to the fold.”

The Oracle hooks one finger under the handle of the basket Ewá carries and takes it, glancing into it and smiling. “Yes, divine presumption will never cease to amaze me. But you–” She turns and touches a fingertip gently to Ewá’s forehead, “–have another idea.”

On one level, the lawyer feels welcomed by all this physical nearness and outright contact, and on another, terrified. This is one of the most powerful deities remaining in the Insula, after so many, as they age past a thousand years or more, quietly disappear. So many of the truly ancient gods have gone off, who knows where? But the Oracle is one who has remained within the memory of all but the very few as ancient as she.

And Ewá Nanã was always a strange one, according to her mother, her aunts, and so many others of her enormous, extended family, mortal, immortal, and like herself, mixed. Mortals and demigods in her family would speak to the gods as dear friends, beloved parents. But Ewá had always had a reserve in her, a deep separation from others. It was not that she did not love them. But when she tried to express it, her voice faltered, her words shattered and stuck in her throat like glass.

That stutter, her shame, had made its return around the Bunnies, recently. She controls her breathing and makes certain to speak clearly. “I do. This ward needs help, yes. But I am not certain that our clan knows the best way to help it. The Ketu’s intentions are noble. Their understanding is not always perfect, however.” She pauses a moment, then decides to say what she is not certain she should say. “Especially since you chose to leave us.”

The Oracle smiles, her white eyes shining brighter in the dim light for an instant. Ewá marvels at her strange beauty: the way her skin is smoothly dark – though lighter than Ewá’s – and human, and at the same time made of tiny, beautiful scales, depending on how the light hits it at the moment. “Why stay and waste advice on those who wish only to be told that they are right?” She straightens slightly. “You are still to tell me that for which you want my blessing.”

“I wish to live here,” Ewá says. “To contribute to this community. To be part of it. To learn its nature. And I wish to help. And perhaps, after a time, I will find that those who sent me are wiser than I understood, and I will try to guide the gods and mortals of this ward into their arms. Perhaps not. Or perhaps there will be some third way. But I ask for your blessing on this endeavor. And if you have any advice, Ancestress, I will listen.”

“Then you will be the first of your kind in a long time.” The Oracle turns away and walks to the edge of the pool. “Do you know what happens to a drop of ink in the water?”

Riddles. Yes, Mother had warned her about the riddles. “It disperses. If there is enough water, it becomes as if it never was.” She can almost hear her mother: Ewá Nanã, you are always so literal!

The Oracle sets down the basket and allows her sari to slide off her shoulders into it. “And if there isn’t?”

“Then it changes the water in noticeable ways. It leaves its mark.” Ewá resists an urge to tell the Oracle to beware the serpents in the pool.

The Oracle steps into the water, she unbuttons her dress at the breast. “Ah, but look closer, Ewá. Whether you can still see it or not, the ink does not disappear. Whatever the outcome, ink and water cannot remain unchanged. Remember that.” She pulls off the dress as she descends hidden stairs in the water, sliding it over her head in perfect time so that she reveals nothing but her bare back as she enters the water and leaves the dress dry on the edge. “And do not expect to taint these waters until you bear their mark,” she says as she disappears into the water.

Ewá Nanã stands where she is for a long minute, unsure whether she has been given a blessing or a rebuke, then puts her hands together, bows her head, and whispers, “Thank you, Ancestress,” and withdraws.

As she is about to move out of the chamber and into the passage leading back to the entrance to the grotto, the Oracle’s voice echoes softly from every surface, “It has been some time since there has been a school in Three Rats.”

Startled by the sudden, almost casually added comment, Ewá stops and says, “Yes, Ancestress.”

“Next time you visit,” the directionless voice reverberates, “bring more of those pastéis. And call me by my name, menina.”

“Yes…Nevieve.”

Chapter 4 “Fatal Prophecy” 1

They walk down a wide spiral staircase, their steps resounding off the marble flooring. Studded with glowing crystals, the yellowish stone-lined walls give a sense of progressive coolness, as if by climbing down the stairs one is moving away from the light of day and its warmth.

“This place is beautiful but so eerie, my lady,” Doria comments, looking around nervously while carrying an ornate brass basin decorated with a motif of shells and sea serpents.

“Some seem to believe the Council should not gather under the light of day,” Nevieve says, a smile dancing on her lips. “Our matters are to be kept our own, they say,” she adds, glancing at the brass jug of pure, clean water she’s carrying, a perfect match to the basin.

“You don’t agree,” Doria states, rather than asking.

“I don’t agree,” the Oracle echoes. “But, as they say, sound likes to travel down, not up.”

As they reach the bottom of the stairs a pair of unfriendly-looking guards in golden armor welcome them with a low bow and open a tall, narrow door for them. Beyond it, dusk and twilight await.

Doria falls behind while Nevieve gently makes her way across a narrow white marble ledge that gradually widens into a teardrop-shaped platform supported from below by a slender pillar. In the dimly lit room, the white stone of the platform appears to glow with a light of its own and Nevieve, in long, figure-hugging aqua-green, stands in the middle of it like a luminescent coral. Below her, and around the platform, a moat as deep as the volcanic crater of the mountain that is the Insula whispers and moans its old age. Around her, curved walls limit a wide, round room. Carved on the walls, balconies illuminated by soft lights open in two offset rows like honeycombs in a beehive. Each balcony harbors an Archon, Nevieve knows, their names known more than their faces seen in the dusky Council room. Right now, they grumble and whisper to each other in idle gossiping, waiting for their attention to be drawn by more pressing issues.

The Oracle lets them wait some more, raising her eyes to the hushed voices coming from above. Up there, high above ground and under the warm light of day, is the Senate, a round structure of benches built around a central arena, where bills are presented and issues brought forward for discussion by the dozens of senators that argue and haggle their way through each minor piece of law. Their hushed voices reach the Council room, muffled by distance. There is no ceiling here. Above Nevieve, a number of magical filters are all that separates this space from the arena high above, all that keeps what is said here within confined to these walls.

The voices from above sound slightly louder now, but only because every soul in the room has gone quiet. As Nevieve lowers her gaze to focus on the Archons all around her, sitting behind their balconies, she finds them in complete silence, awaiting keenly and curiously for her to reveal what it is that has made her summon this extraordinary Council meeting. Calling Doria to her side with a subtle hand gesture, the Oracle softly instructs her to lay the basin at her feet and then leave the room. The moment the great doors close behind Doria, Nevieve leans over the basin and fills it with water from the jug she still carries. Even without any spoken incantations, the water immediately starts to glow white with an icy-blue edge to it, its light spreading across the room in a shimmering, translucent curtain. Putting the jug down on the ground by her side, Nevieve breathes deep and raises her voice to speak.

“My fellow Archons, I come to you with a warning and a vision.”

From one of the balconies, hidden by the watery haze, a female voice replies, serene and pleasant, “Speak, then, Oracle. What have your eyes seen?”

“My eyes have seen a future not distant when the Council will be without one of its own,” Nevieve states, to a choir of half disappointed grumbles.

“This Council has seen Archons come and depart before, Nevieve,” the voice notes, hushing all others. “Why should we be troubled for it?”

“Death will come for an Archon in this Council,” Nevieve says, tilting her head. “Has this happened before, pray tell?”

The Oracle glances down at the basin and, suddenly, the light pouring from it vanishes. In its place, shadows appear, crawling out of the basin, spreading around the room like black ink in a glass of water.

“Death?” the voice of Archon Dergallin sounds, confused and surprised.

“The clan?” Archon Anura asks from her balcony.

“The god?” Archon Kadmyl ventures in his strong, deep voice.

“They cannot be trusted, the lot of them!” Archon Eriseth immediately cries, her voice rising in slithering accusation. “I have been saying so for eons, now!”

“Wait! Do you mean an Archon can be killed?” Archon Chanti queries in obvious shock.

“What kind of weapon would one need to eliminate an Archon?” Archon Enki inquires, the voice of his wisdom ringing pure and calm.

“In the hands of a bunny, the weapon will come,” Nevieve replies, soft and serene.

“What do you mean, a bunny?!” Archon Eriseth snaps.

“Did she…did she seriously say a bunny?” Archon Taleloc jests, his incredulous laughter booming like thunder in the great chamber. “You should check the water in which you bathe, lest it be tainted with alcohol, goddess! Bunnies killing gods?! That is ridiculous!”

At a wave of the Oracle’s hand, the shadows spreading across the room twist and gather, taking exotic shapes of tall rabbit-eared creatures with long legs and slender figures, that hop around in the air, perching at times on the balcony rails, tilting heads with expressionless faces at the Archons as if mocking their ignorance. Then, suddenly, they all jump and gather at the center of the room, just above Nevieve’s head, their strange bodies standing in a circle, back to back, glaring without eyes at the assembled Council members, like killers waiting for an order to attack.

“We are the great and the ancient! How can an Archon be killed?!” Archon Chanti insists.

“Unheard of!” Archon Dergallin cries.

“Impossible!” Archon Ikenga grunts from his seat.

“In the hands of a Bunny, death looms for an Archon,” Nevieve states, sure and true. “This much I have seen, this much will come to pass. Ignore me at your own risk.”

And without further explanation, the Oracle turns and makes her way out of the room. Behind her, the shadows of her “bunnies” dissolve slowly as the Archons argue and fear for their own fates.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

The glow in Nevieve’s white eyes flickers as her attention returns to the present. By the edge of the pool, in front of her, Doria patiently awaits with a plate of fresh fruit for her lady.

“Looking into the future, my lady?” the naiad asks as Nevieve approaches the pool’s edge.

“The past, my dear,” the Oracle replies, slowly shaking the memory of that long gone Council gathering from her head. “Remembering words said a long time ago, right before we came to dwell here.”

“We left much behind…” Doria nearly whispers, suddenly looking pensive and melancholic. “But why remember now?” she inquires.

Nevieve smiles and takes an apple from the plate. Around her, the nagas surface and look at the fruit with curious eyes. While Doria whispers an “I’ll feed you soon too,” the blue-green ethereal naga so closely bound to Sergeant Alma’s essence lowers its serpentine head and brushes a cheek against Nevieve’s, making the Oracle’s smile widen.

“Because it is now that Fate will prove me right,” she states, half-turning to pet the naga. “Is it not, little one?”

Chapter 3 “The Pearl” 40

Mayumi turns to Kyri and says, “I am sorry about earlier. I should not have shouted like that.”

“Well,” says Kyri, “I seem to have touched a nerve – in both you and the Inspector. Mayumi–” Movement catches Kyri’s eye. She looks at Doria, who is sinking into a chair. “My dear…are you all right? You look like you’re about to collapse all of a sudden!”

“I feel…strange.” The half-naiad puts a hand to her forehead, her shoulders slumping. “Like I have no energy at all…”

“Oh,  Sweetheart!” exclaims Kyri. “You haven’t drunk the tainted water, have you?”

“No, I…” Doria pauses, then her eyes grow wide. “Oh Kyri…the source from which all the water of Three Rats springs, the tainted source…Kyri…that’s also the source of my water!” She tries to stand, but her legs buckle and she slips to the floor.

Kyri gasps and bends to help her up, just as Mayumi grabs her, then gasps and pulls away. “Noooo,” moans Doria. “D-don’t touch me…you’ll be affected too…”

“But…but…” Kyri looks around for help. The remaining gang members, along with Sundar, pause on their way out of the café. They look at each other, not sure what to do, unaccustomed to the idea of gods needing help from mortals. Meanwhile, the people in line outside the shop seem to be getting anxious at the long delay in receiving their water rations.

From the floor, Doria gasps, barely audible, “Dunno why it didn’t affect me before…somethin’ ‘bout how the water gets to me? Some…delay? Innerstin’… Kyri? You there?”

“I’m here! Oh, Doria, what should I do?”

Doria doesn’t respond. Mayumi calls out to the gang members, “Hey, give us a hand!” The youths approach and stand around the fallen demigoddess in a half circle. They all look to Sundar. One of them says, “Come on, Sundar. You’re the one with the brains.” He licks his lips nervously, then says hesitantly to Kyri and Mayumi, “Maybe, if we put her in one of the barrels of clean water, it will dilute the bad water? For a little while, anyway?”

Kyri claps her hands. “Brilliant! Yes! Oh, that one over there is half empty! Let’s put her in that. Now don’t touch her directly, boys! That’s right, use your jackets, good idea! Right, on three!”

Holding the demigoddess’ jacket-wrapped legs, Mayumi guides Doria’s feet into the barrel first. Precious water sloshes over the edge, soaking her and all the gang members who are helping, and she feels a slight tingle as a very little tainted water from Doria’s skin affects her as well, flowing along with the pure water imported from outside the ward. It’s not enough to have much effect.

Once they have her in the barrel, shoulder-deep, Doria revives a little. “Thank…thank you,” she slurs.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

As they reach Chowringhee Road, Sky finishes his conversation with Paolo. “So are you on board with this?” he asks the young man.

Paolo scratches his jawline. “Sure. I mean, it ain’t gonna work, you know. The other gangs, they ain’t got no reason to trust you. They don’t know you. You’re not from Three Rats. An’ you’re Guardia.” He chuckles humorlessly. “You ain’t even mortal.”

“But you trust me,” Sky says.

Paolo shrugs. “I wouldn’t say that. I mean, you seem all right. You come here, you move in, live in the neighborhood, make nice with the locals. Show respect to the old folks. Don’t try makin’ people pray to you. You ain’t been here long, though. An’ you’re still Guardia. You got a long way to go before I trust you.”

“Still, your gang will help with keeping peace in this neighborhood.” Sky doesn’t make it a question.

“Yeah, yeah. Shit, man, it’s our neighborhood! Of course.” Paolo shakes his head like Sky is stupid. “It’s what we’ve always done, without help from no Guardia. You guys only get in the way anyhow, getting’ in our business.”

“There’s someone else trying to get in your business now, isn’t there?” Sky studies the young man’s dark, hard eyes.

Paolo spits. “Fuckin’ Dukaines. Word on the street is all this crap with the bad water is their fault.”

“It is. They want everyone to bend the knee. Is that what you’re going to do?”

“Hell no!” Paolo shoots back vehemently. “They’re outsiders, like you! We heard what they done after they moved in on Little Falls – everybody there is slavin’ for ‘em now, even the Guardia! To Hell with those guys! Where were they when we were holdin’ this place together? Makin’ sure people ate, getting’ kids medicine an’ shit?”

“If you fight,” Sky says, “you’ll need allies. And there’s no bigger gang in the City than the Guardia.” He pauses, puts out a hand. “Talk to the other leaders. Tell them there’ll be Dukaine thugs making trouble, trying to scare people into submitting. Report this to the Guardia – we’ll come to help. We’re on the same side in this.”

Paolo looks at his hand, considering, then takes it. “Sure, sure – for the moment, anyway. Later…we’ll see.”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“Now isn’t that better?” exclaimed Kyri, clattering down the stairs, “It’s just as well that we got you out of those clothes before you got sick, or even worse, caught a sniffle!”

“Yes,  Kyri,” says May, looking ruefully at the lace blouse and dirndl she is wearing as she wrestles another barrel into position and pries the top off, to start ladling water for the people in line. “How is Doria?” she asks Kyri.

“She’s fallen asleep again,” says Kyri, sadly. “I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not.”

“Maybe we should change barrels soon,” suggests Mayumi.

Kyri shrugs helplessly. “I don’t know what to do,” she says. Then she gasps. “May! Do you know someone named Atheist Jack?”

Mayumi looks mystified. “No, I’m sorry but I don’t.”

“He could help her!” Kyri says. “He somehow stops gods’ powers from working!”

Mayumi stares at her in confusion for a moment, then realization dawns. “Doria’s power is hurting her right now. And this Atheist guy…he would stop her power …”

“Yes!” says Kyri. “Can you find him – no wait, that’s silly! You don’t even know what he looks like. I will go find him! You stay here, all right?” Kyri grabs a shawl and a small hat. “You hold down the fort! I’ll be back in three shakes of a bunny’s tail!”

Chapter 3 “The Pearl” 39

As Mayumi and Sky stand in the doorway of the Copper Pot, they both sense the tension filling the air. Sky immediately recognises the two teenagers he had seen outside his apartment only the day before.  The older boy stands with a group of other youths, dressed in matching gang colors, refusing to meet Sky’s gaze. The younger of the pair stands at the other side of the room, behind a young woman – her status as some sort of immortal indicated by her preternaturally pale skin and vague aura of power surrounding her – who wears the colours of an opposing gang. The schoolboy stares pleadingly at Sky as the immortal female mutters at him over her shoulder. Sky can only hear fragments of what she is saying, “…family… safe… y’not gonna… scum…”

One of the gang members standing with the older boy fails to notice Sky’s presence and calls across the café, his voice dripping with machismo, “C’mon Mira, let the kid go, I don’ think ya doin’ it for him! Eh puta?!”

“The boy doesn’t know what he likes… yet!” retorts the demi-goddess, loading her final word with innuendo as she provocatively caresses the struggling boy.

“HEY!” shouts Kyri, as she storms back into the cafe, “I said to stop! Don’t make me force the issue or I’ll have you all singing and dancing like chorus girls!”

“Yeah?” snears Mira, “an’ what about after that? I’m sure all of them’d just love dancing like a bunch of pretty girls, but I’ll have our old friend Frogsy pay you another visit when he gets out – gonna be soon, from what I hear! How’d ya like that?”

Kyri looks over the immortal’s shoulder to Sky, “I trust that you heard that Inspector?” she trills, tipping her head sweetly to one side as she bats her eyelashes.

“Yes, I did,” growls Sky, stepping in front of the blushing demi-goddess. “Now Mira,” continues Sky, his voice taking on a paternal tone, “have you had a nice drink of water?”

“Uh-huh,” nods Mira, her normally chalk-white face now beet-red.

“Good. So why don’t you be a good girl and run along? And send my best to your mother.” Sky looks after the suddenly child-like demi-goddess as she swiftly leaves the café, trying but failing to maintain some dignity. To the teenager she was bothering, he says gently, “Você está bem, Sundar?” The boy nods and joins the others, his boyfriend putting a protective arm around him.

“Thank you Inspector,” says Kyri, smiling with only barely controlled mirth. “Now, why don’t you bring those barrels out to the kitchen so we can have a little chat? You too, May. Doria, d’you mind if I leave you in charge out here? I’m sure you can find some generous souls who can give you a hand,” she continues, nodding knowingly at the bewildered schoolboy.

“OK boss,” says Doria, sticking her tongue out at Kyri. “Right. You and you,” she commands, exhaustion tingeing her voice, pointing at the boy and his paramour, “can you two roll these empty barrels out to the back of the cafe?”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神

As Kyri closes the kitchen door she begins to giggle infectiously, May soon joining her, their laughter increasing until Kyri’s is uproarious, while May’s quieter but even more intense. Kyri wraps her arms around May for support, the Bunny seeming surprised but happy at the contact. Their laughter finally subsiding to a quiet giggle, Sky looks at the pair and smiles with amusement. “Are you two quite finished?” he asks, raising his eyebrows questioningly.

As the two look at Sky they once again start laughing. “My goodness!” gasps Kyri, struggling to regain her composure. “That was positively brilliant!”

“Quite excellent,” trills May, in a passable imitation of Kyri’s voice and accent. “Do you really know her mother?” she continues, as Kyri collapses against her into gales of laughter, sinking to her knees, her arms helplessly around May’s waist. May bites her lower lip, smiling and looking at Sky with a shrug.

“Yes,” admits Sky, grinning. “She’s my landlady.”

After a moment, Mayumi stops smiling. “You know you’ve made an enemy of Mira now,” she says, her voice serious.

“I know, but I think I can manage one adolescent demi-goddess, regardless of who she thinks her friends are,” he says, nodding.

I only hope you’re right, thinks Kyri as she stands with May’s help.

“Kyri,” Sky says, “I wanted to thank you, and apologise for getting you to lie about May to Sergeant Alma. I had no right to ask that of you.”

“That’s quite all right,” responds Kyri, “but I don’t like having to tell lies, especially to people like Sergeant Alma.” She smiles wryly. “She doesn’t seem like someone I’d want angry at me!”

“Of course,” says Sky, nodding contritely.

“I would, however, like to know why you needed me to tell that lie. Was it because May wasn’t meant to be out and about? Or was it because you don’t want Alma knowing that you two were out and about together?”

A moment of embarrassed confusion passes as both Sky and May struggle to find a way to answer the heavily loaded question.

“Well, it was the first one of course!” May bursts out, her voice fierce. “Why should Alma mind that I was with Sky? Why would that be a secret?”

Stone-faced, only his eyes betraying his discomfort at Kyri’s question and May’s insistent response, Sky says, “I had better keep moving, Dona Kyri. There are a few other people that I need to speak with.”

“Oh…of course, Inspector,” says Kyri, taken aback by Sky’s sudden return to crisp formality. “I’ll see you two out. Coming, May my dear?”

As they walk back into the café, Doria stops them, nervously pushing her ever-damp hair back. “I… I… just wanted to say thank you for helping the Oracle and me,” she says clumsily to all three of them, before continuing more confidently, “Kyri, I was wondering – if you had made everyone in the room sing and dance like chorus girls, would that have meant that our dear Inspector Tuma-Sukai would have been dancing like a chorus girl, too?”

“I rather think he would have been,” giggles Kyri archly.

“I wouldn’t mind seeing that,” laughs Doria, her eyes twinkling mischievously despite the dark circles under them.

Upon hearing this, Sky smiles thinly, his earlier discomfort lingering. “You are most welcome, Priestess. But I am only doing my job – a job that is far from complete. Mayumi here will be running messages between the Guardia Station, and the Copper Pot, so she’ll be staying here with you and Dona Kyri. It’s possible she may even need to go to the Oracle’s Grotto, in which case I would appreciate it if you would show her the way. Now I’m afraid I have business to attend to.” He catches the eye of Sundar’s boyfriend. “Paolo. I need to speak with you.” With a jerk of his chin, he indicates the door of the café. Touching a finger to his cap, he says to Kyri and Doria, “Ladies,” and with a quick glance at May, he heads out the door just behind the gang leader.

Chapter 3 “The Pearl” 19

The Inspector hesitates before Alma’s door for a moment before knocking. Though he is just beginning to consider the sergeant a friend, he is loathe to intrude upon the privacy of her room, especially without her present. But with her exhausted by the effects of the tainted water, he has no choice. He knocks.

Moments later the door opens a crack. “Oh! Inspector Sky!”

“Good morning, Rosemary,” he says. She is peeking around the edge of the door, her hair wet.

She smiles up at him, then gasps and fusses with her hair, letting go of the door. “Ohh! I haven’t done me hair yet!” The door swings wider and he sees she’s wearing nothing but a towel cinched around her waist, but she quickly wraps a smaller one into a turban around her hair. “There!” she cries.

Sky carefully does not stare at her breasts. Remember the islands where you were first worshipped, he thinks. No one wore clothes above the waist in that tropical paradise. You’ve really been away too long, for this to distract you so. Still, he cannot help but notice how her creamy shoulders and upper chest are pleasantly sprinkled with freckles, like her face. “Ehm, Rosemary, I need to speak with Lady Doria, if she is up to it.”

“Oh, she’s much better.” Merri looks back over her shoulder. Sky catches a glimpse of a pool, of greenery. In the pool he sees Sage and the two younger bunnies bathing. Sage is washing them…as is Mayumi. Just as he sees her, she looks up and locks eyes with him, and he feels it happen again: his breath catches. She also becomes very still, looking at him. Her eyes…

Merri looks from the Inspector to May, and back again, then gets a knowing look on her face. “Er, Inspector…Inspector!” He tears his eyes away and looks at her, almost as if he doesn’t recognize her for a moment. Her voice quite amused, she says, “I would invite ye t’join us, but…”

“Oh, of course. I, uh, wouldn’t enter without being invited by Alma. Could you ask Doria to meet me upstairs in the bar, when she’s ready?” He smiles a farewell to her and withdraws, and is halfway up the stairs when he hears the door open again. Looking back, he sees not the expected Doria, but Mayumi, dripping wet, wearing a hastily donned t-shirt, dark green with “BOUNDERS” splashed across it, the name of a local football team. The water from her body is just beginning to soak through the shirt in big splotches. She stops when she sees him. He walks back down the stairs to her.

“Good morning,” he says.

“What’s going on?” she asks abruptly. “Cala was too busy to tell me, and Aliyah was nodding off at her desk! Everybody’s running around… Oh, I hate being stuck down here, not able to help!” Her voice is thick with frustration, and she looks like she’s barely restraining herself from punching the wall.

He is surprised, knowing how she usually tries to keep a tight rein on her emotions, but then again, not so very surprised – he has seen her lose control of those emotions before. He hesitates for a moment, but then puts himself in her place: a cop once upon a time, now stuck babysitting a goddess while everyone ignores her.

“Doria and her mistress were attacked,” he begins.

“Yes, she’s been telling me about that.”

“Oh, have you been interviewing her?” he asks, smiling.

She smiles back shyly. “In a friendly way.”

“We may have to compare notes later. Well, you know the Pearl was stolen, then? We think it has been contaminated, and that this is contaminating the water supply of Three Rats. The tainted water is sapping people’s energy. We’re not sure what the motivation is for this–” The door opens again, and Doria comes out wearing her swimsuit as before, but with a multicolored shawl wrapped around her waist.

“You wanted to see me, Inspector?” She looks at Mayumi and back to Sky, curiously.

“Yes, Lady Doria…” Sky focuses on Mayumi. “Meet me upstairs in a few minutes. Bring Sage.”

The Bunny stands to attention and bows formally, then rushes back to her room.

As they ascend the stairs, Doria says to Sky, “They’re fascinating, aren’t they? So unselfconscious. Are they from another world?”

“No, they, uh…” As they reach the top of the stairs he strides over to a table and pulls out a chair for her. “Sorry, I need to speak with you about the Pearl.”

“Of course,” she says, but he can see her looking at him quizzically, obviously wondering why he avoided answering her question.

He quickly tells her that her Lady is safe, and that the Pearl is being searched for by all their officers. He tells her the theory that it has been corrupted. The priestess looks ill at the thought. “Who?” she demands. “Who would commit such blasphemy? And why?”

“From your description of your attackers, we believe it is a criminal family that has recently moved into the area. I think they are attempting to display their power, to cow everyone into submission. If they control the Pearl, they control the water supply. They can make any demands they want.”

Doria nods, distressed. “What can we do? The mortals are suffering! And what about my Lady?”

“Of course, we need to find the Pearl. In the meantime, Sergeant Gwydion is helping the Oracle recover. I would like you to help with organizing your temple’s followers. We need to start bringing fresh water into Three Rats, and distributing it to the people.”

She thinks it over, then nods. “Yes, we can do that. But where will we distribute it from? Here?”

Sky says, “I think I know a better place.”

Mayumi and Sage arrive, fully dressed in clothes derived from the old Guardia Popula tunics that were their first clothes, tailored to fit them. Mayumi is wearing a pleated skirt of almost the same sky-blue shade, while Sage wears a pair of knee-length blue shorts with his tunic.

“Doria, please describe your attackers to Mayumi and Sage.” Mayumi immediately takes out her small notebook and a short pencil from her tunic pocket. “Mayumi, Sage, after you’re done here I want you to go through the case files, trying to identify Doria’s attackers. I’ll go speak with Corporal Kaur now and make sure you’re granted access. Please bring Doria to Corporal Kaur’s desk when you’re done taking her statement.”

After receiving nods of understanding from them, he rises and leaves the bar.