Ch6 mid-chapter 3: Cheapshirt

“The wrong dormitory?”

“That’s what I said.” The instructor, a woman with a jaw shaped like a brick that’s been dropped a few times, holds up the key that was assigned to Mayumi. It is larger, heavier, and considerably more elaborate than the one in her other hand. “This here is a Dei dorm key. The Popula keys are these little ones, see?” She hands Mayumi’s key back to her. “You’re in the Dei dorm.”

“But…” Mayumi’s ears droop back in confusion. “I’m Popula!”

“No, that’s not…” The woman pauses and takes a file off her desk. “Ishijima…Ishijima. Yeah, here it is. You’re in Dei 204.” She glances at the folded uniform under Mayumi’s arm. “I guess they gave you a Popula uniform by mistake. What’re you, kinda borderline-mortal/immortal?” She says it with a kind tone.

Mayumi shakes her head. “Not at all. And…” She rummages through the file she was given at the third registration checkpoint. “Here. It says I’m Popula.”

“Huh. Would you look at that?” The woman looks more closely. “Oh… Says here your mother is a Dei Sergeant. Is that right?”

“Yes.” Mayumi remembers how her heart had pounded with joy, seeing that on the form. Though it was only a passing notation on a registration form, it was an official form, declaring that Alma is her mother. Not the creator of some quasi-illegal artificial life form, but her mother. Who was responsible for that? Sky? Someone higher up the chain? Perhaps Ewá Nanã, the Voice, the lawyer who had saved her mother and Gwydion and all the Bunnies, had pulled it off.

“And you father’s Popula. Well then you’re some kind of demi,” the woman says, handing it back to Mayumi. “Anyway, you’re assigned what you’re assigned. And today is bonkers for everyone. Just go to your room for now, drop off your stuff, take a shower, and put on that uniform. Get some food in you. Induction ceremony is in two hours. You can get it sorted out tomorrow.” The voice continues to be kind, but also final. She clearly has a hundred other things to take care of today.

“Yes, Instructor Hasral. Thank you very much for your help!” Mayumi bows slightly out of habit, then gets out of the woman’s hair. She certainly doesn’t want to try to explain how her mother and her father hadn’t even met until yesterday.

The walk across campus is a long one. The Academy is divided into two halves, one for Dei, the immortals, near-immortals, and magically powerful members of the Guardia, and one for the Popula, the mortals of various species with little or no natural magical ability, the largest group of whom is the humans. There are numerous other species on the Insula, but humans seem to dominate, at least in the wards Mayumi has known, and certainly here at the Academy. And there are far more Popula than Dei at the Academy, but their training halls and dormitories are of roughly equal size. There is always talk about how mortals are as necessary to the working of the Urbis Caelestis as immortals are, but the immortals always get the nicer things.

It occurs to Mayumi that if she’s assigned to live in the Dei dorms due to some misunderstanding about her parentage, she still has all her classes on the Popula side of the campus. She pauses and checks her course schedule to make sure. Yes, she’s definitely taking Popula courses, she’s relieved to see. If she’d been put into Dei courses – well, thank goodness she wasn’t. She imagines there might be some coursework that could be fatal to a mortal.

But this does mean that, until the mistake is fixed and she is moved to the Popula dorms, she’s going to have to get up earlier to run across campus. Nearing the gloriously arched and crenellated Dei dormitory, which makes her think of an ancient fortress, she looks back toward the Popula buildings far in the distance across exercise fields and obstacle courses on which some eager newcomers are already testing themselves. She estimates ten minutes should be plenty of time. She can probably run it, flat out, in three. Being a Bunny means being fast. But ten minutes’ less sleep is a small price to pay for showing up looking calm and collected and free of sweat.

And surely it’ll only be for a day or two.

She enters the huge hallway, luxuriously decorated with paintings and sculptures, the wide marble floor lined with velvet sofas and leather chairs. Just this hallway has more luxury in it than is probably spread through the entirety of the Popula dormitories. Voices whisper from two goddesses, twins, it seems, with strange braids that float in the air like serpents, consulting their keys and then ascending one of the curving staircases.

Feeling tiny in the enormous hall, Mayumi follows them. From the number, she assumes her room is two floors above the ground floor, at least if they do things as in Three Rats, which there is no way of telling. Why should they? Perhaps she has the entire two-hundred-fourth floor to herself? Not that the place looks anywhere near that tall, but these are the Dei dorms. There could be a thousand extra-dimensional palaces crammed in here, for all she knows. Maybe every room comes with a celestial lion as a servant. Maybe she’ll be sharing a room with a storm god who keeps a typhoon going all the time. Mayumi nervously ascends the steps.

Fortunately, Room 204 does turn out to be on the second floor, two floors above the ground floor to be precise, just like they count floors in Three Rats. That touch of the familiar helps more than she wants to admit, because Room 204 is nowhere near room 203, which is nowhere near 205. She finds 204 down at the end of a hallway that features room numbers 213, 280, and 237.

Wondering what strange logic might have prompted such a random numbering scheme, she fits her key into the lock and turns it. The door opens with barely a sound – good. Assuming she has a roommate, they will be able to go in and out without disturbing each other much.

The room is dim, but brightens slowly as she enters. The increase in illumination stops just as it reaches Mayumi’s comfort level, she notices, slightly dimmer than most humans prefer. Will it get brighter when I need to read? she wonders. She looks around. The room is enormous by her standards. It is roughly as big as her mother’s divine sanctum, though lacking a huge bed, a fountain/bath the size of a small swimming pool, and a garden’s worth of plants, this room feels much bigger. There is a bunk bed in one corner, odd seeing as how there would be plenty of space to split the room into a suite with separate bedrooms. Also odd is the fact that the lower bunk bed is twice as wide as the upper one, a king-size versus a somewhat wide twin. The twin is supported by three posts, and a beam that goes from its un-posted corner diagonally to the bottom bed’s post. That lower bed could sleep three humans easily, or five Bunnies. But some gods are quite large, Mayumi knows. Perhaps that is why.

In the opposite corner is a pair of desks, each of which is bigger than the biggest one at Three Rats Station – which happens to be the one Mayumi often worked at, in the basement, taking care of Records. One of the desks has a tray on it with a covered plate, from which she can smell meat and vegetables, and something sweet. Another corner holds a little kitchen nook, and the fourth has a doorway that appears to be to a bath – which makes the apartment even bigger.

Scattered about the floor, just to break it up and make it not immediately suitable for holding a modest-sized dance party, are several old, comfortable-looking pieces of furniture. The walls above the desks feature large built-in bookshelves, which are roughly two-thirds full of a hodgepodge collection. Curious, Mayumi sets down her folder and uniform and pulls one tome out at random, and sees it has a title in Old High Urbia, or at least in the script, which she recognizes but cannot read. Well, maybe – it could be a related script. Anyway, she has never learned it except for words like “forbidden.” It is a language used only by gods and wizards and priests, and it is best for mortals like her not to mess with it. She quickly puts the book back.

She realizes then that she still has her duffel bag over her shoulder. She walks over to the beds, and it is then that she senses someone else in the room with her. She’s not sure what it is – perhaps her keen hearing is barely catching the sensation of a heartbeat – but she knows someone is there.

“Hello?”

A high-pitched voice rings out. “Don’t you even look at the top bunk! That’s mine!” It makes Mayumi think of a seven-year-old girl who has been smoking cigars for ten years.

“Oh… That’s all right,” Mayumi says, looking around the beds and seeing nothing. “I’m Mayumi.” She starts to wonder if she is dealing with an invisible god.

“Good for you, Rabbit Ears.”

Mayumi closes her eyes at that. Name calling… she thinks to herself, but she suppresses her displeasure. She experienced plenty of bullying her first time at the Academy, in her dream life, and she has already experienced some today. And now her roommate. She slips her duffel bag from her shoulder and lets it fall heavily to the floor beside the bed, and asks, “Is there something I should call you?”

The reply is not at all what she expected. “AAARRGHHH! MY STUFF! YOU ALMOST CRUSHED MY STUFF!”

Mayumi freezes, her ears slapping flat back against her head and neck to muffle the angry high-pitched squeal. She doesn’t want to move, afraid she’s going to destroy some other invisible thing. An image of a news-sheet headline flashes in her imagination:

BUNNY CADET ACCIDENTALLY MURDERS DEI ROOMMATE ON FIRST DAY AT ACADEMY! IS THE PROPHECY TRUE??

“What…what stuff?” she asks.

The voice comes up right near her head, making Mayumi flinch. “MY STUFF! ON THE FLOOR RIGHT THERE! RIGHT UNDER YOUR STUPID BAG! WHY WOULD YOU CRUSH MY STUFF?!” There is still no visible sign of her roommate, but Mayumi can feel a sort of shimmer in the air, a vibration, like a silent hum.

“But you said I almost–” Hunching, Mayumi carefully lifts her bag, looking down to see a satchel made of what looks like colorful autumn leaves stitched together, sitting beside where her bag was. Though small, it is easily big enough that the Bunny should have seen it, but its coloration blends into the carpet pattern. “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t see it. But look, I don’t think I crushed it at all.”

There is a soft thump of impact against Mayumi’s bag. Did she just kick my bag? Seriously? the Bunny thinks in astonishment.

Quieter now, but dripping with threat, the high-pitched voice says, “Consider yourself lucky, Princess Fluffy Tail.”

Mayumi exhales and very, very carefully sets her bag back down. It has been a long, emotional day, and the name-calling isn’t showing any sign of stopping. And now a threat. But she controls herself. “Well I seem to have three names now, and you still have none.”

“‘Course I got a name.” The voice drifts back toward Mayumi’s face, and now there is a flare of purple light. “You just don’t know it. What are you, anyways?”

That is just about enough. Mayumi’s voice takes on an edge. “Is there some rule that I must ask for your name three times, or something? Or is it just a secret?”

“Man, you really don’t know anything from nothing, do you? Names aren’t something you just hand over for no price. Names got power. Know someone’s name, you can do all sorts of things with it. You’re not a goddess, are you?”

Squinting at the light, trying to make out what it is, Mayumi states, “No, I am not. I’m a Bunny. And I’m mortal.”

The light winks out, to reveal a tiny creature about as tall as Mayumi’s knee, sitting at the edge of the top bunk. Her skin is dark purple with crimson lines on a wide forehead. Her head is almost too big for her thin neck, and she has huge eyes that take up much more space, relatively, than a Bunny’s, with two, no three concentric irises in lilac and pink tones. The crimson lips bear a sardonic look that is too jaded for anyone so small and, well, cute. Her hair is just a short pinkish fuzz except for a frizzy top-ponytail that hangs to one side. Her limbs are as thin as the rest of her body – shockingly thin, looking far weaker than Mayumi assumes she must be – which is clad in a sleeveless button-up white sweatshirt and matching high-cut shorts. The creature looks at her with ill-disguised curiosity, “The heck is a Bunny?”

Mayumi is relieved to finally have a face to look at. The resentment that has been building up, at the insults, the refusal to offer a name, the unnecessary shouting, the threat, largely dissipates. “Hello. It’s good to see you. Whatever your name is. Bunnies are the progeny of the goddess Alma, of the Death Clan. We…have long ears. Actually, we’re still figuring out what we are.”

The tiny Dei props an elbow on her thigh and her chin on a hand that seems far too small to hold up that huge head. “How come you’re mortal if your mom’s a goddess? She forget to do something while she was busy?”

“Um…I’m not sure, actually. We’re just mortal. But it seems the Academy was a bit confused, and so I was mistakenly assigned to the Dei dorms.”

“So you’re not a Dei-blue? Gonna be a cheapshirt?”

Mayumi narrows her eyes. “Cheapshirt?” Her voice is cold.

The little Dei shrugs. “You know, Popula. Bottom of the food chain.”

“Bottom,” Mayumi repeats, wishing she had misheard. “Of the food chain.” She feels sick to her stomach.

“Did something break inside a’you or–” The Dei stops, looking at Mayumi, and grins. “Oh Missy, you don’t wanna do it. You’re gonna get your cute lil’ self all bruised up, you do that…”

“Do what?” Mayumi is fighting to keep from raising her voice, but her tone is seething with fury. “Do you think I’m going to assault you simply for being arrogant and rude? I am not the one threatening her roommate with violence. Twice!”

The creature snorts. “Who said anything ‘bout violence? Look at me! Ever seen a pixie fight? Huh? Have you? Pixies don’t fight! We’re all peaceful. Big taboo, a fighting pixie. Teach little kids bad lessons, all that crap.”

Mayumi takes a breath. Different cultures. Misunderstandings. But… ‘cheapshirt!’ ‘Bottom of the food chain.’ Ugh! She takes another breath, willing away the anger. “Well I am glad to know something about you. And yes, I am meant to be Popula. Your fellow Guardia.”

“Well, huh-ray to me…” She rolls her huge eyes. “Sheesh… of all the roommates I could have gotten… You better not snore.”

Mayumi is silent for another three breaths. This just keeps getting worse. Reset. Start over. Her voice calm but strained, she says, “We seem to have gotten off to a bad start. As I asked before, is there something I should call you? You see, I actually do know some people are reluctant to share their names… so anything is fine.”

Her roommate looks at her in silence for a few appraising seconds, eyes narrow. “You try to write up a contract, it won’t work, you hear?”

Mayumi’s eyebrows rise in surprise, and it takes her a moment to understand. But she remembers some stories, and says, “I promise you, I would never attempt to bind you. And since I have no magical ability at all, I think you’re quite safe.”

Another high-pitched snort. “Yeah, tell that t’my uncle Borsi. Girl tells him all that, next thing he knows BAM! He’s hanging to a contract.”

“Did you just tell me your uncle’s name?” Mayumi feels a smile touch the corner of her mouth. Personal information!

Another suspicious stare. “That’s not his name. ‘S just what everyone calls him. Means ‘idiot’. Married 30 years now.”

“Well, I promise not to force you into marriage. Anyway, if you don’t want to give me a name, that’s all right. We probably won’t be roommates for more than a day or two anyway.” Mayumi gives up, turning away to sit on the edge of her spacious bed.

The raspy voice comes closer. “You planning on being a Pop with all that niceness in ya? Can’t even get a person to cough up their name?”

“I was unaware this was an interrogation.” Mayumi starts pulling some clothes out of her bag. “I’m afraid I do not have any handcuffs on me, either.” Her mouth twitches in a smile again.

“With my wrists? Yeah, good luck wi’ that.” She sighs. “Pari. Just to end your misery.”

Mayumi turns to smile quite friendly at Pari. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Pari. So, do you snore?”

In a growling voice, Pari replies, “I can put you to sleep so’s you won’t find out…”

Mayumi’s eyes widen. “Do you mean you can magically put me to sleep? That would be…useful. Is there any side effect?”

Pari raises a tiny fist. “Yeah, huge headache in the morning. Bruises. Maybe some missin’ teeth.”

Mayumi grimaces. Threats of violence are just a constant with her, then. Perhaps they don’t actually mean anything. “Have you eaten yet? I missed lunch.”

Pari jerks her head toward the tray. “That’s yours, then. I ate the pudding.”

“Thank you!” Mayumi crosses the room to the desk again and lifts the metal cover. She starts eating some salad even before sitting in the chair and turning it to face Pari.

“I didn’t bring it!” Pari cries as if accused of a crime. “They brought it over.”

“They bring your food to you in the Dei dorm?” Mayumi shakes her head at this luxury. “So…what is a pixie? If you don’t mind my asking.”

Pari’s jaw drops. “You mean you don’t freaking know?!”

Mayumi shakes her head. “I’ve heard the word. All I know is pixies are small and can fly.”

“Small? Small?!” Pari launches herself into the air, fists clenched, and drifts toward Mayumi. There are no wings, but just the same barely noticeable vibrato in the air as Mayumi noticed before. “Who you callin’ small, you free sample of human?!”

Mayumi holds up her hands. “Hey! Come on… I’m small compared to most people I know. At least you can fly. If something is on a high shelf, I have to get a ladder.”

Pari lands on the divan, crosses her arms and looks away haughtily. “Hmpf! Pixies are Fey-folk. Ya know, fairies and the sort? We don’t make wishes come true and we don’t teach kids to fly. Just… help out with nature and small critters and stuff. Some of us are good at other things. Kinda like everyone else. Like, Mam’s good with kitchens. Works at a restaurant sprinkling spices on stuff.”

Cautiously returning to munching on salad, Mayumi asks, “And do you have a specialty?”

“I get into fights a lot.” The matter-of-factness almost makes Mayumi laugh, but she stifles it because Pari seems to take offense just as often as she dishes it out.

“That,” Mayumi says instead, deadpan, “is not a surprise.” Then she considers herself, and remembers mistakes she has made. “I…well, I’ve had my own problems with that.”

“Meet a lotta scumbags too?” Pari asks.

“I have met some unsavory characters, yes. Some of them have tried to murder me and my family.” Dark memories flood in. Hellhounds, slavering for the blood of her and her siblings… Merri screaming. Nekh raising his hands to kill them.

Pari’s voice breaks through. “Uh? Why’d they try to kill you? You piss someone off?”

Mayumi shakes her head. “It was…a disagreement between gods. We were caught in the middle. We were…tokens on a board. Bottom of the food chain.” She looks up at Pari. “That’s part of the reason I want to be Guardia. I want to show that we’re more than that.”

“You the first in the family to join the Blues?” A little of the constant tone of antagonism seems to have disappeared from Pari’s voice.

“My mother is Dei. And my father is Popula. It’s…rather complicated.”

Pari suddenly straightens. “Dei… Wait… You said Alma? That Alma? Got her badge here some twenty years ago?”

“Um…yes?” Mayumi feels confused and worried that she has said something wrong, really wrong this time. She does not want to bring any kind of shame upon her mother.

But Pari starts laughing. “Oh man, you’re so lucky you’re a cheapshirt… This was her room!” She points to the door. Squinting from across the room, Mayumi can make out scratches in the lustrous, probably gasp-inducingly expensive wood of the door. “List over there, previous students who had this room. Carved on the door. Tradition here.”

Mayumi stands and goes to look. Name after name after name, in columns, many hundreds, two for every year. The Academy has a single six-month term every year. Six days to a week, six weeks to a month, ten months to a year. Two hundred sixteen days, minus a one-week break four months in, to train cadets using magically enhanced intensive methods, to prepare them for the incredibly diverse array of situations they will find themselves in, here in the Urbis Caelestis, the Celestial City. And there, twenty-four lines before the most recent pair, there is the name. ‘Alma’. And next to it, a name she does not know, ‘Pavia’.

Mayumi feels a chill. Why have I been assigned to the Dei dorms? Why my mother’s room? This cannot be a coincidence, can it? Aloud, she asks, “Why…why do you say I am lucky to be Popula?”

“Dei-blue that recruited me, he liked to tell stories from when he was a rookie here. Your mom was in some of them.” Pari chuckles. “My kinda goddess, you ask me. Pranks? Legendary.”

“Alma? Pranks?” Mayumi shakes her head. “It… That can’t be right.”

“Just do yourself a favor. You see old man Jutte, don’t tell him who you are. Now, you about done yet? There’s some kinda Induction thingy I’m supposed to be at. Byeeee!”

And with that, Pari takes wingless flight again, grabbing the doorknob and twisting her whole body to turn it.

The door slams behind her before Mayumi can say, “…goodbye.” She sighs. She glances at a timepiece on the desk – plenty of time for a shower before changing into her uniform for the Popula Induction, which, of course, comes after the Dei one.

Stood up to that martinet Pringle but couldn’t stand up to your roommate, she thinks as she undresses. She looks at her blouse, holding it before her. Like her skirt, it was handmade by Sage. Made with love, from surplus material. A cheap shirt.

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Ch6 mid-chapter 2: Mayumi Arrives at the Academy

What is a portal? It is a doorway from one place to a discontinuous elsewhere, sometimes even another reality altogether. Mayumi has forgotten how strange that is, because movement via portals is an everyday occurrence around her. Gwydion goes in and out of his sanctum multiple times a day, via a door that sometimes leads to the pantry, sometimes to his home. And the doorway to her mother’s sanctum – well, perhaps that is a portal too. Mayumi isn’t sure, exactly. The room, a lush combination of bedroom, garden, and bath, was her home for the first weeks in this waking world, and there is certainly something otherworldly about it. It is not fully in this reality, so perhaps she is moving through a magical portal every time she goes in and out.

She misses it terribly now. She tells herself to gaman, to endure. She was in it only a few hours ago, after all.

But these thoughts about portals are brought on by the very different nature of the ones she is traveling through now. Public portals, requiring tickets, impersonal and cold. Each one different in form, some soaring and complex, some basic arches of concrete inscribed with incomprehensible symbols. But each one is the same, as well. The are not the warm portals of home. And each one of them carries her further away.

And transferring from portal to portal to portal, and all along the way upslope, she can spot them. Cadets. Cadets for the Guardia Academy. Cadets like her.

Some of them are wearing their uniforms. She resists the urge to tell them to go into a washroom in one of the larger portal stations and change back into civilian clothes. One isn’t supposed to put on the uniform until Induction. They’ll be told that with an exasperated sigh when they arrive. Like a great many Academy rules, it’s not written down anywhere. You’re supposed to know that It Just Isn’t Done.

Mayumi feels guilty for not telling them. She has an unfair advantage. Her father and her mother are both Guardia, and not only that, she’s been through the Academy before. In a dream. A dreamworld in which she was a Guardia Popula officer for two years.

But she doesn’t tell them. She doesn’t want to stick her nose into their business. She doesn’t want to call attention to herself. She’s already attracting stares. It’s the ears. Her long, black-furred Bunny ears. The tail too, but that’s not quite as immediately noticeable with the long jacket she’s wearing. She is the first Bunny to go to the Academy. The only Bunny with permission to leave Three Rats Ward. The only Bunny within a month’s travel by foot, at this point, for she’s all the way in the Second Ring by now, and with the next portal jump, she’ll be in the First Ring. One jump after that and she’ll be at the Academy gates.

She feels very small. Very alone. She clenches her jaw against the urge to cry again.

She really, truly did not want to cry when she said goodbye to her siblings. Merri and Cherry, Sage and Kori, Chime and Tulip. And Aliyah and Cala, escorting them. She did her best to hold it together, but when she looked into Cherry’s eyes… What she saw there. The sorrow, the loss, the fear. Cherry is so strong, so brave, but in a way, her heart is the softest of all the Bunnies. She cares so deeply and wants so very, very badly for everyone to be together, now that she has found her family. And she’s right. They should be.

Why am I doing this? Mayumi asks herself for the hundredth time. And the answer is, as always, that she must. She was Guardia in her other life, in that world of dreams. And that life must not disappear. She needs to hold onto it. And she was born to be Guardia. It is not just her parentage, but her soul that calls her to it.

Couldn’t she have waited until next year’s intake? But the opportunity was there. The upper levels of the Guardia had approved it. And the Bunnies are being treated like some kind of…experiment gone awry. There are those who truly feel that the best thing to do with them would be to break their necks, cut their throats, drown them – anything to make them go away and be forgotten. From what she understands, the Council’s decision to let them live had been a very near thing.

She is being given the chance to show that Bunnies can contribute to society. That they can be regarded as normal mortals. If she had turned down that chance, it might never have come again.

The weight of that responsibility makes her shoulders tense. She remembers looking into Cherry’s eyes and just dissolving into tears. And all of them had caught her, held her up, kept her from falling right there on the portal steps. She had been so close, so very close to just saying, “Take me home. I want to stay here with you.” She had wanted it so badly.

It had been Merri who had whispered in her ear, “Buck up, my love. Ye can do this. Ye’re gonna do this. Come on, now.” But it had not been Merri’s face that Mayumi had looked into when she blinked away the tears enough to see again. It had been Cherry’s. Those sad, huge, brown eyes. Cherry wasn’t smiling or trying to put up a good front. Her dark skin was lustrous with tears, and she had taken Mayumi’s face in her hands, and just looked at her. She looked like she was doing the hardest thing she had ever done.

“You go on now, baby,” Cherry said. The tears began afresh, but her voice was steady. “You go on now and you study hard. You come back to us with that badge. You make us proud. You will. And you do.” Then she kissed Mayumi, long and sweet, and on releasing her, Cherry gave her a little push toward the portal.

Mayumi quickly said goodbye to the others, wordlessly embracing and kissing the Bunnies and Aliyah and Cala, too. Then she turned and walked quickly, not trusting herself to stop. It was only in that last moment as she slipped her ticket into the slot in the arch of the portal that she heard a heartbreaking sob, and she turned her head as she stepped through, and saw Cherry sagging in Merri’s arms, clinging to her like a victim of drowning to a lifeguard.

And then they were gone. Her family, gone, left behind.

The next portal station had been a big one, and Mayumi had entered a washroom stall and sat in there for a good ten minutes, crying. But enough of that now. It is time to focus on what lies ahead.

She exits the final portal and for one moment she sees it, a few minutes’ walk up the street, the great shining white-marble gate of the Guardia Academy. But only for a moment. All around her is a press of bodies, and every single one of them is taller than she, it seems. She grimaces in annoyance, and with more people coming in from the portal from many different transfer points, she’s quickly shoved forward. Hemmed in on all sides by big, lumbering humans, she’s nearly crushed as she’s carried along. She holds tight to her bag and tries to endure the cacophony of noise and the almost overwhelming mix of body odors.

What should be a few minutes’ walk takes most of an hour, as the instructors at the gate check cadets through and tell them where to go. As expected, the ones wearing uniforms are told to change back to everyday clothes before Induction. One of the instructors is particularly derisive, and Mayumi finds herself shoved into the line that is moving toward him.

Mayumi’s heart sinks as she nears him. Right in front of her is a cadet dressed in Academy uniform. Stocky, with iridescent skin that subtly reflects every color of the rainbow, she assumes he is some sort of Dei: god, demigod, or maybe even a spirit of rainbows or something. She’s never been very clear on the dividing lines, but from what Sky has told her, they can be very blurry.

She listens as the instructor, puffed up with self-importance, chews him out. “Did you think you had any right to be wearing our uniform on the streets? You ain’t been inducted yet! You ain’t a cadet! You’re just some worthless citizen!”

Mayumi feels the sparse, soft fur on the back of her neck rise in anger. She clenches her teeth to keep herself from speaking up. She wants to remind the instructor that Guardia are citizens, that that is the whole point. Guardia uphold the public order but are never, never above those they protect. It is a job that may receive respect, as in the dream-ward she grew up in, where Guardia were honored in the same way that teachers and priests and doctors were honored, or they might be viewed with suspicion and derision, as they were in Three Rats when she first arrived there. But Guardia must always remember who they are.

But she stays quiet, burning with shame at doing so. Her mother would not want her to stay silent. Nor would her father. But she has a job to do. She needs to get into the Academy. And to do that, she must get past this gatekeeper.

So when the rainbow-colored almost-cadet is sent scurrying off to change, Mayumi’s face is composed.

“Name?” The instructor, tall for a human and towering over her, hardly glances at her at first.

“Mayumi Ishijima.” She is registered under her adoptive father’s name. Like most gods, her mother has no family name, being simply “of the Death Clan.” Mayumi cannot claim that, for the Death Clan does not recognize the Bunnies as family.

“Sponsoring officer?”

“Inspector Tuma-Sukai, Three Rats Station.” Mother could have sponsored her, but Sky is higher rank, and at the time he was preparing the application, Mother was under house arrest for murdering an Archon. Awkward.

The instructor really looks at her for the first time. “Dei Inspector, eh? Most of these goons ain’t got anybody higher than than a Popula Sergeant vouching for them, if that.” He takes in her civilian clothes, simple and home-tailored by her skillful sibling Sage, her small, slight build, her human face framed by straight black hair, and then the only non-human feature not hidden by her clothes, her long, erect ears. His eyebrows go up. “Ah, the Bunny. Heard a rumor about you.”

Oh no…

The instructor chuckles nastily, like he knows all sorts of secrets. “Oh, you’re gonna have a great time here, Bunny.”

Mayumi narrows her eyes and reads his badge. “Thank you for the warm welcome, Assistant-Instructor Pringle.” Her voice is even and cool. “Am I on your list, Assistant-Instructor?”

“Huh? Oh yeah, yeah.” Pringle seems annoyed at her precise enunciation of his full title. He juts his chin toward another queue past the gate, on campus grounds. “Go on, then. See you in class, Bunny.”

The way he says it, he seems to think it is an insult. She doesn’t move.

“Assistant-Instructor Pringle.” Her voice is not raised, nor is it filled with anger or menace. But there is an edge to it that rings out above the chaos of noise around them, and fixes his attention back onto her. “My name is Ishijima. Perhaps that is difficult for you to pronounce?”

He blinks, then starts to smile humorlessly. He closes his notebook and turns his back on the long line waiting to get in the gate. “Are you talking back to me, cadet? No, you ain’t even a cadet yet, are you? You’re nothing, citizen.” He puts his fists on his hips and bends forward, looming over her, trying to intimidate her with his height.

She leans toward his face, staring intensely into his eyes, her whole world narrowing to just that. Her voice is low. “You think a citizen is nothing. You are a citizen. We are all citizens.” She leans forward just a little more, and the anger she is channelling at him makes him flinch back, as if she were about to bite him.

Before he can recover, she is walking away. She hears him stutter, “H-hey!” but he is cut off by another instructor shouting, “Keep it moving, Pringle!” She doesn’t look back.

Ch6.56 Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mom is a terrible patient, by the way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Mom?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I ask them. “What’s up?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cher… I can’t…breathe…”

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

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

“Ah! My hat! Be right back!”

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

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

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

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

Ch6.55 Trust

Night has fallen over this side of the Insula. The streets will be swelling with all the people who regard this final day of the Year’s End as the true day of celebration, and who plan to party all the way until midnight to close the ending year, and then past it to welcome the new one.

Alma breathes deeply. She has never worked through this particular night due to her family’s special dispensations, but what retellings she has heard of it make the Inner Rings sound like Three Rats for one night each year. Pavia will certainly be dealing with some of that silliness. The death goddess makes a mental note to write and explain to her old partner the reasons of her delay, since Death will most certainly have dismissed Pavia as escort without much in the way of explanation.

“You should stay,” Melinor says, looming by her side, at the main entrance of the house. “Father would have you stay and spend the night.”

Alma cannot help but smile at that. On any other day, the thought of spending the night would not even have flared in her mind. Too many of her dark memories are housed in Death’s estate and her rushed departure after Cherry and Rosemary’s creation, twenty-four years prior, had generated enough malaise to make staying here a nearly unthinkable choice. This has not felt like home for too long and her presence here has often done more harm than good.

But tonight, she hesitates. She can barely remember the ceremony and even less anything that might have happened after it. Her thoughts feel hazy, as if a heavy veil of mist has fallen upon them, covering and blurring their shapes, distorting memories of sound or touch. One moment, she was hovering in the air, in indescribable ecstasy at the touch of thousands of souls moving through her; the next she was waking up in her bed, in the room that had been her own for over three quarters of a lifetime, kept clean but otherwise untouched since her departure. That had been an unexpectedly pleasant surprise. She had thought the room would have been given to someone else or reused for some other purpose. That it had been kept for her, even the plants in Starfax’s old enclosure still flowering and healthy, was like an unspoken wish for reconciliation.

And even though she feels weak and stiff, as if she has just taken a beating to her very core, she also feels strangely lighthearted and at peace, as if something in her has shifted toward balance and happiness. As if something very, very good has happened without her having any memory of it. It almost erases all the unpleasant moments spent here. And, for some reason, it makes her nurture an impulsive craving to run through the maze-like corridors in search of Death and tackle her Father in a long, tight embrace.

That might not go so well. Though the whim remains. For now, however, the darkened sky has Alma concerned for Mayumi, who will be worrying, no doubt, at her mother’s delay.

“I promised Mayumi I would pick her up before sunset, to take her home,” the goddess explains, marveling at the sharp, glittering contours of Melinor’s soul. For some reason, she cannot stop soul-scrying, even if she wills it so, but feels none of the familiar signs of exhaustion that keeping it up too long usually brings about. “And sunset has been and gone, already.”

“You are too weak to be traveling,” Melinor notes in that brusque, matter-of-fact way of his. “Is she not safe where she is?”

“She is,” Alma concedes, with a little nod that sends her head in a twirl. “But tomorrow she will be leaving for the Guardia Academy. My delay has already robbed her of precious time with her siblings.”

Melinor must notice her momentary disorientation, because he wraps an arm around her chest and pulls her to lean into the sturdy, reassuring cradle of his chest. “Very well,” he says, exhaling deeply in tamped-down exasperation. “I will take you to her and then transport the two of you to your assigned ward. I doubt you will make it there awake, anyway.”

Alma smiles, snuggling against him, reveling in that acrid, metallic scent of blood and pounded flesh that is, to her, the soothing scent of a loved one. “I love you too, brother.”

“Always the emotional one,” Melinor mutters, shaking his head. “Where is this place?”

Pulling away enough free her right hand, Alma produces her record book and gives him her annotations to read. She has drawn a simple map to Sueyoshi’s house, taking care in writing down the correct address and location of the ward in the vast Third Ring. Melinor’s teleporting does not work quite like the portals but, after a few questions, he seems satisfied with the information. He allows her to put the record book away, then holds her tightly as his powers activate, with a scent of sweat and charred bone, and sounds of battle and alarm. The world shifts around them.

The world goes black.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“When did you start these?” Mayumi is seated cross-legged on the floor, looking at sheet after sheet of various kinds of paper – wood-pulp or cotton-rag, smooth or highly textured, pure white to shades of cream or grey – on which are drawn dozens of images of her. Charcoal, pencil, ink-brush, even watercolor, she sees her face in different expressions, her form in different poses, often among scenes in the garden, or here in the house, sometimes in other locales. She recognizes the environs of the temple up on the hill that houses the local portal, where she and Alma arrived this morning.

“Maybe two or three years after the dreams began,” Sueyoshi replies. “I was trying to…to make sense of it? No, that’s not right.” He considers as he sits down again, setting a cup of tea for her nearby but away from the pictures. “I think I was trying to bring you here. To make you real.”

She looks up from the drawings. The older ones, near the bottom, are cruder, stiffer, more self-conscious, and the materials and techniques more experimental. The more recent ones more consistently use the same paper, heavy and handmade, slightly off-white, painted in ink with free-flowing minimalistic strokes that capture emotion more than realism, and which all seem to convey a sorrowful longing.

“I have always been real,” she tells him. “But I understand. I feared, for a time, that you did not exist in this waking world.”

“Even those of us who cannot use magic try to find ways to exert our will over the things we cannot control,” he says. “And yet, here you are. If I were superstitious, I would think it worked.”

Mayumi grins, then feels the smile disappear. She looks at him gravely. “Of course it did. You raised me with love, and these are an expression of love. That love, in dreams and in waking, ensured that I would find my way to you here.” She keeps her eyes locked on his for a long moment, then breaks it off, looking down at the pictures. “I feel strange to call images of myself ‘beautiful,’ but they are beautiful. I can’t…I can’t describe how much this, not just this, everything today, how much it has moved–”

She breaks off. Something has changed. Although the temperature is no different, she feels a chill, accompanied by an indefinable feeling in the air itself. Being near gods nearly every minute of her time in Three Rats, she has grown used to a subtle sense of their presence. Gwydion is the most difficult to notice in this way, his aura only causing the soft hairs on her neck and forearms to rise when he is actually performing magic. Sky’s presence is also subtle, nothing more than a hint of the ocean that straddles the line between his smell and something less tangible, and sometimes he suppresses it completely. Alma’s presence is both the easiest and most difficult to notice, perhaps because she conceals it the least, perhaps because she is Mayumi’s mother. It has been an almost constant presence for her, not only since she awoke to this world, but even before, always a background note in her dream life, and as such it is difficult to describe except in its rare absence. But all the Bunnies can tell if she is nearby, if they think about it, whether she is within sight or scent, or not.

And others, like Kyri or Breowan, announce their presence more strongly and physically. There is always a hint of music in the air when Kyri is nearby, while Breowan seems surrounded by an echo of beer, the slightest feeling of tipsiness that one might get from taking a deep sniff off the head of a glass of beer.

This is stronger, more like their grandmother, Lyria, or Gwydion’s uncle, the Archon Math, or the murderous criminal, the now-deceased Nekh – a feeling of power that just fills the air. But it resonates somewhat like Alma’s, when she is channelling the powers of death, something that Mayumi has born witness to more than once when her mother fought in defense of her children. However, it is more unsettling, though she cannot understand why just yet. She just knows it is different from Alma’s, and yet there is a connection. In Alma’s normal presence, there is that feeling of melancholy, of the longing for what has been lost or is to be lost, but with it is love, and…how did Merri put it? Continuation. Renewal. No, perhaps Sage had said that first, after Tulip, barely starting to speak and separated from Alma cruelly, had first articulated that loss of Alma’s divine presence.

Within this aura is not melancholy but dread, shot through with violence and blood, fire and screams.

A heavy tread on the garden veranda, and three hard raps on the back door. Sueyoshi stands, looking at the door, then at Mayumi. From his expression, she can see that he too senses the aura of death. He goes to the next room and returns holding a jutte, a metal baton with a fork-like tine along the side, near that grip, that had once existed to catch swords but was now simply traditional, the local version of the Guardia truncheon. By the time he returns, Mayumi is already up and holding her hands to stop him.

“Father, please, let me.”

“Are you sure?” He looks deeply concerned.

“Whoever it is, is here for me. And must be connected to Mother.” At his nod of assent, she turns and, taking a breath, opens the door.

Standing before her is an imposing figure, his face turned slightly so that only the right side is easily visible. It is a face she recognizes instantly, handsome, cold, disapproving, even though this side of it is half hidden by his long, unkempt midnight-black hair. And she knows, though she can barely see it, that the left side of that face, which he keeps turned away by habit, is a blasted, torn wound. Melinor, God of Violent Death.

But her gaze is pulled from his face almost immediately, as she sees what he is holding. Or rather who, for in his arms is Alma, asleep or unconscious, her body gently supported under her shoulders and knees by her brother’s powerful arms. Mayumi is surprised at how small she looks, for the Bunny is used to looking up at her mother, who is somewhat taller than the average human. All but her pale face and snowdrift of hair disappear against him, as she is wrapped in a black blanket, no, a cloak, most likely Melinor’s, and despite his fearsome aura, his face, the way his ochre eye barely glances at her, Mayumi sees the tender way he holds his sister, and she steps aside to let him enter.

Eschewing greetings, she asks, “What happened?” She feels a slight tremor in her voice, and decides it is from worry about her mother. Any fear induced by Melinor’s aura has disappeared, at least for her, for the moment.

“She is fine.” The god’s voice is flat and harsh, but bears no animosity despite that. “Are you Mayumi?”

“I am.” She pauses. “We have seen each other before. At the Curia. What has happened to my mother?”

It seems for a moment as if Melinor will not answer, but then he speaks. “She…evolved. I have come to take you back to the Fourth Ring at her request.”

“Evolved?” She shakes her head, her ears laid back. “But why is she unconscious? Is there anything we can do?”

“No.” If he was hesitating to speak to her before, he seems to have given in. “She is adapting to a new sphere. It is her battle to fight.”

Mayumi looks to Sueyoshi, still standing a few paces away. He looks as if he is fighting the urge to fall down in worship. She remembers that very few here in Sawara Ward would have had anywhere near as much contact with gods as she has experienced. She looks back at Melinor. “Should we let her rest here? Or take her back to her home?”

His locks of hair barely shake as he moves his head in negation, his eyes on Alma. “She would not stay in her home.” This confuses Mayumi for a moment before she realizes he must be referring to the Death Clan estate. “She will recover faster in her sanctum. Are you ready to leave?”

Mayumi looks again at Sueyoshi, then back to Melinor. “Yes.” Realizing that she has failed in all norms of propriety, she quickly introduces them, continuing to use Urbia, the common language of the Insula. “Sir, this is my father, Sueyoshi Ishijima. Father, this is…” She almost calls him her uncle, but stops herself. She does not believe he would welcome that. “…my mother’s brother, the god Melinor. I am sorry, Father…I must go.”

In the face of proper greetings, Sueyoshi gathers himself and bows very formally to Melinor, who nods stiffly in reply. “You are most welcome in my home, Divine One.” He straightens, then turns to Mayumi. “I understand. Already I have been blessed with your presence more than I ever thought possible. I…”

Mayumi steps into his moment of hesitation and embraces him tightly. She can tell he is shocked. Her time in Three Rats Ward has made her impatient with many of the rules of interaction in Sawara Ward. She feels his body, ravaged by age yet still strong, relax in her arms, and he holds her in return, surely feeling embarrassed to be doing so in front of such a forbidding, foreboding god, but Mayumi can sense that Melinor is paying them as little attention as possible. “You will see me again,” she insists in Japanese, her cheek pressed against his. “I promise. Many, many times. And you will see my siblings. You’ll love them. They’ll drive you crazy, but you’ll love them.”

He whispers to her, “This is your home, always, whatever other home you may have. Do not knock on entering.”

Mayumi squeezes him almost painfully, then steps back, and looks to Melinor. “I am ready, sir. I appreciate your patience.”

His eyes still on Alma, his face still turned so that only the unwounded side is visible, he replies, “You will need to touch me to be transported. You will be safe.”

She nods, stepping off the edge of the floor to slip her feet into her shoes where they wait in the genkan, the tile floor of the entryway one step down, and turns to stand beside him. She puts a hand through Melinor’s arm, fingers on the inside of his elbow, and she looks at her father, seeing his struggle to maintain his composure in the face of so much: meeting two gods of death in a single day, meeting the child he raised alone for ten years, for the first time. Feeling her heart so open to him, she knows she will keep her promise. She begins to say so, “I–”

But “–promise” is spoken somewhere else entirely, somewhere very familiar, Alma’s room in Three Rats Station.

Mayumi experiences vertigo at the sudden change, and clings tightly to Melinor’s arm until it passes a few seconds later. The familiar room is so different from her father’s home, the colors, the temperature, the humidity, the feel of it in every way, but it has become her home as well, even if she sleeps in another room upstairs now. These two homes she has, and yet tomorrow she is leaving them both for another, a narrow bed in a tiny, shared dormitory room at the Academy.

Reoriented, she moves directly to the bed, whipping aside the blanket to reveal that a large lump under it was merely a pillow, not the curled-up form of Tulip or Chime. She pulls that out of the way just as Melinor lays his sister down, crisply, efficiently, yet with a gentleness that sparks within Mayumi an affection for the dark, dour god.

Silently, she removes Alma’s boots, setting them in their usual place on the floor of the closet, and considers whether to choose a nightgown for the goddess, but on seeing that Melinor has spread the blanket over her, Mayumi decides that can wait. She catches him tucking the blanket in just a little around Alma’s shoulders, and carefully brushing a lock of white hair away from her face.

Not looking toward Mayumi, he speaks. “There is another god nearby.”

“That should be Inspector Tsuma-Sukai,” Mayumi says. “Or Sergeant Gwydion. Shall I get one of them?”

“Yes. A god will know to handle this better than mortals.”

Mayumi nods. “I shall return shortly.”

She throws open the door and rushes up the stairs into the Burrow, the bar run by Rosemary and Cherry, both of whom are seated at a table, Cherry looking upset.

“May!” Merri calls out. “Goodness, where have ye been? Tis nearly midnight!”

“Alma is in her room,” Mayumi says by way of explanation. “But don’t go in there yet! She needs quiet. I’ll be right back.”

“Wait a minute!” Cherry’s voice is rough, as if she’s been shouting. “Is somethin’ wrong with her?”

“She’ll be fine!” Mayumi wants to stay and find out what’s wrong with Cherry, but first she must find Sky. Before she leaves, she asks one question, however. “Is Dion in?”

Cherry casts her eyes down at this, and leaves Merri to say, “He’s not answerin’. I think he’s gone out, but I’ll knock again an’ tell him Alma’s back.”

Puzzled at this reply, but with no time to discuss it for the moment, Mayumi gives a little nod and dashes out of the bar, across the narrow breezeway and into the station, to Sky’s office door. She pauses, taking note of who is present in the constables’ office area, returning a friendly nod from Patel, then knocks just before opening Sky’s door without waiting for a reply.

She is greeted with the smell of a salty sea breeze, and peers around the edge of the door to see Sky sitting on the sofa with his jacket laid across his legs, hands over it, whispering some mantra. There is a hint of blood-scent in the air, rapidly dissipating, and the god’s eyes, blue-green as he calls upon his mana to cast some spell, quickly return to their familiar brown.

He blinks. “Mayumi!” His voice is soft, but the worry in it is obvious. He begins to stand but she whips around the door and, not bothering to shut it behind her, throws her arms around him, squeezing him hard, sliding onto his lap and drawing her legs up. She just holds him, eyes shut tight, for a long moment, feeling the tension draining out of her the moment his big hands touch her back, pulling her to him.

After a dozen heartbeats, he asks, “What’s wrong?”

“Alma,” she says. “Something about a new sphere. Her brother brought us back. She’s asleep – unconscious, really, in her room. He says she’ll be all right, but she needs you.”

She releases him and stands, taking one of his hands in both of hers. He stands without the need of assistance, and she lets him go once he is towering over her. The thought of holding his hand as they walk through the station is tempting, but she chucks the thought aside as silly and leads the way as they move rapidly back to the bar, him taking a single long stride to every two of her quick steps.

“Are you all right?” he asks as they go.

“Oh Sky…” She would not normally address him so informally where Guardia under his command would hear, but it just slips out. “I have had one of the best days of my life. But now I’m just worried for Alma. For Mother.” As she is speaking, they retrace her steps of minutes before, through two doors and into the bar. Merri and Cherry are standing now, looking as if they have been caught in the midst of a debate which Mayumi guesses involves whether to disobey her request that they stay out of Alma’s sanctum.

Cherry, looking at Sky, half-raises a hand and says, “Um…” but then bites her lips and drops her hand. “Let him take care o’ Alma, dearest,” Merri tells her, her voice drifting after them as Mayumi quickly leads Sky down the stairs.

As she opens the door, Mayumi has to adjust again to the resonance of violence filling this normally peaceful, comforting sanctum. She feels Sky’s hand on her shoulder as, in unthinking reaction, he almost pulls her back out of the room. She looks over her shoulder at him. “It’s all right,” she says. He relaxes, though not completely, and follows her into the room.

His hand still on her shoulder, she feels him tense again at the sight of Melinor, like a huge gore-crow, looming over Alma. The death god again turns his face so that the wounded side does not show. “Sir,” Mayumi says to him, “this is Tsuma-Sukai. Inspector, this is Alma’s brother, Melinor.”

Melinor jerks his head in Alma’s direction. “How many sphere awakenings have you seen?”

“One or two,” Sky replies, looking Alma over. “In young gods. Is that what this is? A third sphere?”

“The Wheel has awakened in her during our Year’s End ceremony.” Melinor’s voice is harsh, sepulchral. “The worst is past her but she is weak, still. We would have kept her for the night.” He glances at Mayumi without resentment, but she still feels accused and indicted. Her ears go back, but she says nothing.

Sky glances between them but only asks, “What do I need to do?”

Melinor places a hand on Alma’s head and gently opens one of her eyelids, revealing a soft glow. Mayumi’s eyes widen in surprise at the shifting colors, like mother-of-pearl. “Her powers are unstable for now. Try to keep her from using them. She may be irritable or distracted. She will be weakened for awhile. Unfit for duty.” He lets her eyelid flutter back closed, but she stirs slightly.

Sky looks grim. “I understand. We will keep her safe here.”

Alma moans softly and mumbles, “Hmm…Mel? Where…May?”

Mayumi takes Alma’s hand and feels the goddess’ cool fingers wrap around hers. “I’m here, Mother. You are home. Melinor and Sky are here too.”

“I’m…sorry… So late. Mel?”

Her brother strokes her hair. “Sleep, Almy. You are tired. You need to sleep.” There is no warmth in his voice, but at the pet name Mayumi glances up at Melinor’s face, and though, in his moment of incaution, she catches a clear look at the horrifically ravaged left side of his face, she cannot help but smile. She knows, buried deep, there is a good heart that Alma somehow has been able to reach. Mayumi doubts she ever could reach him like that, but she yearns to tell him how much his love for her mother means to her. Certain that this would make him uncomfortable, she holds back, however.

With a soft exhalation, Alma falls back into full slumber. Melinor straightens, or as much as he ever does, with his head always tilted away. He would be nearly Sky’s height if he stood fully erect. “I must go,” he says to Sky. “You will keep her safe here.” It is no request, simply a statement of fact.

Sky replies, “I will. Thank you for bringing her back to us.”

“It was not my choice. Starfax will help in recovery. You should keep the room uncrowded and free of noise.”

Sky glances at Mayumi, who nods and says, “I will do so, and let you know if any emergencies arise.”

“Thank you,” Sky says to her, and then to Melinor, “If my duties pull me away, Mayumi will stay with her. She will not be left alone, and will not be disturbed.”

To this, Melinor simply says, “I will see you again.” He fades away in a moment, and along with him, his aura of death disappears, to be replaced with Alma’s far more comforting one.

Ch6.50 Trust

Finding words, that is the difficult thing. What do you say to the man who raised you for twelve years, who you are meeting for the first time today? When you were a stranger to him, a foundling, washed up on the shore of his dream, taken in and loved, but all this time you were another’s child? And he has had a life without you. He has known you to be nothing but a recurring dream, and now here you are, no longer the child he remembers, grown, with a family. A family that does not include him.

How do you tell him that that snow-haired goddess who just healed his heart has been your mother all this time, and now you are back with her, leaving him abandoned, as if all this time he had been nothing more to you than a landlord giving you a place to stay?

And here he is before you, aged and worn far beyond what you remember, his face a map of lines drawn by pain and loneliness, lines that spell out the weight of years on him, and the paucity of years remaining. But still that powerful jaw, those eyes that could go from bright with merriment to a piercing severity as the moment called for, eyes that could elicit cheerful affection from those over whom he stood guard, eyes that once made a madman drop a bloody knife and fall to his knees, sobbing for forgiveness. Those eyes are on you know, and full of wonder at your presence. Your existence.

What do you say?

All these jumbled thoughts, contradicting and jamming up against each other like logs in a river, course through Mayumi as she walks around the living room, touching the things she remembers: the wooden carving of a bear smacking a fish from a river, the alabaster figurine of a dancer in mid-flourish, the pair of porcelain cups. This last she lingers over. The two cups, one slightly larger, glazed in a beautiful pattern of flowers, primarily blue but with yellows and reds and greens, the smaller one with a larger proportion of reds among the other colors. Both cups have a little lid to keep the tea warm.

The larger cup was his. The smaller hers. She remembers being so happy when he told her that. Drinking tea with him, quiet at the end of the day, his eyes closed, watching the cares drain away because he was home, with her. The joy that she felt, being part of that, especially when he would, as he always did, look over at her with a pleasantly tired smile, and just say, “Iin desu, ne?” Good, isn’t it? And it was.

Those cups are here, in the waking world. The world in which she did not exist until so recently. She looks back over her shoulder at him, where he sits, watching her, trying to think of what to say himself. She turns, goes into the kitchen and quickly finds a kettle. Lighting the burner takes a moment – it was always a bit tricky – and soon the water is heating while she finds the little pale-green teapot, a lacquered tray, and a cylinder of green tea.

Minutes later she brings the tray, bearing the squat teapot, a wisp of steam rising from its chipped spout, and sets it on the table near his knees. She goes to fetch the two cups and returns, to find he’s kneeling on floor at the table, a smile beginning to touch his lips. She kneels next to him and removes the lids from the cups, picks up the teapot by its handle that juts straight from the side, places the fingers of her other hand atop its lid, and gently swirls the water and leaves before pouring, a little into his cup, a little into hers, back and forth so the quickly-steeping tea is no stronger in one cup than the other. She sets the teapot down and hands him his cup with both hands, bowing slightly, and he accepts it the same way.

As they drink, the infinite distance between the world of waking and the world of dreams drifts away like steam, and they are together on familiar ground. There is no more searching for words. The silence is perfect. And when the words come, they come with ease.

Iin desu, ne?

Sō desu, ne.” Mayumi pauses a moment, looking at her cup. “Did you dream of these first and then seek them out? Or did you dream of them after you bought them?”

“They were a gift,” Sueyoshi says, looking at his own cup. “From Constable Nakamura. I spoke at her wedding, and she gave me these.”

Mayumi smiles in memory. “I had forgotten her. So much fades away, but today so much that was lost is returning.”

He begins to agree, but there is a knock on the other end of the house, followed immediately by the rattle of the front door sliding open. “Gomen kudasai!” comes the standard apology for disturbing the residents. Mayumi almost laughs. In Three Rats, nobody would open the door when coming to someone’s home, but rather wait for the person living there to open it. “Is that Inoue-san from next door?” she whispers. Her ears pick up additional murmurs and the sound of multiple shoes being removed to tell her this is a group of visitors.

He looks at her in wonder. “You know her, too…” Then he calls out in welcome, with a hint of annoyance at the visit in his voice, “Irasshaimase!” He looks back at Mayumi, uncertain. To see anything less than a firm confidence in his eyes brings a pang to her heart. She knows he must have no idea how to explain all this – the goddess, the profuse flowering and fruiting of his so recently dying garden, and now this…rabbit-eared girl.

Mayumi is, herself, uncertain. Will he call her his daughter? Does she have the right to tell these visitors that he is her father? But seeing his hesitation triggers a decision in her, one with no thought but years of learning by imitation behind it. As her father has always done when it was needed, she steps up.

She lays her hand on his, reassuringly, then smoothly stands and moves to the door of the room just as Mrs Inoue and the others, three more neighbors, peer within. They are bearing lacquered boxes and trays bearing fruit and seasonal dishes. It is traditional, in the days before the five days of the New Year arrive, to clean house and to cook mountains of dishes that will last the entire time, so that no one has to cook anything other than a little steamed rice or toasted mochi rice cakes during the holiday. And with an old man living next door with no family, it is only natural to bring some food over.

Mrs Inoue starts to say, “Inspector! We–” She breaks off, startled at the sight of Mayumi standing before her, a smile on her face, ears perked forward. The old woman, overweight and older than Sueyoshi but in rough good health, cannot quite close her mouth as she stares at Mayumi.

Akemashite omedetō gozaimasu. Dōzo oagari kudasai,” Mayumi says as she bows to the guests, wishing them a happy New Year and bidding them to enter, her hands on her thighs and her voice pitched higher than usual, as befits a young woman in the presence of her elders. She straightens and reaches out to take the huge circular tray, laden with all sorts of delicious-looking food, from the woman. “Please allow me to take that, Inoue-sama. I will prepare tea. Or would anyone like coffee?”

Mrs Inoue gapes for a moment longer before recovering her manners. She allows Mayumi to take the heavy tray, then bows in return and says to both Mayumi and Sueyoshi, “Akemashite omedetō gozaimasu. Yoi otoshi wo omukae kudasai.” Not to be outdone, she makes her New Year greeting even more elaborate and formal. “T-tea is fine!”

She stares as Mayumi sets the tray on the table and then moves to the kitchen to boil more water. The Bunny twitches her tail slightly, to show them it is real, and has to clench her jaw to keep from laughing as she hears them all jump very slightly. A square-faced, broad-shouldered man whispers to Mrs Inoue, “How does she know your name?” but he receives only a smack on the shoulder in answer. “Ow! Ma…”

“Welcome!” Sueyoshi bellows, laughter at the edges of his voice as well. “This looks delicious, Mrs Inoue. Ah, are you carrying sake, Daisuke? You know I’m not supposed to…but I think today, I can survive one cup. Come, sit, sit!”

By the time Mayumi returns with the steaming kettle, the guests are all seated, looking from one to another, except for one man in his thirties, Daisuke, Mrs Inoue’s son-in-law, who is kneeling with Sueyoshi and pouring sake from a huge brown bottle into a small porcelain pitcher on the table, surrounded by several delicate cups, almost like small plates, really, barely curved enough to hold a liquid. Mayumi sets the kettle down on a cork pad to protect the table from being scorched, and puts a hand on Sueyoshi’s shoulder. He looks up at her.

“One cup,” she says, gently but firmly.

His smile makes her heart swell. “Hai,” he replies with an affectionate chuckle, holding her gaze. “Would you like serve?”

She smiles back and kneels, bowing to Daisuke and placing the lid on the pitcher, then handing a cup to Sueyoshi and pouring the sake in three short pours for luck, then doing the same for Mrs Inoue, and then the rest. Finally, Sueyoshi himself pours for her. He raises his cup and toasts, “Akemashite omedetō gozaimasu!” and they all sip once, twice, and then drink all that remains in their cups with the third.

The shared sake is delicious, and all the better for binding them together in the New Year ritual. Mayumi begins to prepare the tea while Daisuke pours out more sake, not bothering with delicate little mini-pours but actually sloshing a little onto the table. He freezes, looking at Mayumi, eyes wide, and she gives him a look that could be admonishing if she did not immediately smile and playfully say, “That was not enough to get you drunk!” He grins and stammers out an apology, as she serves tea and he serves the harder stuff, and they both make sure that only the former goes to Sueyoshi.

It’s not until Mayumi is serving out dishes piled with holiday fare that Mrs Inoue finally asks the question that has been trying to explode from her throat since seeing this Bunny. Only she doesn’t quite ask it, instead saying, as if holding back a flood behind a dam, “You are a very proper young lady. Where did you learn to serve sake like that? Hardly anyone pours like that these days.”

Mayumi bows her head for a moment. “Thank you. Of course, I learned everything from…” She pauses, looking at Sueyoshi. He smiles at her, but she can see that he is not certain what she will say next. “From my father.” She feels her heart pound against her ribs. Did she say the right thing? She sits back on her heels, eyes cast down, but she glances at Sueyoshi and on seeing his enormously pleased expression, she feels a warmth suffuse through her body.

“Father…” Mrs Inoue whispers, looking at Sueyoshi. He merely smiles, as if this is the most normal thing in the world to him. The rumor-mill will be grinding fast and coarse by tomorrow, but for now, he returns her stare with catlike contentment.

Her son and the other two guests keep their eyes locked on Mrs Inoue as she looks back and forth between Mayumi and Sueyoshi. The anticipation from the three underlings fills the room with tension and a gleeful dread. One would not need Mayumi’s superior senses and her dream-time Academy training in reading body language to be able to nearly read their minds: Is she going to explode? Is she going to demand an explanation?

But after a pair of silent blinks, the old woman recovers herself. “I see… What a polite daughter you have, Inspector. Try these daifuku cakes! My daughter-in-law made them.”

The visitors seem almost deflated by Mrs Inoue’s reaction, but also relieved. For the moment, a potential confrontation has been avoided. But then as she leans forward to serve the sesame-coated mochi cakes, she asks, her voice as sweet as the bean-paste-filling, “Where did you go to school, Mayumi?”

Mayumi feels her heart sink. There will be no avoiding the interrogation, will there? Shall she explain that she went to school here, in Sawara Ward, at the same school Mrs Inoue’s grandchildren attended? That Mrs Inoue’s oldest grandson had made fun of her ears and tail, and the old woman herself had dragged him to this very house and forced him to apologize? Such an explanation would cause nothing but confusion.

“Mayumi has come a very long way, Inoue-san.” Sueyoshi’s voice is firm, but not at all cold. “She is tired. And, I must admit, I am as well.”

Mrs Inoue pulls back. For a moment she looks like she might argue, but then glancing again between father and daughter, her eyes soften. She cannot know the history behind their relationship, not yet at least, but she seems to understand that there is much there, that the two of them have been apart for who-knows-how-long, that there is some mighty strange magic involved, and that interfering in the matters of gods is unwise. Mayumi can almost hear the gears turning, the conclusion of I will find out everything eventually, and then the smile.

“You must take care of yourself, Inspector. And you, Mayumi…” She pauses, and Mayumi tenses. “Take care of him.” The woman’s voice is full of honest concern and warmth. “He is important to all of us around here.”

Mayumi’s heart melts toward the woman. If it were Three Rats, she might well have seized Mrs Inoue’s hand, or even embraced her. But it is Sawara Ward. Instead she places her hands flat on the floor, index fingers touching, and bows low from her kneeling position, until her head is a handsbreadth from touching the floor. “I will,” she promises.

And after a few more polite phrases, the guests are gone, and Mayumi is closing the door behind them.

She turns and leans on the door as if blocking it from allowing anyone else entry, and smiles at her father, who is standing a step behind her. He snorts in amusement. “She is the neighborhood busybody,” he says. “But she is also like a mother to us all.”

Mayumi’s smile fades, and she pushes herself off from the door to put her arms around him, her head resting against his collarbone. She holds him silently for a moment, hearing his heart, and feels his hands on her back, holding her tightly, as if she might disappear at any moment.

I am holding my father, she thinks in wonder. I am holding my father. And my father is holding me. I am in his arms. Not since the first time she called Alma ‘mother’ has she felt such happiness.

“I know you must leave,” he whispers. “But while you are here, I wish to know everything.”

She nods against his shoulder. “Of course. And I’ll have questions for you, Father. Come, let’s sit down now.”

Ch6.48 Trust

“Mayumi…”

“Mmph…” The Bunny snuggles deeper into her blanket.

“Mayumi…”

There was a dream. There was a dream and now it’s gone.

“Mayumi, wake up.” The voice is amused, on the edge of laughing. Mayumi feels the blanket pulled away from her face. “Time for your present.”

The dream, if there was one at all, fades from memory like frost off a cold glass set out in the sun. Mayumi’s large brown eyes open to see Alma looking down at her with a smile. She can feel the goddess’ hip against her back, sitting on the futon on which Mayumi sleeps. “Hello,” the Bunny whispers to her mother.

“Good morning, dear.” Alma strokes Mayumi’s hair away from her face. Her amused expression transforms seamlessly into something more tender, tinted with sorrow. “Time to wake up and get dressed.”

Mayumi simply looks up at Alma in surprise. This has never happened before. She has woken in Alma’s room, sometimes by her mother, but this is the first time Alma has come into her tiny, almost closet-like room when Mayumi was asleep. Bundled up in a blanket, she wonders how she looks to Alma. Is that the reason for the tender expression? Does she look like a sleepy child? She smiles uncertainly up at her mother and asks, “Did I sleep late? Are the others already up?”

Alma shakes her head, a hint of amusement creeping back in. “No. We are going to sneak out today, go somewhere special.”

Mayumi’s eyes go wide. “Just…you and me?”

Alma nods. “Just you and me.”

The Bunny blinks twice, trying to process it. Since Mayumi awoke to this world, she hasn’t really gone anywhere with Alma, not just the two of them. The goddess has been incredibly overworked, and aside from that, she was imprisoned in the First Ring for weeks. And the younger Bunnies have been more in need of attention. And Mayumi has not exactly made things easy on Alma at times. There was a time when they were hardly speaking.

But now, Mayumi is due to leave for the Academy tomorrow. She hadn’t expected to be taken somewhere. She knows her decision to go away for six months has been as painful for Alma as it has been for herself. And not only the two of them. Last night near the end of the party, she caught Cherry in the kitchen holding Merri, comforting the sobbing, tipsy redhead, barely able to speak herself, saying, “Come on baby, May’s gonna be all right,” and not sounding at all convinced of her words. Mayumi went to them, too sorrowful at the grief she was causing to speak up, but they soon noticed her and pulled her into their embrace.

The younger Bunnies, Kori and Chime and Tulip, don’t really have a grasp of what six months away will mean, so they aren’t as worried about it. But Merri and Cherry had been without her for years, somehow knowing they had others out there who were family, and have only just been united with her. Sage, too, must have heard them and had broken away from Aliyah to join them, wordlessly holding Mayumi as if he couldn’t trust himself to speak without begging her not to go. The look on his face – that alone nearly broke her resolve to follow through on her decision to become Guardia.

Sage eventually went back to Aliyah, and Mayumi had meant to spend the night with Sky, but in the end she went to him to explain that she needed to stay with Merri and Cherry longer. He understood, of course. He told her to go, be with them. She promised to be with him the next night, her last, for at least awhile. They could walk together, talking. But the three oldest Bunnies spent last night laughing and crying together, talking, telling their former lives, and falling silent but for soft moans of pleasure.

Mayumi returned to her own room a few hours before dawn, leaving Merri and Cherry asleep in each other’s arms, Mayumi intending to try to hunt dreams of her father – and now here is Alma, promising…something. Mayumi finds herself grinning. It doesn’t matter what they do. Just time together, just the two of them, that is exactly what she wants right now. “Just a moment!” She springs from the bed and whips off the long shirt she wears as a nightgown, quickly changing into shorts and a simple blouse – “smart casual” as Merri would call it – from a footlocker, looking to Alma for approval, in case it is too informal for what she has in mind. But the goddess merely nods after a moment’s consideration, and Mayumi dashes off to the communal bathroom to brush her teeth, before presenting herself ready.

“Ready?” Alma asks.

Mayumi nods, then remembers. “Oh, the futon!” She quickly flips the bottom third of the bed up, then rolls the rest onto the top third, shoving it away neatly. She’s momentarily irked at herself for leaving the blanket and pillow trapped inside so sloppily, but she can fix it later. Then it hits her. This is the second-to-last time she will do that. Two nights from now she’ll be sleeping on a hard Guardia Academy cot, her bed for the next two hundred sixteen days, well over half of the Insula’s ten-month calendar.

She turns and looks at Alma. “Ready.”

“Let us go, then,” Alma says. “Before the others wake up.”

Slipping out of the bar does not prove difficult. Nor does making their way through the streets, heading toward Little Falls. They talk pleasantly of the previous night’s party, and of the next morning, when they will be walking this very route. Alma will bring Mayumi to the Little Falls portal.

“Do you want me to accompany you?” Alma asks, hesitantly.

“To the Academy?” Mayumi shakes her head. “That would be kind, but no. I…should make the journey on my own. I will be all right.”

Alma looks pleased, and Mayumi feels that she has passed a sort of test. They pass a road that Mayumi knows would lead, if they took it, into the tangled warren where Sky’s apartment is located. She still hasn’t been inside. Sky’s reserve sometimes makes her wonder why he is holding back. Is it only that he wants to take it slowly, and his reticence at being involved with a civilian employee of the station? Technically she is not under his command, but she understands that. And yet, there is something more, things he holds back from telling her. There is some secret, she feels, that causes him to fall into silences.

Will he, in this time apart, find someone else? She hopes so, and she has told him, though the thought he might no longer want her makes her feel sick. It would make things easier, simpler. But she has given up so much already. She glances at Alma, beside her. All the years, twenty-two years, apart. And those years in a dream that she can now only catch in fragments here and there, that too almost completely lost to her. She does not want to give up anything more that she truly does not have to.

But she is doing that now, isn’t she? Giving up six months with those she loves to pursue a dream. Why?

She steels her resolve. She is Guardia. She was in her dream life, and she will be again. Any doubts are unworthy of her. This is her path.

“You’ve been quiet,” Alma says.

Mayumi snaps out of her reverie. “Oh, I…I was just thinking about tomorrow.”

Alma looks at her, sympathy written on her face. “You’ll be fine, Mayumi.”

“It’s not me I’m worried about.” Without looking up, she reaches out and catches Alma’s hand, squeezing it, and feeling a reassuring squeeze in return.

“We will be all right too,” Alma says. “You just focus on your studies. If you were to need to repeat for another six months…” She shakes her head, unwilling even to consider the thought. “No.”

Mayumi feels the soft ruff of fur on the back of her neck rise, as if a mild electric charge were in the air, or had just left it. Has the magical level changed a bit? She looks around. “Are we in Little Falls?”

Alma nods, and then nods again toward the plaza ahead of them. It is a plaza Mayumi has seen twice before: once in the light of morning, like now, with Sky, when he took her to several other wards to make sure that she and the other Bunnies would not fall ill in low- or high-magic environments; and once with Alma and Gwydion and all the rest of Alma’s children, bodies of assassins and thugs scattered about, Saira’s arrows sticking out of them like deadly pins, slashed wounds by Alma’s sword and Gwydion’s magic, and Mayumi holding her own blade, standing before Cherry and Merri, also armed, ready to fall to the teeth of hell hounds to protect the others.

Three Rats does not have its own portal. Little Falls is by far the older ward, having arrived at the Insula Caelestis longer ago than anyone Mayumi has spoken with can remember. And the portal, here in the plaza, is just about as old, the silver-and-brass oval frame simple, less elaborate than those in some of those other wards. It sits on a raised platform, three steps from the street. Already this morning there are people using it, tearing expensive tickets from small books that can be purchased for those, often merchants who have need of long-distance travel. The people of Little Falls are barely more prosperous than those of Three Rats, but trade must go on.

Mayumi looks at Alma, the question plain on her face, but she doesn’t ask. The mischievous smile on the goddess’ face tells her that the surprise will remain a surprise until the right moment. But the smile, Mayumi sees, is fragile, just barely shaky, with nervousness.

“It is our turn now,” Alma says. “Ready?”

Feeling her heart pounding, Mayumi nods. Together, still holding hands, they step through. As a goddess, Alma has no need of tickets. She pays directly, in the mana needed to power the portal, paying just a little extra to bring her mortal companion through. And a little extra beyond that, as Sky has told her, as a tax. The portal system was built by gods, for gods. There had been a time when mortals had no way of using it at all, and even now the enchanted tickets are only sold to mortals reluctantly and with considerable paperwork, so that users can be tracked.

As they step through, the portal flashes gold, and Mayumi’s stomach flips as she feels just for a moment that she is falling, as if she’s missed the last step on a stairway. Then they are elsewhere.

The portal they step out of is more complex than the one in Little Falls. It is the color that catches Mayumi’s eye, causing her to turn her head. She would call it simply red, but in Three Rats they would consider it red-orange. It is the color that Mayumi learned to color the sun in drawings, though the orphan children at Ewá Nanã’s home choose yellow. Her eye follows up the thick wood frame, its inner edge only made of the alchemical silver and brass that is part of all the portals she has seen. At the top, she can see a cross-strut with a plaque on it bearing kanji characters saying Sawara-machi, or Sawara Town, a name that shakes her so that she nearly does not see that they have just exited from a portal in the shape of a torii, a free-standing, sacred gateway, in the myōjin style, the upper crossbar above curved upwards at the tips. She knows it. She knows it well. She releases Alma’s hand and steps backward, away from it, her eyes wide and fixed, until she gets far enough away and yes, she can see, atop the kasagi, the upper crossbar, are stones. Small stones, tossed up by children, sometimes adults. It is very difficult to get a stone to land atop the kasagi and stay there, but those who manage it experience great good fortune.

She managed it once, when she was fourteen.

Her heart is beating so hard that it hurts. She can hear it distinctly in the throbbing capillaries of her ears. She is nearly hyperventilating. She turns, looking over the rooftops that spread below the ridge they are on. The Insula, a mountain floating in a sphere of Reality amid the endless Void, is steeper here than in Three Rats, and the streets are a maze of slopes and steps. The roofs are made of interlocking ceramic tiles, glazed black or a near-black blue, many trees and small gardens scattered among them, a swath of parkland, a large square building with a wide open space on which children are running, playing, racing each other, one class following their teacher in calisthenics. She can’t hear the music or see exactly what they are doing – it is a bit too far for that. But the muscles in her legs twitch in a desire to do those exercises that she has done so many many times before.

She suddenly sucks in a deep long breath, putting her face in her hands to shut out the overwhelming vision. She does not know whether she is about to scream, or moan, or laugh. Two hands come to rest on her shoulders, and she turns and throws her arms around Alma’s waist, her fingers almost painfully digging into the goddess’ back, and her body decides to weep, powerful, silent sobs shuddering through her frame.

The gentle stroking of her hair and ears slowly brings her out of this deluge of disabling emotion. She becomes aware enough to start controlling her breathing. A stab of shame – You are acting like a child! she accuses herself – is washed away by the thought, It is real! It is real! My home is real! She leans back slightly, and looks up at Alma, blinking away vision-distorting tears.

The goddess, worry becoming happy relief, smiles and says softly, “Happy Year’s End, Mayumi.”

Mayumi looks up at her, shaking her head slightly. “I…” She pauses, swallows. “You could not have given me a more precious gift.”

Alma’s smile turns into a grin of pleasure. “I wasn’t certain if the real Sawara Ward and the dream one would even resemble one another closely enough to be recognizable.”

Mayumi releases her and looks around, her mind and eyes clearer. The portal is on the grounds of a shrine to the god of rice and fertility and alcohol and general good fortune, the main gate guarded by two stone foxes. The houses below are less colorful, perhaps, the trees not quite as large. Is it simply her memory that is amiss? Or is it truly different? Perhaps both.

“It does look a bit different,” she says, “but I would know it even if it were far more changed.” She wipes her eyes with the back of her hand, and laughs at herself. “I’m sorry. I…overreacted.”

Alma shakes her head, still smiling. “Care to give me the tour, then? All I know is how to get here.”

Mayumi nods. She hesitates, looking toward the main altar of the shrine to Inari, but not wanting to keep her mother waiting, resists the urge to make a prayer, promising herself she will return later to show her respect to the god. She bows instead, hands pressed together, then turns and takes Alma’s hand, leading her down the long stairway and into the ward.

Its narrow, winding streets are still far more orderly than those of Three Rats, far easier to negotiate, clean and well maintained. The people resemble Mayumi, superficially – her pale-olive skin tone, the gracile build, dark hair and eyes with epicanthic folds, face flatter than most people in Three Rats – though they are taller than her and lacking her Bunny ears and tail, the black, soft fur on her calves and forearms. Those who see them pass bow reverently to Alma, who, though not especially tall for a goddess, is still taller than the average human woman and somewhat towers over many of the Sawara residents. Her white hair and ethereally pale skin, along with a mild but noticeable divine aura, mark her as a goddess. The mortals hardly notice Mayumi beside her, and their whispered expressions of wonder fade as the pair walk further into the town.

“I can see that people are not very used to gods here,” Alma mentions as she looks around. “It is a pretty place.”

“We have a few gods here, but they stay hidden from the people except for special occasions.” Mayumi wonders at her unthinking use of “we.” This waking-world version of Sawara Ward – she has never been here. But she lived nearly her whole life in the dream version of it. She shakes the thoughts away, her ears knocking against each other, and continues, “Only the priests and shrine girls get to speak with them regularly.”

Alma nods. “I know a cousin of mine is in charge of this ward. But she will not be here today.”

Mayumi glances at her, eyes a little wider. “There is a Shinigami, a Death Goddess. She appears to us in the summer festival of the dead. I had no idea she was…your family.” She does not mention that the people here only speak of her in hushed voices, afraid of attracting her attention. Mayumi herself had always wanted to meet her. She did not at the time that know that her mother was a goddess at all, much less of the Death Clan, but she still somehow felt drawn to the unnamed goddess known only as the Shinigami.

“All death gods are my family,” Alma explains. “One way or another. Some are brothers, others are cousins. My uncles, aunts and my father’s other wives usually stay in the Inner Rings.”

Mayumi smiles. The way Alma speaks casually of family. She knows, from things Alma has mentioned, that relations with her family are not always perfect. But Mayumi had only known, growing up, that somewhere, somehow, she had a mother, and that this mother yearned to be with her. She could not say how. If she ever dreamed within the dream-world, she cannot remember. But she knew, though at times she wondered if she were merely fantasizing it.

And here she is, in that same ward. With her mother beside her. She feels a swell of love for the goddess that makes her feel she could almost burst. She feels her face flush, wanting to say it but…not here, in the road.

“Well, this is the school. It…looks rather different from the dream version. I remember it as far larger. But still, in a way it looks the same. And that is the Guardia station. And down this lane…”

The low walls along the narrow lane are the same, just the same. They are made of blue-glazed brick, topped with the same sort of curved, interlocking shingles as the roofs of the houses. In the walls are small wooden gates leading to the gardens in front of every house here, with flowers and berry bushes, plum and cherry trees, bonsai looking like miniature ancient pines, gnarled and twisted by ocean winds that have never reached this ward, here in the Third Ring. There is an overfed cat watching them curiously from atop the brick pillar beside one open gate.

She knows, just down this lane, is the house she grew up in. Will he be there? Is he well?

Will he know me?

Her feet feel as if they are set in concrete.

Alma squeezes May’s hand reassuringly. “Why don’t you go ahead, and I will follow?”

Mayumi looks up at her, swallows, and slowly nods, squeezing her mother’s hand tightly, feeling a mix of dread and excitement. For a long moment, Mayumi continues to hold Alma’s hand, but finally, she drops it. She turns, takes a deep breath, squares her shoulders, and walks ahead down the lane.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

Ishijima Sueyoshi, Guardia Popula Inspector (retired) for Sawara Ward, sets down his little kama hand-scythe and sighs despondently. The garden is dying. Rust is spreading through it like fire, discoloring leaves and killing the flowers and herbs he has labored over for years. Even his beloved old friends, the four trees, one at each corner – Ume-chan, the plum tree, whose blossoms are so lovely in spring and from whose late-summer fruits his neighbors make a delicious liqueur; Mikan-chan and Nashi-chan, who bear for him tart mandarins and juicy pears in autumn; and Sakura-chan, who produces no fruit but whose cross-pollinated cherry blossoms bloom snowy-white and nearly-red in gorgeous unpredictable patches, out of season, always during this most sacred of times, the New Year, for longer than Sueyoshi has been alive – they too are being devoured by the rust.

His legs folded under him, he lets his shoulders slump. He has been retired now for sixteen years. He had not wanted to retire; he was only sixty-two, a good thirteen years younger than his father, the previous Inspector, had been when he retired. But the irregularity in his heartbeat had become worse, and though being an Inspector is mainly a desk job, he had thought it for the best to allow young Sergeant Ueda to ascend to the position. And Ueda, the first woman ever to lead the Guardia of Sawara Ward, has done an excellent job, though Sueyoshi had to have a word with a few obstinate individuals to explain the errors in their overly traditionalist thinking. His heart might be weak, but his ability to convince others not to gainsay him is still strong.

So his retirement had been a good decision. That is what he has told himself for sixteen years. And it is true. A good decision for the ward. But…a bad decision for himself. His heart, which supposedly needed rest, has only become weaker. The touch of the priest of Ebisu, channeling his god’s healing power, only temporarily relieves the pain and shortness of breath. Sueyoshi can no longer drink that sweet plum liqueur, can no longer drink coffee, can no longer eat some of his favorite foods.

And what, really, is he living for? He has no wife, no children. His parents are gone. He was an only child. And his longest friends are dying off, one by one, with few remaining. His neighbors are kind. They care for him. And his officers – formerly his officers, that is, the ones he commanded and trained and polished carefully into the pride of the Guardia – they drop by, bringing vegetables harvested from their families’ gardens or other gifts: clothes and wooden carvings, magnificent ceramic bowls and, his favorite, books of fiction and poetry.

He had been embarrassed when they found out his secret pleasure, long before, but rather than finding it silly, those who knew him found it endearing and almost competed to bring him the latest books, or the rarest. And this helped him get through the first few years. But as he weakened further, and as he found himself suffering from a mind-killing insomnia, he truly began to wonder if it was not time to abandon this body and reenter the Wheel of Souls.

That is when the dreams began. That is when Mayumi, his dream-daughter, came into his life.

He cannot remember all the dreams, especially the early ones, but he is sure he remembers the first. He had been dreaming of some mysterious plunderer devouring his plants, night after night, and when he finally caught her, she had turned out to be a young girl, perhaps ten years old, wild-eyed and mute, with long furred ears. He brought her into his home, bathed her, dressed her, fed her. Her fear had quickly given way to a guarded trust, then attentive devotion, though it had been months before she smiled and finally spoke, telling him that her name was Mayumi.

He had found that, since Mayumi came into his life, he had slept like a stone in a gentle stream. Having someone to care for sent him to bed early, sleep effortlessly dragging him into its embrace. He had never married because the girl he had loved, in his youth, had chosen another, and he had never quite recovered from it. He had put all his energy into his work, and then, far too soon, his work was gone, leaving him with nothing. Mayumi gave him purpose again. And in the dreams she had laughed and cried, learned to control the white-hot rage that sometimes seized her, learned what he could teach her. He did not know much beyond the Guardia, however, so he taught her justice. His father, after all, had named him Sueyoshi: The Leading Edge of Justice. He tried to live up to that name, and to show her the same path he had learned.

She had learned well, and had become Guardia. But now…for months she has hardly been in his dreams. Only for moments does she find him, telling him she will find a way back to him, and then she is gone. Something has happened. Something has gone wrong. Or perhaps she has just become an adult, and gone off to her own life.

And he feels he has let her down as well. The insomnia is back, worse than ever. He does not sleep for days at a time. And his heart pains him. Although the cool air is a relief from the unseasonable warmth, he should not be working in the garden. And he must admit, he cannot save it on his own. He will have to call upon others for help. What point is there in going on if one cannot take care of one’s own garden? And though he has always refused even to consider whether or not Mayumi has some sort of real existence, he cannot stop the doubts that tell him he is losing his mind, imagining that which he could never have in reality.

Then, on the little low door set into the garden wall, the wooden catch rattles. The door begins to open, but it sticks, like always. But with effort someone pulls it open. Even this short visitor must duck her head to enter through that door, though her ears brush the lintel.

Her ears. Black-furred, rising from the sides of her head through straight black hair, parted in the middle to reveal a young, frightened face. For a moment, she looks just as she did when he found her in that first dream, seeking something but scared of what she will find. Then she sees him. Her eyes widen, her face lights up, though she is not smiling. She looks at him, almost unbelieving.

It is a dream. It must be. But that is no matter. It is so very, very good to see her. He stands, slowly, and then he feels that familiar pain, and things become dark.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“Mother!”

The loud, carrying voice is not directed toward him, obviously, but it rouses him nonetheless. Had he fallen asleep in the garden? Is this one of the neighbor girls calling for help? “I’m fine!” he insists. “Just…fell asleep.”

Then it registers: she had called “Mother!” in Urbia, not Japanese. But then the voice, more quietly, speaks to him in his native tongue, shaky and frightened. “Father…you’re going to be all right.”

The arm around his shoulders is strong, and he turns his head slightly to see the soft, black fur on the upper side of her forearm. He straightens, still sitting with his legs folded under, and looks at her face, tears filling her eyes.

“Mayumi?” He cannot summon any more words. It can’t be. It can’t be real. Have I died? They say that those who dream deeply live on in the land of dreams after death.

She nods. “I told you,” she says. “I told you I would find you.” She smiles weakly.

A shadow moves across them, and a cool hand touches his back. “Mayumi? What happened?”

Her eyes look up at the newcomer, past Sueyoshi’s shoulder. “He saw me and… I think he fainted.”

“I am all right.” His voice is weak, he knows, and he grows irritated with himself. “I…felt dizzy.” He shifts to look at this “Mother” and sees someone who is unmistakably a goddess. Her subtly luminous beauty, her hair white but not from age, her eyes glowing like copper reflecting the light of a crackling fire. “I have seen you…” A dream, almost forgotten, comes flooding back. The hawk that died. The black horse. The goddess on the hill. He looks back at Mayumi, stunned.

A touch of healing power reaches into him, like that of the Ebisu priest, but so much finer, gentler, as if being careful of his old heart. The dizziness disappears and he feels better than he has in years. He barely hears the goddess saying, “Emotions can be overwhelming. Where can we sit, Mayumi?”

They both help him stand, and Mayumi, murmuring, “Over here,” guides them to the wooden deck he built himself twenty years ago, after the old one had begun to rot. Up three steps and then they help him sit on a comfortable chair beneath the overhanging balcony above.

“I am fine, really…” And he is. He feels years younger. His head is still spinning, but it has nothing to do with his heart. How can this be real?

“I am sure you are,” the goddess says. “But you would be even better after a drink of water.”

Mayumi cries, “I’ll get it!” and dashes inside, for all the world as if she lives here.

Sueyoshi watches her go, then looks at the goddess in wonder. “Is this a dream? Or have I died?”

She smiles and shakes her head slowly. Though so pale that she seems almost transparent, her expression is warm. “No. This is the Wakenworld. I brought her to see you, as I said I would. It is her Year’s End gift.”

He nods. “You did.” Even using the more formal Urbia “you” sounds rude and inadequate to him. “Divine one, I cannot say how grateful–”

Mayumi returns, handing him water. “How are you feeling?” She says it in Japanese, in a familiar tone.

“I am well… You…are here.” It is half-question, half-statement.

“Yes.” She smiles, though her warring emotions render it fragile. Then looking from one to the other, she says, “Mother, this is…my father. Father, my mother is, well, a goddess… Her name is Alma.”

Sueyoshi nods. “Yes, we have met.” He looks at Alma, feeling now the slightest bit amused, her kindly manner toward him beginning to overcome his awe of her.

“A certain black stallion showed me this ward in a dream and told me where to find your father,” Alma explains.

Mayumi looks astonished, then pleased, causing Sueyoshi to wonder who this stallion might be. Some god, perhaps, who watches over her? “That was kind of him,” she says, then looks back at Sueyoshi. “I…I can’t believe it.” She smooths his longish grey-white hair, which he has allowed to grow out since his retirement. He feels conscious of his wrinkles. He wonders how she saw him in their dreams. He feels as if he might have been much younger, old enough to be her father, but not, as he is now, her grandfather. Her face flushes, her nose turning pink in the way it always did when she was fighting her way back from the verge of tears.

Sueyoshi takes her hand, comforting her by murmuring, “Yes, yes.” This radical adjustment in reality will, he is sure, take time to sink in, but it is time to treat it as being as real as it so obviously is. He asks Alma, “Divine one, can you both stay? I…I did not prepare the usual feast, being alone…but I can gather some things from the neighbors.”

Alma shakes her head. “I brought Mayumi here to spend the day with you. I, however, cannot stay. There is a family ceremony I must attend in the Second Ring.”

“You can’t stay?” Mayumi asks, distraught.

Alma shakes her head. “I am afraid not. Every year, on this day, all the Life and Death gods meet to part with old souls and prepare the new lives for the coming year. It is our most sacred ritual. And I will see many family members I have not seen in a whole year.”

Sueyoshi feels a pang of pride at seeing Mayumi’s disappointment turn to stoic acceptance. “Thank you, Mother. For bringing me here, for…” She closes her eyes, words failing her momentarily, then opens them again. “For everything. When will you return?”

Alma hesitates a moment, thinking. “Well before sunset, I think,” she says. “Enjoy your time here.”

Sueyoshi stands. He nearly sinks to the floor again in order to perform a full prostration of the deepest respect, but something about Mayumi’s closeness to her, the lack of formality, and what he remembers of the goddess from his dream makes him change his mind and instead perform only a standing bow, albeit one with his back fully bent, his palms pressed together in gassho, as if in prayer. “I will be more prepared when you return. Though whatever repast I have to offer will be far humbler than you deserve, I hope you will join us then. My deepest gratitude for this gift of time with one I have only known in dreams until now.”

He feels those cool hands on his shoulders, nudging him upright. He straightens slightly and raises his head to see her bowing herself, not deeply, but to him. A goddess, bowing to him. He feels reality crumbling further. But then, this is the person his daughter calls Mother, just as she calls him Father. What world has he tumbled into?

“It will be my honor to join you then,” Alma says. “And I assure you that I was never one for feasts. I prefer quiet moments.” She hesitates as if remembering something. “By the way…” She looks up, and Sueyoshi follows her gaze, to where a slightly darker patch of blue moves across the sky. It comes closer until it resolves into yet another figure from a dream, the phoenix, glittering in the sunlight, a flash of some jewel dangling from its neck catching his eye. The magnificent wings spread, cupping the air, and the bird lands on the almost-black age-gnarled branch of the sakura tree, the weight shaking the branch so that a number of rust-eaten leaves fall. The phoenix begins to preen its feathers back into place, the brown, tear-shaped gem at its throat gleaming. “I truly am sorry for your hawk,” the goddess says. “It seems that Starfax has guided him to…different skies.”

Sueyoshi realizes his mouth is open, and closes it. The hawk, yes, which he had found injured, which he had hoped to give to Mayumi, in dream at least, and which had died. “I am happy to know that poor but noble bird was helped by such a magnificent creature.”

His eye catches movement beyond the bird. The heads of his neighbors are peering over his wall, staring at the astonishing visitors, the white-haired goddess and the rabbit-eared girl. He glances at Alma, hoping she is not bothered by his nosy neighbors, but though the way her eyes crinkle in amusement shows she is aware of them, she does not seem to mind. She favors him with another smile, and turns to leave. “Have a lovely day, both of you. I will see you this late-afternoon.”

The wind picks up, and the air fills with the scents of the unblooming flowers of his garden. But they are not unblooming. Even those which are out of season are, within moments, budding and then opening fully. Leaves along nude branches burst out in seconds, healthy and green, and blossoms of cherry and plum are covering their trees as Alma walks past them. Around the edges of the garden, hydrangeas and cosmos bloom, and the other two trees are beginning to bear mikan and nashi, mandarins and pears.

By the time he looks back, he sees the goddess has already passed through the low doorway, gone, leaving behind her gift of life. He looks at that gift, beside him, smiling at him and taking his hand. He encloses her slender hand in his, the memories of walking with her, hand in hand, in her childhood, once again robbing him of the ability to speak.

On its perch, the phoenix Starfax prunes a rebellious feather back into perfection, and then with a glance of her ambarine eyes at Mayumi, opens her wings and takes off into the heights.

Ch6.43 Trust

The Year’s End. Renewal Week. Victory and Remembrance Week. New Year’s Dawning. Christmas. Prophet’s Ascension. Turning Time. Insular Equinox.

Many are the names by which this week is known around the Insula. It is a week like no other. For gods, mortals and all creatures in between, this week is the most sacred on the insular calendar. Many are the reasons for which it is celebrated. Some celebrate the greatest of victories over Hell’s devilish spawn, some celebrate the birth of prophets, others their death, others even their awakening to higher purposes. Some greet the spirits of their departed ancestors, some release them finally into non-existence. Some pray and fast, others are prayed to and feed hungrily on the concentrated prayers. Some make the mother of all parties to greet the new year, others see the dying year into its grave with solemn reverence. Some are busy fighting yearly battles to ensure the rising of a new sun, of a renewed moon, the resetting of the walls that keep Hell at bay. Some see to the birth of all that is new or the extinction of all that must be eliminated. It is a time for contemplation, for penitence, for sacrifice, for debauchery, for promises, for hope.

All over the great mountain hovering amidst the chaos that is the Void, this is the most magical time of all, the one that every soul must observe. And even for those who manage to remain atheist among so many divine beings, it is a week to be with one’s family, to enjoy street festivals and watch an old sun set for the last few times before it dies.

So join us now in our trip to the Insula Caelestis, the Island of Heavens, and the great city that sprawls over its mountainous profile. It has been a long time since we have seen it from such a distance. From here, among the stars, where the moon gods are carefully aligning their pale homes into neat patterns amidst the infinite swirling darkness of chaos, where Void Riders gallop to herd blooming pieces of reality toward the ever-growing mountain, we can see all of the immense Isle. It is a single peak, a volcano erupted from nothingness, angry and glorious and ever-young yet ancient, blooming with possibilities, with life, with that greatest of powers that goes so far beyond what can be touched, seen or measured. The power of thought, of creation, of things in waiting to be and do. The power of all that is in spirit, mind and body. The power from which all life and creation spring.

The power of Reality.

The mountain has existed since the dawning of time. It has seen many ages come and go, many different dwellers, many wars, many armageddons. Here, time has ended and begun, again and again. But let us not focus on the past. The mountain no longer spits fire from its churning belly. Its sides are cool, carved by mighty rivers, covered in forests, in grass, in sand, in cobblestone. Now, as we look at it, the Insula is inhabited by all kinds of creatures, magical and otherwise. Gods revered in many different worlds have their homes here, for gods seldom like to live away from their kind for too long. Immortality has its consequences. A certain distrust of change is one of them. And so gods find a haven in this divine home, where they can be as they always were even after their worshippers die off elsewhere, after mortals reinvent their gods or forsake them altogether, where Time and its swirling currents are less ruthless. And other, smaller gods, younger gods who have never known any other worlds, live here too. Along with the creatures of our Earthly myths, of other planets, with any being the mind can create. And mortals. Countless mortals. Humans, like us. And humans unlike us. Animals long extinct in this planet. Others yet to find their place among us. The Insula is very, very vast indeed.

And at its heart, at its beating, fiery, still booming heart, the hosts of Hell are imprisoned for their crimes. What crimes? Who knows? The original war was so long ago. The reasons are lost, the original victors long gone from the Insula, deceased or ascended into the Void as all truly ancient gods must. All we know now is that the gods won, the devils lost and the hatred remains. Old hatred, distilled by the eras, honed by age. Pure, immortal, without cause or meaning. Blind. Deaf. The kind that burns through reason, that festers through oblivion, that keeps Hell plotting and fighting, and Heaven fearing the return of its enemies.

Today, they are plotting as they always plot. Their agents are active, busy, hidden in plain sight among the crowd of innocents that is happily celebrating the coming of yet another year. But leave them be. In this story we weave, this account of a world so much like our own, even Hell will have its time to take the stage. Someday.

But not today. Today, great farming regions bless their newborn animals, metropolitan areas call priests to exorcise the accumulated negative energies of the old year. Oceanshore people send wooden canoes filled with flowers and food to ask for a bountiful year. In all five rings, from the poor, overcrowded skirts of the great mountain to the privileged mountaintop estates, today is a day of peace.

And, ah….here is what you have come in search for. The mountain has rotated and now we can see it. Down there, in the Fourth Ring, almost Fifth. A ward like any other ward. Poor and forgotten by the great gods of the higher rings. Well, mostly. Not completely. It has become rather interesting lately, don’t you agree? So busy. So… attractive, for some reason. Such a strange little place, to which trouble and intrigue seem to flow like a stream descending a steep hill.

Welcome to Three Rats. Let us walk its streets, busier today than any other day of the year. Decorated in garlands of bright colors, compacted earth roads sprinkled with colorful powders, flowers and sheets hanging from the balconies. Our feet take us through the darker alleys and out into the stone-floored plazas, around fountains, across the market, past derelict buildings. At the end of our journey, stands the Three Rats Guardia Station, newly painted unlike most other constructions in the area.

And just behind it, another building awaits. A brand new wooden sign hangs over a door. The image of a rabbit has been engraved and burnt onto it. From inside, the sounds of a party well on its way.

This is our true, final destination. Welcome to the Burrow.

Let us go in and join the party. The place is brightly decorated with paper garlands and signs announcing merry wishes in a variety of languages and religious tones. At a corner, a tree which has probably never seen brighter or greener fields (but certainly carries some level of genetic memory of such things) is leaning slightly against a wall in its red vase. Paper decorations and strings of popped corn hang from its crooked branches with all the mirth the poor plant can manage. A little orb of glowing, golden light hovers softly at the top, bathing the tree in glittering highlights. Under it, boxes and boxes, of all shapes and sizes and wrapped in all colors of paper are waiting to be delivered to their respective recipients. Many already have.

All around, the tables are covered in hand-painted paper towels. A tall, thick candle shines in the center of each of them. Plates with pastries and salads, meats and appetizers have been placed on every available surface and some are even now empty, in need of being replaced with the next delicacy.

Everyone looks happy to be here. Conversations buzz and sizzle between the various guests. The mortal officers that man the station next door all have dropped by to join in the celebrations. Some are just taking a brief moment of pause from their shifts. The station cannot be left unattended, after all. But most of them are not on duty at all. They have just come to spend some time with their colleagues after enjoying a warm family gathering at home. For this is their family as well, bound not by blood but by hardship, by the everyday sharing of a common, dangerous burden. They are the guardians of others, keepers of peace, vigilants of all hours. And no one can truly understand their struggles and fears but those who see the streets through the same darkly tinted eyes that have seen the worst a mind can throw at the world.

Our Bunnies look radiant. Surprised a few hours ago with gifts from their favorite god of magic, each of them is wearing a brand new outfit, of fine cloth and carefully designed to fit their bodies and personalities. A short dress with a pleated skirt for Rosemary, a pair of close-fitting trousers and a stylish vest for Cherry, an adorable frilly ensemble for Tulip. Ah, and a simple, demure summery dress with a knee-length skirt for Mayumi. She was difficult to plan for… A fine shirt and tailored pants for Sage, shorts for Kori and Chime. They look like the stars that they are in this celebration that, this year, is all about them.

And the gods? Well, two of them are currently in the kitchen and trying to make their way in and out of it, carrying trays of food and empty glasses for refilling. Even gods should be helpful, after all. The space behind the counter is small for the five people currently in it. Sky has to lift the tray that Merri has just prepared for him so that Alma won’t hit it as she squeezes past him on her way back out of the kitchen. The goddess doesn’t even hesitate before ducking under his arm. It is almost like a dance.

“Ye look like ye been at this for years!” Merri notes, laughing happily.

“It does feel like years, doesn’t it?” Alma says with a soft laugh, stopping to look at god and Bunny. “Who would imagine it was only months?”

Sky nods. “Teamwork! Ends up working in all sorts of – yow!”

Two dashing figures nearly trip him on his wait of the kitchen. It seems that Tulip and Chime expect everyone to be as agile as themselves. The tray in Sky’s hand wobbles dangerously but here is another helping hand to catch it and smoothly lower it to a table nearby.

“Guess Master Pak can’t hang up his shoes yet,” Dion comments with a chuckle as he samples the little balls made of chocolate and condensed milk paste sitting on the tray that Sky was carrying.

The tall god looks at him appreciatively. “Nice catch – yeah, I still need dancing lessons from him.”

“Well, I could offer to teach you, but you seem to have picked a partner already,” Alma teases as she brushes by carrying a jar of fruit juice. She stops, her nose twitching. “Wait a minute…” She stands on tiptoes to sniffs Sky’s neck, grinning mischievously as she asks, “Wearing scents now, are we?”

Poor Sky… His face reddens almost immediately. “Well, uhm…”

“Now, ye’ve gone and made ‘im turn red,” a giggling Merri says, watching the scene from just a few steps away.

“Oh…” Alma chuckles. “Well, I think it suits your personality. And it’s very pleasant, indeed.”

“Aye. Fer Bunny noses too,” Merri notes with a wink at a red, red Sky.

Maybe it is best to leave our sheepish Inspector for now. Something you should see is happening just across the room, where most of the Popula have been enjoying their time off and talking about…well, mostly about work. The Guardia, like so many other professions, tends to become food, drink and air for the people in it. But at times like this, they mostly share the funny stories, the little everyday events that make people laugh. Machado, Aliyah, Cala, Wallace, you know them all. There are a few others too. Like Kiko Silva and Harinder Patel, from the night shift, both young constables, both arrived from the Academy less than a year ago. We don’t know them very well yet but give it time. They will find their voices. They all do. Like Deesh. Remember Deesh, kind, quiet, red-skinned and tongueless Deesh? He is here too, smiling and laughing silently at his fellow officers’ stories. And Syro…well, he is not truly Popula but he is just as Guardia as all the others. He does not have as many tales to share but he is quite happy just listening while tinkering with a small collection of fine tools and gauges he has just been gifted by the Dei.

Their happy laughter dwindles for a moment at the mention of an old story, from the times of the old station, before the Dei arrived here. The Popula go silent. The last year has brought many good things but it has taken good away as well. A reverent pause in remembrance of their fallen companions. Stathos and his family are quietly revived in a solemn toast. All but Cala join in. Her faith has her fasting during the day, this week, and never allows for alcohol in any case. But she closes her eyes in prayer.

There is someone missing. Where is our beloved Nataniel? The new clinic, the only real place where mortals can go for proper medical treatment in this ward has been keeping him quite busy. Three Rats has many people who cannot afford to be sick or hurt. And the neighboring wards are just learning about Nataniel’s clinic. The people who live closer to the borders are beginning to flock to the already overworked doctor’s doorstep.

But he seems to have managed to pry himself from the clinic. The bar door has just opened to let him through. He looks flustered with the effort of rushing not to be too late for the party but his lips part into a bright, friendly smile at the immediate cry of “Nate!” that the Popula shower him with. He may not like being called Nate but he loves his friends. And this is home.

His eyes widen at the sight of a god of beer dressed in a velvety ale-colored suit trimmed in white faux fur, plush jacket open around his beer belly, silly hat topped with a fuzzy pompom and tilted over an eye, walking around with a load of presents cradled on his thick, heavy arms, handing out Ho-ho-ho’s and colorfully-wrapped boxes. Breowan seems to be having fun with Sky’s imported customs. And everyone is already talking about making it a yearly tradition. Maybe Brew will bring good little boys and girls some customized beer mugs next year.

But back to Nataniel. He seems to have just remembered something very important. Such as the fact that, with all his work and distractions, he has not bought any gifts to give. Seeing his panic, Aliyah rushes to his side and envelops him in a tight, friendly hug that leaves the man’s chin pressed against the tall woman’s collarbone.

“Pretend I’m just sayin’ hello and tell me real quick: what did ya get for Cala?” she asks in a slightly too-loud whisper.

“I, uhh…” Nataniel hesitates but it is useless to deny it. His head hangs helplessly as they straighten from the embrace. “Nada. No me acordé.

“Oh man…you are gonna owe me.” Aliyah chuckles and rubs the back of her head before putting a hand on his back and guiding him toward the others. As they walk past a chair covered in wrapped presents, she takes a thin box decorated with a purplish ribbon and touches it to his back so he will take it. “She was lookin at that in a shop window the other day,” she tells him, mouth barely moving with the words. “Merci’s, if she asks.”

Nataniel stops and looks at her in shock. “Oh, Aliyah.. No…No puedo… I can’t…”

Aliyah immediately puts her hands on his shoulders to force him to turn and walk again. “Will you stop makin’ a scene?” She asks through a smile that is all teeth. Then she laughs nervously before whispering, “Here we go. Pretend I didn’t tell you that she smiles silly at you when she thinks you ain’t lookin.”

If the good doctor were not completely befuddled before, he surely is now. His handsome countryside-tan face has turned a nice dark raspberry shade and his mouth is drier than many deserts out there. And now his gaze is fixed on a certain large and curvy corporal that turns his head like no goddess of classical beauty has yet managed to do. It seems our kind and shy Nataniel has a little unconfessed office infatuation going on behind those friendly brown eyes.

“For you,” Cala says to him, holding up a soft package wrapped in blue crepe paper. “I saw you needed a new one to wear at the clinic.”

Nataniel takes it with his right hand, his left one nervously appearing from behind his back, where it has been holding the package Aliyah so selflessly gave to him. He holds the thin box in front of him as if it might explode if he so much as looks at it. “For you. Because… I see you… saw it … at Merci’s…thing.”

By his side, Aliyah’s hand moves to cover her eyes so quickly that she nearly slaps herself. Too late, she remembers herself and instantly puts her hand behind her back, failing very badly to look innocent when Cala glances a question at her.

Now, a good, experienced Guardia is not easy to fool. It takes the sensible, intelligent corporal less than a second to realize what is going on. But she plays along and unwraps her gift, smiling at the wine-red shawl lying inside the box. “It is very beautiful, Nate. Just what I was wanting.”

She kisses Nataniel’s cheek in a common sign of affection for both their cultures. Still, it nearly makes him drop his brand new surgical pajamas. Cala took some time embroidering his name on the shirt pocket. “I…thank you. I was really needing these.”

Aliyah tries not to laugh but her broad smile betrays her amusement. At a sign from Machado, she moves past Cala, winking at the corporal and quickening her step when Cala squints at her and reaches out to lightly slap her rear. After a chuckle and a few meaningful glances that make two pairs of cheeks warmer, the mortal pair is not-so-subtly left alone in the middle of the crowd.

Such a lovely scene… And such a lively party. It is hard to keep track of all that is going on in the room. Conversations fill the air, too many to follow. Food is being eaten, drinks are being drunk, gifts are being gifted.

And look at that! Young Tulip is ecstatic with all the presents she has been receiving. This is her first Year’s End, after all. She is currently on the worn-out sofa, showing Saira all the brand new crayons and watercolors that Sky has gifted her with. And the great Tales of the Urbis book that her mother bought for her. And the beautiful, flowery purse that Sage took so much care in sewing. The pretty headband that Cala found at a used-items shop. Oh, and the gift of gifts: the dress that Dion designed and that makes her growing, adolescent curves look a little less childish. The young Bunny cannot stop smiling and hopping happily around and poking people to show them her brand new treasures. In the blink of an eye, she is leaving Saira alone again to go and gawk at the simple capoeira outfit that Sergeant Machado has customized for Kori. But Saira is not alone. Chime is with her, rehearsing a few bars on a shiny new harmonica. Breowan is lounging on the sofa too, his jolly hat perching on his knee, jacket now fully unbuttoned to reveal a slightly, just slightly stained undershirt, hand curled around a frosty beer mug.

And Lexie, you ask? Well, the fluffy cat has decided that this is just too much agitation for her a few hours ago and is currently relaxing in the peaceful haven of Alma’s bedroom.

Speaking of Alma…where is our lovely death goddess? Ah! There she is! Right by the bar, enjoying a drink with Sky and Dion and radiant with all the happiness that fills the room. The three Dei look around them, at the buzzing party, and then at each other with contented sighs and shaking heads like old veterans watching children play. Any of them has seen more Year’s Ends than two or three of the other merrymakers combined. But this is something new for them as well. It is their first Year’s End together, in Three Rats and with all of the Bunnies and humans of the station. And what a year it has been for them! Less than a year, actually. Much, much less.

So much has happened, so many ups and downs. They raise their glasses in that quiet toast of friends of a lifetime that says We survived another one and drink in tranquil fraternity.

Sky is the first to break the silence. “Well, uh…Alma. I have something for you.” He is carrying a purple felt bag that bulges with an ominous curvature. He holds it up for Alma to take.

The goddess looks at the bag, which looks strained by heavy contents, and carefully takes it, feeling its weight. “I hope it’s not a ball and chain,” she jests as she opens it and peeks inside. With an expression of great curiosity, she places the bag on the bar counter and carefully slides it down to reveal a blueish sphere about the size of a cantaloupe. Her eyes widen at the beauty of the hollow, handcrafted orb, filled with clear water and lined with a sandy bed and some pretty rocks decorated with flowing seaweed. “Oh, Sky… It’s beautiful. What is it?”

The god’s dark skin takes on a slightly redder shade at her sincere admiration of it. “I found the sphere while shopping with Dion,” he explains. “I was able to fill it with seawater, and a very careful balance of plants and tiny sea life, sand, shells. If I did it right, and it receives the right amount of sunlight, it should last many years. Uh, only in a high-magic environment, though.”

Alma seems entranced by the exquisite mini-habitat. Even her eyes smile in awe as if she were a child looking at an aquarium for the first time. “Oh, look!” she cries, pointing a few glittering shapes out to Dion. “There’s even fish!”

Sky nods. “Yes, teeny tiny ones. They glow in the dark.”

“Oh, I love it! And I know exactly where to put it!” Alma hugs him happily with a single arm. Her other hand is currently too busy making sure the orb doesn’t roll off the counter. “Thank you.”

“It seems that Mister Cannot Choose a Present to Save His Life was just goading us all along,” Dion notes with a chuckle.

“Ah…I really am terrible at it,” Sky insists, absentmindedly rubbing the back of his neck, his eyes flicking down for a moment in an endearing show of shyness. He seems to remember something. “Oh…I have something for you as well.” A quick trip to the makeshift Christmas tree and he returns holding a small wrapped packet, that feels compact and solid when Dion takes it. “I hope you like it.”

Beneath the simple paper, a wood box carved with intricate knotted patterns lies in waiting. “Beautiful craftsmanship,” Dion compliments it. His uncle has always favored these designs. For some reason, they seem like something that is very intrinsically theirs. Inside the box, there is a small, thin, double-edged dagger with no handguard and a handle carved to look as if it were wrapped in leather straps, now polished and worn with age and wear. Its sheath is made of engraved leather. Dion whistles quietly under his breath as he inspects it. “Gorgeous. Should make for a loyal secondary blade.” He pats Sky’s shoulder in friendly appreciation. “Thank you very much, Sky. I really like it. I just hope it doesn’t mean you have a good reason for me to need it anytime soon.”

“Considering the way things have gone in our lives?” They both chuckle at the little attempt at comedy. “It’s usually tucked into a boot top, traditionally, but it’s a good jacket-pocket blade. Called a sgian-dubh. It was a present to me long ago.”

Dion looks concerned at the revelation and carefully puts the knife down on the counter. “Oh Sky… I certainly don’t want to deprive you of a good memory…”

Sky shakes his head, smiling and gently pushes the dagger closer to Dion. “The way I look at it, it’ll serve me even better in your keeping than in my own. To know a friend has it, and that it might help him in a tight spot – that gives me comfort.” He shrugs. “You know how I tend to worry.”

Dion’s next exhalation is short, quick like a mocking snort but his eyes betray his esteem of the god of rebellion and his precious gift. He stores the dagger in his shirt pocket and pats it. “Thank you.”

Alma watches the scene with tenderness. One of her hands is twitching as if wants to be somewhere else, like stroking a certain magic god’s back, but instinct is trumped by reason this time and it stays where it is. Well…for a little while. Alma needs it to hold a wide, rectangular box that has been waiting for her, behind the bar. She sets the mysterious gift on the counter, just in front of Sky. “Speaking of tight spots, that takes us to your gift, Sky. We hope you like it and that it serves you well.”

Sky looks a question at her before opening his present. “Oh…” He looks surprised but pleased to see what almost looks like a casual jacket neatly folded inside. It is impeccably trimmed, modern and stylish and, of course, Guardia Dei blue. “Oh now that…that is beautiful.” He carefully pulls it out of the box, as if it might fall apart in his hands. The sleek jacket artfully crafted with many visible and hidden pockets and tailor-made to fit the Inspector’s long arms and beefy, somewhere-between-fit-and-fat torso looks more like something to wear on a fun night out than what it actually is: an armoured jacket. Whoever said that one cannot look good while walking into a fight? “It’s so much lighter than my old one but…” He strokes the fabric with his fingertips. “Is that Balva mesh?”

Dion shakes his head. “Ballion, a hybrid of it. Less vulnerable to piercing tips but not as flexible. Fortunately, you don’t seem to favor the more…flowing designs. It should manage to keep you safe when you forget to keep your guard up. Even cutting and sewing it is a nightmare.”

“Gwydion infused it with all sorts of protectives charms as well,” Alma adds. She urges Sky to get himself into the jacket. “Come on, try it on. It should look a lot better on you than that ugly thing you requested from Headquarters.”

“Oh, I suppose the one from HQ can be a backup, if they ever send it,” the god notes, slipping an arm into a sleeve.

Dion clears his throat with a meaningful, complicit glance at Alma that has the goddess chuckling. “I am afraid your request for a new one got…misplaced, somehow.”

But Sky doesn’t even seem to have heard him. He is too busy twisting this way and that, rolling his shoulders and raising his arms, flexing his elbows and somehow trying to bend his neck in ways that it is not meant to, in an effort to look down his own back. “Oh, this fits perfectly. It’s plenty flexible enough for me.” He looks at both his sergeants with tender appreciation. Are those tears welling up in his eyes? “Thank you both. You went to so much trouble. I love it.”

“Oh, all we had to do was misplace the little piece of paper with your measurements,” Dion says with his usual nonchalance as he takes a sip of his wine.

Alma is smiling and enjoying her cocktail, some new invention of Cherry’s. The joy around her truly warms her heart. But the occasional, subtle look toward the door that leads outside betrays a twinge of anxiety. Someone seems to be late.

She puts her glass down and turns to Dion. She has a gift left to give. “Well, now, what did I get for the god who has everything?”

“Hopefully not a bottomless chest,” is the god’s immediate, well-humored response.

“Not quite,” she replies with a chuckle. Holding one of her hands out, the other forgotten behind her back, she adds, “For my next trick, I will need your wrist, please.”

Dion looks at her open hand and raises his eyebrows in mock concern. “Uhm… Sky, could you check if she’s hiding a saw behind her back, please? I’m not so sure about this present.”

“A saw? Or perhaps a pair of shackles?” Sky chuckles and makes a show of peeking behind her back and shaking his head reassuringly at Dion.

“Oh, you two are just silly!” Alma complains. But she is not upset with them at all. Still, the goddess is looking a little nervous about this gift and when Dion holds out his wrist, she cannot help but confess as she places her hands on either side of it, thumbs touching the skin, “I hope I get it right… I did not have much chance to practice on proper subjects.”

Dion’s wrist moves back immediately. “Well, then maybe…”

But it is too late. Alma is already gripping it firmly. “Shh… I need to focus,” she admonishes him.

What happens next is a little thing of wonder. A soft scent of flowers and grass wafts in the air as Alma’s life sphere is activated. Soon, her fingers begin to glow with a coppery light that stretches in many, many lazy tendrils, twisted and intertwining, tracing complicated patterns on Dion’s skin, curling around his wrist. The brilliant light starts dulling and fading almost immediately, revealing a slim, flexible bracelet, almost like tree-bark tanned as if it were leather. On it, over a background of browns and greens, a golden, metal charm of a dragon curls in sleep, its spine traced in tiny reddish beads.

Alma looks at the final result of her efforts as if she cannot believe this is her own doing. “It worked…” she breathes.

She is not the only one who looks impressed and pleased with the final result. Dion brings his wrist closer to his face so he can admire the fine details, his fingers tracing the delicate twirls of the sturdy fabric that binds his wrist and testing the simple clasp that keeps the bracelet in place. “It surely is unique. And beautiful. Thank you.”

That has Alma smiling with ill-disguised pride. “It is also alive and aligned with you. And if you rub the beads in a pattern like so…” she taps the head of the dragon charm and then traces its spine from tail to neck, “music begins to play.”

“That is some very complex life magic,” Sky says when the music starts. “Amazing.”

It is a soft song, simple but very pretty. Like a nursery rhyme. The kind of thing that we hear in youth and then seem to forget until the time comes to sing it to our own children. It makes Dion’s eyes widen in surprise and confusion at something he did not know he remembered. “I…I think I know this song.”

“I hope you do. All the songs it plays are drawn from your memory,” Alma explains. “Things you’ve heard, even if long ago. Lullabies, nursery rhymes, songs from your first night out. Mother made one for me ages ago but…it can’t be made beforehand.” She strokes the bracelet, making sure she can’t spot any flaws in it. “It needs to be woven around its wearer to work properly. I’m glad you like it.”

A mocking frown and she holds a finger up at Dion in false scolding. “You are not easy to shop for.”

The song that Dion did not expect seems to have moved him deeply, even if he does not quite understand why. Still, he chuckles at Alma’s taunting. “I’m not sure I can top this but…” he produces a long, exquisitely wrapped box from a jacket pocket. “I hope you will like this.”

Alma unwraps and opens it, peeking inside with curiosity to find a beautiful crystal flask shaped like an elongated teardrop. She opens the flask and takes a whiff, closing her eyes in pleasure at the soft, willowy scent with notes of lilac and jasmine that take her back to sunny days of reading in her mother’s garden. “Oh… this brings back memories. I love it. It’s so light.”

She does not really see the small empathetic smile and nod that Sky gives to a very glad Dion. “I’m going to go show off my lovely jacket.” The tall Inspector knows to flee a scene before he becomes one witness too many to clandestine romance. “Thank you both, from the bottom of my heart.”

He moves away from his sergeants after a nod from Dion and a gentle pat on the arm from Alma. A subtle glance over his shoulder will tell him that he was right to leave. The couple is already lost in its little bubble of sweet, low-voice words and tender looks that are lipless kisses all of their own.

But, look out, Sky! Too long a glance and you will bump right into Mayumi, right in front of you!

Oh, good… He has managed to turn just in time. Collision is averted. A quick look around the god’s torso to see what he was looking at and May’s eyes are on his, exchanging a knowing smile with him that is like a shared secret. She takes his hand and guides him to a slightly less-crowded corner of the room.

“Thank you for the stationery,” she says in a voice that carries a note of uncertainty. “It’s really beautiful.”

“It’s enchanted,” Sky explains. “After you finish writing, it will disappear, and then appear in my office.”

“Oh…” Mayumi’s lips curl into a soft smile as realization dawns. “I suppose this means I’ll be writing a lot then.”

Gladness and sadness in her voice. Soon, Three Rats will be saying goodbye to one of our Bunnies. But worry not. The others will not forget about her so easily. And neither will we.

Let us leave her to enjoy as much of Sky’s loving company as she can. The sun is beginning to set outside and one of our more noctivagous friends is beginning to look a bit impatient. Saira is growing tired of so many people and so much friendliness all at once. This many people in one room usually means a fight to her.

So she is looking toward the stairs that lead up toward the first floor, thinking of going up on the roof to catch a breath of slightly less second-lung air. But someone is about to delay her plans. Cherry has just taken a seat by the unsettled assassin and is leaning against her shoulder. She is carrying a small box that she hands to Saira.

“Here, hon,” the Bunny says. “For you from all of us.”

Saira looks at the box as if it might snap a toothed lid and bite her hand off. She doesn’t take it. She barely even seems to breathe. “Why?”

“Snap! Because we love you, of course!” Cherry replies as if even asking is nonsense. She takes Saira’s hand and places the box in the woman’s palm. “Come on, open it.”

Saira does. Slowly, carefully. Inside the simple box lies a silvery locket, not much bigger than a quail’s egg. Its surface is delicately engraved with the image of a perching bird calmly grooming its feathers. It looks exquisite and expensive and fit for a goddess. Certainly not for a lowly mortal like Saira. Or at least that is what she thinks. People can be pretty silly about those things.

She glances at where Alma is still sharing a drink and a conversation with Dion. Cherry sees where she is looking and answers the question that Saira does not ask.

“Mom gave the locket, Dion threw his mojo on it. Everyone else…” she picks up the little piece of jewelry and opens it. Inside, soft lights project three-dimensional images, holograms of every member of the Three Rats Station family. Even Lexie is there. “We kinda gave ourselves. Everyone thought it should be me to give it to you.”

Saira takes a long time to find her voice again. It is difficult to find words when half of us wants to cry with bliss and the other half is trying to run for the hills. This stay of hers here has shaken beliefs that she thought were indestructible. And now, she does not quite know what to do with herself anymore. “It’s…pretty. Thanks,” she finally says, looking sideways at Cherry. “So, you’re callin’ her Mom now?”

The Bunny shrugs. “Eh, I’m warmin’ up to it. It’s nice havin’ a mom. Ain’t never had it before, you know?” She smiles apologetically at Saira and the woman can’t help but ruffle up her hair, making her pull away in fake irritation. “Hey! Don’t mess with the hair! That’s definitely not the right way to mess with a girl’s curls.”

That has Saira laughing. And suddenly, Rosemary is standing just in front of them and grabbing Cherry by the hands.

“Och, have ye forgotten, ye daftie? We need to show darlin’ Geryon his gift!” she exclaims.

Cherry’s eyes widen. Her full lips curve in a perfect circle. “Oooooh, right! Gotta go do that!” She gives Saira a quick peck on the cheek. “Gotta go, babe. Talk later.”

And then, they are off to find their furred and feathered lover, who has been solemnly posing for another one of Tulip’s drawings. Each of Alma’s oldest daughters grabs one of his forelimbs and they both cajole and drag him, past the couch – huh…where has Saira gone? She was just there a minute ago – and in the general direction of the stairs that lead up, where all the bedrooms are. The gryphon looks rather enticed by such a treatment.

But look, Tulip is coming along. And Sage and Aliyah and May and Sky. And Dion and Alma too. Geryon’s initial excitement is quickly fading away. It seems that he is not getting the present he was expecting. Such is life. But a room of his own is not a bad present to get at all. Will he like it?

Guess we will have to return later and find out. For now, it is time to make a little pause, stretch our legs, go outside, enjoy the sunshine and let this enchanting scene fade to black.