Ch6.80 Trust

“He really walloped you a couple times,” Cherry says, half-sympathetic, half-amused as she stands behind Somrak’s chair, running her fingers through his just-rewashed hair with one hand to comb it into some semblance of order, and holding a wet towel wrapped around ice against his cheek and the side of his mouth with the other. “I could totally do you up in braids,” she adds as an aside. “Whaddya think? Like, a half-dozen thin ones startin’ from the front here? Or just one braided ponytail down the back?”

Somrak’s leather-clad shoulders shake in silent laughter. “Can I have ribbons with that?”

“Oh, ye better not let Tulip hear ye say that!” Merri admonishes him as she sets a pint of ale on the table before him. “She’ll turn ye into a special project – ye’ll end up with more ribbons than hair.” She looks around as she sits across from him. “Speakin’ of whom, where’d she go? Ah well…” She turns abruptly to fix Somrak with an inquisitorial gaze, setting elbows on the table, chin on her clasped fists, her fiery curls bouncing and bright green eyes sparkling. “Now then! What was all that about?”

“Oh boy,” Somrak mutters, taking up his beer and raising it to her. “Cheers.” He starts to drink it slowly but without stopping.

Merri rolls her eyes and tilts her head. “Now come on! Mum said ye should explain it us!” When he holds up a finger to indicate Still drinking! she groans and pretends to collapse onto the tabletop.

Cherry insistently squeezes his shoulder, her grip surprisingly strong. “Hey, come on… I don’t like all this secret stuff,” she pleads, sounding just this side of desperate.

Somrak raises the bottom of the glass higher and finishes quickly, then reaches up and takes her hand in his, turning his face to look up at her dark face framed in a halo of ebony curls, her beauty marred by her sincere worry. He sighs and sets down his beer.

“Come on, sit down.” He pats the seat of the chair next to him, and she pulls it out and takes a seat. “I’ll tell you no lies, but I can’t tell you much truth. I’m sorry. This is a case where even most cops can’t be told much.”

Merri leans forward and whispers, “Is it Sky? Has somethin’ happened to him? Only Sage said he was missin’ an’ Mum an’ Dion went out lookin’ for him an’ ever since they’ve been terribly worried an’ closed-mouth.” As she speaks, all pretense of joking disappears and she reaches to put her pale hand atop Cherry’s, which is still holding Somrak’s tightly.

Somrak puts his free hand on both of theirs and takes a breath. “As I told you before, my bosses don’t know I’m here. But there’s others who mustn’t learn I’m here as well. The people who murdered your Corporal Stathos. Sky is with them, and we’re going to bring him home.” As he speaks, he looks from one the the other, his face darkly serious.

Cherry’s eyes shine with forming tears. “Is he hurt?” she whispers.

Somrak shakes his head. “I don’t know. Maybe. But you know he’s strong. And Alma will heal him.”

Cherry and Merri seem to study him, Merri’s nose and cheeks turning pink as she seems to be holding back tears as well. But she takes a deep, shaky breath and, her voice determinedly calm, asks, “Is there anything that we can do? Anything at all?”

“You can keep quiet about it. And you can keep all the Bunnies here, home,” he says, doing his best to project a confidence he doesn’t feel. “It’s very important for us to know you’re safe.”

“We’ll do that,” says Cherry. “But what about Dion? He was actin’ like a crazy guy out there. Yellin’ about lies?”

“Dion…” Somrak sighs. “Dion was poisoned, while trying to find Sky. And…I held back some information a little longer than I should have. That made him very angry, and I don’t blame him for punching me. But I am annoyed about losing that cigar.”

Cherry smacks his shoulder. “Don’t joke. Is Dion gonna be okay?”

A bright, loud voice, high-pitched and childish, pierces the tense, gloomy conversation. “He says he’s fine.” Tulip bounces over from the stairs that lead down to Alma’s sanctum, and plops herself onto Somrak’s lap. “Seems fine. Just taking a bath with Mom.”

“Oh, ye wee scamp!” Merri scolds her, smiling brightly and blinking away her tears. “Sneakin’ around. Tell us all how they are!”

Tulip shrugs. “I didn’t get to hear much before Mom caught me! She’s like, scary good at catching me now. But they were talking fine ‘bout souls and stuff. And they were hugging so I guess they’re fine. I asked if Dion is feeling better and he said he’s feeling great.” She puts her arms around Somrak’s neck. “Mom says to tell you they’ll come upstairs in a bit. So is that why you didn’t punch back? ‘Cause it was your fault Dion got hurt?”

“That’s part of it,” Somrak says, looking into her blue eyes, marveling again at how much she resembles Alma when she was much younger, when Somrak met her the first time. And he does his best to put out of his mind her blithe report of Alma and Dion bathing together and ‘hugging,’ which his idiotic brain tries to turn into something more. “But also…he’s my friend, even if he’s not so sure about that right now. I don’t want to hurt my friends.” Ah, but you’re so good at it, he cannot help but tell himself. Will you be coming back to this place carrying a body? Will it be their beloved Sky? Or Dion? Or worst of all, their mother? How will you live with that? Or will the four of you just disappear and never be heard from again?

“Speak o’ the divvil!” Merri says. “There they are.” Following her gaze, Somrak sees Alma and Dion coming up the stairs, holding hands. Dion is freshly washed and clothed, dressed casually in a simple silk shirt and close-fitting trousers, and Alma looks as if she has had a bath as well, having changed into another sari. She gives Somrak a wary smile, which he returns with as good a facsimile of his devil-may-care, scar-twisted smirk as he can manage, and smiles even more broadly at Dion.

For his part, Dion keeps his expression reserved toward Somrak for the moment, but his face softens as he looks at Cherry. Her black-furred ears are laid back, denting her afro, and Somrak can see that she’s looking at Dion with concern and sorrow.

Alma looks at the gathering and makes a stab at breaking the ice. “Well, this is certainly a happy reception…”

Merri stands. “Oh come in and sit down! Time to mend fences over somethin’ nice to drink.” She moves toward the bar to fetch beverages, while Cherry follows her more slowly. Meanwhile, Tulip slips off Somrak’s lap to dash to Dion for a hug, then she runs off toward the stairs leading to the upper floors. Somrak hears her greet Geryon.

Dion looks at Alma and signals her to sit, while he holds out a hand a hand to stop Cherry. He looks at her uncertainly. After a moment of the two of them looking at each other in silence, Cherry asks him, “What can I get you?”

He tentatively extends an arm and puts it around her shoulders, drawing her close. She seems surprised for a moment, and then with a little whimper she hugs him tightly around the waist. He wraps his other arm around her, bending his head to whisper something to her. Somrak hears, “…should have listened…” and “…sorry…”

Cherry clenches one of her hands into a fist and gives Dion a light, painless punch on the back. Her cheek pressed against his chest, she almost sobs, “You’re darned tootin’ you should’ve.” She leans back slightly and looks up at him, her eyes bright, her face worried, her voice tiny. “Are you ok?”

Dion nods. “I am now.” He looks at Geryon, who, just arriving, glances sideways at him, as if he can’t be bothered with all this emotion.

Cherry give Dion a big, bright smile and pats his chest, then looks at Alma and Geryon. “So what’s everybody drinkin’?”

“Considering my healer would probably disapprove of alcohol right now,” Gwydion says, “what do you have that is mild on an empty stomach?”

Cherry considers. “How about some nice warm milk? Or tea?”

“Tea sounds good. Thank you.” Dion moves to sit down.

“You got it, hon,” Cherry replies, then quickly takes the others’ orders before joining Merri at the bar.

Dion sits with Somrak and Alma, while Geryon steps up onto the nearby sofa, his eagle gaze on the three gods. Dion nods to Somrak. “I see you are almost fully healed.”

Alma, her voice half-amused, half-scolding, says, “I think he’s just dragging it out to keep Cherry and Rosemary treating him like a war hero.” She brushes her fingertips along his face, scents of spring filling the air, and the bruising on Somrak’s face disappears, along with the cut on his lip.

Somrak touches his cheek after Alma’s fleeting touch leaves it warm and whole. “That bruise was getting me a lot of attention. What am I going to do now?” Looking a little more serious, he leans forward, elbows on the table, and asks Dion, “How are you feeling?”

“Like I have been through something I don’t ever want to experience again.” Dion exhales. “I’ll live. But I don’t recommend trying it.”

Merri brings Somrak another ale, while Cherry brings a steaming cup of tea for Dion and of coffee for Alma. Cherry asks, “You guys gonna be okay with each other now, or we gotta set up round two?”

“Oh yes,” Geryon pipes up with his smooth, every-sarcastic voice. “Give us some time to advertise and sell tickets. We’ll make a fortune out of it.”

“Ooo yes!” Merri coos, taking away Somrak’s empty glass. “That was quite the display you two put on. Seems a shame not to let everyone see.”

“Come on, Mer,” Cherry says, “let’s let ‘em talk. We got Bunnies to round up anyway.”

“Indeed, we do,” Merri says, pausing and suddenly giving Alma a kiss on the cheek. The surprised goddess turns to look and sees the fear showing through past the Bunny’s usually cheerful demeanor, but the redhead follows Cherry before Alma can react.

Looking at Somrak, Alma asks, “Just what did you tell them?”

Somrak waits until the two have gone upstairs, calling out for Chime, Tulip, Kori, and Sage, the asks, “They can still hear overhear us, can’t they?”

“Very much so, yes,” Geryon replies. “Their ears are as sharp as my eyes. But…” He closes his eyes, muttering, and stretches his forepaws out before him, flexing them so the toes spread out and the claws extend. Around then the air seems almost to solidify, light bending distorted through a not-quite-perfectly transparent shell around them, and all sound from beyond it deadens. “Not anymore,” he finishes.

Alma nods at him. “Thank you, Geryon.”

“Yes,” says Dion, his voice dry, “thank you for assuming you should be included.”

Geryon fluffs the feathers on his head. “Oh, like you can afford not to include me at this point. I am, after all, your walking conscience.”

“That explains a lot,” Dion mutters.

Somrak listening to the exchange, weighing the ramifications. “It’s up to you two. But Geryon, if you’re included, some of what you learn could get you in trouble. We’re talking state secrets here.”

The gryphon rolls his eyes. “Please, unless I’m to be turned into anything in the class of sardine or below, I really couldn’t care less. And unless you forget, the first time we met, these two had just sent an Archon to the angels, so to speak.”

“And you’d just stood between that Archon and some Bunnies,” Somrak reminds him. He looks at Alma and Dion. “I’m all right with it if you are.”

The lovers look at each other, then Alma says to Somrak, “We have news.”

“Yes, about Sky and his captor.” Catching Geryon’s expression, Dion quickly explains, “The truth is, Sky was captured a few days ago by the necromancer we have been tracking. He is alive and still on the Insula. Well, in a pocket universe. He is being tortured but holding on with the help of a friend of Alma’s.” He glances at her as if checking that the word ‘friend,’ which Somrak notes he fractionally paused before using, is correct.

His eyes round, Geryon says, “Well, no wonder you have all been so strange, lately.”

Somrak leans forward. “How do you know all this, Dion?”

Alma replies instead. “Arion… Void Rider. Former Archon, god of…Reality, really. The father of my children. He can travel in the Dreamworld.”

“And he walked into my dream,” Dion says, “when I was fighting off the poison.”

Somrak drops his eyes, thinking it over. “If he’s still being tortured, that confirms the idea that this is being done to lure Alma into a rescue attempt.”

Dion nods. “Perhaps, yes. Sky sent us a message, saying it was a trap, yes. And that his captor’s name is Nua. To look for her in the records of the Necromancer War, about two hundred years ago.”

Somrak looks up at the mention of two centuries. Coincidence?

Alma pulls her Death Clan logbook from, apparently, nowhere, and opens it. “Let us see what we can find.” She looks at intently, clearly reading, but to Somrak’s surreptitious glance the pages look blank, except perhaps for the barest blur of lines of writing, indicative of a spell to protect the information from unapproved eyes. “Ah, here she is. I knew the name seemed familiar. Nua was a famous necromancer. She was actually credited with starting the war in the first place. Not the sharpest blade in the armory but vicious, relentless. She stole the original formula for the Soul Bombs and shared it with other necromancers, sowing great chaos. She used them to kill rival necromancers and in the tumult over…” She pauses a moment. “Over forty death gods perished.” She shudders and Dion places a hand on her arm. Somrak had not been in Three Rats when the Whisper assassinated one of its own arrested members to prevent him from revealing their secret to the Guardia, an event which killed Corporal Stathos and another prisoner, shredding their souls and nearly killing Alma as well, as those damaged, maddened souls attacked her.

But he had read the report with a horrified anger. Though he had long ago abandoned his own clan, he still carried with him the indelible mark of the attitudes they tried to inculcate in him: to regard the undead, and by extension necromancers, as abominations, cancers in the body of the universe that had to be purified with flame. He had, indeed, been raised to be a sort of warrior-priest, a god in the service of greater gods, a weapon to be wielded against such monstrosity. It does not escape his sense of irony that he has ended up doing exactly that in the Commander’s service, minus the hypocritical dogma and familial abuse that prompted him to leave home.

Somrak says, “She considers the Death Clan her enemy, then. But how has she survived two centuries only to surface now in Three Rats?”

Alma keeps reading. “Well, she didn’t. She was killed, two centuries ago. The investigators found her posed as if she were sleeping. A merciful kill, it seemed, quick and painless. Her soul was gone, doubtlessly claimed by Hell. My aunt was in charge of the investigation, along with two unnamed specialists in demons and Hell. One of them claimed a devil had been at the scene, summoned by Nua herself.” Somrak sits up straight, the blood draining from his face but at the same time thinking, Of course. “Only a piece of the contract was found. Half a name. ‘Azza–’.” Alma looks alarmed as she breaks off.

Somrak and Alma share a shocked look as they both understand. Then Somrak looks at Dion, then at Geryon. To the gryphon, he says, “You’d better be sure you’re in all the way, or walk away now.”

Grimly, Geryon says, “For some reason, I fear my mind has already reached the conclusion you are about to confirm. Allow me.” He turns to Dion and demands, “Are you insane? In what Hellish reality does this sound like a good idea?”

“I know,” Dion sighs. “It doesn’t. Probably because it isn’t. But whether or not I should turn my back on someone who has been nothing less than a friend, I still can’t afford to leave this Nua character running loose. You’ve seen what she did just to send a message.”

Somrak says darkly, “This isn’t just about Alma then. She’s getting back at Sky. And if we’re captured, she’ll use us to torture him further.”

Dion asks, “Can we be sure it was Sky who killed her before?”

Alma and Somrak nod together. Alma says, “When he took the Adamantine Vow to protect the Bunnies, Sky confessed to me that his real name was Azzageddi and made me promise I would keep it to myself. I didn’t make much of it, at the time. I had too many problems to focus on it and it’s not unheard of, anyway, gods using false names to stay free from certain contracts. But the name fits, doesn’t it?

“He was taking a real risk sharing that,” Somrak says, shaking his head. “If you’d ever studied demonology, you’d have been suspicious at the sound of it. He put himself completely into your hands.”

Her voice slow, Alma says, “The truth is, the Vow he took more or less ensures he cannot hurt me, no matter what is done to him. But you two…” She looks at Gwydion and Somrak.

“Sky will resist,” Somrak insists. “He’s being tortured by a necromancer who played at being amateur devil-summoner and got herself killed, and another sorcerer, Nekh’s lieutenant, who is still mortal for all his ability. Sky’s been through worse. Still…” He says to Dion, “It’s good that you know his true name. It’ll help if some binding needs to be broken.”

Dion nods as he absorbs this, then asks Alma, “You said you found out where he’s being held?”

“Lucky Pete gave us a location,” she replies. “We will have to find the entrance to the pocket ourselves, but it is our best bet so far.”

“This is of course provided they haven’t moved the entrance,” Somrak cautions, hating to be the killjoy. “But I think they want us to find them. Or at least they want Alma. Anybody else is a bonus. They just don’t want to make it too obvious that they’re letting us find them. If they made it too hard, they know we’d have to contact the Commander.”

Geryon asks the obvious question, “And just why exactly aren’t we contacting the Commander?”

Somrak hesitates only a moment. After all, the gryphon already knows the Sky is a devil, that his true name is Azzageddi – it’s pointless to hold anything back now. “Sky knows a lot of secrets. And being born one of the Enemy, if it ever got out that the Guardia has been employing him for decades, with the approval of the Council, they would send in the Sikari and just kill everyone involved, Sky included.”

“Lovely,” Geryon mutters. “So you are planning on invading the enemy’s lair with an army of…” He looks around the table, “three?”

“Three,” Somrak confirms. “No mortals coming along. No offense.”

Geryon laughs as if Somrak had just told the most delicious joke. “Oh, you certainly didn’t expect me to volunteer, did you?”

Somrak’s mouth twitches at the corner. “Well after the way you threw yourself at that Archon…”

“Oh, I learned my lesson there, I assure you,” Geryon says, pointing with one paw at Somrak’s chest as if he’d be poking it if the sofa were only a little closer. Then he pauses and asks, “So who should I notify, when you three disappear without a trace into the deepest, darkest pits of Hell?”

Dion sighs, “Geryon…”

The gryphon stands up on all fours, glaring at Gwydion. “Oh, shut up! This is insane, and you know it! Heroic deeds, blazing glory – who will pick up the pieces you are leaving behind to go save your friend?” He shifts his gaze to Alma. “Who will comfort and protect your Bunnies? Or tell your families what happened? Hmm?”

Alma and Gwydion find themselves unable to reply, or even to meet the fierce eagle gaze.

The magical dome around them is temporarily superfluous, as all within fall silent. After several pregnant seconds pass, Somrak gravely says, “I would not blame anyone in the slightest for staying here. My intention was to go in alone, anyway. But after all you did…” He nods at Dion’s arm, where the poison was injected by Saira’s informant. “I realized I couldn’t just ditch the two of you without giving you a chance. That’s when I accepted I’d have to tell you what Sky is. But Geryon is right. You have people here who need you.”

Alma’s voice is low but clear and firm. “How would I tell my children that I let their Uncle Sky die? Or tell my clan that I let Nua run loose? No, I cannot back away.”

“My family is either dead or here,” Gwydion says. “And part of that family is being tortured in some pocket universe, somewhere. I’m in.” He looks to Geryon. “All I ask of you, my friend, is that if something happens, you get the Bunnies into my room, erase the door, and open a new one somewhere else, somewhere safe. And then… I can’t ask for anything beyond that.”

Alma stands and walks to Geryon, crouching so that her eyes are on a level with his. She looks into his eyes, imploring. “If you get them to my mother, I’m sure she’ll care for them. Please, Geryon. Even if you don’t understand, pretend you do and keep my children safe. I beg you.”

Geryon pulls his head back, blinking, his beak slightly open, looking stunned. He shakes his head, ruffling his feathers. “Oh, quit the dramatics, my lady. Of course I will look after them.” He sounds quite affected by her plea, and by the responsibility thrust on him.

The goddess puts her arms around his neck and presses her cheek to his. “Thank you.”

Dion chuckles at his friend’s stammered inability to reply to that, and Somrak imagines he can almost see the gryphon blushing through his feathers. What Geryon said about family continues to spin in Somrak’s mind, for he has been thinking along the same lines of late. What family has he had, since he fled that of his birth? He fell in with a gang as bad or perhaps even worse than the Whisper, and then was rescued by the Commander, and given the chance to redeem himself. Since then, the off-blues, the unnamed ‘special missions’ department within the Guardia, has been his family, but it’s been a highly dysfunctional one. Only a few days ago, one whom he had trusted with his life had turned out to be an agent of Hell, a spy, and he had had to kill her. And for decades the colleague he was closest to, Sky, was also the person he was supposed to kill at any sign of unreliability.

Dion is right. This is family, here. It is Dion’s and Alma’s and Geryon’s and the Bunnies’. And it is Sky’s. But is it Somrak’s. Can it really be? Surely it’s too early to tell, whatever they might say. But Somrak knows one thing. He wants it. Badly.

Out loud, he says, to Alma and Dion, “The truth is, I wouldn’t have a chance without your help. Sky wouldn’t have a chance. But if I thought we still didn’t have a chance together, I wouldn’t bring you into it. We do have a shot at getting him out. But just in case, I’ll prepare a message for the Commander. If we don’t return after a full day, Geryon, or if you’re attacked here, simply burn the message. He’ll receive it.”

Geryon, a wizard familiar with such things, nods grimly.

“Oh, and you’ll be better off pretending you have no idea who or what this Azzageddi is, or that Tuma-Sukai is anything other than a big lovable lug,” Somrak adds. He nods to Dion and Alma. “That goes for the two of you as well.”

Dion says, “Arion said Sky is close to giving out, so we should move as quickly as possible.”

“Yes,” Alma agrees. “The more we delay, the more he’ll suffer. We should fetch our equipment.” She stands, as does Gwydion.

But Somrak holds up a hand. “Wait. Dion, you are still recovering from being poisoned. And you,” he continues, looking at Alma, “have barely slept in days, and you’re still suffering from a mana hangover after healing him. And somebody punched me in the mouth, I think. If we go in with anything less than our best condition, we are putting the mission at risk.”

Alma looks at Dion, who looks uncertainly back at her. “But…Sky…” she murmurs.

Geryon sighs and hops off the sofa to stand between them. “As much as it pains me to say it, Scarface does have a point. Both of you are too weak to be of any use at the moment. And if this necromancer is truly trying to lure you in, she will be in no hurry to kill Sky.”

The two look at one another again, and Gwydion finally sags his shoulders and admits, “I suppose you’re right.”

“Rest,” insists Somrak. “After you’ve had a good meal. But before that, let’s go over the information again I got day before yesterday. With what we know now, it might shed some more light on the other gang members. Geryon, could you drop the silence shield so we can order something to eat?”

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Ch6.69 Trust

Itty bitty bunny dropping from the sky
Running in the moonlight, talons passing by
Hide inside your burrow, warm under the snow
Making lots of bunnies for when the flowers grow…

Preying eyes watch from behind a massive stone garuda, complete with menacing beak and flaming eyes, standing three tiers high in the abandoned alleyway temple and a bit to the far corner of the alley where a hooded figure in tight-fitting clothing is speaking to another hooded figure – currently sans hood – in a beautifully tailored cape that barely stands out less than the white-haired head currently topping it. But that is all right. They are alone, for the moment.

Well, not entirely alone.

As the conversation reaches its end and Three Rats’ very own goddess of death turns to leave, a shadow detaches itself from the darkness of the elaborate building and stalks, quiet and slender, out of hiding. The woman in tight leather has walked past it already, swift, bound for the rooftops. Furred paws tread soundlessly despite the weight they carry, climbing up, up over the building, toward the nightly sky. And then it is leaping, its form gliding smoothly through the air, wings cutting through the breeze like blades cutting through silk. Watching.

Down below.

The nimble body moving swiftly, alleyway to corner to shady street, hooded head hiding long locks of silken white hair and pale flesh. Like a winter hare.

Itty bitty bunny, huntsman cocked his bow

Bunny was so pretty, huntsman let it go…

He should not be doing this, should not interfere. But that has never stopped him before.

“You truly should mind your words, Lady Alma” he says as he lands just behind her with barely a tap of his paw pads against the macadame street. “They can sound so different from what they mean.”

She turns around calmly, seemingly unimpressed by the full bulk of his leonine body. “What’s this, Geryon? Since when do you spy on my conversations?”

“Spy?” Geryon asks, not without a certain level of resentment at the accusation. He folds his wings and sits on his haunches to preen a rebellious feather. “Nasty habit. One never knows what unhealthy things one might uncover. No, I was merely asked to make sure you do not collapse or get dragged away into the darkness on your way back to the station and I couldn’t help but overhear your little…exchange.”

Those lovely hypnotic eyes widen and soften just a little before they narrow at the veiled meaning of his words. “Gwydion asked you to follow me. For my sake.”

Geryon merely shrugs. “He may be an idiot but he is an idiot in love, after all.” Which is just another blow to the intelligence of that foolish god. “Congratulations, lady. You have managed to leave him jealous, something I personally never thought I’d see. But then, I never thought I’d see him in a stable relationship with anyone other than himself.”

A good many things set mortals and divines apart other than longevity, faster healing and the occasional ability that no mortal should possess, not even mages. Gods stand out even when they don’t mean to stand out and mortals, no matter how used to godly convivium, cannot help but react with anything from awe to repulse to their presence. It is not just the looks – mortals on the Insula will look like pretty much anything, depending on their ward of origin – but also the way they stand, the way the world stands around them. How the air turns cooler or warmer, the sun shines brighter or fades a little. Simple things. Tiny things. Things the gods do not notice, things they cannot control. Things that mortals barely understand themselves, that they detect with a more primitive, less conscious part of their brains. Mortals are prey-folk to gods. And prey knows when a hunter approaches.

Prey can also tell when a hunter is weak. Again, it is the little things. Like the way light fades a little from luminescent eyes and the shadows draw nearer to draw a pale face in starker contrast. Sadness that reality is bending ever so slightly to convey.

“It seems it was not stable enough if he could not trust me enough to love him above any other god,” Alma says quietly.

“Have I mentioned he is an idiot?” Geryon replies, not without a hint of softness in his voice.

“Does he happen to agree with you?” she retorts dryly.

Geryon locks eyes with her, the softness that was in them just a moment ago gone at her misplaced anger. “Must I quote him word for word?” he says humorlessly. He knows she can see his face better than he can see hers. Damn his eagle eyes not made for this gloom. “My dearest lady, this is Dion. If you want perfection, a trained monkey would probably be a better pick.”

And probably write you some lovely poetry if enough bananas are involved.

“But he does love you, for all his sins,” the gryphon adds, shaking his head in empathetic frustration. An image of Dion sitting distraught, his back against the door, eyes darkened with misery and self-loathing flashes before his eyes. The last time Geryon had seen the god curled up like a wounded beast, human eyes had gazed upon his friend. And even then, Dion had not looked even marginally as defeated as he has for the past three days. “Would he have done anything remotely as stupid as what he did if he did not love you? I have never seen him as heartbroken as he is right now.” He raises a conciliatory paw. “Granted, he deserves to be.”

Alma tilts her head, looking at him quizzically. “I did not expect you to side with me on this.”

“That makes two of us,” Geryon mutters.

He truly had not expected it, truth be told. The idea of his friend being romantically involved with a death goddess with a tendency for getting in trouble with the powers that be had not exactly set well with Geryon in the beginning and he is still honestly not sure how he personally feels about Alma. Maybe because they have never quite shared more than a few cordial sentences at any given time – and perhaps the way Geryon has so far steered clear from the goddess’ attention in order to avoid the less-than-comfortable subject of her two oldest daughters currently being his lovers – he has so far failed to either dislike or esteem Alma’s personality. But the fact is that Dion had somehow fallen helplessly in love with her – to the point where he had wavered the possibility of returning to his life in the First Ring to stay with her and her brood in this Hell-hole – and that the god’s relationship with Alma had so far resulted in a happier, calmer, more centered version of Dion. Geryon often teased his friend for having become a puppy to the lovely-looking, more-than-potentially dangerous goddess but the truth was that he could not help but be somewhat grateful for the anchoring pillar that Dion’s romance with Alma had become.

Something he would, of course, readily deny under oath if anyone were ever to ask.

So when he saw what Dion had done to sabotage himself in fear of failing any other way, he had immediately sided with Alma. It had been enough for Geryon to know what would happen next, on seeing that invitation for a New Year’s ride in a lunar barge with some goddess, after hearing Cherry’s sobbed retelling of what had happened after Tulip had innocently told Dion about the kiss between Alma and Mister I-Cut-Myself-Shaving. And he is truly shamed and regretful that he did not foresee that Dion would go immediately to Alma’s room after returning from his escapade. That is what one gets for assuming a friend is intelligent enough to shower before talking to his girlfriend, after spending all night with some random goddess.

And maybe that is why he is currently sticking his big beak where it doesn’t belong. “Though your whole kind makes my feathers stand on end, I will admit that – strictly in the quality of Gwydion’s closest friend and personal conscience and in no way romantically interested on him now or ever – you make him happy. Truly happy.” He sighs in sheer desperation to get his point across. “His face lights up when he sees you. How could you two ever think no one would notice you’re together?”

The shadows around them grow a deeper shade of dark once again. Alma looks away from him, sadness returned to her voice, thick and heavy. “We are not together now.”

“Oh, fairy gold!” Geryon hisses pouncing toward her, making her step back reflexively and stare at him wide-eyed. “Give him half a chance and he will be dragging his pathetic little rear at your feet to beg forgiveness. And he has only to whimper a little before you break and take him back.”

You know you want to break. Just break already.

Much to his surprise, she snorts. “You have an interesting vision of your closest friend.”

“I know who he’s been for the last few years, lady,” Geryon replies, trying to remain unphased by her uncooperativeness. “And I don’t think he likes that person all that much anymore. But old habits die hard.”

He cannot help but lower his eyes and sigh at that thought. He too is prey to old habits, old fears, and he dreads Dion’s failure just about as much as he fears his own. A hand lightly touches his head, stroking the short feathers on his forehead. He looks up at the soft, eerie glow of Alma’s eyes. “I suppose they do,” she says. “You are a good friend, Geryon. He is blessed to have you.”

“Would you mind telling him that every now and again?” he mutters. “He would probably turn me into something nasty if he knew of this conversation but it pains me to watch him wallowing in self-loathing.”

“I am not exactly throwing parties myself,” Alma replies, lowering herself to a crouching position. He can see her face more clearly now, the track of a wandering tear shining with a wet hue on her left cheek. She absently strokes his cheeks, looking somewhere beyond him, through him. “I don’t enjoy this pain. This…emptiness.”

He has to resist a sudden, irrational urge to lie down and raise his leg for a belly rub. Mind of the topic, furball! “Which begs the question: If you are miserable and he is miserable and patching things up would leave you both happy again, what exactly are you waiting for?”

The petting stops. Alma rises to her feet, hand wiping her face. “Maybe we’re both just terrible at this dating thing,” she says, not without a hint of humor.

You think?!

“Wisest thing I’ve heard out of any you on this whole matter, my lady,” he notes, turning and waiting for her to adjust her gait to his so that the two walk side by side.

“I would not take it to heart if you called me by my name, Geryon,” she says, looking down at him. “After all, I’m pretty sure you have just gotten away with calling me a fool a couple of times during this conversation.”

Geryon looks up at her with his very best look of feigned shock. “Who? Me? Calling you a fool? Never!”

Ch6.59 Trust

Feeling utterly defeated and hating himself for all he has said and thought, Dion slowly walks to his room. As Alma’s words echo in his mind, he activates the magical door that leads into his sanctum and enters.

Where were you? Where were you when I was calling for you in my sickbed?

He stands unseeing for a moment. She was ill, then. Must still be. She did not look at all in good health. But she didn’t tell him, not a word about what is going on with her. He made her angry, hurt her feelings and now he must pay for it with the torment of worry and ignorance.

If you knew the first thing about me, you’d know that the last thing I want is a harem!

If you knew the first thing about me…

Did he get her so wrong? Was he so wrong to think that when she proposed their arrangement, when she offered him the possibility of being with others? Her ease with her children’s views of love, physical and otherwise, the way she believes that all things must die, eventually. Even love. Even pain…

He leans slightly back. Feeling the door behind him, the portal now deactivated, he slides down until he is sitting on the floor, knees bent, mind rushing in circles and standing completely still at once. He cannot even feel pain at the moment. He feels nothing, a void of emotion that not even copious amounts of drink would be able to reproduce. The gods know he has tried that before. But even that void feels terribly wrong. Cold. He feels so cold inside himself. Like a part of him has just left with her, out that barroom door.

…I care about you more.

Gods… What has he done?!

From the general direction of his bed, comes a sigh. A familiar voice mutters, “Dion, Dion, Dion, what have you gotten yourself into this time?”

Dion raises his head just enough to make out the sphinx-like form of Geryon lying on his bed, then lowers it again, shaking it. He cannot will himself to say anything. Every word he has spoken so far has turned out to be the wrong one.

“Cherry told me what happened,” Geryon goes on, lowering his head until his beak perches at the edge of the bed. “I was waiting for you but I guess I should have known you would be stupid enough to go straight to her instead of dropping by here first.”

…I did nothing wrong…

“What in Hell is wrong with me?” Dion mumbles. “I just…”

“You just…” Geryon echoes. He stretches lazily and snorts. “You just.” In his smaller form, he manages not to make the bed creak as he rolls over to lie belly up, looking upside down at Dion. “You just fought with your girlfriend out of jealousy, didn’t you? Of all things, Dion, I never expected you to be the jealous type, considering what you’ve done to so many happily-engaged couples. But then Tulip tells you she saw a kiss and you just go off like the world’s about to explode.”

You want the truth? I care about him.

“But she does want him! She admits it!” Dion cries, bringing his fists down on his knees with force. Even the pain of that blow is nothing compared with the turmoil rising within him. He puts his hands over his ears, trying to silence the memories of her anger, the echoes of her voice. It doesn’t work. “I know… She wasn’t with him. I don’t even know what she was doing, but she wasn’t with him.”

Geryon rolls to lie on his side, face to the opposite wall, tail slowly flicking up and down. “That would have been a neat trick, having a third sphere awaken in her and still make it to a date.” He turns his head to look at Dion. “That’s what happened, by the way. She collapsed and her family did not allow her to leave any earlier. Came back well into the evening, in her creepy brother’s arms, I’ve been told.” He exhales deeply, his eyes softening with sympathy. “You’ve really done it this time, my friend.”

Dion looks down, away from Geryon’s empathy. He does not deserve it. He does not deserve anything. Not after what he did to someone so precious to him. He wanted her so much, all to himself. Every touch, every kiss, every night spent holding her against him, matching his breathing to her lazy heartbeat. All he can feel now is how much he desperately misses her, how much he wants her back. But she will not come back, not if she has a drop of intelligence in her.

“I’ve ruined it. Destroyed it.” He breathes a shuddering sigh. “She’s not going to want to see me again. And I don’t blame her.”

“She’s angry,” Geryon says, standing up on the bed, beak pointed at Dion like a dog pointing out a grouse. “As she should be! Demons, Dion, I was there, looking down from my new room’s window! I watched the whole thing. I would have told you. I would have warned you if your sweet little death goddess happened to be making a mockery out of you.” He turns to jump off the foot of the bed. “But, nooo, all she cared about was hurting your feelings, not that that gained her any sympathy. You were all too quick to suspect her, weren’t you? Tell me, what is so different between what she did and what you do whenever some shorter skirt catches your eye?”

The words make Dion jerk his head up to attention. “Wait…you watched… You mean you watched Alma and Somrak? And you didn’t tell me?!”

“And what would you have done, had I told you, pray tell?” Geryon says, walking toward the god, his smooth tones cutting like a blade through Dion’s momentary anger. “Yes, I saw him kiss her and I saw her try to end it once and twice and then stop him finally, right after the door closed behind Tulip. Well, behind someone, I couldn’t see it from the angle of my balcony but I guess it must have been Tulip.” His beak hovers close to Dion’s face as he adds the rest of his words to the god’s torment. “I watched your girlfriend tell him about you and how wonderful it was to allow you, of all people, closer to her than anyone since the Bunnies were created. How much she did not want to hurt you. Would you have listened to that, had I told you about the kiss?”

No… Dion admits only to himself. I wouldn’t.

“She tried to end it?” He holds on to that detail as if it mattered. “Was he…forcing her to kiss him?”

Geryon snorts and turns, whipping Dion’s knees with his tails. “Don’t be an idiot,” he says as he turns again and sits on his hind limbs to groom the feathers on one wing. “Anyone trying that would find themselves waking up in the spectral realms. Like you said, she is attracted to him. They seem to connect at some level. They both sounded miserable.” He shrugs, looking at the god. “How should I know? All I know is that she said ‘no’, that you would not be able to accept something like that, and he left.”

Dion sighs and hangs his head. “Well he has her now. He will. Or Sky. They’ll probably treat her better than I have.”

Geryon throws his head back in a show of irritation. “Oh, quit the act, Dion! She’s yours. Probably already praying you’ll come crawling back so she can stop crying.” He narrows his eyes at Dion. “And you will. Face it, you are in love with her. You love her so much that you cannot stand the thought of her walking away so you tried to push her away instead. And now you are miserable because you just found out it hurts just as much. It is only a matter of time before you are sprawled at her feet and begging for her forgiveness.”

Dion doesn’t even raise his head. He would be at her feet now if he could, if the things he said and thought and did could be somehow taken back and forgotten. But… they can’t. “I don’t…deserve forgiveness.”

“No, you don’t,” Geryon concedes, voice dry of emotion. “You’re a miserable little wretch who just tossed the best thing he’s ever had out the window because deep down inside you are just an insecure adolescent who does not know how to handle love. Is that what you want me to say?” He rises again to swipe a heavy paw against Dion’s head. “Is that what you want to think for the rest of your stay here until you run back to your Uncle’s estate like the scared little child you are?” He places his paw on the god’s chest and leans in to hiss his words at Dion’s face. “You don’t deserve her forgiveness but fortunately for you she loves you. And love makes people blind and stupid. Doesn’t it?”

“I can’t rely on that,” Dion weakly argues. “But…I can’t stay away either. Maybe I can find a way to make it up to her.”

Geryon looks into Dion’s eyes in silence for a long time. He sighs. “Well, that’s a start, I guess,” the gryphon pats the god’s knee. “Now, let me out. I’m tired of watching you feel sorry for yourself.”

Dion grimaces, for the moment forgetting that he is blocking the door with his body. “Since when do I need to let you out? Are you a housecat?” He sighs and reaches out to touch Geryon’s head. “Thank you, my friend. I don’t deserve you, either. But I am glad you are here.”

“Sure, sure,” Geryon mutters, allowing the touch but shaking it off after a breath. “Now, move away from the door, before I have to walk over you to leave.”

Finally realizing what Geryon means, the god scooches away just enough to allow the gryphon through. As the portal that leads into the bar reopens, however, Geryon stops and looks back to Dion.

“Remember, every moment you spend too busy wallowing in self-pity is motivation for her to find comfort elsewhere. Pride is seldom a good friend in these things.” He shakes his head. “I truly had hopes for this one, my friend. She makes you smile.”

And with that, he leaves.

Ch6.56 Trust

This is weird. Like, really weird. Well, I mean, we’ve kind of gotten used to the weirdness by now but still…talk about a story!

First, we were all sleeping. Kind of. We weren’t really sleeping, were we? We were in stasis, whatever that is, because some big grumpy bullies said we are not really living creatures. Well, isn’t that stupid? I feel pretty living! Sure, we don’t look like everyone else and we don’t quite think like anyone else but I’m starting to think that no one looks and thinks like everyone else around here. Or anyone else, for that matter. Some people just like to think they can go around deciding who’s right and who isn’t. Guess that means that everyone’s always wrong unless they agree with the big silly god…archon…thingies way up in the Curia. Anyway…

We were sleeping. I don’t remember the sleeping part. There’s a lot of things I don’t remember. But Cherry and Merri and May and Big Brother Sage all talk about their dream lives. Like how they ran a bar or were in the Guardia or worked at an asylum for kids who lost their moms and dads. I don’t remember any dreams. I asked Kori and Chime once and they don’t remember any dreams either. Maybe because we were all too young to dream? Can you be too young to dream? Do babies dream or is it all just blank when they’re not eating or crying or doing whatever babies do when they’re not eating or crying?

To us it was like… well, being asleep, really. Close your eyes, mind goes black. Until the dreams start. Ours just didn’t. And when we woke up… we didn’t really wake up, either. There’s something else I don’t remember much… Waking up after Mom was told she could let us out of stasis. Do you know when you’re sleeping and something snaps you out of it and suddenly you’re really aware that you’re not sleeping anymore but you can’t quite move yet? And your eyes are still closed so you can’t see but you can hear stuff around you but you keep phasing in and out and in and out so it’s all kind of broken and you’re not sure which bits were real and which weren’t when you finally wake up for good? Well, that’s kind of what it was like. I remember voices sometimes, sometimes coldness or warmth or wetness (guess that’s when someone was giving me a bath). I remember being scared and confused. And sometimes being really safe and comfy, like someone was taking care of me. Mom’s voice…and her scent. Her touch. The other Bunnies too. Other people, like Sky and Dion and Allie and Callie and all. But it was all really fuzzy.

I remember running. Being scared. That’s one of the things I remember most. Being really scared. Lots of noise, people screaming. Dark places. Everything smelling of blood and dead things and scared people. I remember Dion carrying me somewhere. I wasn’t scared then. But then he let go and the screaming started again. Bunny screams so high-pitched and so loud that my ears hurt. Some spooky guy with a funny voice saying mean things about us and trying to hurt Mom and Dion and Geryon.

And then the bad guy was gone. That’s when I woke up. For good. And Dion was there, making sure I was all right. Being all nice and caring and all. He’s such a prince… Sigh…. Aaaaaanyway, things weren’t fuzzy anymore, though they were really, really confusing. Because Mom was on the floor and Sky was suddenly there, hugging her and everyone looked like something bad was about to happen.

And it did. They sent us away, back to our home, but they didn’t let Mom or Dion come back with us. The big bullies again, saying Mom had been bad and Dion had helped. Shows what they know! Mom isn’t bad. She’s…she’s Mom. Sometimes she gets mad but everyone gets mad. So she gets kinda scary when she’s mad, but that’s on account of her being a goddess. Gods are weird. She’s good to us. Reads us stories, teaches us stuff, plays with us sometimes. When she can. She’s been working a lot. But she always makes sure we’re all right. And we can sleep with her whenever we want, too, and go hang out in her room and stuff. She’s our Mom!

But they still made her stay, left us by ourselves. We were very sad. And scared. Mom…she had always been around, you know? One way or another. But suddenly, she wasn’t. We couldn’t go talk to her or see her. All the scents in her room were old. She was still alive but really far away and we didn’t know what to do or when she’d be back and everyone was on edge and fighting… We just… didn’t feel safe anymore. And Mom wasn’t there to tell us it would be all right. Sky tried. He took care of us. He’s nice. We uhm… I guess we could have been nicer. Not give him so much worry. Sneaking away and all. Stupid Chime and May…

But then… Mom came back! That was awesome! Out of the blue, everything got great and perfect and everyone was happy and we could finally be one big happy family. Well, I guess May wasn’t happy. Not for real. She’s leaving, now. Gonna become Guardia again, because that’s what she was in her dream. I think that’s silly. I dreamt I was a big furry sheep jumping over fences once. It was a really nice dream. But I can’t be a sheep! I’m a Bunny! And seriously, dealing with that wool, that must be real hot in the summer and it gets all frizzy and– Sigh… Sorry. I got a bit carried away there. I do that sometimes. Cherry says it’s because I’m still a kid. Yeah, sure Cherry, because you don’t go off on tangents every hour or so… Meanie grownups saying kids are silly just because we’re kids… Who gets to decide, anyway, if you’re all grown up or not? Is there, like, a fairy or something that pops us and waves her wand and says “You are now a grown up. Go and work and do boring stuff and…stuff”?

Where was I? I was going off again, wasn’t I? Sigh… Right, back to what’s going on now. May’s leaving. She says it’s just for a few months but that’s like…forever! Can’t really remember life without May. Then again, can’t really remember life without all my teeth. I hear babies don’t have teeth when they’re born and that little kids lose their too. Must make it hard to eat your veggies, not having any teeth…

We’re all sad she’s going. Even May. I keep asking why she’s going if that makes her so sad but no one gives me a straight answer. They just say I wouldn’t understand. Doesn’t sound like they do either, if you ask me. Not that anyone asks me anything. Mom is sad too but she says we should let May go because it’s what May needs to be happy. Except May isn’t happy, she’s scared. I can smell it on her. And she’s worried too. We’re all worried. Because Mom is sick.

Her big spooky brother brought her home last night and said we need to be real quiet and let her sleep so she’ll get better quick. Well, he didn’t say that to me but that’s what May said he said. Sky’s been taking care of Mom. And May, May’s been helping. But now it’s time for May to go and Mom woke up so Mom wants to walk May to the portal too so she can say goodbye to her, even though we can all tell Mom is still not feeling good.

Mom is a terrible patient, by the way.

“I’m fine, Mayumi,” she says. She is sitting at the edge of her bed and trying to get up but May keeps getting in her way. “I will accompany you to the portal in Little Falls.”

She still looks really tired. Her head is hanging a bit and her eyes aren’t open all the way and her voice is a bit mumbly but she doesn’t sound like she’s too weak to go with us to the portal. She’d probably be all right, I guess. But May is having none of it.

“Mother…I want you there,” May says, kneeling and holding both of Mom’s hands to stop her from getting up. “But I cannot ask you to trudge all the way to the Little Falls portal and then all the way back, when you are, um, doing something with a sphere.”

“It’s shapin’ up to be a real broiler of a day, too!” Merri pipes in, over May’s shoulder.

Merri is standing just behind May. Sky’s standing at the foot of the bed looking all worried and I’m… Well… I should be upstairs with Cherry and Sage and Kor and Chi but I sort of snuck in here when no one was watching and I’ve been hiding behind the hanging screen of pretty flowers that hides the door from the rest of the bedroom. It’s a great hiding spot against Bunny noses, you know. But I’m having trouble avoiding a sneeze.

“I promised your brother I would take care of you,” May insists, glancing at Sky. “Well, Sky promised, but I was there.”

They’re so cute, May and Sky. All trying to be all sneaky and dis-creet and “Oh, we’re too serious to be romantic around people because he’s sort of kind of my boss.” Silly May. Bosses can kiss too. I mean, bosses gotta have kids somehow, right?

Sky looks back at May and nods. That makes Mom frown a bit.

“Melinor worries too much,” Mom says. “I feel much better than yesterday.” She strokes May’s cheek and looks a bit sad. “I won’t be seeing you for the best part of six months. The least you could let me do is walk you to the portal.”

May’s ears droop down and she bites her lip, looking at Mom like someone’s making her pick between carrots and sprouts. “If you go with me, I am going to be terribly worried about you collapsing on your way back. I saw you last night, unconscious, and it was frightening.” She throws her arms around Mom’s waist all of a sudden, and hugs her real tight. “Please, I just want to know you’re well. Please stay and let Sky take care of you until you’ve fully adjusted to…this.”

I can’t really see her face now, because it’s buried in Mom’s dress. Mom holds her back and strokes her hair, smooths the black fur on her ears. Then she sighs. “Very well… Tulip?”

Eeeeep! She’s looking right at me now, through the screen and everything! Everyone looks super surprised to see me get out from behind the flowers and Merri is even giggling a bit about it but Mom is just looking like she knew all along and doesn’t mind.

“Yes, Mom?” I ask.

Her eyes look soooo pretty now. Well, they were pretty before and it kind of stinks that they’re a different color from mine now but the new ones?…super neat. Blues and greens moving about and mixing and twirling like someone dropped two colors of nail polish in a saucer and keeps mixing them with a toothpick. And they glow real soft too, like there’s a teeny tiny lamp inside Mom’s eyes. I wonder if it hurts, getting them like that.

“In the first drawer of my desk, there is a small package,” she says, smiling at me like everything’s fine. “Could you get it for me?”

Mom has kind of a workbench-desk thing to the left of the door… no, to the right of the door… Well, I’m facing the door and it’s to my right now, all right? It has three drawers in it and the bottom one is always locked. The second one is boring and the one at the top has all sort of stuff in it like scissors and tape and paperclips and all that. Cherry is always yelling at me for taking stuff out of it and not putting it back. But uhm…Wanna know a secret? Sometimes I do it just to watch Mom run around thinking she’s losing her mind a bit. Ihihihihih. Shhhh…

There’s a package in the drawer now, that I hadn’t seen there before. It’s wrapped in a pretty velvety dark-red paper stamped with some serious-looking symbol in gold ink. It looks like some sort of Year’s End present. “This one?” I ask Mom when I hand it over to her.

“Yes, thank you,” she says to me and I sit down and lean against her as she gives May the present. “Inside there is a wad of portal tickets. Always save one for emergencies but use the rest as you will. I will send or bring more later if you need them. Remember to visit your father as well, yes?”

May lets go of Mom to take the present in both hands. Her ears are drawn back and her chin is starting to shake a bit but she’s holding the package to her chest like it’s the best present she ever got. “Oh Mother… thank you.” She nods quickly. “I will. But I will visit here as well. I promise. When they allow me to, of course.” She rubs an eye to stop from crying. Aawww…poor May. “You know…”

May shakes her head and hugs Mom again. Mom holds her back with a sad little smile.

“I know,” Mom whispers, leaning down to kiss May’s head. “You will do wonderfully, I’m sure. You know all of this already. Just remember to stay focused and don’t let them walk over you. You are my daughter and you will show them just what you are made of.”

May nods, her face against Alma’s shoulder. It’s weird seeing May like that. She’s always so uptight. When she’s not all serious then she’s all mad. But she looks very tiny now. Scared. Just nestled in Mom’s arms like she was having a bad dream and is afraid to sleep alone now.

Behind May, Merri strokes our sister’s hair and looks a little smile at Mom. They look like they’re talking without words, which is actually pretty common between the two of them. After Mom, Merri is oldest in our little family. Maybe that’s why Mom and her seem to understand each other so well.

“I’ll make sure they have a well-armed guard there and back,” Sky chimes in softly.

Mom nods at him, then looks worried. “Isn’t Gwydion in yet? He could accompany them.”

Oh! I know the answer to this one! “He’s probably still out being m–”

But Merri cuts me off with a quick, “Och, he’s still out doin’ something or other. Must’ve gotten caught up in it.”

Weird…Why is Merri lying to Mom? Doesn’t Mom know the Dion is mad at her for kissing Uncle Som? Not that that’s a reason for being mad at anyone. Aren’t we supposed to kiss the people we like? Hmm… Maybe Dion wanted to kiss Som too? Or maybe… Dion wants Mom all to himself? No… He wouldn’t be that selfish. Would he?

Mom looks a bit suspicious. “Strange. We were supposed to…” She sighs.

“I am sure the Bunnies will be well with our best Popula accompanying them,” Sky says.

May lifts her head and rubs her nose with the back side of her wrist. “Maybe the other Bunnies should stay here too–”

“May!” Merri cries out, tapping her foot on the floor. Uh oh… It’s not a good idea, getting Mer mad. “Don’t you be silly, of course we’re comin’ along! This is our ward, an’ we’ll have Aliyah an’ Cala an’ more with us. We’ll be fine!”

Mom nods and sways a bit forward and back. Her eyes close a little like she’s trying to stay awake. “Most of the more troubling gangs have been dealt with. Sky will go with you to make sure.”

“But Sky has promised Melinor to watch over you,” May argues.

“We’ve been goin’ out with Popula protection for weeks now, and nothin’ bad’s happened since that berk Froggy Whatsisname got skewered!” Merri insists too. “This is no different.”

Sky doesn’t look like he’s very sure what to do. “I would feel better if…” He goes quiet because is looking at him and then at Mom in some special way. “But it’s true. The Popula have been doing an excellent job keeping the Bunnies safe.”

“There, it’s settled!” Merri chimes, putting her hands together in victory. “I’ll go gather Cherry and the others.”

She gives May a kiss on the cheek and dashes off upstairs. And suddenly, things go really quiet and awkward. Reeeeally awkward.

Mom puts an arm around me and leans a bit against me. It’s nice when she does that. I give her a hug and she gives me a kiss to the cheek.

“Maybe you should go get ready too, little one,” she whispers softly. “All right?”

I’d rather stay. But Mom is asking nicely. “All right, Mom.”

I give her another tight hug and then I leave. I think I’ll come back later, after we get back from the portal and go cuddle with Mom for a bit. Maybe she’ll feel better then. I knew that gods could get hurt – I mean, Mom and Sky and Dion get hurt all the time, fighting bad guys. Mostly small stuff, nothing like losing arms and having to grow new ones and all – but I didn’t know gods could get sick. It’s scary to think that they can. It’s scary to think that Mom could… Gulp. Die…

Upstairs, everyone is getting ready. Kor and Chi are all groomed and they even have shirts on today. They look bored out of their minds and Kor keeps pawing at his hair and muttering about how Cher used too much cream and how he looks like he got licked by a really big tongue now. I’m not saying he’s right about that but he could definitely be wronger. Chi’s been tying his hair in a ponytail lately. Says it makes him look cool. Yeah…right… like you can be cool in calf-length pants and suspenders.

Merri must have gone out and Big Brother Sage isn’t around either. Cherry is talking with Geryon, by the kitchen. She’s been looking really sad lately, Cher. I think it has to do with Saira going away and taking Lexie with her. And Mom being sick. And that fight with Dion yesterday didn’t help either. I…guess that was a bit my fault. But I didn’t do it on purpose! It’s just…tough to understand non-Bunny people sometimes and know what you can say and what you can’t. To us Bunnies, love is love. The more you give, the more you get. Friends love one another, and families love each other and some people pair up because they love each other too but you can always love more people, right? You don’t stop being able to love other people just because you already love someone. What kind of love is that?

I hope Dion isn’t too mad at me. I love Dion. I wish he wouldn’t be so uptight sometimes but I really, really love him. And I like how he loves Mom and all of us. Gosh, I hope he’s not that mad anymore.

Geryon is whispering something about Dion’s room. I arrived too late to know what exactly they’re going on about.

So I ask them. “What’s up?”

Cherry looks at me like she was sleeping and just woke up. “We ready to head out yet? We don’t want May bein’ late.”

Liar. She doesn’t sound anything like she wants May to be on time to leave.

“Yeah, we’re ready.” I pretend I can’t tell when she’s lying. “May’s just saying bye to Mom and all. What were you talking about?”

Geryon looks uncomfortable at the question and glances a question at Cher. Hmm… Mystery…

“Just makin’ sure Dion’ll have a friend to talk to when he gets back,” Cherry says quickly. Too quickly. “Now go get your hat, sweetie. You know how you burn when the sun’s strong.”

She tries to shoosh me upstairs but something’s fishy here. “I can stay and talk to Dion. Why’s he need a friend?”

“Because friends, my darling Tulip, are a good thing to have,” Ger replies, pushing me gently away with one of his furry paws. He’s in his smaller shape right now but I could still ride him like a pony if I wanted to. “Now, you go be a good Bunny and get your hat.”

Aw man, really? Geryon too? Why does everyone keep hiding stuff from me and being all sneaky like I’m too dumb to notice. Like I ‘wouldn’t understand’. Grr…I’m a kid but I’m not blind! I’m not deaf! I’m not stupid. I notice things. Why do people always assume I wouldn’t understand? They never try to explain in the first place!

“Fine…” I walk away, muttering and dragging my feet. “Don’t tell me… Always treating me like a kid…”

Two strong arms hug me from behind all of a sudden. “Oh sweetie, we’re so happy you are a kid,” Cher says against my ear. She sounds like she’s about to cry. “Won’t you let us have you as a kid for a little while longer? What with May g-goin’…”

She stops talking but hugs me tighter. Real tight. I think I’m going blue in the face. Help!

“Cher… I can’t…breathe…”

Oof! She lets go a bit. “Oops, sorry…” I can feel her hand petting my hair just as I see May coming up the stairs. “Oh, here comes May. Right…” Cher takes a deep, shuddery breath. “Let’s get this parade on the road. Where’s Sage?”

“He’s gettin’ Aliyah and Cala, darlin’,” Merri says from the door.

“Ah! My hat! Be right back!”

My hat! I almost forgot my hat! Can’t go out in the sun without it. I get my scalp all burnt up if I stay out in a strong sun too long. And it hurts! A lot! May says it’s because I’m so pale and my hair is all white, like Mom’s. But Mom never burns in the sun. She doesn’t tan either. Must be great being a goddess, sometimes… Big Brother Sage made me my hat. It’s really pretty and colorful, with flowers and leaves and a wide brim to keep my face in shade too. He even put a blue ribbon, the same color as Mom’s clothes. Dion says it matches my eyes.

By the time I get back downstairs with my hat already on, Sage is peeking in through the door that leads outside. “Our escort is ready. All set to go?”

Cher and May are standing by the bar counter, looking at each other like one of them is never coming back. Of course, that’s not true… Right?

Finally, they hug it out, and Cher breathes deep, takes May’s hand in hers and just real quietly says, “Ready…”

Ch6.44 Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“Somrak?”

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

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

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

“You came! You came!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“WHAT??”

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

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

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

“That bad?” Somrak asks.

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

“I’m fine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whisky and cigars. Sounds perfect.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ch6.42 Trust

It is one of those warm, sunny days when working seems like a sin and staying inside is a veritable attempt to destroy one’s joie de vivre. The river and pools at the base of the waterfall at the Oracle’s grotto bring a pleasant freshness to the little patch of grass-green land bathed the afternoon sun.

The picnic has entered that lazy phase of all get-togethers when people settle into small groups or even alone to enjoy a swim in the pool at the bottom of the waterfall from which a swift, young river rushes toward Rio Novo, the patch of rock and pebble-filled bank crawling with little freshwater crabs that Sage and Aliyah are trying to teach Chime and Tulip how to catch, the tree-lined sloping hill where May, Kumiko, Ewá and Cherry are sitting, sunbathing and exchanging the occasional piece of conversation. At the top of the hill, on a ridge, by a flat rock that overlooks the pool, Pak and Nevieve are speaking with a nonchalance that hints at many years of shared experiences. And on the rock, Sky is preparing to dive into the water. A short, running jump is enough to see the god falling clear into the pool, with a couple of somersaults and a flawless entry that would look suspiciously like showing off if anyone but Dion were paying attention to Sky.

But the only other people in the pool are Kori and his apparently new best friend, Max, both of them too entertained in a little splash war to see Sky diving and surfacing, moving through the water with remarkable grace for his size, just the upper half of his head visible and looking at the two boys like a sea lion seeing a pair of fat, juicy fish. Dion senses the god’s magical influence blooming as a pair of waves rises gently to lift Kori and Max, gently moving them in a circle so that the boys orbit each other. Confused at first but quickly accepting and laughing of the harmless prank, the boys continue their splash fight from atop the magical waves, cajoling each other and making Dion chuckle at some of their more outrageous words of challenge.

“Now, look at ye, all alone in the corner,” Merri’s voice chimes by his right ear.

He turns away from the splash fest to look at her. “Ah, but now I’m not alone anymore,” he replies with a smile. “And I couldn’t possibly ask for better company.”

The Bunny, sporting a flattering green plaid-patterned swimsuit, with a low back and a single shoulder strap, that sets off her red hair and her shiny emerald eyes, giggles at the shameless flirtation. “I ken very well what kind of company ye’d prefer to be havin’.”

For all of Dion’s fame as a conquistador, he has never actually tried to lure any of the Bunnies to his bed. Not only would that be extremely bad for his short-term health and long-term survival, considering who their mother is, but, he must admit, the Bunnies did not feel quite like…people to him when he first met them. They were fascinating, obviously pleasant to look at but just animalistic enough that sleeping with them would equate, in his own mind, with bestiality, a venue of sex that Dion has never been interested in exploring. But as their personalities blossomed, so did Dion’s fascination and empathy. By the time the whole prophecy situation came to be, Dion was already convinced of their value as sentient beings and of the blind cruelty in destroying them. Since then, he has often surprised himself with how much he has come to care for them all and how attentively he finds himself keeping track of their different wants and likes. In just a few months, they have become more of a family to him than he has ever found with his Uncle Math.

Yet even if Dion were not to be involved with their lovely and loving mother, he simply does not see himself pursuing any of them. Cherry and Merri feel no inhibition in flirting with him but, for some reason, their flirting has never carried a promise of anything more, especially where the magic god is concerned. Perhaps they sensed from early on the attraction that Dion and Alma had at first dismissed? Mayumi has been distant, formal, and until recently has always looked at him with a coolness that invited little affection. Tulip…there’s an exception. Dion would not so much have to try to bring her into his bed but to keep her out of it. Her insistence on capturing his attention is annoying. Dion has always been an only child but he has seen the little sisters of some of his friends behave in that fashion with their older brothers. Of course, little sisters don’t usually try to slip into bed with their older brothers…

A sudden choked scream from Merri awakes Dion from his wonderings. He barely sees her stumble back and away from him before a wall of water hits him full force, making him gasp for breath. He closes his eyes and grips the bank’s grassy edge in a desperate, reflexive attempt to stay afloat and not be dragged by the receding wave. Around him, the world gasps and falls silent. It takes Dion almost a full minute to recover enough from his body’s panic at nearly drowning.

Silence gives way to laughter. Dion looks up to see Merri laughing, snorting like an asthmatic walrus at his drenched face, his usually carefully groomed hair plastered against his skull. She points a finger at a point behind him and he turns to see Kori and Max laughing so hard they have to hold onto a rock to stay afloat. Not far away from them, Sky is looking at Dion with an apologetic grin that is dangerously tilting toward a laugh.

The Inspector stands, suddenly only chest-deep in the water, and starts to call out, “Sor–”

But he interrupts himself with his own laughter at the disheveled look on Dion’s face and any apologies he might have been planning to make are drowned amidst the mockery. Dion narrows his eyes at him, a dangerous grin on his face. He is nowhere near used to being the court jester, especially at the expense of looking like he was just licked by a rabid cow.

You do realize what this means, Inspector… he thinks as his mind bends around a family of spells he has not cast in a while.

Summoning and manipulating the elements was never his main interest at the Academy of Magic but illusion, transformation and translocation, by far his favorites, can have a surprising number of applications. The last few months of breaking into gang hideouts and capturing lawless divines have proved so beyond any doubt. And Dion has always had a very pliable, creative mind when it comes to magic…

His eyes flash golden as he makes a slithering gesture with his arm. Not all magic needs words. The water’s surface ripples, bulging and bending into a slender, cylindrical shape that glides elegantly and silently in Sky’s direction. By the time the god of rebellion notices it, a large, serpentine head is already rising out of the water, towering over him, opening massive watery jaws in a silent hiss. Clear eyes like air bubbles flash as the beast strikes, quick as lightning, and swallows the god. The water-snake’s transparent body offers a warped view of Sky travelling down its faux intestine, bound under water. Satisfied with his revenge, Dion dismisses the snake with a wave of his hand and casually combs his hair with his fingers to give it some sort of style before turning back to Merri, who is now gasping and giggling for a completely different reason.

“Now, where were we?” he asks.

But Merri is suddenly not laughing anymore. “I don’t think ye want t’be lookin’ away so soon, dear!”

She points beyond Dion again, making him turn in that direction. Sky is rising from the water, his eyes closed, his shoulders hunched. He snorts a mist of water droplets and opens his eyes, which are glowing with an ominous blue-green light.

He straightens and stretches out his arms, making the water around him rise and fall in a perfect circle, in a foretelling exhibition of power.

He gives Dion a challenging smile, waggles his eyebrows, and announces, “It’s on…”

Behind the magic god, Merri squeaks and scrambles to her feet, rushing to go and enjoy the grass over by Cherry, where the chances of major aquatic phenomena are much lower and where Sage, Chime, Tulip and Aliyah have joined May and the others, all of them now very keen on watching the goings-on in the pool, while avoiding the water altogether. Kori and Max have already climbed out of the water and onto the safety of the rocks, where a gap between two boulders offers a comfortable splash-free place to watch the fight that is about to happen. Up on the slope, Pak has stopped talking to the Oracle and is now watching the two quarrelling gods with interest, evaluating the unconventional battle.

Dion is barely aware of all this, his eyes focused on Sky, his thoughts already revolving around defense and counterattack. “Why, Inspector,” he says with a grin, his body straightening in anticipation. “Let’s see what you have.”

Sky straightens and stretches out his arms, and swiftly assumes a combat stance, his right hand forward and open, his left hand back and closed into a fist. And as he does so, the water bursts away from him in a shockwave. Sky moves his hands in a swirling gesture, and the water that blasted away from him turns into a vortex that spins in place, faster and faster, until he thrusts both palms toward Dion, sending a waterspout twisting at the god of magic.

A heartbeat, two, and the waterspout has reached Dion. He raises his arms in reflex, summoning a protective wall of water to rise between him and the spout. But that does little to stop and nothing much to delay the whirling mass of water that hits the wall and defeats its inertia, making it twist and bulge dangerously toward the god. With a whispered command, he conjures the water to solidify, pursing his lips at how long the liquid swirling liquid resists his influence. Still, it obeys. Wall and waterspout solidify in a gelatinous watery sculpture on the surface of the pool, just a finger’s length from him. He looks at it curiously and pokes the squishy thing with a finger.

Hmm… Isn’t that interesting?

An unusual idea sparks in his mind. He taps the gelatin wall and it flies off toward Sky, plunging into the water on its way. Soon, the water around Sky is rippling and bulging, and the god is looking wildly around him, trying to figure out what Dion’s counterattack will shape up to be.

A jelly tentacle shoots out of the water. And then another and another. The three of them tower over Sky for half a second and then clash together, squeezing the god in a squishing hug. And then… he is gone. Sucked underwater, Sky disappears, consumed by Dion’s squid-shaped attack.

Silence.

Many of the observers lean forward slightly to try and divine Sky’s shape in the water. Dion chuckles at this. He cancels his spell to allow Sky his return to the surface and a long enough breath to admit defeat. But his victory is short. Suddenly, the water explodes in a massive wave. Something shoots out of it. Laughing like a maniac, Sky appears wrapped in the transparent tentacles of a squid made of water. Dion’s jaw drops for a moment. How can it be? He cancelled his spell!

No time to think. Dion finds his ankles yanked from under him, and he is pulled underwater, remembering at the last moment to take a deep breath and hold it in. His mind works at an incredible pace, trying to make heads or tails of his situation. Of course…Sky must have reproduced his jelly squid, using only water. Dion is fighting the god of rebellion in his own turf, after all. And he seriously needs to rethink his strategy. Pak must already be preparing a sermon on it to use in the next class.

The tentacles flail about, pulling him in all directions, shaking the breath from his lungs. Just as Dion starts going through his sadly very short ‘breathe underwater’ list of spells, he feels himself being pulled, upside down, toward the surface and above it.

Up there, Sky is in waiting, wrapped in the tentacled embrace of a squid even larger than Dion’s, something more like a kraken made purely of liquid. The creature flails around, turning this way and that, looking extremely confused at suddenly finding itself in such a small pool for its size. Caught in the beast’s watery body, schools of fish swim in erratic patterns, desperate to find a way out. And Sky is having the time of his life!

A sudden sound. Like an underwater hiccup. The creature jerks once…and explodes into a billion droplets. Hovering midair for just a fraction of a second, Dion sees Sky flip like a dolphin and dive smoothly into the deepest part of the pool. And then gravity remembers to pull again and Dion finds himself falling and hitting the water surface full force, shoulders first, with a huge, altogether ungraceful splash.

He surfaces almost immediately, rubbing the burning sensation off his shoulder and coughing out what feels like the water equivalent to his full lung capacity. “Well…” he manages not to wheeze, “that was unnecessary.”

Sky is emerging as well, looking honestly concerned at the possibility of Dion being hurt. “Oh, Dion, I’m sorry. Are you all–”

A water dolphin jumps out of the water and slaps Sky in the face with its tail, at Dion’s command. To Hell and its servants if he is going to lose this now! Oh, this picnic is turning out to be a lot more fun than predicted…

The dolphin dives back smoothly only to surface again, head above the water just for long enough to cackle that echolocating call that sounds so much like laughter to human ears. Then, it jumps again gracefully out of the water, shining in the sunlight and causing more than a few mouths to gape at its beauty, before diving again for good.

Dion smirks at his own artistry and focuses on Sky. The Dei Inspector is slumped against the rocky side of the bank, his face frozen for a moment in a stunned expression that makes Dion laugh quietly. He knows Sky is not hurt. The spell was crafted to be harmless. And the way Sky’s expression smoothly turns into a mischievous smile just a few breaths later leaves it clear that the god of rebellion is taking as much pleasure in this impromptu battle of wits as Dion.

His smile boding nothing good, Sky sinks into the pool again, until only the top half of his head is visible above water. Bubbles begin to blow from his mouth.

But nothing happens. The water doesn’t move, the pool gives no sign of disturbance. Dion tilts his head quizzically at Sky. What is he doing?

And that is when he feels a nip on his knee as if a very tiny, toothless mouth were trying to bite him. His hand moves automatically to his leg to scratch it but finds nothing unusual there. Then he feels it again, on his waist, tickling his skin. And another on his arm. And on his leg. And on his chest. And then he is being swarmed, as all the fish of the pool team up to assault him like a school of tickling piranhas, pinching his skin, harmlessly but hilariously until Dion cannot control his laughter. The water around him boils with fish jumping and slithering against each other to reach the god, flopping free of the water momentarily to rub against him. All that is exposed skin is prey to them. They are even trying to squirm into his swim trunks!

Laughing becomes painful. Breathing, nearly impossible. Dion bends himself double, hands clenching his abdomen, face hurting with the pull of laughter. He wheezes, trying to think. Here is a situation where his love spells definitely wouldn’t work. The fish love him too much already.

What eats river fish? What eats river fish?!

A sudden idea and Dion casts a desperate spell at a leaping fish. A golden light surrounds it, making it glow, changing its outline, its shape. And suddenly…the fish is an otter. A very, very confused otter. It lands in the water, in the middle of all the other fish. And the fish go crazy with panic!

Well, some of the fish. Not all of them are that fast on the uptake. So much for natural selection… Dion casts the same spell, again and again, until the tickling is almost gone and most of the fish are either transformed into otters or running away from their new natural predators. The transformed fish, though, are all but happy at their newfound ottery shape. They are actually swimming toward Sky, chattering at him, leaping at him like fish would do, rubbing against him and trying to clamber over him, their minds adapting to their new shape just enough to allow them control over paws instead of fins. It is almost as if they are asking for help (or maybe even complaining) about their new bodies.

Sky laughs, under the most adorable assault imaginable, being tickled to breathlessness by the otters. And now Dion can breathe. The influx of oxygen to his brain sparks a mischievous idea. Transformation is one of his favorites, after all.

He prepares to boost his spell, intent on transforming all the fish that managed to escape his magic before into otters and give Sky a massive dose of his own medicine. Dion raises a hand, summons his power…

A large shape sweeps just above him, throwing him in shadow. A blood-curdling shriek cuts through the air, bounces off the stone walls that line the sides of the pool, sending ice down spines, making people drop to the ground.

Dion plasters himself against the river bank, paralyzed. Caught in mid-cast, his spell shoots uncontrolled from his hand. He curses silently at that as he looks up at the winged, leonine body lazily lowering itself to land on a rock by the water.

“Geryon!” he scolds the gryphon. “What a way to scare everyone!”

“In my defense, it did make for quite the entrance,” Geryon replies nonchalantly, landing softly on the rocky outcrop by Dion’s left.

Around them, the gods and humans are already recovering from the fright but the Bunnies are taking longer, still lying on the ground, their ears plastered back in fear of a threat their bodies know much better than their minds.

Of course… Dion thinks. Rabbits are prey to eagles in nature. Some part of the Bunnies must maintain that instinctive fear.

“You idiot, look at what you did to the Bunnies!” Dion exclaims.

Geryon looks around in what looks like honest surprise. Putting a paw against his heart, he cries, “I would never hurt them! I merely wanted to announce my return from the First Ring in style!”

Dion opens his mouth to growl at him that there are hundreds of other ways to do that but another cry pierces the air.

“Mother!”

It is Merri’s voice. Fear mixed with shock. Dion’s head shoots in her direction to see her running towards where he had set up the portal to the station, May following right behind her. She gasps and stops by a white and blue shape that certainly wasn’t there before.

“Oh, Mother! Are ye…”

And then she starts to laugh, uncontrollably, falling back and clutching her belly against the effort. By her side, May is bending over, reaching out to touch whatever the white thing is.

“Are you all right?” she asks, sounding deeply concerned.

Dion is already running toward her. Merri’s mention of her mother was enough for him to shoot out of the water like a lightning bolt. All he could see from the pond was white against blue. Had Alma somehow been hurt and fallen? Is she all right?

He reaches May to find that the blue shadow on the ground is made of fabric. A dress, one of Alma’s. But instead of the goddess, all he finds is…an otter?

A pure-white otter with cream-colored fur on its belly and blue eyes like sapphires is standing on all fours and looking at him with a dumbfounded expression that would be hilarious if Dion weren’t feeling frozen with sudden fear.

“Alma?” he asks in a voice much smaller than his usual baritone.

The otter’s brows furrow in a way no otter should be able to. It starts screeching a complaint that tingles in Dion’s eardrums and makes May and Merri lower their ears back in agony.

“Eep! High-pitch! High-pitch!” Merri complains.

The otter stops and Dion kneels by it, very slowly, feeling a cold dread trickle down his spine. Geryon had made him lose control of his spell and it had shot toward… somewhere to Dion’s right. Had Alma had the terrible luck of exiting the portal just then? All the other fish-otters are the typical ottery brown and grey. Only this one is the same white color as Alma’s silken hair, with eyes that are so much like hers. And, truthfully, the pile of clothes that the creature is still trying to shake off is a dead giveaway.

This is Alma, turned into an otter. She stands on her haunches, head tilted, looking a question at him. He scoops her up in his arms, holding her closely, his heartbeat much slower than usual but pounding in his chest. She looks up at him. Is that fear he sees in her eyes? He has already turned Geryon into a gryphon and failed to turn him back. The thought of doing the same to Alma… His heart sinks.

No, no, don’t think about those things, he scolds himself. Be rational, Gwydion!

Gods are much more resistant to that type of magic than are humans. And besides, the spell is a fairly simple one, the type that only lasts a certain amount of time before normality reclaims its place. Surely none of this will be permanent. Right?

May must catch the fear in his attitude, for she places a hand on his arm and asks, “Is she going to be all right?”

“A moment, please,” he asks.

His eyes flash golden for a moment as he looks at the shape-shifted Alma with magical senses. Much to his relief, he can see the shadows of her true form within the otter body and feel the familiar, gradual weakening of a limited-time spell. He can’t help but smile in relief at that and pet her adorable little head before replying to May.

“She will be just fine,” he reassures her. “The spell doesn’t last very long. No need to cancel it at all. I’ll just let it run its course.”

That has Alma chattering angrily again.

“Hey, don’t yell at me!” he complains. “Yell at Geryon for distracting me and making me lose control of the spell.” He glares at Geryon, lying comfortably upon his rocky perch, head on his forepaws. The gryphon merely smirks at him. “Besides…” he starts stroking Alma’s back. “This new look suits you. Why not enjoy it for a while?”

She frowns at that and digs her nails into his chest. When the god grunts and loosens his hold on her, she starts struggling to free herself from his grip but all she manages to do is turn and hang vertically, head and left forepaw over Dion’s arm, right forelimb caught against his chest, her hind limbs and tail hanging limply in the most perfect illustration of adorable frustration and helplessness that nature has ever seen. She blows out a sigh and lets her head fall on his arm.

Dion chuckles and starts petting her head, tilting her so that May and Merri can pet her too. Then, followed closely by the two Bunnies, he moves closer to the edge of the pool. Sage, Aliyah, Tulip and Chime are already moving closer. Doria, who had left for a moment to attend to some mysterious duty in the grotto, is now back and already in the water, by Sky. The Inspector and his otter fanclub are all watching Dion and his precious cargo. From their rocky hideout, Kori and Max are watching as well.

Dion gently lowers Alma down to the ground. She turns her head left and right to look around the pool and the bank, then stands on her haunches, tilting her head back to look up at him and almost falling on her backside because of it.

He smiles at her encouragingly, speaking to her in a whisper “All is well. You are safe. Enjoy yourself a little.” He strokes the bridge of her nose with a finger. “You need it.”

At a little gesture from Sky, the other otters break away from the god and, swimming and breaching like a school of furry little whales, form a half-circle in the water around the little patch of grass where Alma is now standing. They look up at her eagerly, almost worshipfully, chattering at her in welcome.

She looks intently at the otter army and welcome reception, chattering…something back at them. Then, she drops to all fours and runs around in small circles, almost as if chasing her own tail but keeping her eyes on her furry worshippers. The otters chatter at her and start rolling in the water, over and over again. She stops, starts running in the opposite direction and they roll the other way. She stands and the otters turn belly up. She drops down and they roll belly down. The adorable, little furry spectacle makes everyone laugh and seems to entertain Alma immensely.

She rushes to the water and swims into the middle of her ottery fanclub, diving and rolling and twirling with them, swimming away while they follow her every movement and pirouette in the water, showing off their skills to the exotically furred, blue-eyed otter whose attention they desperately try to capture.

“And thus, a new cult is born,” Geryon announces sarcastically.

Sky’s laughter is loud and hearty at the sight of Alma floating belly up and grooming her cheeks with stubby otter forepaws. Another otter is already trying to groom her underside for her, scratching her and making her leg jerk reflexively. Apart from Ewá, May (who has since returned to her sitting spot on the grassy slope) and the kunoichi Kumiko, the not-so-water-friendly Geryon and the more solemn Pak and Nevieve, everyone is now in the water, laughing at Alma’s dalliances and looking eagerly at the otters as they swirl past them, reaching their hands out to stroke the sleek animals as they zip past. Alma herself guides the other otters towards Bunnies and humans, rubbing against her children, allowing them to hold her as if she were a furry baby and pet her without reserve. They all seem delighted with the experience, stroking her and kissing her and squeezing her in their arms amidst much cooing and banter. The temporary otter goddess looks extremely contented, closing her eyes in deep relaxation. The other otters are enjoying a similar treatment to Alma’s. Everyone seems to have picked one or two of the furry creatures to cuddle, except for Geryon, who seems satisfied in teasing a poor otter into chasing his puffy lion tail, hanging over the water, into exhaustion. Dion himself currently has one docked against him, its furry head placed on his forearm and enjoying some scratching behind the ears.

After quite a bit of struggling, Alma manages to release herself from Tulip’s loving death-grip and swim toward Sky. Three otters, that had been testing the god’s ability to scratch three bodies at once using only two hands, part to let her through, swimming away and into the squeezing arms of the youngest of the Bunnies. Alma lets Sky scoop her into his long arms and stroke her soft, sleek back, stretching to touch her wet nose to his chin. Dion can’t help but feel a twinge of discomfort at the tender look Sky gives her as he leans down to press his cheek against her head. She turns to press her nose against his cheek, then pulls back, chattering at him in what might almost pass for a conversational tone in an otter.

Sky looks as if he’s listening intently to everything she is saying, which causes some laughter from Sage and Cherry, who are following the scene closely.

Suddenly, his face lights up and he nods, rolling his eyes and saying, “Oh of course!”

He moves his arm, making her fall into the crook of it, holding her like a baby while he sloshes to the bank and strides up to the portal to the Three Rats Guardia Station. She lies still, looking up at him, unbothered by all the movement while Sky turns to make a small announcement.

“Alma reminds me of my duties.” He turns toward Dion. “Dion, sorry for that accident but it was a pleasure. Sometime soon we’ll have to have a rematch.” The god of magic chuckles and salutes at him, making Sky smile. “Everyone else, have a good time!”

Then, he shifts Alma to his hands and holds her in front of his face, rubbing the tip of his nose against hers. “And you…” He glances down at her clothes, which are still pooled on the ground, then looks at her again. “Don’t forget where these are when the spell wears off.” He grins and sets her down and waves a goodbye to everyone as he goes through the portal.

Alma stands up to watch him go, but soon she is scurrying over to where May, Kumiko and Ewá are still resisting the appeal of cool water teeming with friendly otters on a warm, sunny day. She climbs over Ewá’s long, shapely legs, poking the demigoddess with her furry head and rubbing her cheek against Ewá’s shoulder. Ewá laughs at the goddess-turned-otter’s shenanigans with a freedom and a contentment that Dion has never really seen in her. In fact, the former Eye of the Council seems to have gained as much in joy as she has gained in work after becoming a part-time Voice of Defense and full-time foster parent.

Alma is now evading Ewá’s attempts to pet her, teasing the demigoddess by running up to her and then running away, toward the pool, only to return again to Ewá’s side.

“Yes, yes, I’m coming!” Ewá exclaims as she rises and walks over to the edge of the water, where Alma finally allows her to stroke that wet, ottery fur.

As soon as Ewá dives in, the white otter is running again, swift and sure, this time toward Mayumi and Kumiko. She stops just in front of the human girl and stands on her haunches, looking intently, first at Kumiko, then at May. Then, she goes down on all fours again and turns to face the pool before turning to face them again. She runs towards them and scrambles over their legs, much to May’s laughter and Kumiko’s befuddlement, before running away and into the water. A quick dive and she rushes out once more, back to the girls. This time, she runs around them in a circle and stops in front of them to chatter what sounds like a challenge.

Mayumi smiles and nods at her mother before looking at Kumiko. “Come on…”

The girl looks reluctant, but allows herself to be cajoled by May into walking to up the slope, which rises toward the diving rock on the top of the hill. They stand there, looking down at the water. May turns to Kumiko, Kumiko looks back at her. Though Dion cannot see her expression from here, he can tell she does not resist May when she takes her hand. They take a step back, then run and leap together into the water with a loud splash, making people laugh.

Dion chuckles and looks at the bank, where Otter Alma is just leaving the water after a quick dive. Her ear twitches and she turns to tilt her head at him, blue eyes flashing briefly. Is that a smile he sees on her fur-lined lips?

And suddenly, she is scurrying up the hill, to where Pak and Nevieve are still sitting. From this far away, Dion can see her stop and stand, her back turned to the magic god, her head tilted at the Oracle and the former Academy instructor. Nevieve laughs immediately and pets her head with two olive-colored fingers.

“Go on, now, firefly,” she says brightly, jerking her head at the pool. “Go play with your friends. I will join you in a moment.”

Alma turns and takes a couple of steps away but then stops and turns back, this time facing Pak. She seems to hesitate for a moment, then moves closer to him and, without warning, starts shaking herself like a dog just out of the rain. Water splashes in all directions, sprinkling the old master, who turns his head and raises his arms to protect himself.

“Gah! You unruly little – Is that a way to treat an old man?!” he scolds her.

Nevieve’s musical, watery laughter chimes loudly by his side. The Oracle looks like she is about to tumble from the convulsive effort of laughing. Dion’s jaw is hanging from its hinges. He cannot believe what he has just witnessed! Showering Pak like that…oh, Alma will be having many a date with the hardwood sword in the upcoming lessons at the master’s dojo. Not that the prank wasn’t well worth it. Dion is still quite cross with Pak regarding the whole Kumiko issue, which could have sent the magic god’s blooming relationship with Alma into an early grave.

But he never would have pulled such a blatant prank on him. He feels sorry for a moment, that Sky cannot be here to see it. He knows the Dei Inspector would have loved to watch the much-feared Pak get showered like that.

Alma is just turning to scurry away but the old instructor is faster, much faster than he looks. He scoops her off her feet and holds her tightly to him with a cry of “Oh, no you don’t! You are going to learn respect for your elders, you insolent child!”

Uh oh…

And then… he runs to the diving stone and jumps off the ridge, cannonballing into the water, still fully dressed, otter held firmly in his arms. Bunnies, humans, divines, gryphon, everyone gets splashed by the massive wave that rises in his wake.

Alma surfaces first, swimming swiftly and diving again, away from the spot where Pak emerges just a few seconds later. On the bank, Nevieve is walking calmly toward the water, still chuckling at Alma and Pak’s quarrels. A couple of otters are already swimming to greet her.

Alma, on her hand, is swimming at full speed toward Dion, diving and pirouetting as she does so, in sheer ottery glee. His former furry companion long gone to find cuddling elsewhere, the god stretches both arms to bring her closer into a light embrace. She places her forepaws on his chest, looking up at him.

“That was…I need to start being more careful when I tell you to have fun,” he whispers, smiling brightly at her.

She rubs her cheek against his chest and rolls onto her back, eyes closed, happily grooming her cheeks. He strokes her belly, glad for having the perfect excuse to be affectionate in public but hesitating in leaning closer to press his forehead against her head or kissing the bridge of her nose. He would love to do it, and even more if she weren’t in this furry form, but too many eyes are watching. He curses their secrecy pact for maybe the fiftieth time since it was struck.

Alma is lying still, looking at his face with a serene, happy expression in those round, shiny blue eyes. He strokes her between the ears, trying very hard to hold back the silly smile he knows is threatening to bloom on his lips.

And suddenly, she is rolling over his arm and diving underwater to disappear for almost a full minute. She returns holding something orange-green in her teeth. Is that a…crab? She has a pebble caught between her forepaws and is just rolling on her back to place the stone on her belly. Then she holds the crab and starts banging it viciously against the stone.

“Oh look! Snack time!” Doria points out, laughing.

The others laugh too, watching in delight as the pale otter breaks the crab’s shell against the pebble and starts biting into the poor creature’s whitish flesh.

“She is starting to act a bit too much like an otter, don’t you think?” Nevieve notes.

“Yes,” Dion agrees. “Need to stop her before she accuses me of ruining her diet. Alma! Come here.”

Alma’s head shoots to look at him and she turns belly down again, crab held between her teeth, to swim toward the magic god. She reaches him and he tries to take the crab from her mouth but before he can grab a hold of it, she is already clutching the shelled morsel between her forepaws and banging the already half-dismembered crab against Dion’s chest as if the god were a giant pebble.

“Ow, Ow, OW!” Dion complains, prompting another round of generalized laughter.

Alma stops banging, rolls belly up and reaches up, offering him the crab. “Uhm… Thank you. But I don’t feel like seafood,” he says, taking the crab away from her and discreetly throwing it toward Geryon, who snatches it from the air with a snap of his beak.

A familiar tingle in the god’s senses makes his brow rise. He looks intently at all the otters in the pool until he sees what he is looking for. One of them is already changing back. The spell has run its course and now all the otters will be fish again.

Except for one. Dion holds Alma closer to him, adjusting his grip so her belly is pressed against his, the underside of her chin on his chest.

“Time to come back to normal,” he tells her.

She looks at him and then closes her eyes. Behind her, all over the pool, the otters are turning back into fish. In Dion’s arms, otter Alma begins to glow, her shape warping, stretching, soft fur replaced with soft skin, sleek lines replaced with pleasant curves. Soon, her beautiful face is raising an eyebrow at the god in mock scolding, her humanoid body pressing tantalizingly against his to hide her nudity.

He grins at her and raises his hands slowly out of the water in a mocking show of decorum meant for their audience. “Like I said, don’t look at me. It was Geryon’s fault.”

She does not say anything but her half-shut eyes speak volumes. Those and her hands on his sides, hidden underwater, nails grazing slowly against his skin, making it shiver with delight. She is just teasing him, he knows, making use of this perfect little excuse to taunt him, a very small punishment for not cancelling the spell earlier.

She grins and, in his mind’s eye, he can see her draping her arms over his shoulders, leaning in to kiss him. He can almost taste her wet lips, hear the mumbling of the people watching them intently muffled by the sweet, exhilarating sensation of her body pressed against his. If she were to kiss him now…oh, that pact would go out the window and into a bottomless pit.

Is she taunting him into doing just that? Right here, in front of everyone?

His heart pounds, hammering against the inside of his chest. Surely, she must feel that. Her hands tighten their grip on him. His are diving slowly underwater. Her eyes are staring into his and he cannot tear himself away from them.

But then, Alma looks away and raises a hand out of the water, with a word of “Thank you.”

Dion looks up, to his right, to find Cherry and Merri there, each holding a piece of moss-green cloth. They must have left the water and fetched Alma’s bikini while Dion was distracted. They smile at him, wink and scamper away. Alma, on the other hand, tilts her head and pulls away from him, swimming closer to the bank and turning her back to the pool to put the bikini on.

Dion chuckles and shakes his head. Fortunately, most of the others are too busy watching what are now very confused fish jumping out of the water and trying to roll on their backs, to notice what is going on with the gods.

Ewá seems to be teaching the others a song of some sort. Dion can only make out about half of the words in the language that about half of the people in Three Rats tend to fall back to after every three or four words in Urbia.

Vem peixe qu’é peixe do rio.
Vem peixe qu’é peixe do mar.
Hoje canta sereia,
Hoje canta Iemanjá.

Already dressed, Alma sits by him. Her hand finds his underwater and he holds it, thrilling at that simple touch.

Sai barco. Sai pescador.
Vai na praia p’a pescar
Tua mãe, tua mãe é onda.
Tua mãe vai-lhe ajudar.

The fish leap higher and higher, the water boiling with them.

Pega ‘ssa pedra branca
Vai no terreiro dançar
Teu pé descalço na areia
Sua onda vai acalmar

And then Doria joins in, much to Ewá’s surprise.

Joga ‘ssa rede ao largo,
Não vai a lugar nenhum,
Que o peixe vem no cabelo
Que é da filha de Olokun.

This time, Nevieve’s voice rises in song, clear and perfect.

No mar tem onda grande,
Se é brava de não voltar,
O barco vira na espuma,
Dorme essa noite no mar.

Ewá and Doria look at each other and smile before echoing in a final chorus,

O barco vira na espuma,
Dorme essa noite no mar.

An explosion of applause fills the pool. Dion catches Max, Ewá’s mortal ward looking at his foster parent with newfound admiration. It is unlikely he will be wanting to leave her care any time soon.

Convinced that they are, in fact, fish, the fish seem to relax and dive back into the depths. Chatter and banter return to the pool as the various groups of people resume conversations and start playing games. By Dion’s side, Alma has tilted her head back and is basking in the sunlight, her eyes closed at its warming rays.

Suddenly, a shape shoots out of the water, just past the god. A huge fish, bigger than any of the others and shining with a curious reddish glow, leaps up toward Geryon and slaps the gryphon’s face with its tail before diving back into the water.

“OW!” Geryon complains, shaking his head and turning it toward Dion. “Oh, as if that was necessary!”

“What?! It wasn’t me!” the god exclaims.

A sudden thought makes him look to his right. Alma is still catching the sun with her eyes closed, looking suspiciously innocent. She lets out a small sigh and smiles in satisfaction.

Dion chuckles. It seems that a happy death goddess is just as dangerous as an angry one.

Ch6.37 Trust

The First Ring. Around the portal, streets radiate away, some lined with shops, others with restaurants, others with temples so that visitors to this smallest and yet least densely populated ring of the Urbis Caelestis can feel close to their gods. For the gods who live here are almost exclusively those who are worshipped, and worshipped intensely, often by millions of mortals across the City of Heaven, and in some cases millions more on worlds beyond. Some gods have entire planets where not a single soul knows of the existence of any god but one, and pour their mana-generating prayers into that one single god.

And so the gods who reside here do not live in ramshackle apartments or tiny dens or even stately mansions. They live in palaces surrounded by miles of wilderness, plots of land the size of entire wards, shaped into whatever forms their imaginations desire. Even setting aside the astounding amounts of power delivered to these gods by prayers, mana lines built into the nature of the Insula channel magic upward, so that the zones of the First Ring are the equal of the most high-magic regions of the Celestial Mountain.

There are no real cities in the First Ring. Instead, the portal stations dotted across it are surrounded by little trade villages, mainly catering to visitors, but usually with a few shops and restaurants that tempt business from the nearby residents. Few of these highest gods ever visit any of those businesses, of course. But they have servants – often beloved members of ancient lineages born to serve their gods and, not uncommonly, bearing at least traces of divine blood in their veins as a result – who go in their stead, to purchase goods even beyond the imagination of one who can create nearly anything. For gods, though powerful, are limited when it comes to subjects beyond their spheres, and the more powerful they are, the more focused they become. And so one of the great Solar Clan deities might be capable of shattering the Insula itself with the heat of a sun focused into a tight beam, but such a god may be unable to grill a filet of tuna to perfection with the skill of a mere mortal chef.

Mortals and gods are not the only residents, either. Sky looks up to see a wingless dragon sinuously swimming through the air. And on the wide, clean street there trots a creature that at first he mistakes for a unicorn. But it is more goat than horse, smaller but imperious in stance, its eyes flashing as it glances suspiciously at those it passes. Is it perhaps some sort of private Guardia? he wonders. For he recognizes it now, despite not having seen one in decades. A xiezhi, a being obsessed with truth, to the point that those who tell lies in its presence are in great danger of being impaled by its single straight horn.

It stops and stares at Sky. He pauses, looking back at it, allowing his companion, Gwydion, to walk ahead. Sky and the xiezhi lock eyes, and the creature lowers its horn. For a moment Sky wonders if it is about to charge, ruining this unexpected shopping trip with Dion before it can begin. But the xiezhi apparently cannot puzzle out just how Sky is a walking lie, and swinging its head away, it stiffly trots on.

Sky breathes out with relief and hurries to catch up with Dion. “I feel like I should’ve worn a black tie for this shopping expedition. Where’s this special place you have to drop by?”

Dion smirks at the comment, glancing at Sky. Though they both wear the same indigo-blue Guardia Dei uniform, Dion’s is custom-made of finer material, fitting his body comfortably and never bunching or pulling tight as he moves. It is very nearly formal dress despite being everyday wear for him. Sky, on the other hand, wears a standard-issue uniform, designed to be long-lasting and easy to clean more than any concerns over fashion.

“It is just around this corner,” Dion replies. “In fact, here it is.” He gestures at an elegant yet discreet-looking shop with a small iron plate engraved with the name Tamandoo’s. “Can’t go wrong with scent, can we?”

Sky laughs briefly. “Ohhh, I can think of a few ways scent can go wrong. But probably not in a high-class place like this. I’ve spent some time in the First Ring, but I’ve rarely bought anything all the way up here.”

“Ah, that is a shame, my friend. Only the best of the best can stand to be sold here. And this master scent-maker is a god devoted to scents and – whatever they use to make scents. He has never let me down.” Since Sky has known him, Gwydion has almost always sounded reserved, aloof, but here it is as if that reserve has fallen away. Is it being back in the First Ring? Anticipation of the upcoming celebrations? Or perhaps a happiness that things are now back to whatever passes for normal, with Sky returned from his much-needed rest? Or perhaps things are simply going well with Alma.

The door opens. A plump young woman, with a thick waterfall of wavy two-toned blue and gold hair and glossy black skin like that of an orca, holds it open and stands aside for them. She smiles at Dion familiarly. “Welcome back to Tamandoo’s, sir,” she says, and nods also to Sky. “I will notify the master that you are here.”

“It is good to be back, Vasilka.” Dion gestures for Sky to go first. “Shall we?”

Sky gives him an appreciative look and says, in an attempt at an upper-crust, First Ring accent, “But of course.”

He enters and pauses to take in the elegance of the room, comfortably appointed and perfectly balanced in terms of layout, color, light, and most especially smell. Not overpowering in any way, hints of perfume drift through the air, somehow not interfering with each other, discreetly entering his nose to call to him, like sirens beckoning in the waves.

After a murmured exchange at the doorway, as the god and the mortal servant quickly catch up with each other, Dion comes into the center of the room and breathes deeply, smiling. Vasilka disappears, only to return moments later bearing a tray with two delicate glasses of wine and a plate of hors d’ouvres, which she places on an elaborately carved table. “The master has been informed of your arrival and will join you and your friend in a moment, Master Gwydion.”

Sky looks at Dion surreptitiously. “Wine, huh?”

“Oh, most First Ring shops will offer this type of courtesy to their clients. Most of their clients won’t even be caught dead visiting the stores themselves, so a little special treatment can go a long way.”

Sky sips his wine. It is, of course, almost staggeringly delicious. He has long known that he simply doesn’t have the vocabulary to describe the taste of wines. ‘Piquant’ and ‘floral’ just sound ridiculous to him. He’s eaten flowers when he was starving – there is nothing ‘floral’ about the flavor of wine. All he knows is that he likes this very, very much. After savoring it for a moment, he says, “Must be a bit strange, being back in places like this after so long.”

Dion nods, but seems less overwhelmed with his wine. “It is a pleasant place to visit.” He looks down into his glass, pensively. “But all of this strikes me as distant when compared to Three Rats. More and more so each time I visit. It’s a bit…difficult to explain. It is as if there is something missing here.”

Sky is about to agree, organizing his thoughts as to exactly why, but the curtain slides open. “Dion! My dear, did I hear you talking about rats? How lovely to see you after so long! And oh, who’s your friend?”

Gods that do not conform to a human shape are not terribly unusual. Additional arms or legs, animal heads, wings, exotic colorings, all are barely considered strange even by many mortals, and not at all by gods. And some go well beyond that, even going so far as to wear amorphous, shifting forms, bodies made of light or electricity, even having no body at all. This deity, then, does not shock Sky, and indeed his form makes perfect sense. For he is, to an initial look, an upright anteater.

That is not quite accurate, Sky realizes as he looks a little more carefully. The body is covered in long, coarse hair, a light brown on the sides, white on the upper chest, and a darker brown on the back of the neck – although much of this is concealed by elaborately embroidered silk clothes, an outfit reminiscent of a kimono. The head is also very like an anteater’s, essentially scaffolding for a long, narrow nose. The snout’s nostrils are larger, however, and the eyes are as well, as large as a human’s and very human in appearance, pale brown and quite amused and appealing. And the paws are much closer to the hands of a primate than…whatever family of animals that anteaters belong to. Sky realizes he has no idea, but vaguely remembers they are distantly related to sloths.

But Gwydion is speaking. “My faithful Doo, allow me to introduce to you Inspector Tuma-Sukai of the Guardia Dei, Breaker of Chains, Shadow of Freedom. We work in the same station together. Sky, this is master-parfumeur Tamandoo, Suzerain of Scent, the best detector and creator of perfumes in the whole of the First Ring.”

“A pleasure to meet you,” Sky says, extending his hand.

Tamandoo closes his eyes. His long, slightly prehensile downward curving snout twists, the nostrils flaring as they suck in air, and a slender round tongue covered in pink buds slithers out to wave in the air. “Oh, what an exotic scent. Tamandoo cannot place it but… Inspector, you are from far, far away, are you not?” Before Sky can answer, the god takes in a lungful again. “And both of you have recently come from the Fourth Ring, have you not? What a bouquet of smells, so variegated. So decadent! Tamandoo loves it!” He takes Sky’s hand delicately.

For the second time in less than an hour, someone is finding a way to probe tiny flaws in Sky’s disguise. It is this rather than any discomfort with the god’s flamboyancy that causes Sky to smile uncertainly and, after releasing Tamandoo’s hand, take another sip of wine rather than reply.

Dion chuckles, clearly at ease with this character. “You are right as usual, my dearest Doo. None can fool that nose. Maybe you’ll consider joining our forensic team someday.”

Tamandoo’s eyes go wide. “Tamandoo? In the Fourth Ring? Would Tamandoo not be murdered? Ah, but you are safe, and dear Inspector Tuma-Sukai is safe, so surely Tamandoo would be safe. It must not be as dangerous as silly people say with their silly little rumors, hmmm?”

Dion, though joking, hastens to assure him. “You know that I would never allow something as terrible as murder to happen to you. And who knows? You might find your new scent muse there? I have been hearing you have grown bored of privileged skins.”

The god of scents raises his palms in a gesture of despair. “Ah, everyone here smells the same, Dion. And they all want the same things. They say they wish to smell unique, but in the end they always play it safe. It is dull, yes, so dull.”

“I am sure,” Dion replies, appearing now to take the idea seriously, “these upslope people would adore the novelty of more rustic scents. Alas, you do not need to reply now. The invitation stands open and awaiting your decision. For now… I bring you a challenge.”

“A challenge?” The god clasps his hands together in excitement. “It has been long since Tamandoo has had a challenge.”

“I’m sure it will please you.” Dion looks to Sky apologetically. “Would you mind waiting here a bit while I tell Doo what I’m looking for? This will only take a minute.”

“Oh, of course,” Sky says. “I’ll, uh…” His hesitation at trying to decide what to do while waiting is cleared up when Vasilka reappears to refill his glass. “I’ll be fine right here.”

As Sky and Vasilka share a smile, Dion chuckles. “Shall we step over to your workshop, Tamandoo?”

“Ah, a personal matter.” The hirsute god puts his hand on Dion’s back and ushers him through the curtain. “Come come, let us go through here… There, now tell Tamandoo precisely what it is your heart desires.” The unctuous voice fades as a door beyond the curtain closes.

“You don’t wear any scent,” Vasilka says to Sky, the first thing, indeed, she has said directly to him. Her smile is friendly, however.

“I don’t,” he replies. “I can’t remember the last time I did. It’s just…not my kind of thing.” He shrugs.

“How do you know?” she asks. “Have you ever tried?”

“You not going to spray me with something, are you?” he asks suspiciously.

She laughs. “Not unless you tell me to. But…may I?” She takes his wineglass and sets it aside, then comes closer to him. “My nose is not as long-range as the master’s, but…”

He does not stop her when she stretches up on tiptoes to sniff deeply near his throat, her chest momentarily brushing against his jacket. Her clothes are perfectly tailored to fit her curvaceous body, and Sky cannot help but wonder at the texture of her glossy skin, how it would feel to touch. She settles back onto her heels and considers for a moment, then goes to a wall covered in small shelves on which rest hundreds of crystal bottles, each holding just a tiny amount of liquid. She runs her hand along from left to right, pauses, then goes down two shelves to lift a bottle with forefinger and thumb. She brings it to him, then opens it, the stopper having a thin rod of glass projecting from its bottom, onto which clings a drop of perfume. She sniffs it and smiles, her white teeth brilliant against her obsidian-black skin.

“You can just sniff this, but to get the proper effect, it really should be on your skin. How about your wrist?” She gives him a playful look.

“Well…” Spending much of his time in the field on Earth and the Insula, in situations where wearing added scent would be more likely to make him easier to detect, or would leave behind evidence, he has avoided perfumes. That, and they have always seemed, well, luxuries. And while he values certain luxuries highly – a long hot bath, a perfectly grilled steak, a glass of rare whisky, a handcrafted guitar – he eschews most of them. Life is complicated enough without adding more to it.

Still, he holds out his arm, wrist up. Vasilka takes his hand and applies the drop of scent, then uses her middle finger to spread it across the sensitive skin. “Wait a moment,” she says. “Wait for it to warm from your body heat.” She looks into his eyes, and he begins to suspect she may be flirting with him. “There, now smell.”

He holds his wrist up to his face and sniffs. It is subtle, not like he expected. Nothing sweet about it. Verdant, like a forest, like…oak. And just a hint of the sea. Seaweed.

A memory of England, the coast, with a team of six commandos, good men, preparing to depart on a mission. Only two survived.

He feels moisture behind his closed eyelids, a tingling in his face. He holds onto the memory for a moment, then lets it go, breathing slowly, regaining control. He opens his eyes and sees Vasilka looking up at him in concern.

“Thank you,” he says. “That was…”

As he hesitates over the choice of words – lovely, exquisite, heartbreaking? – the curtain is swept aside. Sky and Vasilka both look toward Tamandoo and Gwydion’s return as if they’ve been caught in an illicit act, but the two gods take no notice, seeming quite preoccupied. Dion’s face carries a slight frown.

“Tamandoo is so sorrowful that your principal request cannot be ready in time. But my dear, might Tamandoo recommend this?” Without a glance, he plucks a miniature bottle from one of the shelves and, smoothly whipping the stopper free, passes it momentarily past Dion’s face with a flourish, so that Dion passes through the scented air. Dion takes a sniff and he looks thoughtful. “It is a familiar scent, is it not? One that has proved successful in the past? Just until the true scent is ready to give at the next occasion for gifts.”

“Ah, this… I wonder if this would be the best choice. Maybe something a little different would be more appropriate. What does your nose say?”

Immediately Tamandoo puts the sample he is holding back and his tongue slithers out to lash the air before the wall of bottles, soon zeroing in on another one. “Ah, with her scent… This one. Most certainly.”

Dion takes a whiff as Tamandoo once again wafts the scent through the air. His face lights up with pleasure and surprise. “Heavenly. Almost perfect. Is this a new blend? I don’t recall ever encountering this one.”

The long-nosed god gives a shrug. “New…not new, precisely. Tamandoo came up with it some time back, but no one has yet purchased it. As Tamandoo says, the people of this Ring are not in search of the new and adventurous.”

“Well, this First Ringer is going to be the exception.” Dion takes the stopper and waves it in the air near Sky. “Don’t you agree that Doo is the best?”

Sky inhales and blinks at the sensation of lilac and…willow? It’s just a soft note, Sky knows the smell well, having stripped the bark and brewed willow tea in the past, to relieve the pain of…no. Now is not the time for those smell-evoked memories.

And after clearing those memories away, he realizes how well the blend of smells speaks of peace, serenity. Though he cannot recall Alma wearing scent, he can imagine that this would, indeed, suit her. “Oh…yes. That is exquisite, Tamandoo.”

The shaggy god clasps his hands in pleasure. “And can Tamandoo provide the Inspector with anything today?”

Sky looks to Dion for help. “Oh, uh…I really don’t know…” Despite the wonder of the scent Vasilka shared with him, he is reluctant to buy such a luxury for himself. He has a comfortable accumulation of savings due to forty years of spending very little on himself, but after speaking with Alma about the orphanage that Ewá Nanã has started and the school she hopes to start, he has decided to put the bulk of his savings toward that project which will be such a benefit for Three Rats.

Also, he does not want to buy a scent for Mayumi. The Bunnies’ noses are very sensitive, and he doubts she would wear it. And in any case she will not be allowed to, at the Academy. Not to mention the potential for undercutting the uniqueness of Dion’s gift to Alma.

Dion smoothly comes to his rescue. “I think my esteemed commanding officer has a slightly different gift in mind for his…special interest.”

“Ah,” sighs Tamandoo. “The Inspector has a paramour! Well remember, Inspector, you cannot go wrong with scent. It is the pathway to the most primitive structures of the brain. Scent creates and evokes memories. Please do return.”

As Sky muses on how well he has learned that lesson this day, Dion says, “Oh, I am sure we will.” He turns his head to regard Sky. “Shall we go hunt for our other gifts?”

“Yes.” Sky takes Tamandoo’s hand. “A very great pleasure meeting you. I hope it will not be long before I have that pleasure once again.”

Tamandoo puts his other hand on top of Sky’s. “So kind! Good fortune in your quest.”

As they leave the shop, Dion asks, “Is everything–”

The door opens behind them and Vasilka steps out. “Inspector?”

As Sky turns, she takes his thick wrist and places a small package on his open palm. She interrupts his protest by saying, with an impish, dimpled smile, “The first one is free. Come again soon.” Then she turns and slips back into the shop, giving a quick backward glance before the door shuts.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“There is nothing going on between us!” Sky insists, exasperated.

“Very well, very well,” Dion says playfully. “But I’ve known her for years and pretty Vasilka’s never given me any free samples.” He pauses for a moment. “Let me rephrase that. All I’m saying is, you must have made quite the impression on her.”

Sky grimaces. “Well… It sounds like you’ve ordered something unique for Alma.”

Dion’s smile persists but becomes slightly fainter, almost shy. “Hopefully something that will not displease. Unfortunately, it will take time to be ready. Something about the influence of the moons and an uncooperative fey of some sort.” The attempt at jocularity disappears as he gives Sky an intent look. “It is, however, a surprise.”

“Of course. My lips are sealed.” They walk in silence for a moment. “I, however…am terrible at choosing gifts. Once in awhile I stumble across something that cries, ‘This is the perfect gift for’ whoever, but that is rare, rare. And…the pressure when it is the first gift for someone you care deeply about.”

Dion is quiet at that. Sky glances at him and sees a still, anxious expression, but holds back from saying anything.

They go past a stall selling the sort of delicacies that visitors can purchase and give to family and friends to say, ‘I visited the First Ring!’ and turn down an alley past that. “This is not the tourist area,” Dion says, breaking his silence. “Well, that part of the street we were entering was, but back here is a little market mainly for the mortals who actually live here. The prices are considerably more reasonable, and the quality just as good, if a bit less…baroque.”

“Thank you,” Sky acknowledges. “I’ve spent time in all the Rings, but I have never really gone shopping in the First. Everything is beautiful. But I worry about it how it would play in Three Rats.”

Dion nods as they arrive at the collection of clean and orderly stalls. “It is important for the gift to fit the recipient. So…you’re having trouble choosing for May?” His voice, earlier mocking in a good-natured way, is now gentle.

Thinking back to how distant they had been with each other so recently, when Gwydion, with Alma, had been under house arrest and accused of deicide. The dismissal of charges followed by weeks of hard, dangerous work getting the gang warfare under control in Three Rats, have, however, led to greater closeness. Sky accepts this intimate question as sincere and warm-hearted, marvelling at the change. “I was thinking of a necklace or a bracelet, but I worry about how strict the Academy is about such things.”

“Ah yes. Alma told me that she has been accepted.” His eyes soften. Sky knows that Alma is distraught but resigned over the thought of her her most troublesome child’s impending absence. “May doesn’t strike me as a jewelry enthusiast,” Dion continues after a moment. “Maybe something more on the practical side?”

Sky nods glumly. “I thought about a bow. And arrows, you know. It’s what her name means actually. But again, she can’t take it with her. Might make a good graduation present though. In six months.” The thought of six thirty-six-day months with Mayumi separated from her family continues to fill him with dread.

As if sensing Sky’s thoughts, Dion suggests, “Maybe something to help her keep in touch with her family and friends? It seems to me that that’s where the greatest challenge will lie. And we both know what the Academy’s postal service is like.”

“Slow and no privacy, yes.” Sky warms to the idea. “Could she use…some kind of enchanted crystal? But you know, I really do like letters. Nobody sends letters anymore.”

Dion seems to suppress a chuckle. “How romantic of you. Well, I think we can adapt something for quick and accurate mailing that ensures privacy as well. Geryon and I used to have a little communication system back at the Magic Academy that should prove efficient enough if we can stabilize it for greater distances. I will leave the choice in stationery to your discretion. But–” He holds up a finger. “–it must be handmade. Don’t ask me why. I just know that if it isn’t, things can go very wrong.”

“That sounds like you are speaking from experience,” Sky comments with a smile. After a eye-rolling nod from Dion, Sky asks, “Do the letters just appear near her?”

“Yes. You may not want to mention to her that the transportation is imp-dependent. It might dampen the romantic atmosphere a little.”

“Oh,” Sky says. Though Sky is not nearly as skilled at spellcasting as Dion is, he knows a fair amount about it, and in particular knows about the nature of imps. In the popular imagination, they are demons, summoned from Hell to deliver messages, act as trackers, draw pictures very swiftly, and so on. Wielders of magic, on the other hand, know that imps are not demons at all, but simply an ephemeral life form, called from nothing, returning to nothing, usually lasting no more than the few minutes it takes to accomplish their reason for existence.

Mayumi, having grown up with virtually no knowledge of spell working, might find the idea of a creature showing up at her bedside to be disturbing. But messenger imps are shy, and try to deliver their messages when the recipient is not looking. “Yes, probably best not to tell her,” Sky agrees. “And it is circumventing the rules, but…everyone has to rebel against the rules in some way, don’t they? Thank you, Dion.”

“Oh I’m happy to help.” Dion picks up a filigreed brooch.

“Do you have any ideas yet for the other presents?” Sky asks absentmindedly as he looks over a display of finely wrought globes of glass.

“Personally, I was planning to get well-tailored outfits for each of them. Sage does such a good job with turning spare fabric into clothes for them, but I thought they’d like something special and festive. What do you think?”

“That’s an excellent idea,” Sky answers. “And it’s good to know, so I don’t get them something too similar. I was planning to get Kori a nice football.”

Dion nods. “That sounds like a good plan. And we all know how Tulip is so engaged in arts and crafts. I don’t think you would be mirroring anyone there if you were to pick something along those lines.”

“Oh yes, a set of pastels, and some good paper. Perhaps brushes and watercolors, too.” After receiving a nod of permission from the proud craftsman, Sky picks up a slightly blue-toned sphere, using his fingertips. It is about the size of an average cantaloupe. “And for Cherry and Rosemary, I was thinking of a wooden sign. For the bar, now that they’ve finally settled on a name for it.”

Dion raises an eyebrow. “You realize you will have to design it.”

Sky chuckles. “I’ve been making sketches, with Sage’s help. Of course he’s keeping it a secret.”

“Even Bunnies find it hard to keep secrets from Bunnies,” Dion says, shaking his head. “There is actually a woodworker’s shop not far away from the station where you could have it made.”

Sky smiles. “I think I know who you mean. Mr Mendonça, right?”

“Yes. Many artisans here would kill to have half of his skill. Well that leaves Sage, Chime, and,” Dion pauses for effect, “their mother.”

Sky laughs, still looking at the globe, examining the glass carefully for flaws. “Well Chime is easy. I have a small collection of musical instruments, and I thought I’d give him a ’ukulele.” A look of confusion from Dion prompts him to explain, “A kind of small guitar. I can teach him to play it, though I suspect he’ll surpass my skill in a day. And Sage, some tailoring tools. Though I’ll need to do a little research for items beyond needles, pins, and scissors.

“As for Alma…” Sky shows the bluish globe to Dion, holding it balanced on the spread fingers of one hand. “This is perfectly made.” The dealer looks pleased and a little smug.

“Made for what, if I may ask?” Dion sounds intrigued.

“When I was much younger,” Sky explains, “I was…attached to a pantheon of ocean gods. The new guy. One of them showed me how to make a glass orb into a microenvironment, by apporting seawater and life forms and so on into it. I haven’t done it in ages. I think it would appeal to Alma’s Life side. And perhaps Death as well. Balance.”

Dion peers into the orb as if he can see the finished result already. “You can fit an ecosystem in there? Interesting. I seem to remember a group of wizards who were very intent on that type of research but they only managed to use relatively simple life forms.” He straightens. “I think she would love it. You know, you said you were bad at choosing gifts.”

Sky laughs at Dion’s mock-scolding. “Maybe I’m having a good year.”