Ch6.41 Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sounds messy,” he says, “but fun.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is Mayumi,” he replies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A few years,” Kumiko replies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that why you’re with Pak-sensei?”

Kumiko nods.

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

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

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

“I don’t want anyone to care.”

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

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

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

Ch6.40 Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What on the Insula is going on?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry…” Tulip whimpers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alma nods. “We will be right down.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Syron?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gasp! How lovely!” Rosemary gasps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tulip’s eyes move down. “Well…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ch6.37 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.”

Ch6.36 Trust

“Welcome again to my meager abode, Sergeants.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Would you like some tea?” Pak offers.

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

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

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

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

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

No joint lessons yet. Pity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh well…opinions can change.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Everything all right?” Alma asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alma slaps his chest in irritation. “Gwydion!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sorry. You were saying?” he inquires.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“Your scent,” she finds herself saying.

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

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

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

“Will you humor me?” she asks sweetly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gwydion chuckles. “You are strange!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

He sighs. “Good night.”

Ch6.34 Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes?” he asks softly.

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

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

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

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

“May I?” she inquires.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you remember them?” she finally asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Surely not all of them,” Dion insists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened?” Dion asks softly, encouragingly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you?”

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

Alma grins. “Scoundrel.”

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

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

Ch6.32 Trust

Alma, Sky, Bunnies, Saira, Gwydion

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

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

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

Things are different now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ch6.28 Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So all that about her possibly needing help…”

Saira grins. “Got you to listen.”

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

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

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

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

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rest… Yes… That would be good too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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