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.

Ch6.36 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.”