The stack of books is like a fortress tower, looming beside Mayumi’s elbow. She keeps meaning to put them on the shelf, the shelf right in front of her, certainly a more convenient location and far easier to pull a book out for consultation. Yet she keeps them in a stack. She has no time! No time to clean up, no time to eat, no time to sleep. She forgot to brush her teeth this morning and all day she’s felt on her teeth the growing accumulation of the residue of gulped-down food snatched in passing from the Popula cafeteria as she rushed from classroom to classroom. She thinks she may have accidentally eaten a bun with bacon in it. Her herbivorous stomach has been making the most amazing rumblings. One of the instructors stopped in mid-sentence and looked toward her in shock after one particularly loud gurgling that sounded like an attempt to summon some kind of frog-demon. The entire class had had a good laugh over that.
It is the second day of the Academy. The first day of classes. Two hundred fifteen days to go.
A mere six months to prepare a Guardia for a thousand possible situations, fantastically different wards, a purposefully convoluted system of law that even Voices, the lawyers of the world, can never fully comprehend. Indeed, sixty years would not be enough, but a focus on the true basics – how to approach, how to be flexible, how to take control of a dangerous situation while still serving the public good – means a generalist approach, molding recruits into cops who must think, not merely follow rules. It’s the only way it can work.
The side of her head leaning against a hand, her fingers in her straight black hair, Mayumi studies the passages. She remembers this from her dream-life. Not the passages, not exactly, but the way the teachers seemed to delight in the students’ collective gasp when they gave out the first-day reading assignment. The big pile of books on the desk, the teacher sitting beside it, grinning like a wolf looking at a bunch of sheep trapped in a pen. “You’ll have read Mbuti, Spinnocci, Cao Fu, al Bishi, Hartono, Vasconcelos, and Butler…by tomorrow.” Gasp! “There will be a test.” Groan!
She knows it will get easier. Cadets will get used to the workload, but also the workload will ease off, at least in the amount of reading, moving more into practical training. The initial data dump is meant both the provide a theoretical basis to what they learn later, and to kick loose anyone who doesn’t truly want to be here. The Guardia doesn’t really need people who can absorb useful information from five chapters and two entire books overnight – for a single class – but it does need people who will try their hardest.
Unfortunately, hard-working doesn’t necessarily translate to kind-hearted. Most of the courses have Assistant-Instructors, and Mayumi felt her heart sink this morning when the syllabus for “Basics of Criminal Psychology” landed on her desk and an oily voice puffed against the fur of her ear. “Hello there, Bunny.”
She couldn’t stop her ear from flinching back, but she kept herself composed otherwise. She’d been half expecting this. Standing up to bullies always comes with a cost. “It’s pronounced Ishijima, Assistant-Instructor Pringle.”
“Guess who’ll be grading the test, Bunny.” Pringle grinned cruelly at her.
Mayumi looked around at the enormous classroom. Some students were standing because there weren’t enough desks. The Guardia had lost a lot of officers in the Shard War, and the cap on the number of recruits must have been raised. She would have to remember to get to classes early to be sure of a seat. But to Pringle, she said, “That looks like a lot of work, Assistant-Instructor. I’ll write my answers extra clearly, for your tired eyes.”
Remembering the confused look on his face, brought forth by her sympathetic smile, makes her chuckle now, in her room. Then her stomach rumbles again, not in hunger at all, sounding like eighteen unoiled doors creaking in the wind at once. She clutches it in discomfort.
“Hey! If you explode and spray your organs all over the walls, you are gonna have to clean it up yourself!” Pari is on her bed, the smaller, upper bunk, large enough for a pair of very friendly humans and nearly big enough to be an apartment in itself for the pixie. She is sitting in front of a thick hardcover book, heavier than herself, propped open against a pillow. As Mayumi glances over at her, Pari falls backwards to lie on the bed, staring at the ceiling, arms open. “Ugh. Booooooring! Why do I need to know all this junk? Half of this stuff will never apply to me, anyway!”
Mayumi asks, “Why is that?” She is trying to read and talk at the same time.
Pari flips over onto her stomach and props her chin on her hands. Her tiny body and ability to levitate allow her to move in unexpected ways. “You haven’t been payin’ attention, have you? I’m a pixie? Pixies don’t fight. They barely get in trouble with the law.”
“But what if you’re posted to another ward?” Mayumi points out.
Tapping the side of her disproportionately large skull, the pixie says, “Then I’ll make sure I use my head and break theirs!” She chuckles at her own joke, but Mayumi has already become absorbed in her class notes again. Moments later, Pari’s high-pitched voice startles her at its nearness as the pixie lands on Mayumi’s desk. “So what’s gotten you so interes– Hey, those are Dei books! Are those your mom’s?” She pulls one out from near the bottom of the stack, forcing Mayumi to catch and rebalance the rest. Pari starts flipping through it.
“That one is on use of force,” Mayumi says. “About two-thirds of it is not really applicable to Popula, but it’s an interesting read anyway.”
“Think there’s cheat sheets in these?” With her tiny hands, turning the pages takes effort, and Pari creases a page. Mayumi’s hand grasps the top edge of the book, and she looks over it at Pari.
“There are plenty of notes slipped in between pages,” she says. “Though never written in the margins. Mother respects books deeply, and I hope to return these to her in the same condition as when she gave them into my care.” Mayumi pauses, looking at Pari seriously. “Her notes will be at least as helpful to you as they are to me. Probably more. Would you like to study them?”
“I don’t know,” Pari growls, crossing her arms. “Might get some legendary Death goddess sicced on me if I make a crease in a page or something…”
“The books are my responsibility, and any damage will be mine alone to admit to. But just…” Mayumi pauses. “As a friend? Be careful with them.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Pari dismisses it, flipping through another page or two to look at the little pieces of paper written in Alma’s small, careful handwriting. “Ooooh – hey, what’s that?” She picks up a slightly thicker piece of paper that has fallen from between two pages and turns it. “Oh, that ain’t notes. It’s just an old picture.” She tosses it aside, apparently casually, but in Mayumi’s general direction.
Mayumi picks it up. The Insula, with its varying levels of magical and technological potential in different regions, has numerous methods for making visual reproductions. This picture seems to have been taken via a camera of some sort, developed on a chemically treated film. It is strangely thick. She studies it, having to hold it away slightly. I’m not as farsighted as Cherry, but I really should get reading glasses, she thinks. Then she recognizes one of the two figures. “Oh…that’s Mother. And…someone?”
Suddenly Pari is at her shoulder, hovering, that inaudible hum in the air tickling Mayumi’s cheek. “Oh… Well, they’re both in Academy uniforms so…classmate? Which one’s your mom?”
A smile dawns on Mayumi’s face, attended by a feeling of real joy. “On the left, with the white hair. She styled it differently then.”
Alma looks at the camera, as ethereal in beauty as ever despite the simple Dei cadet uniform. Her eyes are blue, the same eyes she had until just three nights ago when she returned, strangely changed, from her Death Clan meeting. Mayumi wonders if she will ever see those blue eyes again, or if her mother has been forever altered. She touches the surface of the picture, tracing her finger along Alma’s hair, remembering how silky it felt when she was held by her mother.
“Huh…she looks kinda sad a bit, don’t ya think?” Pari asks.
Mayumi nods. “She…often does.” In fact there is an air of melancholy around Alma at most times, a beautiful sadness that makes all all her progeny want to be near her, to elicit a smile like the sun breaking through a calm grey sky. Such smiles feel like victories.
Pari looks at the picture, then at Mayumi. “Well, pretty sure the wolf-chick next her ain’t your dad. You take after him, then? ‘Cuz…you look nothing like her. And I ain’t just talkin’ about the ears and all.”
Mayumi laughs. “Well, none of us looks like her, except for the youngest, who looks almost exactly like her. As for our father…I’m afraid I don’t look anything like him, either.”
Pari raises an eyebrow. “You sure he’s your dad? Gods are weird sometimes.”
“Gods are indeed quite unusual,” Mayumi agrees. “And we aren’t exactly related to either of them in the usual way. From what I understand…we simply appeared after they, well, made love.”
“Oh…Sheesh, makes you think twice before gettin’ into bed with a guy.” Pari looks at the picture. “Or a girl. That one’s looking at your mom like she’d go for it.”
Mayumi looks again. “Oh…yes… I see what you mean. She’s not just a classmate, is she?” The woman has wolf ears in the same way Mayumi has bunny ears, and there is a luxuriantly furred tail behind her legs. She is looking at Alma with a cajoling grin, as if saying, ‘Come on, let’s have some fun!’ But her eyes look almost desperate, questioning, with canine devotion. ‘Do you love me? Do you love me?’ “Perhaps she is the Pavia who lived here with Mother.”
Pari looks back at the bunk beds. “Think they uh… Saved on detergent for the sheets?
That makes Mayumi smile again. “I hope they made each other happy. But now they’re apart.” Her smile fades. “The Academy…six months is a long time, and yet no time at all.”
“Yeah, but don’t you go looking at me funny. I’m not playin’ on that field.” She looks at the beds again. “Ugh…Hope they did it on your bed.”
Mayumi snorts, looking at the beds, too. “Probably – mine has more space. Anyway, it was over twenty years ago. I have a feeling both of those beds have played host to numerous couples in the years since. Roommates or otherwise.”
The look of disgust on Pari’s face makes Mayumi laugh. “Ugh! Way to keep me awake tonight! Anyway, if they’re not together anymore, who’s workin’ with your mom these days?”
Mayumi goes to her closet, where she’s deposited her dufflebag. She has only hung up about half her clothes, which is not many, and out of it she pulls a case from which she retrieves a small album of pictures. She brings it back to the desk and opens it to show Pari. The image looks different, almost painted, achieved as it is via a simple sort of magic rather than chemistry. “This is Mother now. And this is her with Gwydion and Tuma-Sukai. Sky. He’s the Inspector, while they are Sergeants.”
“So, she has two guys now instead of a girl? And check out how happy she looks, huh? Huh?”
Mayumi laughs again, shaking her head. “She and Sky are not lovers. Though they care for each other a great deal.”
“They sure look like lovers to me. And hey, if you’re sayin’ she’s not lovers with the tall dark guy, she must be with Mister Hot Pants over there.” Pari points at Dion. “He looks like a real piece of work.”
Mayumi nods. “I did not know what to make of him at first. But he has saved my life, and the lives of my siblings, more than once. And, well, he has changed.”
“What, like turned into a cactus or somethin’?”
“He… He seemed to think only of himself at first. I don’t think he feels that way anymore.” She smiles at all three of them, seeming to belong together, like some trio out of legend.
“You have the hots for him, is that it?” Pari nudges her. “Come on, admit it! Or do you like the big guy instead? Hey are you blushing?! Oh you do!”
Mayumi feels the warmth in her face. “Sky and I have been…trying to decide what to do about our feelings for each other. I don’t know how that will go.” She turns the page to a picture of Sky on the left, and all the Bunnies on the right.
“Whoa! Major mishmash!” Pari counts the Bunnies. “Your mom and the guy in the picture make all of those?”
Mayumi shakes her head. “I don’t have a picture of our father. But yes, all seven of us came from the same two parents. As you can see, there is little in the way of shared heredity. We don’t really think of each other as brothers and sisters so much as…family. But we are very close.”
Though it is not something she is at all ashamed of, Mayumi doesn’t mention that the four older Bunnies, herself included, are also lovers. It is not something that seems unnatural to her, though she knows it is different for humans. She cannot guess what it might be like for pixies, but considering some of the things Pari has said, Mayumi wouldn’t want to risk disturbing her.
“Yeah, your folks are kinda colorblind, aren’t they? Pretty much like us pixies, only we’re even more colorful. So your dad’s not around?”
“He is far, far away. But I have met him once. I don’t really think of him as my ‘dad’.” She pauses, realizing that her description of her life is just getting more and more complicated. “He’s my father, and I want to get to know him, but I was raised by another man, a mortal. And I think of him as Father. Truly, in my heart he is my father.”
“So… another boyfriend of your mom’s?” Pari puts her fists on her skinny hips. “Really, how many people is she juggling here?!”
Mayumi laughs softly at the idea of Alma and Sueyoshi being in any way sexually intimate with each other. “My father and Mother only met for the first time…two days ago?” Can it have been such a short time? “They have never been lovers.”
Pari’s voice changes, becoming almost angry. “So she just uhm…left you with this guy so he’d raise you? That’s cold. I wouldn’t want anything to do with a mom like that.”
“Alma had to do what she did in order to keep us alive. It’s a very complicated story, and…I don’t think I’m allowed to tell some of it, as it might get her into trouble. But she had two choices. She could have allowed us to be put to death. She chose for us to live apart from her so that we could live. It took me some time to realize how painful that was for her.” She looks at Pari, her eyes pleading for understanding. “I love her dearly.”
A bit embarrassed, Pari mumbles, “Oh…well, then. If you put it that way…”
“I know it seems very strange, but there is so much more to her, and all of us, than even we know. That is why I hesitate to judge. I’ve been judged quite severely. Called an abomination. Judged and sentenced – to death.”
“Sheesh!” Pari exclaims, buzzing back away. “You could do with a makeover but you’re not that ugly!”
Mayumi props her elbow on the desk and looks at Pari, resting her head on her fist. “Enough about me. I’m tired of talking about me. I’ve been wanting to get to know you more but…you seem rather private, so I didn’t want to push. I don’t know anything about your people except from stories, and I’m sure they’re full of inaccuracies.”
Pari tilts her head. “Do you pay extra for each big word you drop into a conversation?”
Mayumi feels disappointed at what she is beginning to perceive as evasion behavior. The insults don’t sting as much now that Mayumi sees them for what they are: a way of avoiding revealing anything of herself. “If you don’t want to talk about yourself, Pari, that’s all right. I’ll be ready to listen if you ever do feel ready. I’m all ears.” She looks back at her books, with a small grin at her joke.
Out of the corner of her eye, Mayumi sees the pixie looking at her, then away, as if she’s trying to make up her mind. Then Pari takes flight and goes to her leafy satchel, which is hanging from one of the bedposts. She rummages in there, then comes back and shows Mayumi a small piece of photo paper, about a quarter the size of the pictures they’ve been looking at. It features herself and another pixie, this one with dantier features, with pastel-blue skin and long dark-blue hair with a white streak, hugging Pari lovingly from behind. They’re both laughing happily.
“That’s the only one I brought with me,” Pari explains.
The Bunny beams at the sight, squinting to focus better. “Who is she?”
“My baby sister. Been takin’ care of her since the day she popped out of her flower.”
Her tone makes Mayumi look at her with concern. I’ll ask how the flowers work later. “But now…?”
“We got Mams. Just Dad ain’t around and Mams works long hours. Anyway, she’s all grown up now. Already started a job.” Pari sounds proud of her younger sibling.
“What sort of job?” Mayumi suddenly realizes that, aside from the burst of joy at seeing the picture of her mother’s Academy days, she feels happier than she has since leaving home, and that part of the reason is that Pari herself has not been feeling happy at all, until now, and a huge tension between the two of them seems to be dissipating. “From the stories, I’m imagining things like…watching over princesses.” She chuckles to show how she realizes how foolish that is.
The pixie snorts. “An’ where do you find a princess on this here island? Naah… We’re poor folk. Sis is just putting the colors on flower petals and paintin’ butterfly wings. She’s all artsy like that.” Pari leans against a book. “Definition of a proper pixie.”
“But you chose the Guardia.” Mayumi is just going to assume for now that Pari is telling the truth about the butterfly wings. More to ask about later.
“Yep. I’m no good at customer service. Besides, I stink at arts an’ crafts.” Pari shrugs.
Looking back at the picture, Mayumi says, “You both look very happy. Do you miss home?” She realizes how sad that came out, how her own homesickness tinted the words.
As if totally clueless to Mayumi’s tone, Pari replies, “Nope. Not even a bit.”
This surprises Mayumi. “Is there something wrong there?”
A shrug from the pixie. “Not really. Just no me-shaped hole for me to fit in. They’re probably celebratin’ that I’m gone right now. No one likes a pixie that can knock you out without using fairy dust.”
“Well…you’re planning to go back, though?”
“These guys rarely send people far away from home on their first assignments. Besides, not that many Dei there so… Maybe that’s the hole I’m meant to fill. You planning on going back to your place?”
“Yes. I hope I can. And…to tell the truth, my family and I have been ordered to stay there. I’m only here under special permission. So I think it’s a sure thing. If not…” Mayumi shakes her head to banish the unthinkable. Being sent away from her siblings… But she remembers the strange little fortune that the Oracle told her only a few days ago. According to her, Mayumi will indeed be away for some time.
She picks up the photo of her mother and the wolf-girl again. Turning it over, she sees writing on the back. It is nothing but a date, twenty-five years ago. Mayumi does some quick calculation – it is not the same year that her mother would have been in the Academy, but rather a few months before that term began. Strange… Mayumi runs her thumbnail along the thick edge, and it starts to peel apart. She feels excited. What she had thought was a product of the technology used to produce the photo is instead two photos stuck together. She very, very carefully teases them apart.
Fortunately she manages without causing any damage. The top photo does indeed have writing on the back: ‘Alma & Pavia’, followed by a date around the middle of the term, twenty-five years ago. The other picture, curled slightly from being peeled back from the top one…
Mayumi gasps. It is her mother, looking considerably younger, with a tall, dark man. And in her mother’s arms are two small bundles.
Two babies, with blankets around them.
Mayumi can see the Bunny ears. And she can see the hair, not nearly as full as it would be later, but curly, and clearly reddish on one babe’s head, and black on the other’s. It is her older siblings, perhaps just appeared, and the tall man looks upon them dotingly, a little dazed, while her mother looks both happy and frightened.
“What’s that?” Pari asks, leaning to look. “Ooo, who’s the hottie?”
“I think…he’s my father,” Mayumi says, wonderingly.
“I thought you said you met him before!”
Mayumi shakes her head. “It was in a dream and…he didn’t look like this.” She doesn’t want to explain that her father is a Void Rider, and often appears in the form of a black stallion full of stars. “Look at how young Mother seems. This is only a few months before the other picture. She looks ten years older.”
“And a lot sadder,” Pari points out. “Those two the redhead and the dark chick?”
“Rosemary and Cherry. I’ve never seen a picture from this time. Of any of us as babies.”
“Oh, hey, stop with the waterworks!” Pari sounds embarrassed, and Mayumi reaches up with surprise to touch her wet cheek. She hadn’t realized she was crying.
“Sorry, I…” She can hear Cherry’s voice scolding her: Why’re you always apologizin’, May? Ain’t nothin’ wrong with a few tears, baby. At the thought, she almost sobs.
“Oh man, it’s gettin’ worse…”
“I just…I miss them so much!” She shuts her eyes tight, as if that could end the weeping.
“Great…” Pari sounds annoyed. “What’re you gonna do? Cry yourself to sleep every night? Give up and go home?”
“No!” Mayumi opens her eyes, defiant at the annoyance. “I’m not giving up! I just miss them, is all!”
“Yeah, well… Quit with the tears, will you?”
“Does it make you uncomfortable?” Mayumi asks, sniffling and wishing they had some tissues.
“Pfft!” Pari seems to try to make a show of nonchalance. “Got a little sister, remember? Boy, that girl will cry up a lake if a puppy looks at her the wrong way. You…you gonna be all right? Maybe you ought to go to bed.”
Mayumi nods, feeling comforted at the hint of concern in Pari’s voice. “It’s funny. All my life I slept alone, except sometimes with my father, like when I was sick, until I woke to this world, and suddenly I was sleeping with the others almost every night. Big pile of Bunnies… Or just one or two of them, or Mother, or Sky. Now, back to just me. I guess I’ll get used to it soon.”
Pari looks awkward. “I can uh… I can stay with you if you want. Nothing I’m not used to either. And it’s a really big bed.”
Mayumi looks at her in surprise, speechless for a moment at the kindness, mouth open, and then she smiles. “That would be so kind.” She sniffles again.
Pari narrows her eyes. “But you better keep your hands to yourself, Missy! Not your mom’s dog-girl, here.”
With soft laughter, Mayumi says, “I think I can manage to resist.”