Ch6.52 Trust

The warm night air of summer feels cool compared to young Alma’s fevered forehead. She sleeps fitfully in her bed, her black cotton nightgown soaked in sweat. Sitting by the edge of the bed, Death strokes her beautiful silver-white, albeit drenched, hair away from her face and hums a lullaby to soothe her dreams.

“Pale moonlight
Through windows now streams
And with you forever I stay…”

“Daddy…” Alma whimpers in her sleep, reaching blindly for him.

Death takes her wandering hand, holding it gently in his. Her pale skin feels like burning coals against his cold fingers but she seems to calm down almost immediately at his touch. Her father exhales deeply as he watches her sleep. Little Alma has always been a frail child, prone to these sudden fevers that can last for days at a time. At the young age of eight years old, she has already been examined by the best healers of the Inner Rings and still, no cure to her condition has been found. No matter the specialist, the answer is always the same: deep within her, her conflicting spheres compete for dominance. It is up to the young goddess to find balance between them or to succumb under the heat of their quarrels.

Each bout seems to last longer and weaken her further. Soon, Death may be left without his only daughter. He has already started to say goodbye to his little Bunny Rabbit.

“It would mean the world to her if you were to be here when she wakes instead of when she sleeps,” a gentle, warm, feminine voice says. “You were never the same to her since the whole bunny incident.”

From behind, Lyria drapes her loving arms around his shoulders and strokes his chest. She kisses his temple before pressing her cheek against his.

“She still hates me for it,” Death replies, emotionless.

The bunny incident had been a complete disaster. Even if not very strong, little Alma had until then shown a natural inclination to souls and their gathering, just like her brothers. But then a friend of the family had gone ahead and offered her that damned bunny and the child had just been overwhelmed with adoration for the furry creature, so much so that she had created ten copies of it. The next morning Lyria had found her garden being ravenously destroyed by a horde of adorable bunnies that seemed to listen to and obey Alma’s every word.

She dismissed it as a normal event in a child-goddess attuned to Life. Of course, creating bunnies, regular rabbits like those found in nature is not by itself a crime, since they are not a new species. Although irritating to the Death Clan, it would not have been more than a simple faux pas.

But it was how Alma had created them that made her newfound powers so very dangerous. Somehow, Alma had been able to reach into the spectral realms, pull out half-cleansed souls and bind them to newly created bodies. They looked perfectly normal, beyond any suspicion at first glance…until they started to speak, in different accents of Urbia, relating stories of whatever lives they remembered living before they had become rabbits. And yet, their souls were rabbit souls, registering as nothing out of the ordinary, in spite of the human memories.

Death had been appalled at hearing them speak. They were half-formed but fully-incarnate abominations, no longer human but not entirely rabbit either. The scandal that had been the Anubi would be nothing compared to what the news of the creation of these…things would mean to the Clan. It should not even be possible for such a young goddess to pull souls that far through a renewing without a Spinner around to activate the Wheel. If she began doing it indiscriminately, pulling the dead back into life like the necromancers had done to build their hordes of undead slaves… No matter how young and weak, little Alma would have found no mercy in the Council.

They had to be destroyed and steps had to taken to ensure that the young goddess would never again create such creatures, that she would become solely dedicated to her death sphere and stay away from the dangers of creation. Death had forced her to watch as the little furry monsters were destroyed, one by one, victims of her sin. Her cries and tears had been soulcrushing, even for the hardened, calculating heart of Death but it was nothing compared to what she would have endured, had anyone outside Death’s estate found out about it. He had to make sure…he had to show her that her actions carried dire consequences.

That moment had destroyed their bond, inflamed a passionate anger in Alma towards her father, but it had broken her will to create anything else. Now, there is only spite left between them. And even that may not be for long, if she falls victim to her own nature.

“She resents you, yes,” Lyia concedes. “She is too young to understand. But she would not call your name in her sickbed if she hated you.”

Death gently squeezes his daughter’s hand. For a moment, it glows white with her mana. “She is again out of balance. One moment she is sending her life force through me, trying to heal wounds that aren’t there. The next she is trying to steal my mana for sustenance.”

The non sequitur statement achieves its purpose. Lyria nods and lets the bunny issue go. “She is a child infused with two very powerful antagonistic natures. It is normal for her to struggle for balance.”

She is right, of course. At such a young age, any divine is prey to the whims of his or her or jys spheres. Many child gods may not know an affectionate touch, the certainty of ground under their feet, even the taste of food and the scents of the world well into their adulthood, if their spheres awaken early and take too long to master. Alma may never again feel the warmth of sunlight on her skin if she does not manage to defeat this fever.

“These fits are becoming more frequent and severe as she grows,” Death argues, shaking his head. He lets go of Alma’s hand. “We must be ready to put an end to this condition should it become…permanent.”

The unspoken words in his statement make Lyria jump. Her usually warm voice blazes with anger. “I will not let you eliminate my only daughter, Azreh,” she hisses. “Our only daughter. The child that everyone thought we could never have…her fate will not be so petty as to die sick in bed!”

Death sighs as he rises to his feet. For as amiable as Lyria has always been, this is a conversation that has been triggering most of the arguments between the couple lately. As much as she has mostly conquered the hearts of the Death Clan with her kind, caring nature, Lyria is yet to adapt to the reality that her will and that of her husband are nothing when compared to the future of the clan.

“Some gods never find their balance, Lyria,” he says patiently but peremptorily. “And I must think of the greater good of this clan. I am Death. I cannot be weak and allow weaklings to corrode the strength of our family.”

She is your family,” Lyria insists, pointing at their recumbent daughter. “And she is no weakling. She is a child, burdened and blessed to be your daughter and mine. Do not give up on her just yet. Do not close your heart to her.”

“My nature does not allow me to heal her,” Death notes. “Her nature stops you from healing her. She is on her own. And she may very well not make it.”

In the moonlight filtering through the window, Lyria’s green eyes turn a pale, shimmering grey with her tears. She moves closer to her husband, cupping his face in her hands. “Can you not at least allow yourself to feel a fraction of the love I know you have for her? I can feel it in you. Love. Pure and endless.”

Her pleading feels like a blade plunging into his soul. Still, Death knows better than to raise her hopes with a merciful lie. “Should she not overcome her weaknesses, she will be able to contribute to the good of her family with nothing but her sacrifice. My personal feelings must not get in the way of that.”

“Give her a chance to grow out of it, at least,” Lyria begs as her tears roll down her cheeks in moonlit streams. “She is at a difficult age for any child. Give her a chance to show you that she can rise to the challenge. Your Bunny Rabbit…”

For as much as he tries to resist, Death cannot ignore her pain any longer. His arms wrap around her waist, pull her closer to him. His lips meet hers halfway. The mouths of the world have deemed their relationship to be a political hoax, a mutually beneficial arrangement to unite the families and score popularity points for the Death Clan.

Had that been true, Lyria would not have ascended so quickly in harem hierarchy. Had that been true, her kiss would not be able to light a spark in Death’s lifeless heart.

“You were always my weakness,” he whispers.

Lyria smiles sadly, stroking his cheek with her thumb. “You were never stronger than you are with me by your side, my love.”

It is true.

“If your hopes fail us, Lyria…” Death warns her as he holds her tightly to him.

She closes her eyes, nuzzling his neck. “They won’t.”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

Alma lies on her childhood bed, in her old room in Death’s estate. Books, toys, trinkets, scents. All have been kept in the exact same place as when she used to sleep here. However, she is in no condition to notice it. The ceremony has drained her into unconsciousness and she sleeps fitfully, grimacing occasionally as if in pain.

Varah and Lyria sit by her side, each holding one of her hands, paying close attention to her every breath.

“No fever,” Lyria notes. “This is not one of her crises.”

Death stands by the window nearby, collecting his thoughts as he glances at Sharia, who smiles beatifically at the young goddess.

“Of course it isn’t,” the old goddess says in serene tones. “It is the end of all crises, if anything.”

Death raises an eyebrow at this. It has been years since the Wheel has been spun with such force. And by such a young goddess. A young, untrained goddess with no idea of her true skill. He curses himself for not having foreseen this. The signs were always there, after all. But Spinners are so rare, always born into the Life Clan…and Sharia had kept her knowledge of this a secret well-hidden.

“Using her to awaken the Wheel without any preparation?” Death accuses her. “You could hardly have thought of something more idiotic to do, Sharia.”

Venomous, treacherous Life Clan snake, he thinks bitterly. And still you wonder why you were never welcome in this house.

“Oh boo hoo!” Sharia retorts, her benevolent façade distorted by irritation. “She’s not dead, is she? No permanent damage? What do you care if she is used for what she is actually meant to do?”

Their mutual dislike of each other is nothing new. Sharia would have long ago taken control of both clans if allowed, despicable and spiteful little would-be tyrant, thinking herself above Life and Death for her balancing power as a Wheel goddess. But for all her scheming, she has always failed in her purpose. The clans may come together at the call of her sphere but never, never at the call of her will.

“Maybe you two would like to save it for some other time,” Varah growls. “She’s starting to come to.”

On her bed, Alma stirs. “Hmm…?”

Death waits to see if the young goddess is truly awaken before resuming the conversation. When she seems to fall back to sleep, he again turns to Sharia. “She is still my daughter, Spinner.”

And you cannot have her to do your bidding.

Sharia tilts her head, staring at him in apparent fascination. Her eyes flare with vibrant, sharp intelligence. She looks nothing like the staggering, half-senile old bat from before.

“Is she?” she asks sweetly. “Funny that you choose now to act like her father.”

“Sharia!” Lyria cries in shock, turning her head almost 180 degrees to stare at the Spinner.

Sharia pays no attention to Lyria. Her words trickle like poison from her mouth as she walks toward Death.

“Face it. Even now, you are more bothered by the fact that you never realized she could belong to the Wheel than by any of my actions. You are angry at yourself for your blindness. And then…” she stares deeply into Death’s eyes. “You are already thinking about how you can use this to your advantage. Spinners have always been born to the Life Clan, after all. Your little scheme of marrying a Life goddess proved fruitful, finally.”

Lyria shoots to her feet, hissing in outrage as she dashes toward Sharia. “It was no scheme and you will not speak of us in that fashion, Sharia!”

Unafraid of the comparatively young goddess, the Spinner merely looks at Lyria and blinks. Her long years have left Sharia pretty much immune to fear. Of course, as a member of the Life Clan, the old goddess also enjoys the safety provided by the notion deeply imprinted within every life god that one must never, under any circumstance, attack one’s elders.

As if manipulated by a master puppeteer, Lyria freezes in her tracks just a step away from Sharia.

“Leave us, Lyria,” Death orders, keeping his eyes on the Spinner. “You as well, Varah.”

Lyria stares at him in shock. “Azr–”

“Do not fight me on this,” Death cuts her off in a cold voice that will not be denied.

Predicting Lyria’s impending outburst, Varah moves swiftly from behind and takes her by the arm. “Come. She’s going to be fine.”

Half-dragged across the room under the Fencer’s iron grip, Lyria follows Varah, glancing over her shoulder at her increasingly impatient husband. Death waits until they are out of earshot to return to the conversation.

“What is your game, Sharia?” he asks.

Sharia looks almost offended at the question. “My game? There is no game. The Wheel needs a Spinner and soon, that will not be me. She is next in line. I will have my successor in spite of all the stupid little ways in which you almost destroyed her spirit in your quest to bend her to your will.” She shakes her head, clicking her tongue in disapproval. “All these years, waiting for her to be strong enough to spin the Wheel without losing herself in it… And all because you cannot think of her as more than a disappointment.”

Not far away, Alma stirs again in her sleep.

“Do not presume to know my thoughts, Spinner,” Death replies frigidly, glancing at his daughter above Sharia’s head. “Now, leave.”

“She will need to be trained,” the old goddess warns him. “She is balancing three spheres now.”

“You will have your chance,” he states. But I will be watching you closely. “Now, go.”

Sharia stares at him for a moment, then merely shrugs. “I will leave you with your daughter.”

Soon, she is gone. Death walks up to the bed and sits by Alma, stroking her silken, silver-white hair. Her eyelids flutter at his touch. Behind them, like a wonderful scar of the ceremony, vibrant, electrical shades of green and blue slowly mutate, moving endlessly like ocean currents, and make her eyes look like the nacred inside of a beautiful seashell.

“Hmm – Father?” she mumbles.

“Yes?” Death replies.

“Did I do something wrong?” Alma asks sleepily.

“No,” he says. “Rest, now.”

Alma focuses her gaze on him for a moment. “What happened? Am I sick again?”

She is not fully conscious, Death realizes. Her tone, her words…she sounds younger, childish even. In her exhaustion, she seems to have reverted to her childhood years. Her lips purse with sudden agony.

“You spun the Wheel and acquired a third sphere,” he explains, knowing that she will probably not remember any of this by the time she awakes. “Your body and soul are adjusting to the strain.”

Alma does not even seem to grasp his words. “I remember… being sick.”

“You are not sick,” Death states sharply, turning to leave her. “Sleep. Your escort has been warned. Melinor will accompany you to the Fourth Ring once you feel better.”

Just as he begins to rise to his feet, her hand shoots out to grab his wrist, clutching it until her fingernails dig into his flesh. The muscles in her arms spasm, making her whimper.

“Please, don’t go,” she begs. “It hurts. Stay with me, Daddy.”

Death’s eyes soften at the word he has not heard her use in over a hundred years.

“By the time you wake up, you will not remember any of this,” he says softly, regretting that it must be so. “It will make no difference if I stay.”

“I’ll know,” Alma insists, her eyes already closing again. “I always knew. When you came to stay with me.”

Death’s eyes widen at the revelation. She had never said a word. All this time, he thought she resented him for not visiting her when she was ill.

“I’m scared,” she says weakly as her hand lets go of his wrist. “Please, stay.”

Death nods and slowly lies down by her, wrapping an arm around her shaking frame, holding his daughter close to him. “I will stay this time.”

Her shaking and spasming stop almost immediately. Alma snuggles in his arms, already falling asleep.

“I make you proud?” she mumbles.

Death kisses her forehead and whispers, “More than you know, Bunny Rabbit.”

Alma smiles and wiggles her nose in her sleep.

Advertisements

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.

Ch6.39 Trust

It is the day before the Year’s End week and all around the house…

Everyone seems possessed! The bar is decorated like something out of an interior designer’s worst nightmares. Everywhere, ribbons and garlands and banners of all colors and tablecloths painted with flowers and stars and, for some reason, sheep. Scents clash in a battle for dominance of the bar and the station. All sorts of holiday drinks and sweets are being prepared. No ward on the Insula should be able to unite so many different seasonal recipes and traditions. Everyone seems to have a different song to hum at all times of day or night.

In their attempt to bring together all of their traditions and mix them into a single one, the Bunnies have created such a rich and diverse plan that Sage and Mayumi have spent the last two days organizing all their different activities into a color-coded schedule. They will probably need an egg-timer just so that everything they want to do gets, in fact, done.

But Alma is determined to give them whatever they want for this first Year’s End together, even if it is sure to drive half of the station into exhaustion. Of course, the Dei will have to take shifts to balance enjoying the festivities and keeping the station and ward under close watch. With the ever-present threat of this psychopathic necromancer and his soul bombs and zombie rats, they cannot afford to let their guards down completely. The same for the Popula. But everyone, absolutely everyone is looking forward to tomorrow. This is a precious celebration to them, all of them, Bunnies and Popula and Dei and all of their friends. Just months ago, their lives were so different… And in Alma’s case, so lonely. So empty. So…

Hopeless.

But all of that is behind her now. She has her Bunnies, new friends who would, literally, put their lives on the line for her and her children, some rather pleasant mortals to work with and a ward that shows all signs of actually starting to appreciate her presence, albeit with a little cringing at her non-Guardia activities. Bones of the trade. And… Nekh is gone from her thoughts! How wonderful it has been to taste every new event without his poisonous words ringing in her ear. She has found herself filling in for him at times, especially when her insecurities attack, but Sky’s return to active duty has relieved much of her stress and left her with more time to be with her children and her – dare she call him? – her boyfriend?

It just sounds so strange, calling Gwydion by that title. Boyfriend is not a word of gods. Gods have lovers, often more than one and often involving some way of stretching such a complicated, mortal thing as love through an eternity of whether passionate physicality or undying memory. Gods get bored easily. And then again, gods can love forever. One of the problems of becoming involved with mortals.

Boyfriend…The word rings almost childish in her ears. Alma is young for a goddess, her maturity and adulthood recent things. She was only in late Transition, what in human terms could be called the late teens, when she met Arion, a quarter of a century ago, after all. It had taken her over a dozen decades to reach that point. Now, only twenty-five years later, she is well into her Ripened Age. A century and a half…to reach where a human gets in little over thirty years. Some gods don’t take half as long. Others take much longer. Some never get there.

Either way, Gwydion is her lover, her companion and a very dear one indeed. She had forgotten how sweet that could be. And even though there have been other lovers, safe, trusted, occasional, rare lovers, and even with this unexpected attraction toward the deadly but curiously comforting and broken, Textbook-Example-of-a-Bad-Decision Somrak, the last person she has felt this close to was… Arion. The distant father of her children. Her dreams haven’t taken her his way in quite a while. She feels awful for it but… wasn’t he the one who left? Who kept their love on hold for so long, asking her to accept their impossible situation? He cannot return permanently to the Insula and she would not survive in the Void and maybe – maybe her heart has managed to understand what her mind still has such difficulty conceiving: that their dying love must change in order to survive. She loves him still, she knows, but differently now, no longer with the dreams and hopes of his return. It is not with him she would choose to share a future but there is still room for him in it. At her side. But at a distance.

As Cherry would say, gods are weird. All these thoughts go through her head as she hides one more gift from the Bunnies’ eyes in one of the many hidden recesses in her room. She shakes her head, grinning at her own silliness. Such a strange time to be thinking these things…

Especially when she is only one present short of a fully checked list: Gwydion’s present. And for as much as she has been struggling, she has failed to find the perfect one for him. Everything feels too shallow or too…binding? She sighs for the fiftieth time at the silliness of all this secrecy around their affair. All the Bunnies know, after all. Sky and Saira know as well. And a few other people probably suspect. But it had seemed like a good idea at the time and they had both agreed to it from the start. Now she just cannot find it in her to bring it up with him. It would feel like she is pressuring him into it. Like she’s not scared of what comes next. Of all people to fall in love with, she had to pick a philanderer. Stupid heart with its wants and needs.

What on the Insula will she give him?!

I give up.

She walks up to her vanity mirror and places a hand on it, conjuring a mental image of her mother. The mirror, which doubles as a portal attuned to Lyria’s essence is, like many things in this room, an old companion, one of those intrinsically magical objects that are independent of Alma’s magic even if she must recreate them every time she relocates. Considering how many times she has relocated already, some of these items have created and recreated so often that she can no longer remember how she came to own them in the first place.

“Mother,” the goddess calls in a whisper.

“What is it, little soul?” Lyria’s voice replies after a few seconds of unnerving silence.

“I need your help.”

A sigh from the mirror. Moments later, Lyria is standing in front of Alma, looking flustered and impatient.

“I am rather busy with the Dawning, Alma,” she announces in warning tones that say This better be important or at least amusing.

Alma hangs her head. Suddenly, the idea of asking for her mother’s help does not sound so attractive. After all, Lyria is major life goddess regardless of the internal quarrels generated by her choice in husband and part of the responsibilities for organizing the Life Clan side of the Year’s End ceremony, as long as the annual get together of the two usually estranged clans, falls heavily on the older goddess. “I know and I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have–”

“Is life in the Fourth Ring making you forget how to pronounce words properly?” Lyria interrupts, her naturally warm and amiable voice sharp as a blade.

Alma curses inwardly at the pompousness of upper ring speech and sighs. An irritated Lyria makes for a particularly stern one when it comes to proper etiquette. “Forgive me, mother. I should not bother you when you are amidst preparations for the Year’s End ceremony but I am on the verge of desperation.”

This seems to hit a nerve with Lyria. She tilts her head at Alma, suddenly looking very concerned. “What is wrong, Alma? Please, do not tell me this is about that terrible necromancer your father has you chasing.” She starts pacing around the room. “I asked him and asked him to keep you away from–”

“No, mother!” Alma cuts her off in a panic, holding her mother by the upper arms to stop her from pacing. She guides Lyria to sit on the bed and, as the older goddess looks at her quizzically, breathes deeply, feeling utterly silly for all this. “No, it is nothing like that. I am afraid my motives for calling you are far less…noble in nature.” She fumbles with her fingers. “My children are set on fabricating their very own Year’s End traditions.”

Lyria’s face lights up in joy as she puts her hands together in delight. “Oh, but that sounds wonderful! For a moment there, you looked like you were about to announce the end of the world.” She notes, looking at Alma in utter confusion. “Why are you so desperate?”

“Well, the celebrations include a gift exchange,” Alma explains.

“Ah…” Lyria nods in knowing sympathy. “Exchanging gifts was never something your father endorsed.” She taps Alma’s hand in dismissal. “Still, you love to shop for gifts! I seem to remember very good ones.”

“Yes, it is usually easy to pick,” Alma concedes. “But in this case, I just keep hitting a wall. I need your advice.”

Lyria leans forward in expectation, a sly grin dancing on her lips. “And who is at the receiving end of this gift giving conundrum?”

Alma breathes deeply and braces herself for what comes next. Stupid, stupid, stupid. You should have asked Sky instead!

She closes her eyes, cringes slightly and says, “Gwydion.”

She can feel Lyria remaining very still. “Math’s nephew.”

Alma opens a fearful eye. “Yes.”

“And why is it so difficult to shop for him?” Lyria asks with horribly fake innocence. “A nice shirt, a tie are all simple, easy choices. Unless…” And here her grin stretches into a wide smile, soon followed by a giggle. “Oh, I see…”

Ah, there it is, the triumphant giggle.

“Mother…” Alma sighs, rolling her eyes.

Still, Lyria is having too much fun to let go of the easy prey. “You do not want an easy choice, you want one with meaning.” She pats Alma’s hand with obvious pleasure. It feels odd, this fast acceptance of Gwydion, the god fled from the First Ring for his promiscuity, as a proper companion for one’s only daughter, but Lyria has always seemed to operate on a different scale of sane as everyone else. “Math was right in saying the two of you were getting to be very close.”

“You are just torturing me now,” Alma mutters.

And in that light, smiling, icecold way of hers, Lyria jabs the dagger in. “You lied to me before.”

It always hits home.

“I did not lie,” Alma argues, dismissing the shiver that is shaking her spine. “I merely…postponed telling the truth. Things were rather confusing at the time.”

“And now?” Lyria prompts her, her voice sweet again.

Alma shakes her head in frustration. No way out of it now… “Fine. We have been together romantically. For weeks. Just not publicly and not…” She glances at Lyria. “Exclusively.”

“Because of Arion?” Lyria asks quietly.

Alma shakes her head again. “Because of my tendency to create Bunnies and of Gwydion’s tendency to pursue multiple lovers.” She considers the question again. Arion had not been the first of their concerns when the deal had been struck. “And because of Arion as well, I guess.”

“You guess…” Lyria echoes in a whisper. “Has he even been in your thoughts lately?”

“Mother, my life has been hectic lately–” Alma starts.

“Still, you have found time to date someone new,” Lyria cuts her off with surgical precision. “Have you found time for Arion?”

She hasn’t, of course. Still, admitting it before her mother, who was always against their relationship, is a fat toad to swallow. “No…”

“Finally!” Lyria cries out in joy.

“Mother!” Alma hisses.

“Oooh, kitten!” Lyria suddenly coos as she seems to notice Lexie for the first time.

Lounging in a ball of fur on Alma’s bed, as has become her habit, the cat opens an eye to look at Lyria and stretches languidly, twisting her spine in a sinuous shape, paws stretched and lazily unsheathing their curved claws. Then, she turns, rises and stretches again, yawning at her own feline leisure before approaching the life goddess and rubbing against her side, purring like a bear snoring in a cave. Lyria dotes happily on the friendly animal, completely ignoring Alma as the cat rubs and paws and tosses herself onto the sheets and plays every existing card in the feline handbook to captivate Lyria’s attention. All animals are friendly to life gods. Of course, Lexie is usually friendly to begin with, apparently seeing each new person in her world as another source of petting and adoration. She is a queen, after all, and a queen can never have too many subjects or servants.

Feeling like this has gone for too long, Alma clears her throat, startling Lexie. Lyria looks blankly at her for a moment before realization dawns.

“Anyway, gifts…” the older goddess says as if the conversation had never been interrupted. “Something meaningful but not too meaningful. That will remind him of you but not scare him away with commitment.” She glances at Alma. “Although I will bet he is a lot more committed than you realize…”

“And why would you bet on that?” Alma asks, petting Lexie by way of apology for startling her.

“Because, you fool, he keeps coming back even though he knows you cannot give him what he is used to wanting,” Lyria states as if this is the most obvious thing on the isle. “But enough of that. Is there something he desires? Besides you, that is?”

Alma thinks about this for a moment. There in not much lying beyond Gwydion’s reach in terms of material possessions but their private conversations have brought to light deeper, more metaphysical desires. “Knowledge about his parents? His past?” She looks a plea at Lyria. “You knew them, didn’t you?”

“Alma, I was sworn to secrecy,” Lyria warns her. “I cannot reveal any more than you already know. For your beloved’s sake, do not ask me to bend the limits of my vow any further.”

“He has no memory of them,” Alma insists.

Can I even imagine what that must be like? she wonders.

“He was very young when it happened,” Lyria concedes with a nod. “Old memories get buried easily. But who knows? Maybe something will light up a spark.” She rises suddenly, making Alma hope for a change in her mother’s mind. “Hmm…maybe jewelry? Something he can wear?”

The suggestion rings disappointment. For once, Alma had hoped for one of Lyria’s careful slips of information.

“I thought of that but buying something seems a bit…impersonal,” the young goddess notes.

By her side, Lexie has decided that a warm spot on the bed is not something to be disdained and is already curling up where Lyria once sat.

“Then why not make it yourself?” Lyria suggests. “Did I not offer you something like that a few years back?”

Try half a century, mother, Alma snorts.

“Do you mean, my living bracelet?” she inquires. And then it hits her. Of course! That bracelet is not just a pretty thing that plays songs from her childhood, it is also deeply infused with Lyria’s essence, connecting the goddesses with a link made of memory. “Oh, that would be perfect! Could you make one for him?”

Lyria bobs her head pensively. “I certainly could but…it is such a personal gift, Alma. You should make it.”

Alma’s eyes widen in a mild panic. She has learned to create, of course. Against Death’s wishes, Lyria has managed to nurture Alma’s Life sphere with simple, often secret lessons that the young goddess has since used to develop her skills in a self-taught kind of way. But this is much more advanced than anything she has ever been taught. “I…I don’t know how.”

“Well, it is about time you learn, then,” Lyria, replies slightly flustered. “You are an adult, after all. No one can forbid you from learning to use a sphere properly anymore. And besides, you already have some experience with plants.”

Lyria gestures at Starfax’s verdant cage. The sight of the phoenix perching quietly among the leaves sparks a sudden, treacherous memory in the goddess.

“Ugh…” she mumbles. Somrak…

“What is it now?” Lyria asks.

“Make that two gifts I will need you to help me with,” Alma explains, rubbing her eyes to hide her discomfort.

Lyria’s eyes widen in amused surprise. “Oh, another meaningful gift, you mean?” She giggles. “I want to hear all about it! But first… I want to see my grandchildren.”

“Oh no!” Alma exclaims. “First, you help me, then you can go frolic with the Bunnies.”

Ch5.31 Shards

“It has been days since we have last received news from Three Rats,” Alma complains as she walks down the hall to the sun room. “No news of the Fourth Ring from the heralds.”

Who would want to talk about that dump, anyway? Nekh mutters, to her right.

“Yes,” Gwydion agrees walking by her and showing just the smallest hint of irritation in his composure. “We are not just being kept exiled, we are being kept ignorant of the terrible things that must be going on in our station. Inspector Sky could surely use a hand right about now.”

The days go by slowly in their imprisonment. Immense as Math’s estate is, with so many rooms and activities to choose from, there are only so many things a mind burdened with the worry of what may just well be an impending death sentence and care for friends and family will be willing to spend its focus on before demanding some sort of freedom.

Today, however, they have been called to entertain a guest in the sun room. Not that the thought of this surprise visitor is managing to distract them of their daily worries…

News of the Fourth Ring is sparse and disconnected and mostly related to isolated bouts of disease or violence that could affect the economy and peace of the Third and Second Rings. No news of Three Rats has made its way to their ears since Sky’s last visit with the Council’s Eye, and that was worrying enough. Knowing that the station is severely under-staffed, that officers are getting hurt and overworked (and getting hurt because they are being overworked) in what is pretty much a whole-Ring civil war, is just another strain on their nerves. And so, they keep bringing up the usual issues and repeating the same complaints to each other as they walk down the hall.

“I understand that my case is a difficult one to try but you, at least, could easily be acquitted,” Alma says for what is probably the tenth time in the last few days. “Sky could use your help.”

Gwydion grins at the words. “I have a feeling that it is not my help he craves, nor my company.” He tries to sound playful but there is enough strain in his tone to make Alma wonder if it is just frustration he is feeling. “Still, we could hardly cause any more damage exiled in the Fourth Ring than we are causing here, caged in the First. Wooden coop or golden pen, we would be prisoners all the same.”

Alma stops walking and stands looking at Gwydion, mesmerized, realizing that in all the hours they have spent together listening for news of the ward, she has never heard him state his desire to go back to Three Rats. Before them, the door to the sun room looms in waiting.

“Do you truly wish to return to the Fourth Ring?” she questions.

Are you kidding? Lovely landscapes, friendly people, weather always shady with a slight chance of murder in dark alleys… Who wouldn’t want to live there? Nekh jests.

“The last time I checked, it was there that I was stationed,” Gwydion replies impassively. “Besides, we were the ones who started the brutal war that is raging there, were we not?”

“And what about your family?” she insists. “I have my children there but what do you have of yours in Three Rats that you would want to return to it? If you could stay here, in opulence and luxury, most of all in safety, would you really think twice about saying yes?”

Gwydion’s eyes widen at the question. “I—“

But before he can answer her questions, the door to the sun room opens to let Math’s head poke through. He smiles widely at the sight of them, obviously pleased at their arrival.

Saved by the door, sonny, Nekh snorts.

“Ah, here they are!” Math announces to the world in general. “Lady Alma, I have a lovely surprise for you.”

He urges them both into the large room, brightly illuminated by the tall, wide windows that line three of the five walls. The copper-colored silk rugs that cover the marble floors on which they walk fill the room with their fiery tones, staining the simple, minimalistic wooden furniture. And in the center of the room, Lyria stands in a pool of light, smiling at the newly-arrived pair.

“Mother!” Alma calls, hurrying to greet her.

“Hello, little one!” Lyria responds, opening her arms.

What a lovely family picture! Nekh hisses bitterly. The bitches reunited. I could just hang you two in my living room…

Forgetting all about their hosts for a moment, the two goddesses embrace tightly, glad to see each other. Smiling with a mixture of relief and apprehension, Alma basks in her mother’s warm arms for a moment, remembering long gone childhood days when Lyria’s touch could dispel any fear and bedtime beast. This simple touch in such stressful times, after days and nights of feeling alone is a wonderful treat. It is not until the subtle yet distinctive sound of a man clearing his throat rings in the silence that she breaks the hug and turns to face the two other gods in the room.

“Lady Lyria, this is my nephew, Gwydion,” Math announces, gesturing at the young god before turning to him. “Dion, this is Lyria, Lady of Life, and Senator Death’s consort.”

Gwydion walks up to Lyria and very gently holds her hand, raising it to his lips in an old-fashioned greeting.

“It is truly an honor to make your acquaintance, Lady Lyria,” he says with his trademark charming ways. “I must say that your reputation as an artist pales only in comparison with your work. Your creations are a thing of wonder.”

“Such a charming young god you have for a nephew, Math,” Lyria replies with a giggle. Her hand releases itself from Gwydion’s hold to takes his chin between his fingers. “The smile… And those eyes—“ she whispers. “They’re just like hers…”

She blinks suddenly, almost as if awakening from a trance. Smiling again, she takes Alma’s hand and pulls her daughter closer to her. “But wouldn’t you agree that my greatest creation stands now by me?”

“Mother…” Alma scolds her softly, glancing apologetically at the magic god.

Credit where it is due, Gwydion merely smiles at Lyria’s motherly match-making and does not even miss a beat before saying, “My lady, I see grace standing so close to beauty that I can barely discern which is the artist and which the masterpiece.“

The answer makes Lyria laugh. “You always have the most interesting of friends, my daughter,” she says. “Would you mind if I spoke to Alma in private for a few moments, Gwydion?”

Yeah, let the two plan your bloody ending in peace, Nekh adds walking to the other end of the room.

“Not at all, Lady Lyria,” Gwydion replies after a miniscule glance at Alma and a subtle nod from the goddess. “And please, do call me Dion.”

“Thank you, little soul,” Lyria says.

They watch him join Math and walk away. As the gods open the doors to leave the room, however, Lyria seems to remember something and calls Gwydion again.

“Oh! The little Bunny – Tulip! – sends her regards and asks if all is well with you,” she tells him.

Although not looking quite radiant at the news, Gwydion nods and smiles politely, saying “If you get the chance, Lady Lyria, please do let her know I am all right and that I send her my regards and well wishes as well.”

He leaves the room, closely followed by Math, who makes a show of closing the door behind him.

“You have spoken to the Bunnies?” Alma asks as soon as they are alone.

“Well, I thought it was about time I met my grandchildren,” Lyria states, catching the slight note of reproach in her daughter’s voice and dismissing it. “And Alma they are exquisite! So perfect, so alive, so different from each other! Truly, death is not your greatest talent.”

That’s because she’s never done it to you… Nekh retorts.

Alma snorts derisively at this, turning away from her mother to hide the sadness in her eyes. “Father would care to disagree. And then again, maybe not. The mere mention of my name must bring shame to him at this point.”

“Your father has always been in a position that does not allow for scandal,” Lyria replies, in a you-should-know-this-already tone of voice. “Either way, he would hate to see his daughter convicted and sentenced to oblivion.”

“At least that way he would never be ashamed again,” Alma insists bitterly. “I have already proven to be of little use in his political games, anyway.”

The words make Lyria move closer to her daughter. “Alma…” she whispers. “Change is ever-present in our days. He will have all this behind him soon enough. And dear, so should you. Arion was a great mistake but worse ones have been committed with good intentions.”

“There was nothing good in Father’s intentions, just social advancement at my expense,” Alma retorts. She hangs her head. “But he never expected… we never expected…”

Lyria holds the young goddess by the shoulders to gently scold her. “You need to let go of him, child. Live your life in the Insula, not beyond it. You know you couldn’t possibly survive there long.”

“I love him still, mother,” Alma insists, avoiding her mother’s gaze.

Sure, you do, Nekh says. And you’re so loyal to him too…

“There are others here willing to love you,” Lyria says, letting go of Alma’s shoulders. “And I am sure you don’t go unmoved by them, either. Are you not close to Sky?”

Alma sighs. Somehow, she expected that issue to be brought up sooner or later. Lyria is, after all, a mother and all mothers share that same need of guiding their children through the sinuous paths of love.

I will need to find someone who will shoot me if I ever become like that, she thinks.

Ooh, me! Me! Pick me! Nekh coos. Oh…wait…

“He is a friend, mother, no more than that,” she states. “I feel no attraction towards him.”

Lyria raises an eyebrow, looking confused for a moment before nodding slowly in acquiescence. “Very well, all things considered.” She brightens up. “But look at the charming young Gwydion, for instance. Will you deny that he is rather pleasant to the eye and the ear? And the way he looks at you…”

“I would rather not share my bed with one whose only requirement in a mate is that she can breathe while performing simple tasks,” Alma replies, looking away.

It’s not like you have been sharing spit with him for the last few days, Nekh notes, loafing on a chaise lounge.

Alma makes a point of ignoring him. For as much as their shared time and growing intimacy has been doing much in the way of changing her perception of Gwydion, of the deeper, truer him that hides behind a wall of charm and expensive cologne, she is not yet ready to call their relationship anything other than mutual attraction. Especially, in front of her mother.

“And yet I hear you two have become quite close as of late,” Lyria insists, perhaps detecting Alma’s hesitation. “There is nothing quite like love to make a man grow up quickly.”

“Some never do,” Alma responds bitterly.

“I dare say that those are destined to long days spent in solitude,” Lyria says with a hint of irritation. “Believing in growth is worthwhile, Alma. Believing in change, now…is a waste of time.”

Alma looks back at her mother, exhaustion in her eyes. “And the difference between the two?”

“You find it at the bottom of the abyss, right after you jump. Enough of this,” Lyria says, taking Alma’s hand and gently pulling her closer. “How are you, little one?”

“Anxious for a decision from the Council,” Alma concedes, glad for the change in subject. “I would rather be told today that I am to be sent to Hell for my crimes than to waste away in luxurious exile, Mother.”

“I am sure that many would disagree,” Lyria states softly.

Not me. I’d rather see her in Hell, Nekh mutters.

“All efforts are being made to keep you well away from such a terrible fate, Alma,” the older goddess goes on. “You need but be patient through it all and remember that you are not alone.”

Alma moves closer to her mother, taking a step into her embrace. The gentle hold of Lyria’s arms around her makes her feel slightly less exposed to her fears. “I worry for my children. How are they?”

Lyria holds her close, stroking her hair as she answers, “United and strong, little soul. They miss you but they are well and keeping Sky on his toes.” She pulls slightly away from Alma, laughing at some funny thought. “The younger ones are a well of energy but the older ones are keen on playing with his mind. Especially the twins.”

The words make Alma smile. “Poor Sky. He really doesn’t stand a chance against those two.”

Lyria nods in agreement. “Ah yes. Although they seem to be quite distracted with their gryphon friend. Gylden’s nephew, yes?”

“Geryon,” Alma replies keenly. “I am sure Gwydion would love to hear how his friend fares. I myself owe him a great deal for coming in our aid against Nekh. How is he?”

“He is fine and pampered by Cherry and Rosemary,” Lyria explains with a malicious smile. “As is a certain lovely constable who seems to have won young Sage’s affection.”

“Mother!” Alma scolds her, chuckling in amusement at her mother’s lack of shame. “You have only just met them and already you go poking about in their love affairs?”

“No more than you go poking around in my records,” Lyria replies immediately.

BAM! Right through the heart! Nekh cries.

The words hit Alma like a wall of ice. If her mother intended to make Alma feel guilty at her lie of omission, she surely has succeeded. The young goddess looks down, feeling nervous and ashamed.

“I-I was merely trying to help Gwydion,” she tries to explain. “I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to live forbidden from knowing about one’s parents. How cruel to do such a thing to a child.”

“Some secrets are kept to protect the ones who wish to learn the truth the most. I am sure Gifflleu would not have his child come to harm,” Lyria says softly, almost in confession, while she takes Alma’s hand again. “You like him, do you not?”

Alma’s lips part and close a couple of times before she answers. Her contradicting thoughts make her head spin.

“I… I can’t trust him,” she stutters.

Gifflleu… if Gwydion’s mother was named Eidon, than Gifflleu must be… She needs to find Gwydion, let him know.

And you say you don’t like him… Nekh taunts her.

“Why not?” Lyria asks. “After all he has risked for you and your kin.”

“Oh, I would trust him with my life,” Alma assures her. “But not with my heart.”

Lyria suddenly looks very tired, sighing with a mixture of frustration and exhaustion that make her look much older than her usual adopted form. And yet the beauty is there, unmarred by this sudden, temporary aging. “Arion will not return, child. For as much as you love each other, you cannot be with him nor he with you,” she states matter-of-factly. “You know this. It has been years, Alma! As many as your youngest has of life.”

“So much has been decided for me, mother. Allow me at least free ruling over my own heart,” Alma pleads, feeling just as old as her mother looks.

The plea makes Lyria hold her daughter closely. “Of course, little soul,” she whispers in Alma’s ear. “I will let no one rob you of that.”

Hmph! That’s what they all say…

 

Ch5.30 Shards

Math is awakened from his daydreams by the gentle knock of a knuckle on fine, aged wood. Although he has been leaning over a manuscript handed to him by a very well-placed employee of the judicial office of the Curia, his eyes have long given up on their reading. The news of the investigation are many and conflicting and altogether too silly to be true. The Council’s Eye, Ewá Nanã, must be working overtime not only to make her report, but also to manage to befuddle the many spies that the Archons have working for them, so that she can ensure that all observations are as impartially beneficial to their needs as possible.

She is proving better than expected, he thinks.

He rubs his eyes and blinks once or twice to refocus his vision. The soft knock registers again.

“Enter already!” he orders with a slight note of irritation.

The door to Math’s study opens to let in an unexpected guest. Her golden hair falls braided over her left shoulder, decorated with purple and red blossoms that seem to loll in the soft breeze that her motion causes. The beautiful dress that leaves her shoulders bare and covers the rest of her elegantly-shaped figure in soft browns and greens rustles as she moves, planting whispers of fabric in the echoes of her steps.

“Is this a bad time for a visit?” she asks with a voice that is like Spring blooming on a snowy day.

The sight of her makes Math smile. Carefully, he puts the document he had been reading in a desk drawer before rising to greet her.

“Ah, Lady Lyria!” he says warmly as he walks over to her and takes her hand in friendship. “It truly has been too long since you have graced this house with your presence.”

The obvious show of etiquette in that line makes her giggle, in that innocently malicious way that is so unique to Lyria. “I am flattered that my presence has been missed, my Lord Archon,” she replies in kind, bowing her head. “Surely, so many great personalities step foot in these sacred halls that my simple soul could easily be forgotten.”

Math chuckles, moving to the small table where a jar of Ambrosia and a few glasses always sit. “From head to toe, there is nothing of simple in you, Lyria, albeit all the things that could easily go amiss,” he says while he pours her a glass. “And please, have we not known each other for long enough? This ‘Lord Archon’ silliness is beneath you, regardless of with whom you choose to share your bed.”

“Not just a bed, Math. A life,” she responds.

“Does he have one of those?” Math asks with a smile as he tries to keep the slightest of traces of bitterness from his voice. “One could never tell.”

Another giggle from Lyria. “Oh, little soul, you were always so quaint. There is more life in death than death in life.” Her tone suddenly becomes smoother, more serious as she accepts the drink Math offers and adds, “I should know. The road never ends, really. It simply just…reaches a turning point where all great choices can be made.”

“And how do your choices find you, dear goddess?” the god asks, raising his glass in a silent cheer.

“Glad of them, my friend,” Lyria says, raising her glass in return before taking a sip of her drink. “You have met my daughter.”

Math nods, smiling at the subtle question implied in that statement. “Of course and what a rare sight she is,” he notes, walking to his desk and pretending to examine a document as he adds, “None of your creations could ever rival her. In the solemn elegance of her beauty and the graceful etiquette of her demeanor, you have sculpted your most worthy successor.”

He raises his eyes just in time to see her expression darken for the tiniest fraction of a second. The vision pleases him immensely.

Yes, I have met her. And her eyes looked right through me to see where my intentions lie. And if you did not teach her that, then you surely made certain she would learn. And then she was left alone to keep her creations safe and she grew up and surprised you. If only the sculpture hadn’t found a will of her own, eh goddess? he thinks with wicked delight. If only she could be kept under lock and key until her unique abilities became necessary. If only they weren’t mine to keep now.

“She has much of her father in her,” Lyria says, and the way her words break Math’s train of thought makes them sound almost like a warning. “Even if she fights him, they could not possibly be more alike.”

“Would she send a daughter into the arms of a stranger for her own gain, then?” Math asks in conversational tones.

When the goddess answers with nothing but silence, he uses it to take a sip of his drink and add, “Did you?”

Lyria shakes her head slowly, putting her glass down on the little table that holds the jar of Ambrosia from which Math has served them both. “Arion was a mistake from the very beginning, one I tried to stop from happening.” She smiles sweetly at the archon, as if resigned to her failure. “Alas, Alma is a willful creature.”

“Something else she takes after her father?” Math questions, crossing the distance between himself and Lyria to pick up her glass and refill it. “If I remember it correctly, you were the very definition of willfulness at her age. Life itself in the shape of a woman. Strong…“ He offers her the now full glass. “Vibrant…passionate.”

“Impatient…” Lyria notes with a sly grin as she raises the glass to her lips. “Impervious to mind games.”

Math grins back for a short moment. There she is. My Lyria has come out to play. Now we can talk.

“Do you believe your daughter is still faithful to Arion?” he asks without missing a heartbeat.

“I do, for the worst of her sins,” the goddess replies. “In all the years they have been apart, she has yet to pick a new companion. Perhaps in consideration to what happened the last time she fell in love. Why do you ask?”

“She may have found a new one in my nephew, Gwydion,” Math explains. “They have been quite…close during their time here.”

Lyria looks confused for a moment. “Gwydion? Oh, Eidon’s son!” She puts her hands together in joy. “He does take after his mother! Those beautiful hazel eyes used to be the downfall of the First Ring male population.” Her expression darkens for an instant. “It truly was a tragedy what happened to her. That the young boy had to grow without a mother…how awful.”

“I feared he had grown without a heart,” the Archon concedes, putting his glass down on the table and taking Lyria’s glass to put it down as well. “Lately, however, he seems to be changed. Not much, but enough that I could notice a difference.”

The goddess smiles at this, touching Math’s white-bearded cheek with a gentle hand. “How blessed can one be, to be taught to care?” she says softly as her thumb strokes his skin. “One can change a life that easily, save a soul almost by accident.”

“Or doom it without remedy,” the archon notes just as softly.

“You have always been so negative, Math!” Lyria retorts in irritation, walking away from him. “Why see anything wrong in two young souls finding companionship in each other? And after all, it is perfectly normal for the boy to want to know more about his parents.”

Math’s senses tingle at her words. “What are you saying?”

“Did you not know?” Lyria asks, turning back to face him, her expression holding as much confusion as his. “Alma and Gwydion have visited my Hall of Records and looked up a couple of entries.”

Math’s eyes widen for a moment, caught off guard as he is by the revelation. “Why would you allow them to do so?”

“My dear, I wasn’t even there,” the goddess replies with a hint of concern. She moves closer to him. “Did you not know them to have left captivity?”

“I…I thought they were there to visit with you,” the god states. “What entries did they look up?”

The inquiry is unnecessary. In his mind, he already knows.

“Gwydion’s and your own,” Lyria replies nonetheless.

“What did they find?”

“There is nothing to find, little soul. Nothing more than smears on old pages,” the goddess says, tracing the lines on Math’s seasoned face with a finger. “Secrets can be quite consuming, Math. Destructive too. You might want to consider revealing them before it is too late.”

“I would challenge you to reveal your own first, Lyria,” the archon replies taking her hand and raising it to his lips.

Lyria laughs at the challenge. “Why would I ever keep secrets of my own, my dearest friend?” she asks as she allows him to guide her out of the study. “There is already so much work to do in keeping other people’s secrets.”

 

Ch5.23 Shards

“Thank you again,” Mayumi says to the gryphon Geryon. “You were very brave. We will never forget what you did for us.”

Lounging on an old sofa that someone has scrounged from somewhere and placed in the bar, Geryon inclines his head. “Well…I couldn’t allow that brute harm my favorite bartenders, now could I? I’ve had cocktails at the best clubs in the First Ring, and none are better than Cherry’s.” He chuckles as Merri, sitting beside him with his forelegs across her thighs, giggles and cuddles his head against her bosom. Though his inflexible beak cannot reflect his pleasure, the way his eyes squint indicate a roguish grin.

“Speakin’ of my admittedly awesome cocktails,” Cherry says, “here you go, May.”

As Mayumi takes the drinks, Cherry touches her hand and smiles at her sadly. Things are still a bit tenuous between them, but Mayumi’s homecoming a few hours ago in the very early hours of the morning, and the way Cherry and the others had ardently welcomed her back, did much to heal the break between them. Mayumi turns her hand and grasps Cherry’s fingers, looking into her elder’s eyes, and nods, then picks up the squat, thick glasses and carries them to Lyria on the other side of the room.

The goddess has a delicious salad before her, and laughs as one of the younger Bunnies filches a sprig of broccoli from it while dashing past. “Chime…” Mayumi warns. “Eat your own salad, now.”

Lyria receives a cocktail with a quiet word of appreciation, takes a sip, and closes her eyes in pleasure. After a moment she says, “Oh my…that is good.”

Mayumi takes a sip and nods. “Cherry says she is developing a signature drink for the bar. I think she has it right, but knowing her she will be harder to satisfy than anyone. She may be experimenting with it for months.” She puts it down after another sip. “That…is good. But stronger than what I would wish to drink for lunch, before going on duty.”

Lyria takes another mouthful and considers. “Vermouth, bourbon, a dash of bitters… Yes, it is quite strong.” She glances around the bar. Kori, Chime, and Tulip are chasing each other, dashing about faster than any human child could, literally bouncing off the walls, turning in mid-spring to hit the wall with their feet and push off to the next leap. Cherry is disappearing into the kitchen to prepare more vegetarian dishes, and Sage is seated at the bar, listening to a tall, athletic-looking Guardia Popula with a long plait of curly hair down her back as she describes the arrest she has recently returned from. “Who is that young woman Sage is speaking with?”

“Aliyah. Corporal – sorry, Constable Kaur. She is a good friend to us all,” Mayumi replies, “but she is especially close to Sage.” She smiles as she watches them chat, Aliyah suddenly stammering and blushing, Sage keeping his cool but clearly attracted to her as well.

“It doesn’t bother you?”

Lyria’s question makes Mayumi blink and look at the goddess. “What?”

“That.” Lyria is watching Sage and Aliyah as well. “And that.” She gestures with her chin at Merri and Geryon. She looks at Mayumi curiously. “No jealousy? I saw the way Sage was holding you this morning. And the way you were holding Merri.”

Mayumi shakes her head. “No. It’s not like that. We don’t…grasp at each other. Don’t possess each other.” She frowns. “We know, no matter what, no matter how many others we love or what disagreements we may have, we are always there for each other.”

Lyria smiles. “Fascinating. Beautiful inside and out. But you look troubled, little one.”

Mayumi sighs. She looks into Lyria’s beautiful, maternal face, so warm and inviting. She feels such a sense of connection, of trust. She remembers talks with this same woman, when she was a teenager in her dreamtime, sitting with her sometime-substitute teacher, pouring her heart out to her, hair and face different but unmistakably the same person.

“I…am,” Mayumi admits.

“Will you tell me what troubles you?” Lyria’s voice is low and gentle.

Mayumi pauses to gather her thoughts. “I don’t know how much you remember of the times you visited me in my dreams. Much of it is hazy for me as well, but…my father there was Guardia, an inspector, and he taught me to always uphold the law, regardless of personal considerations.” She pauses again, and takes a deep breath before continuing. “And what Alma did…I know she did it to protect us. Perhaps it was even justified in a moral sense, and in a practical sense. But it was against the law. Wasn’t it?”

Lyria looks back at her, her eyes sympathetic. “Little one, what is the law?”

Dreamtime memories of her Guardia Academy oral exams come flooding back, and she says, “It is a code laid down over millennia, argued over, amended, tried and tested, and it is the duty of the Guardia to uphold and enforce it.”

“And who makes the law?”

“In days past, it was kings, pharaohs, tyrants, emperors. These days it is the Senate, the Comita Tributa, and the Council of Archons, with the Courts Dei and Popula interpreting them.”

Lyria nods, seeming to fall back into the role of teacher that she played in Mayumi’s dreams. “Gods and mortals, then.”

“Yes. Mostly gods.”

“And what is the law written for?”

“So that all we have will not fall into chaos.” Mayumi’s answers come swiftly, formally.

“To protect and serve the people who write it and, sometimes, those it is written for, wouldn’t you say?”

Mayumi pauses to consider. “Yes.”

Lyria reaches out and strokes Mayumi’s jawline. “Has the law served you, May? Has it protected you?”

Mayumi looks up at the mother of her creator, wanting to say yes. But she glances away, her ears fold down, and she says, “No. No it hasn’t.”

Cradling Mayumi’s cheek in her palm, Lyria asks softly, “For as much as you uphold it, has its blind hand kept you from harm?”

Mayumi shakes her head in silent answer. Lyria slips her hand under Mayumi’s chin and gently raises her face, gazing into the Bunny’s eyes. “Even the law has its blind spots, little one. And when the law fails, other values rise.”

“But…but if we break the law, if Guardia break the law,” Mayumi protests, “it will all fall apart!”

“May…did your father never arrest a youth for committing a first crime and then, after a stern lecture, look to the side and let him go?”

Mayumi remembers three classmates. “I…yes, but…”

“We all, even Guardia, must decide which laws to uphold, which to enforce. The code of law fills entire libraries. None but the greatest gods of Law can hope to contain the whole of it in their minds. It is a labyrinth that no mortal or even lesser god could possibly navigate in complete safety. There are so many laws, and so convoluted and obscure, that we could be violating laws every day, every hour without realizing. And this is done on purpose, little one. So that only those at the top are truly protected by the law, and so those at the top can use it as a weapon against everyone below.”

“But…” Mayumi feels all she knows, all she is, cracking from repeated blows. First Alma’s action, saving her and her family. Then Sky’s words defending Alma just hours ago. And now Lyria.

“When your father released those petty criminals, knowing it was the right thing to do, was he following the Curia’s law, or his own?”

Mayumi finds it very difficult to say the words. “He…was making his own decision in how to apply it.” She sighs, and sits back, slipping her face from Lyria’s hand. She feels empty. “I had forgotten that he did those things. That his words did not always match his actions.” She shakes her head. “It’s hard to remember. The dreams slip away, fading more and more.”

“You are finding your place in this world. The details will fade. What is important will remain.” Lyria pauses to take another sip of her cocktail. “And perhaps you will remember something he said: ‘If you judge a petty thief as you would judge a bank robber, the first will rot in jail for all the money the second stole’.”

Mayumi nods. “I had…constructed a memory of him. One that is far from complete.” She looks up suddenly. “Do you know him? Here in the waking world? Do you know where he lives? Today, meeting you here, changed but the same – I must find him! I need to know him as he really is.”

“I do not know him. But I can.” Lyria closes her eyes, and a smell of spring blossoms and a faint sound of birds singing fills the air. Whatever she is doing takes only a moment. Her eyes open and she says with a smile, “His old station was replaced and renamed. That is why you could not find him. He lives in Sawara-machi, in the Third Ring. His name is Sueyoshi Ishijima.”

Mayumi gasps. The name unlocks memories she had thought lost, and for a moment they overwhelm her. She had never called him by his name, of course: to her, he was always Otō-san – father – or, after she became Guardia under his command, Keibu, Inspector, while on the job. But she heard friends call him Sueyoshi, or more often Ishijima-san, or Ishijima-kun, depending on the level of familiarity. And she was herself Mayumi Ishijima. She had a family name: Stone Island.

And she remembers more of him. His kindness. His strictness. His laughter. His sudden explosive anger, but also how he never once hurt her, how he only ever wanted the best for her. His gratitude to whatever fate or chance or gods had sent her to him, a lonely, childless man.

She hears Lyria’s musical laughter in her ear, and realizes she is cheek to cheek with the goddess, her arms around Lyria’s neck, holding her tightly in gratitude without even realizing it. She awkwardly lets go, steps back. “I-I’m sorry! But…I knew he was real! I knew he was alive!”

“He is,” Lyria says, her hands on Mayumi’s waist. “But he is not quite as you remember him. Dream selves and waking selves often differ.”

Mayumi nods. “I cannot go to him now.” She looks over her shoulder at the other Bunnies. Sage is bidding Aliyah farewell. The Constable glances around and takes a breath and suddenly hugs him, closing her eyes. Sage smiles and embraces her, the top of his head only reaching the tall, muscular woman’s chin, and that only because she’s lifted him from the floor, a handspan of air under his feet. Mayumi can feel the need from Aliyah, the desire to kiss Sage. You should do it, she thinks at Aliyah. He is a wonderful kisser. He gives all of himself with every kiss.

On the sofa, Cherry is perched on the edge, leaning back against Geryon’s side, as if he is a comfortable pillow. One of her arms circles his neck and is pulling his head close to hers, and she’s grinning and joking with him, her head craned back, making him laugh as he eyes the front of her blouse, looking down it, and Mayumi is sure Cherry knows. Merri has moved behind the bar and is bringing a bottle of beer for Geryon. Mayumi wonders briefly why she didn’t pour it into a mug as usual, but then she realizes, The beak, of course. Easier to pour beer into his mouth from a bottle than from a mug.

The three younger Bunnies are nowhere to be seen, and she realizes she should go find them. The trouble they get up to.

She looks back at Lyria, who is smiling at her, eyes bright. “What will you do now, little one?”

“My job,” Mayumi says. “My family needs me. And I them. We need to stay together, until Alma returns.”

Lyria gazes at Mayumi with an affection that seems to surprise them both. She caresses the Bunny’s black-furred ears. “Who could guess that my daughter would create the most beautiful, fascinating creatures I have ever seen? And out of all the things she could have given them, she gave them her heart.”

Mayumi smiles, then slips away and goes to the sofa, touching Merri’s arm and then kneeling before Cherry, who looks at her in surprise. Mayumi reaches out and takes Cherry’s hands, and pulls her forward a little, so that Cherry slips off the sofa to kneel smoothly with Mayumi, their knees intersecting.

Mayumi takes Cherry’s face in her hands and places her forehead against Cherry’s, pressing their noses together. She keeps her eyes open, looking into Cherry’s big brown eyes, wide with wonder at Mayumi’s actions.

“Cher,” Mayumi says, low, her voice quivering. “I was wrong. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Cherry’s eyes fill with tears. “Aw, May…” The darker Bunny pulls Mayumi to her full, soft lips, kissing her, and moments later Mayumi feels Merri’s arms around them both, and then Sage’s, and Mayumi finds herself crying yet again and starts laughing because This is really getting ridiculous – in these few weeks I’ve cried more than in the rest of my life! and she pulls back even though she really wants to kiss Cherry more, kiss all of them, but she clears her throat and demands, “All right, where are those scoundrels? Tulip? Chime? Kori?”

There is a crash from upstairs, like fourteen metal pans and a large rusty spring being dropped. “Everything’s fine!” Kori’s voice rings out from the stairwell. “Don’t come up here!”

Mayumi groans and stands, extricating herself from the loving crowd of now-laughing Bunnies. As she heads for the stairs, though, she thinks of how happy she is. And yet, there is something there: the cracks in her foundation, the loss of her certainty. But she pushes it from her mind. There are more important things now.

Ch5.21 Shards

“Lady Lyria!”

Sky’s voice on entering causes the entire station to freeze. Not that there are many Guardia in the station – most are either catching much-needed rest or out on patrol. But a few must always be around in case a member of the public comes in with an emergency, or even simply to make sure that Three Rats Station doesn’t get attacked by these Shards of the former Dukaine crime empire. Or, as at the moment, they were out dealing with said Shards along with their Inspector, now returning, a wounded moaning prisoner in tow and a large sheet-wrapped body over Sky’s shoulder, accompanied by Corporal Lamore, Constable Kaur, and two newly deputized Reserve Probationary Constable Guardia Dei: Kyri, looking every one of her modest collection of inches the glorious-but-diminutive battle-battered Valkyrie, and Brew, looking every inch (and with considerably more of them in every direction) the slightly befuddled friendly drunk, his expression eloquently conveying the sense of How did I get here and when can I leave?

But those few who are here – the perpetually clumsy Longshot, burly Silva, young Patel – are gathered around a presence who fills the room with a vital energy that the run-down place never sees.

Three Rats Station is home to three gods, and it does receive visits from a few others, but the less-ostentatious nature of most of these makes it easy for the mortals who work there to forget what a god really is. Inspector Sky may be quite tall and in anger his dark face might sometimes bloom with writhing, oil-black tattoos, but as he rarely displays his divine powers this is seen more as a mere quirk. And Sergeant Gwydion is even more circumspect about revealing his immortal nature without need, eschewing vulgar exhibitions. Of the three, Sergeant Alma is, in her unearthly pale beauty, the most obviously divine, yet even there the mortals have, for the most part, adjusted to it. Though the sight of her causes not a few mortal hearts to race, this is tempered by the knowledge that, as a goddess of the Death Clan, she can cause those hearts to stop forevermore with but a glance. Or at least, so goes the rumor.

But this early morning, as dawn claws its way between the crooked buildings, Three Rats Station is receiving a visit from one who has no reason to hide her light. The mother of the aforementioned Alma, she is a goddess of Life, and concealing that is alien to her nature. As she leans against the reception desk, surrounded by junior Guardia, receiving a mug of steaming coffee and an entranced smile from Doctor Nataniel, she fills the atmosphere with an almost audible hum, a palpable vibrato of life. The wilting jade plant on Corporal Lamore’s desk is perking up and sprouting white flowers for the first time, and the cactus in the corner that was going brown from some disease looks fully recovered and is even bearing a small clutch of prickly red fruit.

But nothing in the room looks as alive as Lyria, Herald of Spring, Lady of Life. She smiles to see Sky, placing her coffee on the desk, and steps to greet him, her smile dimming with concern. “Hello, little one. Oh my – you look exhausted.” Ignoring the corpse on his shoulder, she reaches up and strokes his cheek, filling the air with an even more intense manifestation of her power.

Sky closes his eyes as his exhaustion from many consecutive sleepless nights and stress from running the station without his Dei sergeants fades away, the expression on his face one of such pure pleasure that everyone present, from constable to criminal, mortal to deity, sighs in envy, wishing that this avatar of the very principle of Life itself would touch them the way Sky is being touched, body and soul, at that moment.

Sky’s eyes flutter open, bright with unshed tears, and he draws a shaky breath to regain his composure. Still, he cannot help but look down at Lyria in adoration, and she returns his gaze with amused maternal warmth. Her hand still resting along his jawline, she says, “There is something I would like to discuss with you, little one.” This pet name she uses for the Inspector does not seem so absurd to the onlookers, for though he towers over her, it is clear who is the more powerful entity in the room.

“Uh…please, shall we talk in my office? Corporal! Help our new deputies get the prisoner sorted. And…Eater of Frogs’ body.” He looks grim. “I’ll be back in a moment.”

To the station in general, Lyria says, “Thank you for your kindness,” and a round of shy murmurs along the lines of “Oh, it was nothin’” and “De nada, senhora” breaks out as she slides her hand down Sky’s shoulder and arm, to take his elbow, and says, “Please, do lead the way.”

Escorting her to a chair in his office and quietly shutting the door, Sky asks, “Would you like some tea? Though it seems like you were being well taken care of out there.” Still riding the high of Lyria’s healing, he cannot help but grin to have her here.

Lyria chuckles. “Oh yes, you have some lovely people working here.” Her chuckle transforms into an amused, lyrical giggle as he fills the kettle to boil some water. “But Sky, if I drink anything else, I fear I will soon sprout a leak. I do hate to pass on your hospitality, though.”

“Oh I thoroughly understand. I could use a mug myself, though, if you don’t mind.”

Her voice tinged with concern, the goddess says, “You do seem to have been through quite a battle. Is it always this way, my dear young friend?”

“I’m afraid things are worse all around the Fourth Ring, Lady.” Sky’s voice turns dark as he removes his armored Guardia coat and hangs it up along with his truncheon and sword, then proceeds with the calming ritual of making tea. “But with help from some friends, we may be turning things around.” He smiles and sits carefully in the other, older chair for guests, his knees almost touching hers. “It is so good to see you again. What brings you here?”

“Well, little one, I must say I would rather be here with my daughter present but it does seem that this won’t be possible for awhile still. I hear the Council is taking its time with inquiries…”

“Have you been to see her at Math’s?” Sky inquires.

Lyria glances down. “Not yet, I am afraid. It is so difficult to know what would help her case or not… The whole family stands much to lose from such a scandal. And after the Anubi, we really can’t afford another one.”

Sky nods in sympathy, but his voice has an edge of bitterness at the thought that politics can drive a wedge between family. “I understand. I saw her a few days ago. She is well. Worried, but well.”

Lyria nods and smiles warmly. “I am glad to hear that. Alma is a strong girl, that much I know. And, from what I hear, she is not alone in her struggles.”

“No, she is not. Sergeant Gwydion is with her. They seem to have become good friends.”

Lyria touches Sky’s knee, catching his eye with a knowing glint in her hers. “Friends are a good thing to have when one is alone. And how about you, forgotten in this wretched place? How are you faring?”

The god smiles. “As you said, I have good people here. And not just in the station. In the midst of this crisis, people show their true colors, and those who wish to pull together and stand against chaos outnumber those who take advantage of it. Still, I must admit I sorely miss my sergeants.”

“If all goes well, Sky, your friends should be returned to you soon enough. In the meantime, I have a favor to ask of you, if you don’t find it too taxing.”

“If it is within my powers, Lady, I will do anything to assist you.”

Lyria puts her hands together in joy. “Lovely! You see, little one…” She pauses, closes her eyes, and takes a breath. Sky is astonished that she seems to be, for a moment, shy. But then she opens her eyes and states, “I wish to meet Alma’s children. I was never allowed to see them, after all.”

Shocked, Sky stammers, “I…I had no idea. Since you were able to enter Alma’s home, I just assumed… Well, we shall have to rectify this immediately.” He sets his tea aside and stands. “Would you mind waiting a few minutes, however? I must make sure the prisoner is secured, or I would be remiss in my duties.”

She leans back in the chair with a laugh. “Oh, Sky, I am immortal. Time is all I have.”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

As Sky leads Lyria down the stairs in the station’s annex, he explains, “If it were later in the morning, we’d probably find some of them upstairs in the bar.”

Lyria looks confused. “Why would they be in the bar? They are children.”

Sky chuckles. “Some of them are. As far as I can tell, they’ve aged at the same rate as humans do, while they were in their dream state. Rosemary and Cherry actually run the bar. They are business owners, technically renting the space from the Guardia for a nominal fee. They’re quite savvy about it, too. You’ll see.”

He knocks on the door to Alma’s apartment. There is a scurrying sound and then a high-pitched voice from the other side. “Who is it?”

“It’s me, Tulip,” Sky says, “with a friend.”

“Uhm… Wait a minute. I’ll ask if friends can come.” There is more scurrying, and a loud whisper of, “Hey, wake up!” followed by sleepy moans.

“Tulip is the youngest,” Sky mentions to Lyria. “Thirteen, I think? She acts a bit younger, though. She’s just learned her name and started talking, after all.”

“She speaks well for someone who has just started,” Lyria says. She squeezes Sky’s hand nervously.

He returns the squeeze, reassuring her. “Oh she’s making up for lost time lately. She…mentions Sergeant Gwydion quite often. Asking when she will see him again.” He chuckles.

The door opens and a young, slender girl pokes her head out. Lydia gasps, and Sky realizes why, as the child, with her straight white hair, pale skin, and deep-blue eyes, resembles her creator Alma so closely. This must be what Alma looked like at that age, he thinks. Well, except for the ears of course. She is wearing a simple cotton nightgown, almost ankle-length, adorned with small bows and edged with lace. Its Guardia-blue color indicates it was probably made by Sage and his partners in tailoring, Corporal Lamore and Constable Kaur, from old, worn-out uniforms, like much of their clothing is.

Tulip looks up at Sky cautiously. “Cherry said to ask if your friend has a fever.”

From inside, Cherry’s voice rings out, “That ain’t what I said!”

Sky chuckles and replies, “I…don’t believe she does.”

Tulips shouts into the room, “Sky says his friend isn’t hot!”

“Too bad!” comes Cherry’s voice. “Let ’em in anyhow!”

Though all this was clearly audible, Tulip demonstrates her lack of confidence in humans’ paltry excuses for ears by, as she often does, nearly shouting, “They say you can come in anyway!”

Sky steps in as Tulip pulls the door wider, and is not surprised to see the other six Bunnies lying jumbled across Alma’s large bed, limbs intertwined, just beginning to untangle themselves and sit up. Mayumi, who had until moments before been cradled from behind in Sage’s arms, and with her own arms around Rosemary, gives Merri a kiss before releasing her and reaching for a random shirt to pull on. Cherry giggles and throws a pair of shorts at Chime, and strokes Kori’s hair out of his eyes.

“Come on, people, put on some clothes!” she says. “Don’t wanna make Inspector Sky blush, do ya?” She winks at Sky and, grinning broadly, makes no move to cover her own dark, curvaceous form until she sees that he has politely looked away, heat blooming in his cheeks, and then her pretty yet braying laugh breaks out and she pulls a blanket around her bare shoulders.

Then Merri’s gasp catches Cherry’s attention and she falls silent along with all the other Bunnies.

Merri is standing on the bed, paused in the process of pulling on a pair of shorts, her furry tail still not pushed through the little hole at the back. She’s staring open-mouthed in stunned silence at Lyria, her freckled face and upper chest flushed. Sky notes that Sage, Mayumi, and now Cherry are all equally frozen and fascinated by the sight of the newcomer, while Kori, Chime, and Tulip – all Bunnies who woke up from their “animal” stage much more recently – are looking at their elders in confusion.

And then Merri leaps, in a single bound landing next to Sky and throwing her arms around Lyria’s waist, hugging her tightly and squealing in wordless delight. Right behind her is Cherry, the blanket left fluttering to the floor as she also embraces Lyria, and moments afterward Mayumi and Sage join them.

Lyria laughs in pure joy, her voice echoing in harmony with the fountain in the middle of the room. She puts her arms around the four Bunnies who are mobbing her and says, “Hello, little ones. Do you know who I am?”

Merri looks up, tears in her green eyes. “Ye… We thought… It was just a… Ye were nae but a dream?”

Lyria pets Merri’s red hair, runs her fingers along her soft russet-furred ears, while her other hand strokes Sage’s lustrous deep-brown cheek as he gazes up at her smiling as if at an old friend. Speaking softly to herself, she murmurs, “You are all so perfect, so beautiful. What a work of art, Alma…”

Mayumi steps back, looking at Lyria in wonder. “You were my substitute teacher, sometimes. I…I can’t remember it well, but you always talked to me when I needed it.”

Cherry still holds Lyria tightly, her face pressed against the goddess’ bosom. “You were there, when we woke up to our names. You led us to that bar…where we found jobs cleanin’.”

Lyria glances meaningfully at Sky, who shakes off his surprise at all this and says, “Everyone, this is the Lady Lyria, Herald of Spring, Lady of Life. She is the wife of Senator Death, and mother of Alma.”

Merri gasps, “Alma’s mother! Why…that would make ye our grandmama – in a manner o’ speakin’!”

Cherry continues to hold Lyria tightly and simply murmurs, “I knew you were real, I knew it, I knew it…”

Lyria strokes Cherry’s sable curls. “I am real, yes. And I am very glad that Alma has managed to keep you all safe and sound. You are, without a doubt, her greatest creations and I have wanted to meet you for…so long.” Her voice nearly chokes on the final words as her emotions threaten to overwhelm her voice.

Mayumi gently grasps Lyria’s wrist and draws her toward the bed, whispering in Cherry’s ear to convince her to release the goddess. Showing Lyria where to sit, Mayumi asks, “How did you enter our dreams? And…why?”

Tulip, Kori, and Chime sit around Lyria, still looking at her curiously but without the recognition that the others are evincing. Kori leans against Chime and whispers, “What’s going on?” Chime holds his hands up casually and shrugs in return.

To Mayumi, Lyria says, “I don’t know, little one. To me, you were just a dream yourself. What a lovely coincidence, no? That we should dream of each other?” She smiles and winks.

Mayumi looks at her skeptically, but nods as if to say, Very well. For now.

Kori taps Lyria on the shoulder. “Hey, if you’re Mom’s mom, can you tell us how she is?”

Lyria sighs, “I haven’t seen her in some time, little one, but I hear she is being treated well at Math’s estate. Maybe I should pay her a visit so that I can give you better news, what do you think?”

Tulip climbs onto Lyria’s lap and looks at her pleadingly. “Could you check on Dion too, please? He’s there too and they won’t let me see him.” Her words prompt the others to variously roll their eyes, sigh, chuckle, giggle, or a combination of the above.

Lyria holds Tulip and, ignoring the others’ reactions, says, “Of course, dear. You care for him, do you?”

Tulip looks embarrassed. “Well… Uhm… Maybe… A little bit?”

Kori snorts. “More like a lot!”

Tulip blushes bright red.

Lyria chuckles. “Very well, Tulip, I will let him know you miss him.”

“Tuli loves Dion! Tuli loves…” sings Chime, mockingly before Sage cuts him off, saying “Don’t be mean.”

“And what is your name, dear?” Lyria asks the older Bunny. “Those dreams…it is difficult to remember some details.”

“I am Sage. And these two…young gentlemen are Kori and Chime.” He pauses and looks thoughtful. “Perhaps you were not in their dreams, or in dreams they can remember. They and Tulip awakened after we all entered this real world.”

“All worlds are real, little one, one way or another. And what about my beautiful granddaughters?”

Mayumi straightens and bows, palms on the front of her thighs. “I am Mayumi. It is a pleasure to meet you in this form. Though…” She blushes very slightly. “I thought you looked very nice with black hair, when I knew you before.”

“Och, she had lovely auburn hair when we knew ’er.” Merri says, sitting at Lyria’s feet and buttoning up a blouse that she has fetched. Cherry sits on the other side, laying her head on Lyria’s thigh, looking at her with adoration. “This here is Cherry, and I’m Rosemary, but everybody calls me Merri. Or Rose. Or ‘Hey, carrot-top!’”

Lyria looks utterly blissful. “Well, it truly is a pleasure to meet you all.” She looks at Sky, who has been edging toward the door. “Thank you, little soul,” she says gratefully, prompting giggles from Merri and Cherry at the affectionate diminutive.
Sky looks relieved to be given the hint to depart. “I shall take my leave, and let all of you spend as much time together as you would like. If you need me, I’ll be in the station. Or if I’m called away, Corporal Lamore can help you.” With a smile at all, and a lingering shared glance with Mayumi, happy to see her smiling once again among her family, he slips out the door.