Ch6.46 Trust

“But it’s a dry heat.” They say that’s a damnfool thing to say – hot’s still hot, after all. But there is a difference. Three Rats isn’t always hot, but when it is, it sure isn’t dry. The humidity sucks the energy out of you, leaving you like a wet towel tossed into the street.

But this place, it’s hot like an oven. Heck, it’s hotter than Three Rats ever gets. So hot, Old Scratch his own self would sublet it as an annex for the really bad souls in Hell. But Cherry feels like she’s in Heaven. She’s sitting on a grass-covered rise looking over a gently rolling plain. The horizon is impossibly distant – compared to living on the side of a titanic mountain, everything here is just so flat. The sky overhead is almost oppressive in its immensity, so huge and blue and dotted with cute little sheep-clouds wandering across it, Cherry feels the urge to dig her fingers into the turf to keep herself from falling up into it. And the sun, right overhead where the sky becomes its deepest blue, doesn’t seem to be any kind of god in a fiery chariot, but just some far-away big ball of fire, baking her to the bones.

And she loves it. It feels fantastic. The arid heat, the breeze, the smell of the grass mingled with the perfume of the wildflowers: bluebonnets, winecups, greenthreads, red paintbrushes, Indian blankets. Even the cacti are blooming, big yellow and purple flowers on the prickly pears, hot pink on the beehive cacti, red on the scarlet hedgehogs. A few lonely mesquite trees dot the plain here and there, and overhead a pair of turkey buzzards, the tips of their big wings like spread fingers, drift lazily, circling, wondering if she’s maybe going to be dinner later on.

Didn’t she live in a dream for more than twenty years? Of course she knows one when she sees it. But to her, dreams can be just as real as the waking world. Dreams can be home. And this place feels like home. It pulls her with an irresistible strength. This dirt her fingers are digging into, that soil is part of her. Somehow, she doesn’t know how, but somehow she knows that this is where she was born.

The wind picks up a little and she puts her hand on her hat to keep it from blowing off. And she can hear them now. Yes, definitely horses. They’d been coming her way for a few minutes, at first just a mass that was hard to make out, so distant they were, but now she’s sure, they’re no cattle. She’d known anyway. How, she couldn’t say. Not like she’s ever really seen a herd of cattle or horses on the plains. She’s a city girl, a bar owner, not the cowgirl she’s dressed as right now. She stands and stretches, admiring the soft denim jeans she’s wearing, fitting her like a second skin and faded naturally from years of wear, the turquoise-and-silver belt, the hand-stitched cowboy boots, the cotton work shirt. She reaches up to remove the hat, a little tricky due to the slits that let her ears poke through the brim, but she slips it off and smiles at the simple but skilled straw construction and the beautiful red-green-blue pattern of the feather hatband. But those big far-sighted eyes of hers just can’t take so much sun, and she puts it back on, settling it over her thick curls, at the moment pulled back into a ponytail, or rather, in her case, a pony-puff that kind of matches the bunny-tail down below.

The sound of the mustangs’ hooves reaches her, and a distant whinny from them is answered by a loud neigh right behind her. She nearly jumps out of her skin, and does literally spring into the air, spinning in mid-jump like an armadillo that hears something sneaking up behind it, to land facing…what?

It takes her a long stare to figure out exactly what she’s looking at. This is no scruffy wild mustang that’s somehow tiptoed up behind her to go “Boo!” This is a huge, majestic stallion, blacker than black, like a hole cut in the universe, a doorway to another world, filled with stars, but the next moment he is solid, his black and white mane and tail blowing in the breeze. His head, raised to call out to the mustangs, lowers to sniff the ground, and then he swings his big head to the left and turns to walk away.

“That does it,” she murmurs to herself. “No more experimentin’ with cocktails before bed.” But she knows better than to deny dream logic. She jogs after the horse, saying “Hey, whoa! Hold up there, big fella!”

The horse stops and looks up at the sky. His mane billows across Cherry’s vision, and the sun is replaced by the moon, full and silvery, the sky a deep black broken only by ten thousand stars, most of them concentrated in a wide river swerving from horizon to horizon. He turns to look at her, once again appearing like a stallion-shaped opening in Reality, though his eyes regard her calmly, blinking once.

Cherry shakes her head at the sudden change, pulling her eyes from the fantastic sky to look at the transformed landscape, repainted in silver and black. “Well now ain’t that somethin’?” A crazy side-thought has her worrying about rattlers in the grass. Her left hand brushes something metal, like a tool on her belt. She looks down and sees she’s now wearing a sword, a rapier with a simple curved-bar guard, and beside it a long dagger with a matching guard. “Huh? Well that’ll do for a snake in a pinch, that’s for sure.” She looks at the weapons on her belt, then at the horse. “I can just imagine what a head-shrinker would make of all this. You got a name?”

The stallion lowers his great head, apparently back to being more on the solid side. Everything has a name, little Cherish. Even I.

Cherry feels the hat shift back on her head as her ears go down. “Whoa! I was just kiddin’.” She approaches closer. She looks at him for permission, and when she feels she has it, reaches out to touch his neck. “You…you ain’t just part of my imagination, are you? This is one a’ them deep dreams.”

It is a dream. And you are awake in it. In charge of all your thoughts.

Stroking his neck, then shoulder, feeling the sleek hair, the powerful muscles, she asks, “So who are you? You know my name. And nobody knows my real name ‘cept Merri.”

I have known your name for as long as you have had it. My name is Arion. I am a Void Rider from beyond the Insula. He looks up. Above, in the sky, the stars seem to dance, rippling as something invisible moves past them. Something that, from the distortions, seems distinctly horse-shaped.

“Ghost riders in the sky,” Cherry whispers, agape at the beauty. She looks back at him. “Arion… Alma told us about you. You’re…our, uh, our father.”

He turns his nose to her, breathing warm, moist, pleasant-smelling air against her face. I am. Your mother told me you were eager to meet me.

The Bunny puts her hands on his big cheek muscles. “Is it…really you then?”

It is. Inasmuch as newly created life forms have parents, you have them in your mother and I. It has been a long time, since I have last stood this close to you. Then, you fit in your mother’s arms with room to spare.

Long-pent feelings start to break free like a flash flood roaring down an arroyo. “You…did you…did you ever hold me?”

Of course. I have held all of you. At least once. Baby Bunnies…so fragile you were. As if a touch could break you. Or a whisper could blow you away.

He turns his head slightly, and Cherry’s eyes follow to see a strange scene taking place on the landscape, within a nimbus of wavering light. A couple, young and visibly nervous, look at the bundles they hold in their arms and smile. The man is tall and dark-tanned, with flowing black hair and a several locks of white. But Cherry’s eyes are on the white-haired woman, apparently younger than Cherry, in her early twenties perhaps, midway in appearance between the child that is Tulip and the mature cop Alma.

Cherry gasps. She hesitates, but can’t resist moving closer, wanting to see what they are holding. The woman looks incredulous but happy, doting on her cargo, holding it close to her chest. She lowers her arms, as if she can see the grown Bunny before her. Cherry sees a glimpse of light-brown skin, two long black-furred ears contrasted against the light-colored blanket, a nearly bald head with just a few swirls of black hair looking almost painted on. The eyes are closed and the plump-cheeked face is in repose, but the little mouth opens wide in a yawn.

And the man slips the other bundled infant into Alma’s arms – for surely it is Alma – and Cherry sees the pink face of another sleeping babe, reddish fuzz on her head, rust-furred ears quite short for a Bunny. Cherry feels tears spilling over her cheeks. She’s never even thought to see her dear Rosemary like this, at the moment of her creation, so tiny and perfect, from a time she doesn’t have the slightest memory of. She takes a step away and feels her back touch Arion, then turns and puts her arms around him. But she feels arms around her, big strong arms, safe arms, and realizes with a shock that she’s holding a human waist rather than the expected equine neck.

She looks up to see the same man that had been holding Merri moments before, looking not a bit older. His fingertips stroke her cheek, wiping away a tear, radiating old power, peace and wisdom despite his youthful appearance. I hope there can be joy behind your tears, little one.

She nods, and presses the side of her face against his chest, holding him tighter. “There is…it’s good to finally see you and hold you.” But then she takes a step back and slaps her hand against his chest, lightly. “But where the heck have you been all this time? If you can go into dreams, how come we didn’t have you with us all those years? We may’ve been livin’ in dreams, but they weren’t always nice ones!”

Arion looks at her with an expression that looks so ancient and far away that Cherry feels like there’s a canyon between them so deep and wide that no bridge could ever be built across it. I have always been closer than you knew, watching over you. As your mother watched over your bodies, I saw to it that your minds would have room to develop in stasis. Alas, there are rules that even I must follow in the Dreamlands. And not making myself known was one of them.

Cherry grabs her hat off her head and throws it on the ground, boiling over with anger. She turns away, mouth set hard to keep in words that she knows she’d regret letting loose, and crosses her arms. But when he puts those big hands on her shoulders, her body slumps a little. What’s the use of bein’ mad? she asks herself. Instead, she lets herself lean back against him, and then finds herself horizontal, lying on the grass and wildflowers, her head on his lap as he sits cross-legged. He’s stroking her curls gently, and she says, “I don’t understand any of that stuff. But…when it comes to gods, I figure I just gotta be okay with not understandin’.”

Cherry’s been lucky. Most of the gods she’s known are pretty down-to-earth, not setting themselves up as the natural masters of mortals. And even this god, so far above her that even many gods shake in their boots at the thought of him, doesn’t make her feel like a fool. If her confusion amuses Arion, as it would so many gods, stuck-up and mightier-than-thou as they tend to be, he shows no signs of it. It is all right for you to be angry at me, little Cherish. At your mother, at the Council, at Fate… I imagine that all of this feels utterly bewildering to you, not just as a mortal but as a child. And whether things could have been done differently or better, that is not for me to say. All I can do is focus on the present day and hope I will not make a bad job of it.

She closes her eyes and just tries to forget everything else, and just enjoy the simple pleasure of her daddy petting her hair. She does her best to push away regrets about time lost, and the suspicion that she’s not likely to see him again for a long time. And for a little while, it works. She feels she could almost fall asleep like this.

She murmurs, “So you visitin’ all the others too, tonight?”

No, Cherish. Tonight is your night.

“Aww…” She takes one of his big hands in her slender one, and squeezes affectionately. “Thank you.” She opens her eyes and cranes her head back a little. “You know I ain’t really got a good look at you in human form.” She sees, reversed, the long, handsome face, the flowing black hair with white locks, braided loosely and hanging over one shoulder. A stray thought crosses her mind and makes her giggle. Funny how Somrak’s got a white lock of hair now. Oh! Hope Arion didn’t hear that! She tries to quickly change the stream of her thoughts, just in case. “I don’t even know where to start with the questions. Do you have, like, hobbies? Probably not…”

Arion chuckles, light and easy, smiling down at her. The chasm between them might be wide, but just for the moment, they’re on the same side of it. I do. Watching over you is one of them. And that is why I am going to need you to wake up, now.

Cherry sits bolt upright and twists at the hip to look at him, her face consternated. “But…but why?”

Trust me, little one. There is something happening in the Waking World that you will not want to miss. I do not want you angry at me for keeping you from it.

“Uh oh. Is ice cream gonna be involved?” Now why the heck did I say that?

Arion laughs, short and whickering like a horse. No… He leans forward and cups her face in his hands, suddenly serious but tender. But tears might. He gives her a gentle kiss on the her forehead.

“No…wait!” But the sound of her voice makes her realize she’s no longer under the wide-open sky, but in her own room, sitting upright and twisted, trying to look behind her at a father who is, again, gone. Beside her, Merri stops her gentle snoring but just squirms a little for comfort and continues her usual stone-like sleep. Cherry looks down at Merri’s tousled red hair and disarrayed fleece pajamas, and smiles at how Merri refuses to believe she snores. But it’s the music Cherry falls asleep to. She wishes Merri could’ve been there with Arion, with her, together. Maybe next time.

And thinking of that…Cherry looks around. Where the hey did May get to? When Cherry had fallen asleep, May had been with them, joining them for a goodbye. Merri had been so upset about May leaving the day after tomorrow. Well, tomorrow now. And Cherry had to admit she’d gotten a little weepy too. She felt bad, knowing May probably wanted to be with Sky, but dang it, they needed May too. Sky could have her tomorrow night. Maybe that big lunkhead would finally take her to bed. Takin’ it slow…that’s just plain silly.

In the silence, Cherry’s ears twitch, catching the sound of Lexie’s meowing. Lexie don’t meow all by herself, Cherry thinks. And the furious whispers that follow confirm that someone’s being sneaky in the bar. Cherry slips out of bed to see what’s up.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

Look at her, sneaking about like a common criminal trying to get out of jail. Wait, she is a common criminal trying to get out of jail! Fine, so…not a common criminal. More like a very specialized criminal. A very specialized criminal trying to get out of jail. Well, not jail, exactly. Technically not jail. The building adjacent to the jail. With a bar in it.

Ah, screw it! Saira doesn’t need a metaphor, anyway. What she needs is to get out of this damned nuthouse! Seriously, what’s wrong with these people, taking in killers from the street and bringing them into the family as if it were the most natural thing ever? Inviting them for parties and handing out family jewels with portraits and all? You’d think they’re on their way to including her in their wills and giving her the family name! Crazy folks…

The bar is quiet. Really quiet. The gift-giving party ended a few hours ago and everyone has either gone home, carrying insane amounts of food with them, or turned in and carefully left the cleaning up for tomorrow morning. The Bunnies are all burrowing in their rooms or in each other’s rooms or wherever it is they like to hide when they’re not in sight. Thankfully, none of them thought to spend tonight in Alma’s room. Sneaking past those furry ears is tougher than getting a banshee to screech in tune.

Not that sneaking past Alma herself is any easier but she’s not sleeping at her place tonight either. She might be out on her ghoulish rounds or she’ll be happily snuggling in the arms of Mister Hazel Eyes as a nice little cap to the special day. But probably out. It’s Dion’s shift, after all. Hopefully out. Hopefully not just about to enter the bar. Because Saira is about to leave.

It’s all just too much. They’re trying to adopt her! Her! For crying out loud! But…well, it was nice…wasn’t it? The sleeping in safety every night, the not having to worry about food or shelter. Being taken care of and made to feel like here is a place she can belong.

Stop it Saira, this is not you! she admonishes herself. You belong out there, not here on a leash!

Yes, she has to go before this pink-clouds-and-unicorns place causes irreversible damage to her finely honed mind. It was just a matter of time before she left, right? Everyone knew she was going to, no? Everyone knew. It’s who she is, a fleeting, deadly breeze blowing through the shadows, quick as a crossbow bolt, free and unstoppable. Free…

She sneaks past the staircase that leads upstairs, tiptoes past the kitchen entrance. Good, good. No sudden arrivals, no signs of anyone catching her mid-sneak. All’s good. Perfect so far.

“Meow?”

The call sounds so loud, she nearly hits her head against the ceiling with fright. So that is what a heart attack feels like…

Saira looks down and frowns in irritation at a very calm, inquisitive Lexie. “You stupid cat!” she hisses. “What the Hell do you think you’re doing?! Stop giving me away!”

The large, fat cat with long hair that makes her look like a giant ball of fuzz tilts her head and looks up at Saira with huge yellow-green eyes that are mostly black right now due to the pale, weak moonlight that filters in through the windows. A silvery ball shines amidst the fur on the cat’s neck, a bell that Sage found for her in some shop and proceeded to attach to a nice black leather collar. Lexie had hated the thing at first. Man, how she had raced across the bar, half-crazed with the jingle that she couldn’t shake off, no matter how hard she tried! Now, that had been funny!

But now the bloody cat is moving without ringing the bell! What kind of hellish critter learns to do that so quickly?!

Lexie purrs, loud as a chainsaw, and rubs her head against Saira’s legs. “Meow?”

Saira nudges the cat away with a foot. “Shhhhh!! Stop doing that! You’re gonna get me caught!” She takes a few more steps toward the door but much to her desperation, Lexie follows her, trotting gingerly and making the bell around her neck ring like some fat old man dressed in red has just landed on the roof. “Oh, for the love of – No! You stay here. With Sage and the others. Go try to bite the tail off Starfax!”

“Caught? Are you…are you sneakin’ out?” a voice chimes from the stairs leading up to the first floor.

Ah crap. Saira hangs her head as she recognizes it as Cherry’s voice. Here comes the drama.

This is exactly the kind of thing that she was trying to avoid. Cherry descends the stairs, looking at her with big, shiny eyes and laid-back ears. Saira hasn’t even answered the question and Cherry already looks like she’s about to cry.

“Nope!” the woman lies. “No. Was just… gonna get the last piece of cake, that’s all.”

It’s a lame lie. No one sneaks out of bed to steal cake and takes the time to get dressed in street clothes and boots in the process. They certainly don’t take a crossbow and quiver with them either, unless it’s really great cake. Cherry’s full lips tremble with a whimper.

“Oh hon… Why? Why are you leavin’?” she asks in a tiny voice, moving closer to Saira to take the woman’s hand and look up at her in heartbreaking pleading. “Don’t go.”

Saira looks at the Bunny in silence for a moment. It’s a full show of misery that Cherry is putting up to convince Saira to stay. The woman knows she is being bullied into staying. Because yes, it’s bullying when someone throws their emotions at you and makes you feel horrible about yourself as if your thoughts and feelings didn’t matter a damned thing when held against theirs. And that makes Saira fume.

Which is probably the exact opposite of what Cherry intended but screw that! So, people are gonna be sad to see her go but she’s not gonna be happy staying either. Her place is outside, living her merry little life. And she has the right to want that. Unless someone will throw her in a cell or bind her in shackles, she is free to leave. So…

“Let me go!” Saira whispers, shaking off Cherry’s hold on her hand, ignoring the Bunny’s hurt expression at that. No more cutesy, hugsy, we love you so much, how can you do this to us mind tactics! Enough is enough! “I don’t belong here. This…” She gestures vaguely at the bar. “Is not me. I belong out there, runnin’ free, not here with twenty moms constantly looking over shoulder at what I do and don’t do and making paper thingies and pretendin’ my whole life has been like this. This is not me. And I can’t take it anymore. This is just too much! Even the stupid cat won’t get off my back!”

She nudges Lexie away with her foot again for show and while the cat takes a quick step back in surprise, she’s back to sniffing and marking Saira’s boot with the underside of her chin a few seconds later.

Cherry looks at Saira in silence. The Bunny seems to be struggling to absorb the full meaning of the woman’s words. Of course, she can’t. She never will. Their lives have been too different, their circumstances just too far apart to allow for comprehension. Cherry will never appreciate solitude or the thrill of uncertainty and danger. And Saira can’t make her understand. It would be like trying to explain what purple tastes like.

At the end of all that silence, Cherry sighs and looks down in defeat. “Will you let me get you that last piece of cake? Just…just for a few minutes? I’ll make you some coffee to go with it.”

Oh man… Just let me go already!

“I can’t take too long or people will start gettin’ back from their shifts and then it’ll be tougher to just go,” Saira tries to explain. “Sunshine, why are you doin’ this?”

“Cause I just don’t want you disappearin’ forever!” Cherry snaps, thankfully keeping her voice at an impassioned whisper. “Come on…just sit with me for a few minutes? Please? We could…we could go up on the rooftop. You can make your getaway from there.”

Saira looks at her, trying to find a good excuse to just bolt. But she can’t find any. Better to admit defeat and then just jump off the roof if that’s what it takes. “Fine…”

Damned Bunnies and their cute faces and RAIOS PARTAM ESSA GENTE TODA!

Apparently forgetting the coffee and cake thing, Cherry just turns towards the stairs, moving quietly in her bare feet, peeking behind her to make sure that Saira is not just going to sneak out of the bar behind her back. Lexie follows them up the stairs, quiet as a mouse. They walk down the hall, past rooms full with six sleeping Bunnies (and one gryphon), then up another set of stairs, through a trap door, and onto the flat roof of the Burrow.

Cherry heads over to the chimney, by far the best place to sit, with something to lean back against, and sits, looking at Saira as if the woman might disappear if she glances away.

She waits until Saira sits before she unleashes her sermon. “Look…I get it. You’re feelin’ all hemmed in. But…hon, you ain’t got no home out there!”

Saira breathes deeply and shakes her head. Predictable. Sooo predictable. “You don’t get it. You think you do but you don’t. You’re tryin’ to convince a sewer rat to behave like a hamster. Not gonna happen. This ain’t about home.” She focuses her eyes, cold and hard, the same eyes that have stared down hitmen and watched as they took their last breath, on Cherry. “I’m a killer, Cherry. Always have been, can’t shake it off. I’ve killed more people than you’ve probably met since comin’ to Three Rats. Heck, probably more than you’ve ever met ever. It’s what I’m good at. Not this whole home business.”

“Yeah but…you only kill people that deserve it…” Cherry argues weakly and Saira can see it in her eyes, how she’s struggling to fit the image of Saira, her patient, with Saira, the assassin, and use the first to forgive the latter. “But…Alma and Sky and them, they can’t just let you keep doin’ that, can they?”

Saira almost tells her about her agreement with Sky, that he had promised never to go after her for killing former Dukaines provided she cooperated with him, but stops herself. No point in tainting Sky’s image for someone who thinks of him as an example of virtue. “I’ll figure it out. There’s other wards. The Dukaines were everywhere in the Fourth Ring. And there’s always people lookin’ to hire someone like me. I’ll be fine.”

“You’re gonna leave the ward??” Now Cherry looks even more miserable. She puts her head down against her knees, hugging her legs, then looks up, eyes shiny with pent-up liquid. “What about next time somethin’ goes wrong? What if you get hurt again? The thought of you bleedin’ somewhere and we don’t even know about it…” Tears spill over as her voice breaks.

Saira pats her back awkwardly. It’s probably not a very reassuring gesture but at least Cherry won’t be choking anytime soon. “Ya know, I did make it fine for the last twenty-odd years without Bunny babysitters… Give me some credit, will ya?” She chuckles nervously.

“Don’t laugh! Just…” Cherry swallows, then chokes out a little sniffly laugh herself as Lexie rubs her face against Saira’s arm and makes her jump slightly.

Saira absentmindedly pets the cat, who is currently, and very slowly, making her way onto the woman’s legs. “I’ll be fine, Cherry. And… I’ll keep an eye on you, guys. Every now and again.”

She says that more because it’s what Cherry wants to hear than because it’s an actual plan. Saira’s reputation and livelihood have been severely threatened with her long absence. The first few weeks will probably be spent just getting her life back on track. But hey, it’s whatever works right now.

“You know they ain’t gonna look for you too hard, if some bad guys turn up shot fulla arrows,” Cherry says, reaching over to scratch Lexie in that spot at the base of her tail that she likes to be scratched for precisely eight seconds before she stops liking it. “I…I don’t want you to go at all. But…okay, I get it. Sorta. Just…come back sometimes? Thought of never seein’ you again…that just kills me, sweetie. Promise me?”

Oh, come on! Now I gotta promise?!

“See why I was just gonna sneak out?” Saira mutters. But a look at Cherry’s serious and heartbroken face has her hanging her head in defeat. It’s whatever works… “Fine… I promise… But you’re owin’ me cake!”

Cherry throws her arms around Saira, holding her tight. “You can have all the cake you want!”

Saira gasps. Cherry’s hug is nothing short of a golem’s death-grip. “Air… Sun…shine… air….”

Cherry releases her immediately, eyes wide in alarm. “Sorry! Merri says I don’t know my own strength…” She smooths Saira’s hair with a sigh. All that need for touching is really getting on Saira’s nerves but she does her best not to flinch away. “I never had a patient before. Not for any length of time anyway. It’s hard to let go. When you came in here… Anyway, I don’t want you to go, not even a little bit. But you…” Her voice breaks and she looks away. “You, uh, you be careful! And you come back!”

A few heartbeats and the Bunny’s head shoots back to look at Saira. But the woman is no longer there. From a rooftop nearby, Saira watches as Cherry looks to her side, then around the rooftop, the ward. Finally, Cherry hangs her head and slowly gets up to return inside.

The image leaves a bitter taste in Saira’s mouth but it is as it has to be. Her life’s purpose is out here and everything else will have to wait until she can call her task complete.

She exhales deeply and leans down to scratch Lexie behind the ears, regretting immediately that she brought the cat with her but knowing that she would not have been able to leave so smoothly and silently if she had left Lexie complaining behind her. The cat looks at her, head tilted in that upsettingly intelligent quizzical expression of hers.

“Meow?”

Saira jerks her head at Lexie. “Come on, you silly cat. Let’s go home.” She starts walking, cat at her heel. “And you better be good at huntin’ ‘cuz I ain’t feedin’ ya!”

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.

Ch6.32 Trust

Alma, Sky, Bunnies, Saira, Gwydion

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

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

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

Things are different now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ch6.29 Trust

Darkness falls across the land…and it’s already half an hour late. The nice fellow driving the sun around must have had a few too many to drink this time around. Took his time moving the damned thing across the sky. Which is funny, come to think of it, because no one in their right mind would take twelve hours to drag a massive ball of fire across the heavens. No one even remotely sane would think of strapping it to a wooden chariot either.

Gods…

Daytime would probably last about three seconds if they gave the job to a mortal. And fireproof underwear had better be included in the deal. But darkness is a completely different matter. Darkness is good and steady. No need for a babyfaced god to sprinkle it over the place or for some heavenly lotto to decide who gets to drag it out of storage each day. It falls softly over cities and fields like a mother tucking in her child. In the wake of day, in the wake of light, darkness stretches from every corner, sometimes lazy and yawning, sometimes quick and pouncing. Always reliable. Always lying in waiting in its burrows, awake even during the day. Powerful even under the sun.

Light has to be sparked. But darkness is always there.

Night has fallen on Three Rats. To the untrained eye, of course, this may seem hard to notice. Many alleys in Three Rats see about as much light as a mole rat’s tunnel, after all. But the wider streets and plazas are a good place to start looking for nighttime. For one, they are dark now, sunlight replaced by the dim, buzzing light of the street lamps that spend more time going out than doing their job. Second, they are quiet. Well, quieter. Whoever thought of the expression urban jungle clearly knew what they were talking about. The traffic and babble of daytime have been replaced by hushed and drunken conversations (three words that don’t always fit together in the same sentence) that serve to build up the quiet of night in the same way a few noctivagous rodents, some very unlucky insects and the occasional romantically inclined frog band together to make jungle nights feel slightly less disturbing.

But the third thing about Three Rats nights… that is what makes them different here. Forget the stars and all that crap. Sure, they are pretty and shiny and distant and cold and you can get a great view of them on clear nights like this. But stars are like furniture in a landscape. Only ever miss it when you sit down and your rear end takes a bit longer to hit something solid. No, what makes the night in Three Rats is the breeze. That quiet, odorless breeze that brushes against the skin like lightning going by, that makes the heart rush, the blood pump, the brain think all sorts of crazy and dangerous thoughts. It carries the sounds of distant voices, the taste of different crimes. And on a good night, between all the things it brings, the unmistakable signs…of prey.

But not tonight.

Tonight the breeze wafts gently over the rooftop of the building annex to the Three Rats Guardia Station and curls around the sinuous figures that emerge from inside the building, through the access door. Instinctively silent by virtue of their trades, they cross the flat rooftop (not like there are huge downpours or blizzards on this part of the Insula) in the direction of the chimney. Against the coolness of night, the slightly warm bricks of the kitchen exhaust feel pleasant against their backs as they sit down against it. From here, the never quite sleepy ward sprawls away downslope, with its streetlights and with glimmers that go all the way to the Fifth Ring. On a clear day, the ocean would be visible, way down there. Now there is only blackness.

Somrak uncorks the whisky bottle he swiped from the bar downstairs and holds it up. “What do we do about glasses?”

Two whisky glasses clink in front of him almost immediately. He looks at his drinking buddy for the night with that typical male look of How on the Isle did you manage to hide that on your person? that men everywhere have used at least once when meeting a woman with sticky fingers.

“Here ya go,” Saira offers. “I was gonna swipe some ice but that might not have been a good idea…”

“Oh, this is fine whisky. We can have it neat.” Somrak replies, pouring a couple of fingers worth of the amberine liquid into each glass. Putting the bottle down, he takes his glass and raises it. “Cheers.”

Saira touches her glass to his. “Saúde.”

The first touch of the drink to her tongue is like a hot little wake-up call to her taste buds. She has to admit it, Sky does have good taste in the stuff. Smoky, peaty, with a strange hint of seaweed to it, the liquid sloshes happily against the roof of her mouth, on its way to her throat. Like an old friend come visiting.

If Saira had any of those left. She drinks in silence for a moment and so does Somrak. Truth be told, they hadn’t managed to be completely sneaky about this rooftop drinking thing. Damned Bunnies with their ears and noses had caught the jingle of the bottle or the smell of disturbed dust or something and nearly shut down operation Drunken Rat. But for some miracle or other, Cherry had apparently decided not to be a pain. Saira had caught her whispering a plea to Somrak not to let things get too out of hand. It’s equal parts sweet and unnerving for Saira, a self-made woman who hasn’t known a fixed address for decades and who has survived (and profited from) more gang wars than most high-class thugs can brag about, to be mothered by a Bunny. Times like this, it is even embarrassing, verging on humiliation.

She finds herself holding the glass very tightly between her fingers. A deep breath and she relaxes her grip. This kind of thing could be enough to set off another one of her…episodes. Glancing to her left, at where Somrak sits, she finds the god gazing at the landscape ahead of him, eyes half shut, whisky glass held lightly from a hand perched on his knee.

“Feelin’ better now?” she asks, more out of a need for a distraction than actual curiosity.

He looks at her as if he is just noticing her presence for the first time. The answer takes a while to come. “Mmm, yeah.” He turns his eyes to the greys and blacks of the sleepy ward. “I see why you like it up here.”

“I’d like it better if I didn’t have to worry about crampin’ up and fallin’ but that’s not gonna last long,” Saira replies bitterly. The feeling of entrapment in this cozy little home has been growing quickly in her over these last few days. She dismisses these thoughts and looks into her glass, twirling the whisky inside to release the scent stored in the drink. “You gonna tell me what that was downstairs or you just wanna enjoy the landscape?”

Again, that look like words are only barely registering for Somrak. He tilts his head in confusion, then straightens again. “Oh…you mean the rat and the fire and all that?”

Saira snorts. “Well, sure ain’t talking about glitter and goddesses stroking your hair, am I?” She catches him smiling at that.

Ha! Knew it. And totally oblivious to the fact that she’s taken, too.

She considers telling him about Alma and Dion but decides against it. It’s none of her business. All she’d manage to do is cause pain on an already bad night, anyway. Besides, gods are weird, always running around sleeping with cows and threatening people with long-range weapons until they fall in love. Who knows what kind of agreements they’ll cook up in these situations?

So she just sticks to the rat. “Face it, you went way overboard with the whole table burning thing. Looked possessed or somethin’.”

That one looks like it caught his attention. Somrak hangs his head a little and puffs out his cheeks, which makes him look just ridiculous enough for Saira to want to poke his face and make the air come out. But he releases the air before she gives in to that urge.

“Yeah… A long time ago, before I was born, there was a lot more necromancy going on all over the place,” he explains. “I mean, there’s still a little. There’s certain gods that have licenses to have, like, animated skeleton servants because it’s part of their…thing.” He sneers at this, looking disgusted by it. “But there were mortal wizards doing all sorts of crazy stuff, cultists who thought if you became undead you were immortal. And some of that stuff is infectious. The wards around mine, my homeland, got overrun by all sorts of undead creatures. The survivors vowed eternal enmity. I…because I have the power to burn such…abominations, to just destroy them, I was meant to be a sort of, well…holy figure. I mean, I’m a god so, naturally. But even more so.”

He shrugs, looking at her almost apologetically as if waiting for her to laugh at him. She doesn’t disappoint. “You…a holy man.” She pretends to appraise him, looking him up and down, then chuckles. “Love, you look like the devil come knockin’. Not very good marketing for holiness, if you ask me.”

Somrak smiles and sips his drink. “Anyway I guess the indoctrination didn’t completely fail to stick. Seeing that thing jumping at…” Words die in his throat, his eyes snap shut. He shakes his head, probably trying to dislodge an ugly mental image of rat teeth sinking into pale flesh. He takes a deep breath and opens his eyes again. “Well, let’s just say I want that necromancer more than ever.”

Saira nods, keeping her eyes on the rooftops, glass traveling to her lips almost without her noticing it. “Yeah, I know a thing or two about wanting someone like that. I know how it makes you blind. Of course–” She notices her glass run dry and sets it down by her side before leaning against the chimney. “–that’s not half bad when it’s just you. Keeps stuff in focus. Lets nothin’ distract you.”

Her voice trails off. Her thoughts get jumbled at her own words. They have been doing that lately, usually straight, simple thoughts getting all complicated and sticky like dirt mixed with water. She has been alone for so long… Of course there has been the occasional connection, the acquaintances she keeps and refrains from shooting at on a regular basis. But none of those have been friends as such, none have been companions, gang, family. She doesn’t know what that is like anymore. Really, she has never known. And just like anyone who is denied something like that, she has learned to disdain it.

But the last weeks with these strange people who have taken her in so eagerly, who accept new members into their group so easily, so openly, have dealt a hard blow to her resolve. She finds her own mind fighting to resist the old habit of rejecting bonds that might weigh on her. It’s frustrating. She knows how things go, she knows how it is like for her and people like her. Why on the stupid mountain would she now start thinking that it could ever change?

I’ve gotta get out of here. This place is messing with my head.

Like a sneaky echo of her treacherous thoughts, Somrak speaks softly, looking at her with what better be the empathy of a fellow rogue. “Do you want it always to be just you? Did you ever think about…joining a team again?”

Saira looks at him, wondering where this is going. “That sounds like a neat dream,” she says with a snort. She shakes her head, pushing back all those useless, distracting thoughts back to the deep dark spots where all doubts like to hide. Then, she takes the bottle that has been sitting by his right thigh to fill her glass and get her head to start moving in a straight line again. “No… I been dead since that day the Dukaines came. Dead people don’t dream.”

She takes a sip of the nicely warm drink and focuses her eyes on the rooftop ahead. This conversation is turning out to be a lot more uncomfortable than she imagined at first and she doesn’t want her eyes to betray her turmoiled inner thoughts should Somrak take a closer look. She is pretty sure he can’t read thoughts but faces are something that even mortals can read. Whatever it is he is looking to achieve with this line of conversation, she would rather be in control of what he gets. Through the corner of her eyes, she can see him looking at her for a moment. Then he looks to his side and she hears him refill his glass and very casually moving the bottle to his left, away from her. Had she truly been distracted, she would not have noticed it. She pretends that she didn’t. Somrak is probably just trying not to be too obvious about obeying Cherry’s soft-spoken orders.

“You don’t look dead,” he notes. “But there’s a lot of power in thinking of yourself that way. You can get a lot done. But you’re going to make yourself well and truly dead not much later, following that road.”

Ah… The you’re-throwing-your-life-away sermon. Settle down, find a bloke who doesn’t mind his wife being a heartless killer and raise a bunch of fat kids that are good for nothing except paying taxes and making more fat babies. Isn’t that the meaning of life according to most religions anyway? Honor thy god, make more worshippers to keep him rich and powerful? She has heard this so many times… When you’re a woman refusing to settle for that one-size-fits-all plan, you tend to hear it a number of times, usually as veiled criticism of your chosen lifestyle. How dare you be different from everybody else? It’s not even about wanting something more. Just, how dare you want different? Who are you to redefine happiness? How dare you question the rightness in settling for what no one actually wants in order to be what everyone wants you to be?

Ah, humans… No better than gods, really.

And it is not like gods even care if their worshippers are happy. But they do need them to be alive. Dead people don’t pray, either.

Saira turns her head to look at the fire god sitting by her side, her eyes half shut in humorless retort. “I’m mortal, hon. We’re all born to die, ain’t we?” The way he cringes ever so slightly at that almost makes her laugh. “And anyway, when did this conversation get to be about me?”

Somrak takes a deep breath, the former empathetic look in his eyes being replaced by a more serious, no-nonsense one. “Saira, I’d like you to join my crew. You’d be Guardia, with all the benefits that implies: backup, free healing, police powers. But Guardia with a difference, without some of the disadvantages.” He takes a sip of his whisky. “Many of the usual rules would not apply. You would have a rich array of targets, quite deserving of your expertise. And I’d make sure that you would mainly be sent after Dukaines. There are a great many of them all over the Urbis who need taking care of. More than you could ever track down on your own.”

“How tempting,” she replies dryly at the offer that sounds too good to be true. “What’s the catch?”

Somrak smiles at the question, his scar pulling it slightly off true. Come on, love, there’s always a catch. “The catch. Well, it would be a job. Responsibilities and such. But there would be pay, and a place to live.” He seems to think about it some more before shrugging. “Food’s not too bad.”

Saira snorts at that last bit. But there is something that he left out that she cannot afford to ignore. “And I can’t touch anyone the Guardia thinks is worth more alive than dead.”

Somrak hesitates for a moment, then nods. “There is that. And there’s been times I didn’t like it one bit. But I’m still serving, because I decided it’s worth it.”

Oh, man, this is almost too funny. Is he really trying to recruit her with all these worn-out lines? “Sure!” she exclaims, voice laced with so much irony that it could probably be picked up by a magnet. “Got nothin’ to do with what they’d do to someone like you if you decided to quit all of a sudden. I imagine no one would come lookin’ for you if you were to…” Her fingers flex and stretch like the flaring of an explosion blast. “Disappear?”

“I’ve thought about it. Now and then. But on balance, the things I do are necessary. They help people. They’re not always pleasant. But sometimes…they’re very satisfying.” He looks down and smiles that lukewarm, humorless smile of people coming to terms with a difficult truth. Recruiter or not, he truly seems to believe in what he is telling her. His eyes find hers again. “My Commander asked me to put the question to you, if I felt you would make a good addition to the team. But now that I’ve worked with you, I’d have asked him if I could invite you anyway. I want you on my team. Not just in the division. On my team.”

Saira looks at him, finding it hard to hold his gaze. Her doubts come rushing back. Of all the people she has met since the whole Pearl incident and now, after the demon, Somrak is the only one she has managed to feel a certain kinship towards. Sky is a nice guy but a bit too much of an idealist to her cynical, down-to-earth tastes. Dion is…well, Dion. Saira is still trying to figure out what Alma sees in the uptight, too pretty, always-looking-out-for-a-skirt-he-can-hop-into god of magic, in the first place. And Alma… Alma is a conundrum. The death goddess feels close and far all in one go, motherly and affectionate but distant and transcendent at the same time. It is like they connect on some deep level one minute and then a second later just pull apart for no reason. She can’t avoid caring for the goddess but it is like trying to reach for the moon with a piece of twine.

And the Bunnies…none of them could possibly begin to understand a life like Saira’s. Same thing for the Popula. But this guy, now… This fire god come out of nowhere, with his leathers and his loner ways, he has the best chance of understanding and being understood by Saira. She doesn’t need to learn very much about him to know the truth in that. She can see it, hear it, smell it on him. The emptiness of dark nights and empty days, filled with a purpose that almost no one can understand. Of all of them, Somrak is the last one she would expect to try to save her. Or hobble her. People like Saira can never be fully controlled. Sure, they can be steered but if their leash is too short, they will spend more time chewing on it than biting their intended target.

He knows that. Would he really make the offer if he didn’t know what it really means? What he is asking of her?

Too late, she realizes she has been staring at him through this entire internal ramble and swears. How much has he been able to catch of her digressions? He is looking softly at her again, almost as if she were a wild animal on the verge of dashing off. What has he seen on her face? No point in wondering. Too late to do anything about it. She tears her eyes off of his and points them at the distance and tries to find some way to gain some time. She feels tired. Mellow.

“Still one name on my list, love,” she says, taking a sip of her drink to hide the strain in her voice. “One guy I gotta send to Hell. Either that kills me or…” She exhales deeply at the not-completely-a-lie. “One name on my list.”

Somrak looks at her curiously at that, not even trying to hide the interest in his voice. “You mentioned him before. What’s the name? Who is this target?”

Saira shrugs, secretly grateful that he took the bait for a subject change. “I don’t know his real name. But all the Dukaines I put down knew about this guy. Famous among them, pretty high up in the gang. Called most of the shots, they said. And if they didn’t do what he said… straight to Hell with them. Everyone was afraid of him. Probably called him different names, dependin’, but here every gang member knows about a Mão Esquerda do Diabo.” She moves her glass to her right hand and raises her left, looking at it almost as if doesn’t feel quite like a part of her. “Devil’s Left Hand.”

Somrak glances off to the side as if thinking about it. Silence spreads for a pregnant moment. Then, “I’m heading back to my usual job tomorrow, after I rouse Tuma-Sukai. Figure he’s slept enough by now. And I can’t keep the Commander waiting any longer. I will look into this guy. We may have a cross reference connecting that nickname to a real name. Or another nickname, and that may lead to something. Anyway…I’ll share what I can with you. If you’ll promise to think about my offer. After all,” He sips his drink, “if you take this guy down and discover you’re not dead, you’ll need to figure out what to do next.”

Saira cannot help but chuckle at that. The reason why she has never made plans for the day after she catches that Dukaine bastard is simple enough: she has never planned to survive to see it. Someone like Somrak should know that.

“Confess. You just like my company, isn’ it?” she jests, turning her head to face him. “Other cops like you gettin’ to be too boring?” She looks at him and chuckles again. He actually looks embarrassed, like she just called him on his true intentions. But no, his expression changes quickly to one more serious. She lets her chuckle die off, empties her glass and nods. “I’ll think about it. Put my heart into it just for you, love.” She adds with a wink. “Now, don’t you be greedy! Lemme see that bottle!”

She stretches an arm and leans over him, almost lying on his lap to reach for the bottle he so badly tried to hide. He reacts and tries to fend her off with his right arm, while his left picks the bottle by the neck and stretches to keep it outside Saira’s reach.

“Hey, cut that out!” the god laughs when she nearly falls on his legs. “I’m not a pillow, you know!”

She twists a bit to grab his stretched arm and his bent one, the one pushing her away, hand still clutching his own glass, suddenly presses against her chest. He removes it immediately but the sudden release in pressure throws her off-balance and she falls, unsupported, onto his lap. She tries to use her hands to push herself upright but his body jerks with laughter just as she starts to push against the rooftop. Her hands slip and she falls again with a choked-up cry, making Somrak laugh even harder. She starts laughing too.

It really is a comic situation that would probably raise many questions, Saira lying full-length across Somrak’s lap, her chest caught between his torso and his left thigh, her knees pressing against his side, feet flailing uselessly. Get it on film and add some spanking and they could probably sell it as a really shady movie. But all they do is laugh, heartily and loudly and probably just a tiny bit drunkenly. Well, not drunkenly, they’re not drunk. Just a little buzz, maybe. Buzzily? Buzzily. If that’s not a word, then it should be. They laugh buzzily. For a long time.

Eventually, Saira manages to start breathing right again and tries to get up again. She manages not to fall this time. “Well, that was fun!”

That makes Somrak laugh a bit longer. “Yeah…” He rubs his eyes to clear a little laughter-induced tear and brings the whisky closer. “You really shouldn’t have any more of this. This is your first night drinking again and you’re already falling on me. Not that I’m complaining.” He adds that last bit just a little too fast for comfort and looks a little alarmed at the frown of irritation she is faking. That makes her chuckle which seems to reassure him. “Besides…I promised Cherry I wouldn’t let you have more than one and you’ve already had two.”

“Two?” She waves him off. “Nah, you counted wrong. First one was for practice. Besides, gotta drink to your impendin’ departure before everyone starts gettin’ ready to welcome Sky back from the dead.”

Somrak looks at her pensively for a minute, then tilts his head in agreement. “All right, but let’s let your body process it for a little bit, huh? Even I’m getting a little buzzed.” He holds up his glass to look through the golden-brown liquid. “Drinking Sky’s whisky with a woman while he’s asleep. Not the first time I’ve done that.” He glances at her as he lowers the glass to the floor. “How well do you know him?”

She takes a moment to think about this. How well does she know the guy? Huh…not much, apparently. “Can’t say I know that much. Shot some purple monkeys with him, fought some demons, saved some Bunnies.” She shrugs. “Standard usual, I guess. He’s nice an’ all but he’s usually too busy workin’ to hang out much. Worries too much. Bunnies like him. Cops like him.” Her hands go up in surrender. “Must be a good guy. You’d be better off askin’ Prettyboy. Or Alma. Definitely Alma.”

Somrak nods silently, eyes distant. Gods should be pretty much immune to alcohol but he doesn’t seem to have been kidding about that buzz. Melancholic drunk. Lovely… “She’s mentioned him a couple of times. And I saw the way they talked, before…when they were fighting to save the Bunnies. They’re close.”

“Oh, I heard a thing or two about some epic fights between them,” Saira assures him. Those rumors are a favorite among those Popula who have put some money on a Alma/Sky office romance. “But nothin’ like killin’ Dukaines to bring people together. Why are you asking?”

Again, a pregnant pause. “I’ve worked with him for decades. Longer than you’ve been alive. And he hasn’t had any connection to anyone in that time like he has with the people here. Including me. It’s hard to believe.”

He does not sigh at the end of that comment but he might as well have. His tone is sad, but more than that, like some part of it is glad for his friend but another is – what? remorseful? resentful? “You feelin’ jealous, hon?” Saira ventures in sweet tones that hopefully sound playful. “Gave him your heart and he gave it away?”

Somrak’s lowered head turns to look at her, and that lopsided smile returns. At her shrug and that universal facial expression of Hey! I ain’t judging! he just laughs and shakes his head. “No… It’s just hard to believe it’s the same guy. Then again…maybe he’d think the same of me.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Saira replies with a chuckle. She thinks about what to say next. “They like you here, you know? You’re gonna be missed.”

That doesn’t seem to fall too well with Somrak. “They’re going to miss all the chaos I brought with me,” he says bitterly, looking down. “Sure.”

“No, you idiot,” Saira scolds him softly. Self-loathing annoys her and normally, she would with be a lot less tolerant of it but his tone is broken enough to soften her tone. “They’re gonna miss their friend. You’re family to them.”

He opens his mouth but closes it again, seemingly lost for words. His eyes go forward and down to his glass, where it sits on the floor. He takes it, empties it down his throat and then stares into the empty glass as if he could read the meaning of life in the leftover drops of whisky. Saira looks at him for a minute and lets silence spread. Somrak is clearly fighting some internal problem of his own and she has no place getting in the middle of it. If only she had some whisky to keep her company…

After a while, he blinks and turns his head to look at the bottle. “Well, maybe a little splash to say goodbye for now.”

“Now, you’re talkin’!” Saira exclaims, nearly driving her glass up his nose so he will refill it.

“Hey!” A voice that is too Bunny-like to bode anything good suddenly rips through the night. “You said you’d keep her to one drink!”

Saira can’t help but cringe and Somrak even spills a bit of the whisky with the scare. “Ahh!” he complains, sucking the booze off his fingers so it doesn’t go to waste. “You Bunnies move way too quiet!”

Cherry looks at the two of them with a closed expression that is a scolding all of its own. Balled up hands on her hips, foot tapping the floor, she glares at them for what feels like a really long time. They wait for the mother of all lectures to start at any moment. Any moment now, a scolding that will leave their ears bleeding.

But all the Bunny does is sigh. “Just a splash, okay?”

She takes a couple of steps and sits facing them. A shot glass materializes in her hand out from…somewhere. They look at her, then at each other. Somrak looks a question at Saira, Saira looks a I don’t know at him. And, eventually, they both shrug and the whisky starts pouring again.

Ch6.28 Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So all that about her possibly needing help…”

Saira grins. “Got you to listen.”

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

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

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

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

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rest… Yes… That would be good too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ch6.27 Trust

“…and Somrak will be trailing me as I make the meeting with Lucky Pete,” Gwydion finishes. “Thank you, Cherry,” he adds as the Bunny bartender sets his brown ale before him. She serves Somrak and Alma too, but pauses a moment to look at Alma questioningly before she puts the last one on the table in front of Saira.

Even as Alma nods, Saira complains, “Oh come on, Cher! She already said it was fine!”

Smiling, Cherry raises the pint glass to Saira in a toast, and places it before her. “To your health, hon.”

“That’s right,” Somrak says, raising his glass as Cherry fades back to the bar. “To your health. We wouldn’t have this lead without you.” His hair, including the single silver-blue lock he received from Starfax, falls over his eye and he uses his free hand to push it out of the way.

Saira sardonically raises her pint in return. “All hail my first ale!” She takes a deep quaff and sighs in contentment. “Ah, the taste of freedom.”

“Easy there now,” Alma cautions her. She feels almost sure Saira’s nerves are nearly back to normal, but she is still proceeding with caution. She wonders about her own nerves. Nekh has been strangely silent since the battle with the demon. After draining her Death sphere, she could no longer hear his voice, but now it has nearly returned to normal. Yet no Nekh. Mentally, she shrugs, and decides to be grateful for small respites.

“I know, I know,” Saira groans, reaching down to scratch Lexie’s back as the cat rubs her face against Saira’s leg. The assassin holds up the glass and looks at the dark contents. “Dang, Cher, this stuff tastes great! Is it just ‘cause I haven’t had a drink in forever?”

Merri answers while Cherry concentrates on adding a precise amount of vermouth to an experimental cocktail. “Breowyn put us onto that one. Called Bellhaven, from Little Falls. The brewer makes rum, too, an’ he ages the beer in oak casks that were used for the rum. Tasty, innit?”

“Hint of rum…no wonder I like it.” Saira takes another drink, only a single mouthful this time, then shoots Somrak a look as he again pushes his hair back behind his ear. “Will you stop doing that to your hair? Man, you look like a total girl.”

“I need a new hair tie,” Somrak mutters. “Always losing those things.” Then he looks at his hand, rolls his eyes, and holds his hand out to the others so they can see a few specks of glitter on his fingers. They laugh, and he says, “I’ve washed my hair twice. Still finding them.”

Sitting beside him, Alma shakes her head. “It’s amazing you can even keep one on for long.” She brushes her fingers through his hair, making Somrak smile like a cat getting its ears rubbed. “With hair so smooth, I’d imagine they would slide off after a few minutes.”

Saira reaches back to her own golden-brown hair and pulls free her hair tie. Shaking her locks loose, she holds out a silvery elastic band with two faceted black stones, onyx, dangling from it. “Here, you can have mine.”

Somrak takes it, looking amused and skeptical. “This seems…flashier than I would have expected you to wear. Those hard cases I usually work with – you’re just trying to get me killed, aren’t you?” Still, he spreads it on his fingers, draws his glossy black hair back with both hands, and twists the tie to make a ponytail. He turns his head to show it off. “There? Am I pretty now?”

Saira chuckles and takes another sip of her beer. “You’re a real prettyboy. Though I gotta say it looks better on white hair.”

Alma says, looking at Saira with fake annoyance, “That would be because it was originally bought to tie white hair.”

“Oh!” Somrak reaches behind his head to remove it. “I shall return it to you, Lady Alma.”

Alma laughs and matches his parody of First Ring dialect. “I bestow this favor upon thee, gallant warrior. May it serve as an amulet of good fortune in thine upcoming battles.”

Somrak smiles, but his voice becomes more serious. “My thanks…I shall keep it in memory of my all-too-brief time here, and my wise and gracious commanding officer.”

He holds Alma’s gaze for a moment, and Alma remembers Somrak’s babbling from when she was healing him. But he glances down, spotting Lexie slithering between his legs, and strokes the cat from head to tail as she moves back toward Saira.

Alma snorts. “Rosemary,” she calls toward the bar, “I think Sergeant Somrak has had more than his share of beer already.”

Somrak swiftly finishes the last gulp in his pint. “Yes, time to switch to whisky. If I know Sky, he has a personal bottle or twelve stowed somewhere. He likes the good stuff, I have to give him that.” And to Saira he says, jerking a thumb at Dion, “And he’s Prettyboy. I’m Ponytail.”

Dion sighs. “Prettyboy and Ponytail. It sounds like an adventure-comedy novel.” Somrak bursts out in laughter, but Gwydion suddenly looks confused, then seems to be experiencing a headache.

Alma, concerned, asks, “Everything all right?”

“I sense…no…” He makes a small mystic gesture with his right hand, then his eyes open wide. “The tracer spell–”

Cherry screams and points just as a fat, filthy creature the size of a large kitten leaps from the windowsill to land, skidding and scrabbling, in the middle of the table, knocking Somrak’s drink off the edge to shatter on the floor in an explosion of glass and foam. They take a moment to realize it is in fact a rat. Its fur is matted and pointing in every direction as if it hasn’t groomed itself in days, and the smell that hits them is that of a rotting corpse.

For a moment everyone freezes, leaning away from the rat as it turns its dull, dead eyes to each of them, as if memorizing their faces. It looks at Alma last, opens its chinless mouth to reveal long incisors, and out of its throat comes a voice.

“Death Clan…” the rat hisses. The voice is human and full of malevolence, one that could never have emerged from a rodent’s mouth.

Then it leaps. Straight at her face.

Alma is unmoving, eyes wide, time slowing. Something slams into her – Gwydion, tackling her, knocking her to out of her seat, but the rat is stopped, a swift shape slamming it to the tabletop, Somrak, a wild look in his eyes, standing over it, hand on the hilt of a dagger, the undead creature struggling where it is pinned to the table, suffering no pain from the blade.

There is a thunk as Somrak’s chair, knocked back as he stood, comes to a stop against the wall. Saira is holding an enraged cat, Lexie, apparently seized mid-pounce by the assassin. There is a moment of silence.

“Are you hurt?” Gwydion’s voice is a whisper in Alma’s ear.

She shakes her head, then convulsively grabs his forearm, holding tightly, and begins to shiver as the rat speaks again, slapping its tail against the table.

“Alma… What if I’d had a soul bomb strapped to me? Think what would have happened, Alma. But that would have been too easy.”

Gwydion raises a hand and begins to whisper a spell, but the rat squeaks and goes limp. Gwydion’s eyes glow golden and he concentrates, but after a moment he curses.

Somrak, hunched over the corpse, still gripping the handle of the blade, asks, “Connection cut?”

Gwydion nods. “Whoever was controlling it…I can’t track her.”

“Then can I burn this cursed thing?” Somrak’s voice is filled with a passionate loathing.

“Wait!” Gwydion helps Alma to her feet, looks at her with concern and makes certain she’s standing steadily, then turns to the rat and carefully teases his fingers at its belly, pulling away a glowing spider-like wraith. “My tracer spell.” His voice is grim.

“They know…” Alma moans, her voice shaking.

Staring at the rat, shoulder bunched, Somrak grinds out, “That merchant is either dead, or he’s been warned off from meeting us. Our only lead…”

Alma’s voice rises. “If it had had a bomb…”

If it had been a bomb, Nekh’s long-silent voice echoes in her mind, all these people you love would have been caught in it, dear Alma.

She takes a step back, looking around at Gwydion, Somrak, Saira with the cat still trying to get at the pinned rat – finally at Rosemary and Cherry where they are holding each other behind the bar. Her children. Her cherished, silly, loving, caring children. She remembers the shredded souls of Corporal Stathos and the prisoners after the first soul bomb was set off in their holding cells. Gibbering, ruined shades, insane, full of an unreasoning hunger for other souls in order to satiate their agony, never to be reincarnated, only to be returned to the Wheel with great effort and peril, and to be lost forever – a merciful annihilation. For these people she loves, for her own daughters to suffer such a fate…

And you couldn’t do a damned thing about it, could you? Useless! Nekh’s voice is gleeful in its taunting.

She cannot breathe. She cannot breathe! She wants to scream but she cannot breathe!

Nekh laughs. Just think about it! How Mayumi and Tulip and Sage and…the other two, whatever their names are – how they would feel, their older siblings stolen from them so horribly. Think about how Sky would feel, coming back to find that. How much would they blame the inadequate Death goddess who was the real target anyway?

Why isn’t everyone screaming?

All. Your. Fault. You broke the rules. Now the criminals don’t hesitate to go after Guardia, and Guardia families.

Without a sound, she flees out the door, into the night.

Ch6.26 Trust

Morning falls over Three Rats in layers, like heavy blankets being lifted one after another to expose a sleeping body to the light of day. Of course, this being Three Rats, the sleeping body in question tends to be nursing a hangover after a night of heavy drinking to forget about its unemployment status and the loss of its full food and rent budget for the week, so it tends to be very keen on holding onto the heavy, comfy, grayish linens of night and mutter obscenities while covering its head again and turning to sleep it off a bit longer. If the hangover is bad enough, it might even pull the odd stick with rusty nails and swing it around a bit for emphasis.

Morning may be a self-imposing and cruel little thing but it is by no means stupid and so it knows it’s best to stop hogging all the blankets and leave the whole hot mess for Afternoon to deal with.

Scientists and other skeptical killjoys alike may go through great lengths to refute this explanation as to why morning is always slower to dawn in Three Rats than in the neighboring wards, of course. They may pull photonic interference patterns and magic differential potentials and quantum force-field interactions out of their hats, even (for lack of wanting to know where else these people keep their crazy ideas when they’re not being used). But Three Rats is famous for spitting in the eye of Science and Logic (and any of their brothers, cousins or friends of the family unlucky enough to have stopped by for a visit), and give them a good kicking for ruining its buzz before going back to doing whatever in Hell it pleases, so it’s generally just best to accept things for what they are and not ask too many questions.

Either way, the morning is still a grayish, sad little thing outside the Burrow, the bar out behind Three Rats Station, by the time Saira raises her hands and voice in protest.

“Right, I’m done with this! I’m covered in glitter, there’s glue on my fingers – And why do I even have to be doing this in the first place?”

She drops a paper garland next to the three that Cherry has made in the time Saira has taken to make a mutant twisted version of just one. The writhing, monstrous red-and-purple paper worm sticks to her fingers as she shakes her hands and tries to get rid of it, rustling in what sounds like a derelict, papery cry of Why don’t you love me, Mamma! and she nearly rips it while pulling at the thing with her other hand to free herself.

Cherry can barely keep from laughing at her struggles. It takes her a couple of tries to be able to reply cheerfully, “Hey, this counts as physical therapy! Now hold this end…there! See? Ain’t so bad. Just gotta make four more of those.”

“Four?!” Saira looks at her like a distraught puppy. “Come on, Sunshine, can’t we do with just these four? Like…I’ll split this one in half and we can have two small ones?”

One of Cherry’s ears flops to the side in amusement, and she smiles brightly, all the brighter in contrast to her beautiful dark-brown skin. “I love it when you call me Sunshine.”

Meanwhile, Rosemary chooses this moment to drop off more colored paper. “Oh Saira, this is no’ but the beginnin’! Anyway, after the first one, makin’ the next is so very much easier.”

The look Saira gives her pretty much says she would rather be sentenced to a lifetime of breaking rocks with a rubber pickaxe. Lexie doesn’t help it all. Fascinated by the slithering action of the garland, the cat has already spent ten minutes stalking the elusive paper snake, jumping and pawing at the thing. Pulling sometimes. Heck, even biting! Saira’s garland isn’t just mutated, it’s actually a mutilated victim of feline nature. Here and there, it sports claw marks and tooth marks and spit marks. A few rings lie wrecked on the floor where they gave their lives for the rest of the herd.

Thankfully, Lexie eventually decided she didn’t like the taste of the glue and went to nestle on the sofa and lick the glitter off her brown-grey coat. There will be some very special gifts in the litter tray tonight.

Still, as if that wasn’t enough to add to Saira’s misery, Cala’s voice rises from two tables away, chuckling and echoing in a deep, bodily voice that opera singers would probably kill for. “As I live and breathe, would I ever think I’d see the great Saira making paper garlands…?”

Saira lowers her head, eyes glaring knives and icicles at the woman cop currently sitting surrounded by a sea of paper petals and the flowery decorations she’s been working on. She taps her sticky fingers on the tabletop, daydreaming scenarios of shooting Cala for that remark. Not fatally, mind you, just…maybe a leg? Or a foot? But that would get her into trouble. Arrrgh, she’s going soft, all right!

Aliyah, sitting at another table, her thigh pressed against Sage’s as they cut out shapes from colored paper and her body language trying to hide her pleasure over the Bunny’s closeness with just about as much success as a whale trying to hide behind a toothpick, joins the laugh fest. “Again, you mean! We got her to make, like, almost half of one waaaaaay back when. In the orphanage…”

Saira snatches the glue bottle and hefts it, ready to throw it at the woman’s head. But then, memory hits her.

Wait a minute…

“That wasn’t me, that was Whistle Suzy!” she cries, throwing the bottle anyway for old times’ sake. Aliyah ducks and the bottle hits her shoulder instead, spreading glue all over her uniform.

“Oh, come on! I just cleaned this too!” she complains, rising from her seat.

Sage sighs and patiently rises too, reaching for Aliyah’s hand with a soft offer of “Come on, there’s something in the armory that will clean that right off.”

Saira chuckles and shakes her head at the sight of tall, muscled, huge Aliyah being happily lead out of the bar by the short Bunny that would need a stepladder to stop looking up her nostrils before turning to explain to Cherry, “You see, she had this huge gap between her front teeth and when she talked – What?! That was funny!!” she complains at Cherry’s scolding eyes and crossed arms (tapping foot included).

The bartending Bunny opens her mouth to start her righteous moral tirade but just as the first sounds leave her throat, loud, screeching giggles fill the room followed by something around the lines of,

“Tulip, you brat! I’ll get you for that!”

Tulip, the youngest of the Bunnies at an age of thirteen going on six erupts into the bar from the kitchen, running, hopping and, most of all, laughing like a maniac who has just pulled the pin out of a grenade and refuses to give it back. Behind her comes Alma, racing after the Bunny that looks like a mini, cute version of herself, chasing Tulip around the bar with a big, mischievous smile on her face that seems out of place for being so unusual for the death goddess. Well, not that the fact that she’s currently wearing an old Guardia Academy shirt for a nightgown, her hair clearly just out of a night-long meeting with a pillow and feet bare on the wooden boards, is common for her either. The shirt is not hers, that’s for sure. Manly cut.

Huh…wonder if she remembered she’s about the same height as Dion before putting that on… Saira thinks, tilting her head in amusement at the sight of Alma’s pale legs completely exposed below the shirt that barely covers the soft curves of Alma’s rear.

Ahead of the goddess, Tulip jumps over chairs and tables and counters with practiced ease, shrieking herself to breathlessness as she hides from her mother’s grasp behind anyone she can find. The two are laughing so hard that none of their audience can help but laugh too and soon bellies are hurting and Bunnies are bending double in laughter, making it harder for Tulip to hide behind them.

A shadow catches Saira’s eye, like a change in the color of the air over the staircase that leads to the Bunnies’ rooms upstairs. She glances in that direction to see Somrak climbing down the dark, wooden steps, feet instinctively quiet and light like any killer’s should be. And now he’s nearly at the bottom of the last step and Tulip races past him at full speed and Alma hasn’t seen him yet, too focused on catching Tulip as she is. Saira cringes in anticipation. From her seat, Cala cries out.

“Serg–!”

But it’s too late. Somrak rounds the bottom of the stairs just as Alma is dashing by and catches a chestful of goddess for his stealth. Without thought, his arms surround Alma, catching her full inertia and turning it into a pirouette that could have scored points in a dance contest if they were holding one. Eventually, they come to a halt, looking like the isle’s most confused dancers ever, Alma held firmly in the god’s arms, her knees bent and face looking up at him in surprise, Somrak looking down at her, hands holding her by the back of her shoulders, a look on his face like a heron confronted with a suicidal fish. Silence. Alma’s pale face is already flushing into a pinkish red.

Saira whistles a wolf call and the room explodes into laughter again. Cherry cheers happily amidst body-jerking laughs. Merri is nearly falling off a barstool and Tulip has thrown herself on the floor, flailing in her amusement. Even Cala, usually rather empathetic about these things, has her back arched in uncontrollable, convulsive laughter. Kori, May and Chime peek out of the kitchen in confused surprise but Somrak’s body is shielding their view of Alma and so they just shrug and return to whatever it was they were doing in there.

Somrak glances surreptitiously down at Alma’s bare legs over her shoulders. His hands are gripping her shirt, unconsciously lifting the back of it and giving the whole room a view of the moon in plain morning. She is tugging at the hem of the shirt, more out of discomfort for being laughed at than out of modesty (Saira has never known Alma to worry much about what others might think of her figure) as she slowly extends her legs to full height and relaxes in Somrak’s hold.

“I-I’m sorry,” she stutters, barely audible. “I didn’t see you. I was…” She gestures helplessly to where Tulip is rolling on the floor in in fetal position, bent double with laughter, then sighs. “Never mind… Good morning, how are you feeling?”

Somrak smiles, making a show of keeping his eyes on her face as he replies brightly, “I feel well. Good morning to you!”

And then he bursts into laughter and Alma hides her flushed face against his shoulder and laughs too and everyone is laughing with them now and not just at them. Saira clenches her abdomen, feeling her muscles more taut and toned than she has since the whole demon thing. For a moment, she fears that she might start turning blue, so difficult it is to breathe. But eventually, things grow quiet again and everyone takes a good, long breath.

“Oh dear…I should go get dressed,” Alma says.

“No need to do so on my account…” Somrak offers, grinning like a kid looking at an unwrapped piece of candy. “I’m fine with the local customs.”

“Honey, that ain’t local customs,” Saira calls out. “Local customs, she loses the shirt!”

Alma flushes even further, glaring icicles at the woman. “You are not helping, Saira.”

“Not you, maybe,” Saira jests. “But I was definitely helping him!”

Alma shakes her head, chuckling quietly. Patting Somrak’s chest, she gently pulls away from him. “Anyway…I won’t be long.” She turns to the rest of the room in general. “And then maybe someone can explain to me what is going on here.”

“Oh, we’re makin’ decorations for New Year!” Merri chimes happily. “Y’see, these here paper chains will be goin’ all over the walls, an’–”

“Baby, she needs to go put some pants on,” Cherry interrupts her, with a sympathetic look to Alma.

“I know that!” Merri replies with an everything but subtle wink. “I was just tryin’ to keep ‘er around pantsless for awhile longer.”

The revelation makes Cherry’s mouth curve in an almost perfect circle. “Oh…Oops, sorry!”

Alma looks at the two Bunnies with something between motherly love and friendly irritation that Saira has often seen the goddess dispense her as well. She wonders suddenly if Alma sees her as a human ally or as one more of her mortal kids.

“Nice try,” the goddess says dryly before slowly starting on her way to the staircase that leads to her room, downstairs, her face and front carefully kept turned toward Somrak, hands prudently pulling down the hem of her shirt.

Somrak chuckles as she suddenly darts downstairs, pretending great interest in Tulip, who has finally managed to return to a standing position and is happily trotting her way to Saira’s side. “Well good morning, Miss!”

Tulip smiles at him, very much pleased with herself. “Hi!” She turns to Saira. “Do I get my treat now?”

Saira chuckles at her and pulls a piece of hard candy, a type of fruit and vegetable drop that Sage usually makes out of sugarcane molasses and fruit or vegetable juice, out of her trouser pocket. She hands it to Tulip with a light tap to the Bunny’s head. “There you go, sugarcube. You’ve earned it. Execution was flawless.” She glances at Somrak with a mischievous grin. “And with a bonus too.”

Tulip smiles as she takes the candy and happily starts munching on it. “It’s a pleasure to do business with you.”

The Bunny turns and walks away, leaving Saira chuckling. Tulip might spend most of her time acting younger than human kids her age but she definitely has an impish streak in her that will leave her mother screaming curses at the gods of puberty in probably not too long a time.

Meanwhile, Somrak steps closer to the woman’s table, watching Tulip disappear into the kitchen before giving Saira an appraising look. “Quite the operation. How are you?”

“Bored, glued, papered, glittered,” Saira replies, raising her uncomfortably sticky, glittery hands. “But otherwise well enough. Definitely not bouncing back from some fun with acid, like Merri said you did last night. You all right under that shirt now?”

Somrak nods, fingering the pale-blue Popula shirt he’s been lent. His throat looks patchy, with some lighter spots where the new skin has been made to grow over the demon-blood-induced wounds. “Other than needing a new jacket. Never gonna be able to get the smell of demon out of my old one.” He shakes his head with an expression of someone mourning over a particularly dear piece of clothing. Of course, considering how good the jacket looked on him, it wouldn’t be too hard to join in his grief. “So what’s going on here?”

Saira looks around the various tables covered in all sorts of paper flowers, garlands, banners and other typical seasonal decorations. If the Bunnies put up half of what they are making, the bar is going to look like something out of a design magazine in full-blown identity crisis.

“Bunnies want to celebrate their first Year Turning together,” she explains, picking up a wad of paper and a pair of scissors to cut out more of the ribbony shapes needed for the garlands. “Mer and Cher are cracking the whip, gonna make it big. And I’ve been enslaved – son of a–” She shoves her cut finger into her mouth and sucks on it, complaining loud enough for Cherry to hear. “This is not physical therapy, this is torture!!”

“Remember, only four more to go!” Cherry cheers her on, getting a tongue stuck out at her in response.

And that is when May returns from the kitchen, carrying a tray of round…ish, pale… cakes? Call it cakes for now – That girl is always coming up with the strangest things to eat – sprinkled in a beige powder that looks suspiciously like dust.

“Tell me how these are,” she says, putting the tray down on one of the few uncluttered tables. “I’m still trying to remember just how to make them…”

“What are those, May?” Cala asks, rising from her chair to take a closer look at the tray. “They look great but I’ve never seen something like that.”

Of course they look great, Cala, you lover of all things sweet.

“The inside is a bean paste, sweet,” Mayumi replies. “Covered in mochi, uh, pounded rice, and then sprinkled with kinako, a bean powder with sugar. But I don’t know if it’s the right kind of beans… It tastes different from my memory but…maybe it still tastes good?”

It probably does taste good because Kori, who is for some reason carrying a large wooden mallet over his shoulder, is already eating the weird-looking things and licking his fingers with little sucking sounds of absolute pleasure. And then again, Bunnies tend to like anything vegetable provided it is not actively trying to eat them at the moment, so it’s really anyone’s guess as to how good the mooch – noch – cakes…things really are.

“Well he likes it…” Cherry snorts, picking up a cake before Kori single-mouthedly drives them to extinction. “Oh hey, that’s nice!”

“Making the mochi was fun!” Kori exclaims, swinging the mallet to demonstrate how it is done. “BAM!”

Well, that explains why it sounded like the kitchen was going through an extreme makeover, Saira thinks.

Even if just a teenager, Kori is definitely the most athletically inclined and already the strongest of the Bunnies. Only him among them would have fun swinging a mallet for countless hours. And eat the full product of his labor in little under five minutes.

“Hey, show me how to make these chain things?” Somrak’s voice cuts into Saira’s reveries as he takes the chair opposite to her.

Saira looks at him like he has just asked her to show him how to reach the moon using a stepladder and two coconut shells but, before she can process the request, a familiar pale shape looms at the top of the stairs.

“Heh, I would but…your girl’s back,” she says, glancing meaningfully in that direction.

Somrak looks confused. “My girl?” He glances over his shoulder to see Alma, now sporting the Guardia-blue sari with silver embellishments she seems to have taken a liking to. He looks back at Saira’s grinning face in mild annoyance.

She pats his cheek in return, cooing at him. “You are sho cuuute!” She chuckles at her own jesting, before turning toward the goddess. “Hey, Alma, you’re not gonna make us cut out paper skulls to decorate or anything, are you? I mean, they’d be cool but I’m not about to get my fingers crooked from handling scissors all day.”

Alma chuckles, stopping by Cala’s table to take a look at all the different, colorful paper flowers. “I have no idea what you are talking about. My family mostly avoids the skull-and-bones cliché. Apart from a few…unsavory elements.” She turns to Cala, already returned to her seat and working her surprisingly delicate fingers away. “These are beautiful.”

In response, Cala offers her a bright-red paper poppy, that Alma sticks behind her ear with a small word of thanks.

Somewhere near the kitchen, May is already dragging Kori back to some radical cooking. “Come on! More rice needs pounding!”

“Sweet!” the Bunny replies, happily hefting the mallet.

“I wanna help too!” Tulip cries, rushing after them.

“Hey, where can we get a tree?” Cherry suddenly asks. “Like a real Christmas tree?”

Alma, who had been chuckling at Kori and Tulip, blinks at the dark-skinned Bunny in what looks like confusion. “What is a Christmas tree?”

“Oh, I know some Christians. Maybe they know,” Cala volunteers.

Alma nods absently as if the word “Christian” explained it all. Of course, gods tend to have a hard time understanding the newfangled monotheistic cults. Well, newfangled by godly standards, anyway. The so-called modern monotheistic religions are somewhere around two thousand years old in the Insula, though some of them will argue that the Insula did not exist before their god created it just because he thought it should exist. Why any god would bother to create a few billion beings just to hear them pray and whine all day is somewhat beyond the reach of Saira’s understanding but maybe even gods get so desperately bored that they’d be willing to do the divine equivalent of shooting their own foot. And probably what befuddles most gods is the intense insistence with which monotheists will deny the existence of the gods they can see walking, flying or fading in and out of sight in the streets every day while praying their hearts out to these higher, illuminated beings that no one can quite prove exist and that many will go to war to defend their take on something as simple as their god’s name or the correct length of his beard. In summary, mortals must seem as outlandish to gods as gods seem weird to mortals.

Thankfully, a great many monotheists have learned to interact without either offending them or allowing their presence to interfere with any ingrained beliefs. Cala, for instance, actually seems to like and get along well with Alma and Sky, while carefully avoiding Dion’s attentions – but that probably has different reasons than mere religious philosophy. Guardia Dei are forbidden from actively seeking worship and none of the gods in the station seem that bothered by people’s beliefs, no matter how unreasonable they sometimes are. Provided it doesn’t hurt anyone, they will let people believe whatever the heck they want, even if Saira has more than once caught them rolling their eyes or smirking at some piece of particularly colorful religious lore.

And, of course, it’s impossible to know everything about every single religion available, so now and again communication can get…interesting between mortals and divines.

“Is all of this for the Year’s End?” Alma asks, looking around. “Is that what you mean by Christmas?”

“Yeah… We thought we’d, like, combine all our different traditions an’ make it our own thing,” Cherry explains to a background sound of muffled hammering and Chime trah-lah-lah-lah-ing from the kitchen.

“Very well…how can I help?” Alma asks.

“Wrappin’ paper!” Merri says brightly. “An’ ribbons! An’ of course presents t’go inside ‘em! We’re goin’ t’be makin’ presents, mostly, as we have no money, but some bright paper would be lovely!”

Alma smiles at her excitement. “Sure, I will find you some. As for presents…I think it is the first Year’s End that will involve gift-giving for me.” She picks up the other end of the paper garland that Saira is currently working on to inspect the woman’s slightly less horribly disfigured second attempt at arts and crafts.

A mischievous thought has Saira tossing the garland into Alma’s hands. “Hey, great idea! Here, you have it!” she says, getting up and walking over to the bar as fast as she can. “Cherry, I’m done! Alma is taking over now!”

“Saira, I have to go to work!” Alma complains behind her.

“Don’t know, don’t care! I’m free! FREE!” Saira cries out, throwing her hands in the air as she dashes to perch on a bar stool.

“Hey! I got somethin’ else for you to do!” Cherry calls out, chasing after her.

In his chair, Somrak smirks and mutters something that has Alma laughing. Saira can see the goddess trying to make heads or tails out of the garland before frowning and looking at her pale fingers in annoyance.

Ah…that’ll be the glitter, Saira thinks with a smirk.

What happens next has the woman’s face freezing in an incredulous grin, her mind working overtime to try and bend around what her eyes are telling her is going on. To her gleeful surprise, she sees Alma’s eyes dart over the table, looking for the source of the glitter, her hand reaching for the little bottle of what could only be described as the shiny, craftsy equivalent of some human venereal diseases. The goddess unscrews the lid to the glitter bottle, looks inside it and then, with a millimetrical glance at Somrak, very intently pours a small mound of the silvery specs on the lid’s inner surface, leans slightly, holds it up to her mouth…

And blows a silver cloud against the left side of Somrak’s face!

Saira feels her body jerk with ill-restrained laughter before she can believe what she’s seeing. In his chair, Somrak is looking up at Alma, his face turned so that the woman can only see the left side of his face, his left eye closed against the starry landscape speckled against the olive sky of his skin. His hand reaches for a bottle of golden glitter. Oh, this is gonna be fun!

He raises the bottle of gold glitter, slowly unscrewing the cap. “Of course, you know what this means…”

Alma is already backing away toward the door, laughing. “Don’t you dare…I have to start my shift.”

Somrak taps a little mound of gold into his palm and stands, a diabolical look on his face. Saira sees Alma glance behind her, toward the door, probably calculating how fast she can escape the bar if she makes a run for it.

“No…No…I will never get it off – No!” Alma suddenly dashes toward the door.

But Somrak is faster. Much, much faster. In the blink of an eye, he is blocking her path and theatrically throwing a fistful of glitter in the air like a fairy sprinkling magic powder on a raggedy maid. Alma stands under a golden cloud, the whole of her glimmering and shimmering as the flecks catch the light, her head hung as she looks down at clothes that will take nothing short of a miracle to get glitter-free again.

“Least you could do was make it silver glitter,” Saira hears her say to the fire god.

“I thought the gold would make a nicer contrast to your hair,” Somrak replies with a smirk, casually smoothing the right side of his own hair with a gold-glittered hand.

Smooth, Ponytail, Saira chuckles quietly. Real smooth. Almost as good as the competition. Speaking of which…

She feels Dion approaching the bar counter, coming from the kitchen. She hasn’t turned to look at him but his footsteps have that poised, self-assured cadence that always gives him away. It always somehow has her expecting to see him in a burgundy-red patterned silk robe and room slippers.

He reaches the bar proper just as Merri cries out her exasperation over the laughter that is again booming across the room. “Och, that glitter is very dear! It’ll be comin’ outta yer paychecks!”

“It’s impossible to sleep here today,” Dion notes in mild annoyance, and Saira turns to see him rubbing his eyes with two fingers of one hand, as if the light was somehow too bright for him. He squints at Alma and Somrak, covered in glitter. “And then again, maybe I’m still dreaming…”

Both gods smile at him, Somrak with a soft, quiet chuckle and Alma, her back now turned to the fire god, with a mixture of amusement and tender gladness at seeing Dion that would probably have left Somrak in a much darker humor, were he able to see it.

Saira catches Alma’s hand subtly touching Somrak’s, grazing the fingers with which he holds the bottle of gold glitter to tease them into releasing it. Her eyes always on Dion, smile levelling into a grin that should be featured in encyclopedias right beside the word naughty, the goddess walks toward the bar. “Oh, we were just decorating for the upcoming holidays.”

“Is that…glitter on your hair?” Dion asks in the same tones with which a deer would turn to a wolf and ask, What is your family doing here?

“Yes,” Alma replies, now standing right in front of him, glitter already flowing into her palm. “Yes, it is.”

Dion’s eyes widen in too-slow realization. “Oh no – oh no, you don’t!”