Ch6.44 Trust

The setting sun makes Somrak squint as he strides into view of Three Rats Station. He pauses. He can see the lights in the window of the bar, not quite hidden behind the station. He can hear laughter. The party is still going on, as expected. He hasn’t missed it.

He really thought he would, for awhile there. Trapped under tons of ice in a collapsed glacier tunnel, bones broken, he’d really thought he might not see another New Year at all.

He clenches his left fist, feeling the pain of the recently healed bones, humerus, radius, ulna, all shattered. The joints, too, elbow and wrist. The staff healer, called simply ‘Butch,’ short for ‘butcher,’ by the off-blue agents, is a quick-and-dirty repairman, using the magical equivalent of gaffer tape and baling wire to get agents back into the fight as soon as possible. When he has time, he takes it more slowly and carefully, but Somrak was in a hurry, and the mission had left Butch with his hands full. So the left arm and four ribs on that side are having their say now, complaining loudly. Somrak almost suppresses the pain, but recalls what happened last time he did that. Though it’s unlikely he’ll find his flesh melted away by demonic blood this time, it’s still better not to get in the habit of turning off the warnings that pain offers.

Pain is a familiar companion. He’s been in a great deal more, and it’s not something that frightens him. But that laughter, now, that is intimidating. When he was last here in Three Rats, in no more than a single week he had found himself pulled in and enveloped by something he can’t describe as anything less than a family. Alma, Dion, Saira, Cherry – and Sky as well, though as Guardia partners for decades, they already had that deep connection, even if they had never talked much – and even the others he spent less time with, like Tulip and Lamore and Kaur and Sage, they all had treated him with a genuine warmth and made him feel as if he would be welcomed just as warmly on his next visit.

And now here is that visit, and they’re celebrating with joy, and he comes to their door bearing darkness.

It had been a bad mission from the start. A mole had been feeding information to Hell. The extent to which all levels of government have been infiltrated is unknown, but the off-blues had at least figured out there was someone in their little organization who was a traitor. But just who it was needed to be determined.

And so the Fencer, Alma’s aunt, had called on him. A certain training exercise was being put together by the Commander. It would be Somrak’s job to figure out who the traitor was.

How did they know he wasn’t the traitor? Somrak’s former partner is a devil, after all, a traitor to Hell. But he didn’t ask that. Probably another agent had been told the same thing, and that agent would be watching Somrak.

Had the mission been a success? The leak had been stopped, that’s for sure. Stopped with great finality. But three agents were dead, all of them – the traitor included – people he would miss. He’s long operated on the belief that getting close to another person is a weakness, and this mission reinforced that idea unambiguously. But here he is, coming back to the place where, for a few days at least, he’d let his guard down. Entombed beneath the ice, he could not think of anywhere he’d rather be than this cheery, warm bar before him. Now only a few dozen steps away, the only thing keeping him from fleeing is his promise to Alma that he would come if he possibly could.

He pats his satchel to make sure it’s still there, takes a deep breath and takes a step forward.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“Somrak?”

Sky’s voice is the first one he hears directed towards him. Somrak had come in and found the bar populated more lightly than he’d expected, just Corporal Lamore and Doc Nate talking in a corner, sitting with their chairs pulled close together, knees nearly touching. No Saira. Maybe she avoided coming. Lamore had glanced up and given him a smile, but she seemed wrapped up in the conversation. Sergeant Machado was at the bar with a couple of constables – his look was decidedly less welcoming, but at least Somrak received a nod without a frown. He’d departed Three Rats with Machado not quite hating his guts, an improvement over their relations following the Rio Novo incident. Somrak nodded back.

But now Sky is coming down those narrow, steep stairs with a parade of Bunnies and gods and cops and a gryphon behind him. The look on Sky’s face is slight surprise mixed with pleasure, very honest pleasure. That’s something this place has done for Sky: his emotions are close to the surface. He does little or nothing to hide them anymore. Three Rats may have wrecked the guy for off-blue work. Somrak wonders how much longer it will be before he starts letting secrets slip out. He’ll have to have a talk with Sky, remind him of the dangers.

Despite the way the burly god blocks the stairway from anyone getting past him, the youngest Bunny, Tulip, manages to squeeze past him in her impatience. Sky laughs as the teen wriggles between his hip and the wall, pops free, and reaches a home-made portfolio leaning against the wall beside an evergreen tree. She grabs it and is throwing her arms around Somrak’s waist in moments, her exuberance making him grin in spite of his dark mood.

“You came! You came!”

“I did!” he agrees, hiding any external indication of the jolt of pain her embrace causes. As she looks up at him with a big smile, he cannot help but mentally erase the cute ears and see in her the face of a much-younger Alma, as he first encountered her over a century before. “And what’s this?”

“I have a present for you!” Tulip shouts. She unties the top of the portfolio, which is merely two large sheets of cardboard taped together at the bottom, with an old shoelace at the top to keep it closed, and a couple of loops of rope for handles. He helps her open it and sees within several sheets of paper of various sizes and qualities, apparently scavenged from wherever she could get them. He recognizes pictures of Kaur and Sage, of Lamore, of that Voice, Ewá Nanã, who brought in the tiger, shown in the drawing as standing surrounded by the children she cares for.

“Here it is!” Tulip announces. She pulls free a sheet, holding it close to her chest so he can’t see it. For a moment a shyness passes over her face, an uncertainty, almost as if she regrets doing this. Her eyes look up into Somrak’s and he can see it, that fear of exposing her act of creativity, her dream, to him, to be judged. He can see the fragile hope there. Will he like it? Will he hate it? Worst of all, will he pretend to like it while truly being indifferent?

Somrak hasn’t dealt much with children. Growing up, he lived primarily among immortals, and he was the only child-god that he knew. His mother, cold despite her fire-goddess passions, wanted him to be useful, choosing a career for him that he had no interest in. He did his best to grow up quickly, therefore, not having any friends at the same point of development, but instead of obeying orders, he left the Court of Flame, and fell in with a bad crowd, a very bad one indeed, as it turned out. Later, in the Guardia, there were missions that sometimes involved children, particularly slavery cases. And there was babysitting the Commander’s daughter, which was always good for a laugh. Sky had become his partner by then, and though the big god was usually so emotionally shut down, when it came to children he showed an unexpected tender side.

So now Somrak finds himself asking What would Sky do? as he is faced with this Bunny yearning for approval. He sinks into a squat, easily balancing on the balls of his feet, resting his forearms on his knees, maintaining eye contact with Tulip. Such amazing eyes the Bunnies all have. That’s another point in which Tulip differs from her mother. The eyes are the same arctic blue, and no more beautiful, but they are larger, creating a look of permanent wide-eyed wonder. He holds his hands out. “May I?”

She nods, and hands the sheet to him, turning it so it faces him right-side-up. He holds it and makes certain to truly see it, not just give it a cursory glance. And he finds he does not need to turn on the charm at all. No need to wear a false mask, something he’s become quite skilled at in the course of his work, but that he hates to do outside of it. The smile that grows is sincere. Tulip’s skills are still coming along, her line quality and ability to handle noses and hands not quite there yet, but the energy in the drawing indicates a swiftly growing confidence. Somrak is no real judge, but he wonders if this might turn into something more than a soon-discarded hobby for her.

He looks back into her eyes, which seem to have lost their fear almost entirely. He remembers that with her sensitive nose, she would probably be able to tell if he were lying anyway. And though she may not need the words to know how he feels, he says, “I love it. You’ve really captured me.”

“Really?! I drew about eight or nine pictures, and I tried posing you like you were fighting and stuff, but this was the only one I really liked. It’s just you sitting at the bar, but…”

“No. I love it. I look so…relaxed. Happy.” And he feels happy. The darkness is still there, no denying that, but he realizes he is very glad he came. The fire god studies the picture again, dwelling on the contented smirk he’s wearing. She really has him there. He chuckles at the self-satisfied look.

“Uncle Sky gave me a whole box full of art stuff! And paper! Really good paper! And some that’s just pretty good, for practicing!” Everything she says sounds like it is astonishing. Somrak wonders if he ever had half that much energy and enthusiasm. “It’s the first present I ever got!”

“Really? No one ever gave you a gift before?” He sounds skeptical.

Her ears dip slightly and she bites her lip while smiling. “My first Year’s End present!” she corrects herself.

“Lucky him, to be the first to give you one. Well let’s see what I have for you.” He opens the flap of his leather satchel and carefully prepares to put away the drawing in it.

Tulip gasps. “You got something for me?? Wait! You’ll wrinkle the picture!!”

Somrak laughs. “No, no, I would never do that. See? I’m putting it into this narrow pocket and…it’s just going right in.” Though the paper is not too wide for the opening, it is longer than the bag, but it enters smoothly and with no bending.

“WHAT??”

Tulip’s state of astonishment makes Somrak burst out laughing. He has to remind himself that though she has been alive for thirteen years, she only became an aware, thinking being a few weeks ago. It’s no wonder the world is such an amazing place to her. “It’s bigger on the inside. You know…magic. Well, I couldn’t find presents for everyone. But…Ah…here. This is for you.” He pulls out a small box wrapped in newspaper with a ribbon made of twine he had found in his desk drawer.

Tulip’s large eyes become even wider. “For me?” She holds the box as if it is a precious treasure for a moment, then attacks the wrapping with all the care of a cat in heat, shredding the paper. In a moment she is holding a bracelet made of pinkish seed-pearls arranged in a complex pattern. She starts jumping up and down with excitement, almost dislodging a daisy that, apparently alive, is entwined in her hair and partly wrapped around one ear. “Oooh, it’s so pretty!! Thank you!!” She hugs him again, then dashes off to show off the bracelet to Cala, not noticing the tiny grunt of pain from Somrak.

“I’m glad you’re here.” Somrak looks away from the elated Bunny to see that Sky has moved closer. Sky’s words resonate with concern as he studies Somrak’s face.

“That bad?” Somrak asks.

“The Butcher had to put you back together again, didn’t he?” Sky carefully puts a hand on Somrak’s left shoulder. The big god is poor at healing magic, but he concentrates a moment, and a hint of ocean breeze wafts across Somrak’s senses. Sky blinks in surprise. “Oh, Somrak…”

“I’m fine.”

“Fine? You shouldn’t be out of bed.” Sky keeps his voice low. “And you haven’t slept in days, have you?”

“You’re one to talk. Anyway, if you think I should go…” Somrak turns slightly as if he’s about to leave.

Sky grips his shoulder more tightly to hold him there. “You’re not going anywhere. Besides, I have a present for you.”

Somrak rolls his eyes. “Since when do we get gifts for each other?”

“We’ve exchanged gifts,” Sky reminds him. “At least a half dozen times.”

“In almost forty years of being partners, yeah.” Somrak accepts what Sky hands him, weighing the wrapped box, a little longer than his hand and about as wide. He sniffs it and looks at Sky questioningly. “Enabling my bad habits?”

“Just open it,” Sky grumps, prompting a chuckle from Somrak.

He doesn’t rip the soft, handmade paper off it, instead removing it with care, thinking Tulip might like to recycle it into an art project. “Nice jacket, by the way,” he mentions to Sky, then whistles low as the silver case, embossed with a pattern inspired by tobacco leaves, comes into sight. Snapping it open, Somrak admires the five fat cigars within, and lifts one out to inhale the aroma with his eyes closed in pleasure. “Oh now… That’s an Angelino Gold.” He looks at Sky. “Wasn’t the whole crop destroyed by rampaging elementals last year?”

“These are from the year before,” Sky says. “Kept in a time-stasis container, so they’re fresh. I got lucky. Seller didn’t know what he had.”

Somrak slowly spins the cigar with his fingers. “Well, two can play at that game.” He reaches into the interdimensional space in the bag, gropes around, and pulls out a bottle wrapped in newspaper.

Sky takes it, looking touched. “You got me something, after what you went through?”

“Hah. No way. I got it before, thank goodness. I wrapped it after, but I couldn’t possibly have made it here in time if I’d had to go shopping.”

Sky tears the newsprint free to reveal a familiar label. “Caol Ila. Somrak…this is imported from off-Insula…from Earth.” Sky’s voice is stunned.

“You’re not the only one who got lucky,” Somrak says. “Couldn’t pass up the price. Got a bottle for myself, too.” He’s lying. He couldn’t have afforded a second bottle even if there had been one available. But he knows Sky loves those off-world whiskies. Well, just the ones from the world Sky had lived on for a century and a half.

Sky looks at him suspiciously, but he knows better than to press. He hefts the bottle. “Thank you. Join me in a drink later?”

“Whisky and cigars. Sounds perfect.”

Somrak feels a hand on his shoulder, and then a kiss on his cheek. Even before he looks, he knows it’s not Alma, not Saira. Too much pull on his shoulder as the short Bunny stretches to reach his cheek, and the curls tickle his neck. “Hey there, Ponytail,” chirps Cherry. “Merry Christmas.”

“Now there’s a nice present,” he replies. “Precious and portable.”

“Oh, you want more where that came from?” Cherry grins in challenge, then points. “See that bundle of green hangin’ over the bar? You stand under that, you gonna get kissed. It’s tradition.” Then without looking, she snatches the bottle from Sky. “Yoink! I’ll keep this behind the bar for you, sweetie, like the other bottles. Now give Cherry some sugar.” She puts her arms around Sky’s waist, the bottle tapping against his bottom, and looks up at him expectantly, a sprig of living honeysuckle curled around her left ear.

Sky bends down and wraps his arms around her, straightening and lifting her, and kissing her on both cheeks. Cherry giggles and gives him loud smacks back, “Mwah! Mwah!” before he sets her back down, and she goes dancing off into the party, vaguely toward the bar, waving back at both of them.

Somrak shakes his head and looks at Sky, who just shrugs. “Family?” Somrak asks.

Sky lowers his gaze introspectively, then with a look into Somrak’s eyes, answers simply, “Yes.”

There is a moment of silence, silence even though it is filled with the background noise of the party: Kyri’s laughter and Kaur’s big voice describing some encounter with an inebriated priest, Tulip giving another drawing away, to one of the constables that Somrak never got to know as they were never on the same shift in his week here. But for a few hours-long seconds, Sky and Somrak say nothing, until the latter finally asks, “What’s with the flowers?” He points at the side of his head, about where Cherry’s ears emerge from her afro.

“Oh, Geryon crafted them,” Sky explains. “No need for water or anything. They live off the life aura of the wearer. Symbolic. Uh, Tulip’s daisy is for innocence, Cherry’s honeysuckle is for generous affection…like that.”

Before Somrak can respond, Dion’s gently scolding voice breaks in. “Come to apologize for disappearing without a proper farewell, Sergeant?” He is holding a cocktail in each hand, which he gives to Somrak and Sky.

Somrak smirks. “Oh, you were having your beauty sleep or something. How’ve things been around these parts?”

“Quiet. Peaceful. No demons at all.” Dion shrugs with a smirk of his own. “Must be a coincidence.” He says to Sky, “Merri says she needs your help in the kitchen. Something about ‘pralines’?” As Sky raises his glass to Dion and Somrak and strides off to the kitchen while taking a sip, Gwydion produces a thin box wrapped in enchanted paper with shifting hues of blue, red and purple. “I don’t know how well these will fit you but I thought they might go with your preferred apparel.”

Again Somrak unwraps it carefully, planning to save the paper for Tulip. Inside the box is a pair of fingerless leather gloves. “Oh, now, those look stylish.”

“I aim to please. They are fireproof, by the way.” Dion’s smile fades. “You look like you’ve been in an awful fight? No more demons, I hope?”

Somrak’s eyes flick downward momentarily. “Not exactly. But…I’ll be fine.” He forces a smile. “Oh, I found something. Came across it in a shop soon after I left here.” From the satchel he hands Dion yet another newspaper-wrapped object, this one obviously a book, almost too large to comfortably heft with one hand.

On unwrapping, Dion blinks in surprise. “De Dimond’s On the Binding and Banishment of Eight Score and Three Demons and Seven Devils. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one outside the Academy of Magic.” He looks at Somrak with sincere gratitude. “Thank you. I’ve been trying to find time to go back and consult this book there. Now I don’t have to.”

Somrak nods. “The magical theory is way beyond my level. Figured you could use it better than me.”

Tulip dashes in and grabs Dion’s hand. “Come here! I wanna show you something!” She attempts to drag him away, something he can only resist with some effort. Even the smallest of the Bunnies is stronger than she looks.

“Tulip!” Dion gestures helplessly at Somrak, who waggles his fingers at the two of them as Tulip pulls Dion away toward the bar and that bundle of green that Cherry pointed out, to the apparent amusement of Cherry, who is coming around the bar and waving her hands at Tulip. The curious phrase “Hold your horses!” rises above the background noise to reach Somrak’s ears.

He sips his drink, which is up to Cherry’s usual high standards. And its strength makes him recall the near-complete lack of nourishment in the past day. That combined with being healed, which always leaves him light-headed, makes him head toward the tables bearing food.

It is a sumptuous spread, with cookies and cakes and pies and tarts and mochi and puddings, roasts and loafs and stews and pilafs, and other dishes he cannot immediately categorize. But then he remembers the other presents he has, and decides to add them to the ones under the heavily decorated tree. The ornaments are hand-made, for the most part, and clearly there was not much of a budget for buying materials, but a surfeit of creativity. As he sets his drink on the corner of the table and takes out the boxes of charmed bracelets that he bought from a temple for the Bunnies all in a rush – charms of luck and protection and health – he thinks, Next year, I can bring ornaments, and that thought gives him pause. Will there be a next year? These Bunnies have passed through so many rings of fire already. And Somrak himself, assuming he is still alive – will he still be welcomed?

He places the last of the boxes under the tree and turns to find Alma standing right behind him. Her face is level with his, their height being so nearly the same, and he cannot find a thing to say as he meets her penetrating gaze.

He hears his heart beat three times before she speaks. “Who should I complain to about your being returned to us in such poor condition?”

Somrak feels the familiar tugging on the scar across his face, signaling the return of his accustomed smirk. “I probably shouldn’t say. But she did give me something for you, with the warning I’d be a lot more damaged if I lost it.” He pulls a narrow case out of the satchel, much longer than the bag. It is made of wood covered with rough sharkskin, colored a dark grey, with two silver clasps on the side. A deep-crimson ribbon is tied crosshatched around its length, and instead of a bow it is fastened with a wax seal of the same hue, reminiscent of the Fencer’s red eye. He holds the case horizontally in both hands, presenting it to her.

Alma receives it with an air of curiosity, but instead of opening it she sets it aside, leaning it against the wall. Then, swiftly but gently, she wraps Somrak in an embrace. “Welcome home.” Her breath tickles his ear as she breathes the words.

A mere two words, simple and common, but they set off such a cascade of emotion within the fire god that he freezes for a moment, not trusting himself to return her embrace for fear – of what? That he might never release her? That he might burst into tears or laughter? It is the exhaustion, the injuries, the hunger, the drink, the trauma of the past few days. The dislocation of being there beneath the ice, clearly and consciously deciding to kill the traitor, the former teammate, and now, less than a day later, here, among warmth, friends, presents, sweets, ornaments, singing – yes, now Kyri is starting to lead people in singing – here. Home. What home has he ever known?

He surrenders to it, to her, his hands – powerful, calloused on the knuckles, metaphorically drenched in rivers of blood – finding her back, the right feeling her shoulder blades through her dress, the left, weaker, on the inward curve just above the waist. The tension drains away. He squeezes his eyes shut more tightly and whispers, “Home.”

He feels her nod against his shoulder. Her voice matches his whisper. “This is home. And we are all happy to see you back.” She holds him like that for a few seconds longer, as if sensing that he needs to compose himself, then moves a hand from his back to his cheek while pressing her lips to the other, lingering for a heartbeat before she pulls away slightly to look him over. She smiles as if trying to lighten the moment, and holds up an admonishing finger. “And I will not let you leave without a proper healing. But it doesn’t have to be right away if you need to take a moment.”

He chuckles. “Yeah, maybe…a little later. Thank you. Um…” He fumbles with the satchel. “I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to give these to you.” He pulls out a box about the size of large book and hands it to her.

“Oh, you didn’t have to,” she says, sounded pleased, pausing only a moment to pull the string free and tear the newspaper away, then opening the thin-cardboard box. Inside is a folded piece of cotton clothing, Guardia Dei indigo, but clearly wrapped loosely around something more solid. She sets the box on a nearby table and gives Somrak a curious glance, then lifts the bundle out and flips aside the cloth to reveal a pair of curved knives with hardwood grips and pommels carved into the shape of dragon’s heads. “Oh, Somrak…” She sets the cloth and one of the knives back in the box and draws the other one from its plain leather sheath. The blade, black with a crimson hue, is not metal, more ceramic, even organic, and serrated on the inner curve. “These are beautiful…”

“The blades are dragon’s teeth. Highly heat- and acid-resistant. Supposedly they’ll never need sharpening.” Somrak shrugs. “After what happened to your weapons when you fought the demon, I thought you needed something more durable.” He picks up the other one, drawing the blade and demonstrating a reversed grip. “Different fighting style than usual, though – block with the outer curve, cut with the inner.” He hands it to her, pommel first.

She takes it and holds both blades the way he demonstrated, so they protect her forearms. “Hmm, less reach this way, but I see what you mean. I’ll have to practice with Master Pak. I wonder what he’ll make of them.” She sheathes the blades and picks up the item of clothing, which turns out to be a standard Guardia Academy t-shirt, except that it is big enough for Sky to wear. On the front, covering much of the shirt aside from the Guardia seal on the right breast, is an outline of a tiger, posed as if stepping down from a rock, forepaws lower than the rear, tail curling over the shirt’s shoulder and onto the back behind the neck, looking off to one side. A few lines of glitter hint at eyes and mouth and stripes.

Alma starts to chuckle and then laughs fully, loud enough to make others at the noisy party look their way. “Oh, where was this when I attended the Academy? It would have been a success! But…why so big? Oh…a nightshirt?” Somrak nods. “Convenient.” She holds it up, turning it around to admire the other side, and gasps to see a phoenix portrayed on the back, wings spread and rising from flames. “Really?” She clutches it to her chest, grinning at him.

Somrak points at the shirt. “That took way more time than finding the knives. If you need extra shirts, I have three more where I messed up with the glue.”

Alma hugs him again. “Thank you. I will treasure it. And I’ll carry the blades with me at all times from now on. Ah… Your present is here.” She releases him, stepping back while looking past his shoulder at something. He hears a flap of large wings. “Someone wanted to give it to you personally.”

Somrak holds still, not quite sure for a moment what is going on, but not surprised at the impact of the phoenix landing on his shoulder. One wing bats at his face a little as Starfax folds it. Somrak turns his head to see the imperious gaze of the water phoenix, who is wearing a leather collar, or rather a thin leather strap wrapped several times around her neck, with an asymmetrically fusiform seed, tapered at each end and bulging in the middle, hanging from it like a pendant. “Oh, hello again,” Somrak says. Starfax looks pointedly at the god’s arm and starts to edge onto it, so Somrak raises it. The bird sidles along until she is perched on his forearm, making Somrak glad she chose to land on his right shoulder instead of his recently-injured left.

Alma reaches to loosen the leather strap enough so that she can remove it from Starfax’s neck and give it to Somrak. “For you. I thought it would go well with your fiery personality.” The seed, about the weight of a peach pit but a little longer and narrower, somehow seems to burn with an internal flame under its lustrous golden-brown exterior, a flame unseen and unfelt but nevertheless sensed – a potentiality, a dream of fire.

Somrak holds it in one palm, fascinated. “I’ve seen one of these before. In a collection. Some half-mad botanist Sky and I were investigating… Oh Alma, it’s so beautiful.”

“I’m glad you like it.” Her voice almost purrs with pleasure. “It is called a Dragon’s Heart. The originals are native to the Dragon Lands but I managed to turn a more common seed into pretty much the same plant. After more than a few failed attempts… Still have a lot left to learn about my Life sphere, I’m afraid.” She takes the necklace and motions at him to lean forward. She places it around his neck. “There. May it ward off danger and remind you that you’re never alone.” There is a sound of wind in leaves, and Somrak feels a sort of tremor from the seed as a minor divine blessing spreads into it.

Somrak puts his hand over it, gratefully. The darkness within his thoughts feels very close to the surface, but so does the warmth brought forth by Alma and all the others here. “I don’t know what to say. Just…thank you.”

Alma smiles. “That is more than enough.” She glances at the long case that Somrak brought, and finally picks it up again. “Let us see what my aunt has sent.” She touches the crimson seal and a silvery phoenix appears, flying across the surface of the ribbon, causing it to unspool as the wax liquefies, drips away, and disappears entirely before it hits the floor. Alma takes this in stride as if she’s seen it before, then flips the clasps to open the case. Inside, in inset depressions, is a sword and its sheath, side by side. The sheath is simple but masterfully worked black leather with silver trim. She removes the sword, holding it up by the grip.

The blade is narrow and thin, light for swift movement, needle-pointed for penetration. Like Alma’s usual weapon, this is not meant for slashing and chopping through armor and bone, but for subtle slipping past the heaviest defenses via an unnoticed weak spot, puncturing vital organs, then withdrawing for another fatal stab before the pain has even registered. It is a surgical instrument for bringing about a state of quietude. Narrow as it is, the spine of the blade, between the razor edges, is etched with a few words in an ancient script, and the handguard is a protective but not restrictive half-basket formed of steel leaves and two long-tailed birds chasing each other among the greenery.

Alma studies it in awe. “Oh dear… Thank you for bringing this to me.”

Somrak is equally fascinated by the weapon. “I’m just the delivery boy,” he says softly. “That is beautiful. I don’t recognize the script… Is that an enchantment?”

Alma shakes her head. “No. It’s an old language. A poem about life, death and oblivion, the true ending to all life. These are the last three words of it, ‘On the way’. As in ‘You died on the way’. A bit of a favorite with my clan.”

Somrak smiles. “Nice and grim. I like it.”

One of the Bunnies, the athletic teenager Kori, is suddenly beside Alma, grabbing her arm. “Mom! Kyri’s starting another singalong. Chime’s gonna play the harmonica you gave him! He wants you there…”

Alma looks at the boy affectionately. “Oh, I can’t possibly miss that.” To Somrak, she asks, “Will you join us?”

Somrak picks up his cocktail. “I think this is more my style than singing. And I was just about to grab something to eat. I’ll listen.”

Alma gives him a smile and lets herself be dragged away by Kori. The singing begins shortly thereafter, Chime’s harmonica and Sky’s ’ukulele providing a musical accompaniment, the song one of those about the closing of the year and the birth of a new one, letting go of fears and renewing hopes, about saying farewell to those we have lost and holding on to those still with us.

Somrak drinks to that. He drinks to the lost agents, even to the demigoddess – or demi-whatever she was – that he had worked alongside for twelve years without knowing she was an agent of Hell. The line about lost friends and family stabs him to the hilt, and he curses the urge to weep. He gulps the rest of the drink in three swallows, glances at the small presents for the Bunnies, then stalks swiftly to the side door and quietly takes his leave.

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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.

Ch6.42 Trust

It is one of those warm, sunny days when working seems like a sin and staying inside is a veritable attempt to destroy one’s joie de vivre. The river and pools at the base of the waterfall at the Oracle’s grotto bring a pleasant freshness to the little patch of grass-green land bathed the afternoon sun.

The picnic has entered that lazy phase of all get-togethers when people settle into small groups or even alone to enjoy a swim in the pool at the bottom of the waterfall from which a swift, young river rushes toward Rio Novo, the patch of rock and pebble-filled bank crawling with little freshwater crabs that Sage and Aliyah are trying to teach Chime and Tulip how to catch, the tree-lined sloping hill where May, Kumiko, Ewá and Cherry are sitting, sunbathing and exchanging the occasional piece of conversation. At the top of the hill, on a ridge, by a flat rock that overlooks the pool, Pak and Nevieve are speaking with a nonchalance that hints at many years of shared experiences. And on the rock, Sky is preparing to dive into the water. A short, running jump is enough to see the god falling clear into the pool, with a couple of somersaults and a flawless entry that would look suspiciously like showing off if anyone but Dion were paying attention to Sky.

But the only other people in the pool are Kori and his apparently new best friend, Max, both of them too entertained in a little splash war to see Sky diving and surfacing, moving through the water with remarkable grace for his size, just the upper half of his head visible and looking at the two boys like a sea lion seeing a pair of fat, juicy fish. Dion senses the god’s magical influence blooming as a pair of waves rises gently to lift Kori and Max, gently moving them in a circle so that the boys orbit each other. Confused at first but quickly accepting and laughing of the harmless prank, the boys continue their splash fight from atop the magical waves, cajoling each other and making Dion chuckle at some of their more outrageous words of challenge.

“Now, look at ye, all alone in the corner,” Merri’s voice chimes by his right ear.

He turns away from the splash fest to look at her. “Ah, but now I’m not alone anymore,” he replies with a smile. “And I couldn’t possibly ask for better company.”

The Bunny, sporting a flattering green plaid-patterned swimsuit, with a low back and a single shoulder strap, that sets off her red hair and her shiny emerald eyes, giggles at the shameless flirtation. “I ken very well what kind of company ye’d prefer to be havin’.”

For all of Dion’s fame as a conquistador, he has never actually tried to lure any of the Bunnies to his bed. Not only would that be extremely bad for his short-term health and long-term survival, considering who their mother is, but, he must admit, the Bunnies did not feel quite like…people to him when he first met them. They were fascinating, obviously pleasant to look at but just animalistic enough that sleeping with them would equate, in his own mind, with bestiality, a venue of sex that Dion has never been interested in exploring. But as their personalities blossomed, so did Dion’s fascination and empathy. By the time the whole prophecy situation came to be, Dion was already convinced of their value as sentient beings and of the blind cruelty in destroying them. Since then, he has often surprised himself with how much he has come to care for them all and how attentively he finds himself keeping track of their different wants and likes. In just a few months, they have become more of a family to him than he has ever found with his Uncle Math.

Yet even if Dion were not to be involved with their lovely and loving mother, he simply does not see himself pursuing any of them. Cherry and Merri feel no inhibition in flirting with him but, for some reason, their flirting has never carried a promise of anything more, especially where the magic god is concerned. Perhaps they sensed from early on the attraction that Dion and Alma had at first dismissed? Mayumi has been distant, formal, and until recently has always looked at him with a coolness that invited little affection. Tulip…there’s an exception. Dion would not so much have to try to bring her into his bed but to keep her out of it. Her insistence on capturing his attention is annoying. Dion has always been an only child but he has seen the little sisters of some of his friends behave in that fashion with their older brothers. Of course, little sisters don’t usually try to slip into bed with their older brothers…

A sudden choked scream from Merri awakes Dion from his wonderings. He barely sees her stumble back and away from him before a wall of water hits him full force, making him gasp for breath. He closes his eyes and grips the bank’s grassy edge in a desperate, reflexive attempt to stay afloat and not be dragged by the receding wave. Around him, the world gasps and falls silent. It takes Dion almost a full minute to recover enough from his body’s panic at nearly drowning.

Silence gives way to laughter. Dion looks up to see Merri laughing, snorting like an asthmatic walrus at his drenched face, his usually carefully groomed hair plastered against his skull. She points a finger at a point behind him and he turns to see Kori and Max laughing so hard they have to hold onto a rock to stay afloat. Not far away from them, Sky is looking at Dion with an apologetic grin that is dangerously tilting toward a laugh.

The Inspector stands, suddenly only chest-deep in the water, and starts to call out, “Sor–”

But he interrupts himself with his own laughter at the disheveled look on Dion’s face and any apologies he might have been planning to make are drowned amidst the mockery. Dion narrows his eyes at him, a dangerous grin on his face. He is nowhere near used to being the court jester, especially at the expense of looking like he was just licked by a rabid cow.

You do realize what this means, Inspector… he thinks as his mind bends around a family of spells he has not cast in a while.

Summoning and manipulating the elements was never his main interest at the Academy of Magic but illusion, transformation and translocation, by far his favorites, can have a surprising number of applications. The last few months of breaking into gang hideouts and capturing lawless divines have proved so beyond any doubt. And Dion has always had a very pliable, creative mind when it comes to magic…

His eyes flash golden as he makes a slithering gesture with his arm. Not all magic needs words. The water’s surface ripples, bulging and bending into a slender, cylindrical shape that glides elegantly and silently in Sky’s direction. By the time the god of rebellion notices it, a large, serpentine head is already rising out of the water, towering over him, opening massive watery jaws in a silent hiss. Clear eyes like air bubbles flash as the beast strikes, quick as lightning, and swallows the god. The water-snake’s transparent body offers a warped view of Sky travelling down its faux intestine, bound under water. Satisfied with his revenge, Dion dismisses the snake with a wave of his hand and casually combs his hair with his fingers to give it some sort of style before turning back to Merri, who is now gasping and giggling for a completely different reason.

“Now, where were we?” he asks.

But Merri is suddenly not laughing anymore. “I don’t think ye want t’be lookin’ away so soon, dear!”

She points beyond Dion again, making him turn in that direction. Sky is rising from the water, his eyes closed, his shoulders hunched. He snorts a mist of water droplets and opens his eyes, which are glowing with an ominous blue-green light.

He straightens and stretches out his arms, making the water around him rise and fall in a perfect circle, in a foretelling exhibition of power.

He gives Dion a challenging smile, waggles his eyebrows, and announces, “It’s on…”

Behind the magic god, Merri squeaks and scrambles to her feet, rushing to go and enjoy the grass over by Cherry, where the chances of major aquatic phenomena are much lower and where Sage, Chime, Tulip and Aliyah have joined May and the others, all of them now very keen on watching the goings-on in the pool, while avoiding the water altogether. Kori and Max have already climbed out of the water and onto the safety of the rocks, where a gap between two boulders offers a comfortable splash-free place to watch the fight that is about to happen. Up on the slope, Pak has stopped talking to the Oracle and is now watching the two quarrelling gods with interest, evaluating the unconventional battle.

Dion is barely aware of all this, his eyes focused on Sky, his thoughts already revolving around defense and counterattack. “Why, Inspector,” he says with a grin, his body straightening in anticipation. “Let’s see what you have.”

Sky straightens and stretches out his arms, and swiftly assumes a combat stance, his right hand forward and open, his left hand back and closed into a fist. And as he does so, the water bursts away from him in a shockwave. Sky moves his hands in a swirling gesture, and the water that blasted away from him turns into a vortex that spins in place, faster and faster, until he thrusts both palms toward Dion, sending a waterspout twisting at the god of magic.

A heartbeat, two, and the waterspout has reached Dion. He raises his arms in reflex, summoning a protective wall of water to rise between him and the spout. But that does little to stop and nothing much to delay the whirling mass of water that hits the wall and defeats its inertia, making it twist and bulge dangerously toward the god. With a whispered command, he conjures the water to solidify, pursing his lips at how long the liquid swirling liquid resists his influence. Still, it obeys. Wall and waterspout solidify in a gelatinous watery sculpture on the surface of the pool, just a finger’s length from him. He looks at it curiously and pokes the squishy thing with a finger.

Hmm… Isn’t that interesting?

An unusual idea sparks in his mind. He taps the gelatin wall and it flies off toward Sky, plunging into the water on its way. Soon, the water around Sky is rippling and bulging, and the god is looking wildly around him, trying to figure out what Dion’s counterattack will shape up to be.

A jelly tentacle shoots out of the water. And then another and another. The three of them tower over Sky for half a second and then clash together, squeezing the god in a squishing hug. And then… he is gone. Sucked underwater, Sky disappears, consumed by Dion’s squid-shaped attack.

Silence.

Many of the observers lean forward slightly to try and divine Sky’s shape in the water. Dion chuckles at this. He cancels his spell to allow Sky his return to the surface and a long enough breath to admit defeat. But his victory is short. Suddenly, the water explodes in a massive wave. Something shoots out of it. Laughing like a maniac, Sky appears wrapped in the transparent tentacles of a squid made of water. Dion’s jaw drops for a moment. How can it be? He cancelled his spell!

No time to think. Dion finds his ankles yanked from under him, and he is pulled underwater, remembering at the last moment to take a deep breath and hold it in. His mind works at an incredible pace, trying to make heads or tails of his situation. Of course…Sky must have reproduced his jelly squid, using only water. Dion is fighting the god of rebellion in his own turf, after all. And he seriously needs to rethink his strategy. Pak must already be preparing a sermon on it to use in the next class.

The tentacles flail about, pulling him in all directions, shaking the breath from his lungs. Just as Dion starts going through his sadly very short ‘breathe underwater’ list of spells, he feels himself being pulled, upside down, toward the surface and above it.

Up there, Sky is in waiting, wrapped in the tentacled embrace of a squid even larger than Dion’s, something more like a kraken made purely of liquid. The creature flails around, turning this way and that, looking extremely confused at suddenly finding itself in such a small pool for its size. Caught in the beast’s watery body, schools of fish swim in erratic patterns, desperate to find a way out. And Sky is having the time of his life!

A sudden sound. Like an underwater hiccup. The creature jerks once…and explodes into a billion droplets. Hovering midair for just a fraction of a second, Dion sees Sky flip like a dolphin and dive smoothly into the deepest part of the pool. And then gravity remembers to pull again and Dion finds himself falling and hitting the water surface full force, shoulders first, with a huge, altogether ungraceful splash.

He surfaces almost immediately, rubbing the burning sensation off his shoulder and coughing out what feels like the water equivalent to his full lung capacity. “Well…” he manages not to wheeze, “that was unnecessary.”

Sky is emerging as well, looking honestly concerned at the possibility of Dion being hurt. “Oh, Dion, I’m sorry. Are you all–”

A water dolphin jumps out of the water and slaps Sky in the face with its tail, at Dion’s command. To Hell and its servants if he is going to lose this now! Oh, this picnic is turning out to be a lot more fun than predicted…

The dolphin dives back smoothly only to surface again, head above the water just for long enough to cackle that echolocating call that sounds so much like laughter to human ears. Then, it jumps again gracefully out of the water, shining in the sunlight and causing more than a few mouths to gape at its beauty, before diving again for good.

Dion smirks at his own artistry and focuses on Sky. The Dei Inspector is slumped against the rocky side of the bank, his face frozen for a moment in a stunned expression that makes Dion laugh quietly. He knows Sky is not hurt. The spell was crafted to be harmless. And the way Sky’s expression smoothly turns into a mischievous smile just a few breaths later leaves it clear that the god of rebellion is taking as much pleasure in this impromptu battle of wits as Dion.

His smile boding nothing good, Sky sinks into the pool again, until only the top half of his head is visible above water. Bubbles begin to blow from his mouth.

But nothing happens. The water doesn’t move, the pool gives no sign of disturbance. Dion tilts his head quizzically at Sky. What is he doing?

And that is when he feels a nip on his knee as if a very tiny, toothless mouth were trying to bite him. His hand moves automatically to his leg to scratch it but finds nothing unusual there. Then he feels it again, on his waist, tickling his skin. And another on his arm. And on his leg. And on his chest. And then he is being swarmed, as all the fish of the pool team up to assault him like a school of tickling piranhas, pinching his skin, harmlessly but hilariously until Dion cannot control his laughter. The water around him boils with fish jumping and slithering against each other to reach the god, flopping free of the water momentarily to rub against him. All that is exposed skin is prey to them. They are even trying to squirm into his swim trunks!

Laughing becomes painful. Breathing, nearly impossible. Dion bends himself double, hands clenching his abdomen, face hurting with the pull of laughter. He wheezes, trying to think. Here is a situation where his love spells definitely wouldn’t work. The fish love him too much already.

What eats river fish? What eats river fish?!

A sudden idea and Dion casts a desperate spell at a leaping fish. A golden light surrounds it, making it glow, changing its outline, its shape. And suddenly…the fish is an otter. A very, very confused otter. It lands in the water, in the middle of all the other fish. And the fish go crazy with panic!

Well, some of the fish. Not all of them are that fast on the uptake. So much for natural selection… Dion casts the same spell, again and again, until the tickling is almost gone and most of the fish are either transformed into otters or running away from their new natural predators. The transformed fish, though, are all but happy at their newfound ottery shape. They are actually swimming toward Sky, chattering at him, leaping at him like fish would do, rubbing against him and trying to clamber over him, their minds adapting to their new shape just enough to allow them control over paws instead of fins. It is almost as if they are asking for help (or maybe even complaining) about their new bodies.

Sky laughs, under the most adorable assault imaginable, being tickled to breathlessness by the otters. And now Dion can breathe. The influx of oxygen to his brain sparks a mischievous idea. Transformation is one of his favorites, after all.

He prepares to boost his spell, intent on transforming all the fish that managed to escape his magic before into otters and give Sky a massive dose of his own medicine. Dion raises a hand, summons his power…

A large shape sweeps just above him, throwing him in shadow. A blood-curdling shriek cuts through the air, bounces off the stone walls that line the sides of the pool, sending ice down spines, making people drop to the ground.

Dion plasters himself against the river bank, paralyzed. Caught in mid-cast, his spell shoots uncontrolled from his hand. He curses silently at that as he looks up at the winged, leonine body lazily lowering itself to land on a rock by the water.

“Geryon!” he scolds the gryphon. “What a way to scare everyone!”

“In my defense, it did make for quite the entrance,” Geryon replies nonchalantly, landing softly on the rocky outcrop by Dion’s left.

Around them, the gods and humans are already recovering from the fright but the Bunnies are taking longer, still lying on the ground, their ears plastered back in fear of a threat their bodies know much better than their minds.

Of course… Dion thinks. Rabbits are prey to eagles in nature. Some part of the Bunnies must maintain that instinctive fear.

“You idiot, look at what you did to the Bunnies!” Dion exclaims.

Geryon looks around in what looks like honest surprise. Putting a paw against his heart, he cries, “I would never hurt them! I merely wanted to announce my return from the First Ring in style!”

Dion opens his mouth to growl at him that there are hundreds of other ways to do that but another cry pierces the air.

“Mother!”

It is Merri’s voice. Fear mixed with shock. Dion’s head shoots in her direction to see her running towards where he had set up the portal to the station, May following right behind her. She gasps and stops by a white and blue shape that certainly wasn’t there before.

“Oh, Mother! Are ye…”

And then she starts to laugh, uncontrollably, falling back and clutching her belly against the effort. By her side, May is bending over, reaching out to touch whatever the white thing is.

“Are you all right?” she asks, sounding deeply concerned.

Dion is already running toward her. Merri’s mention of her mother was enough for him to shoot out of the water like a lightning bolt. All he could see from the pond was white against blue. Had Alma somehow been hurt and fallen? Is she all right?

He reaches May to find that the blue shadow on the ground is made of fabric. A dress, one of Alma’s. But instead of the goddess, all he finds is…an otter?

A pure-white otter with cream-colored fur on its belly and blue eyes like sapphires is standing on all fours and looking at him with a dumbfounded expression that would be hilarious if Dion weren’t feeling frozen with sudden fear.

“Alma?” he asks in a voice much smaller than his usual baritone.

The otter’s brows furrow in a way no otter should be able to. It starts screeching a complaint that tingles in Dion’s eardrums and makes May and Merri lower their ears back in agony.

“Eep! High-pitch! High-pitch!” Merri complains.

The otter stops and Dion kneels by it, very slowly, feeling a cold dread trickle down his spine. Geryon had made him lose control of his spell and it had shot toward… somewhere to Dion’s right. Had Alma had the terrible luck of exiting the portal just then? All the other fish-otters are the typical ottery brown and grey. Only this one is the same white color as Alma’s silken hair, with eyes that are so much like hers. And, truthfully, the pile of clothes that the creature is still trying to shake off is a dead giveaway.

This is Alma, turned into an otter. She stands on her haunches, head tilted, looking a question at him. He scoops her up in his arms, holding her closely, his heartbeat much slower than usual but pounding in his chest. She looks up at him. Is that fear he sees in her eyes? He has already turned Geryon into a gryphon and failed to turn him back. The thought of doing the same to Alma… His heart sinks.

No, no, don’t think about those things, he scolds himself. Be rational, Gwydion!

Gods are much more resistant to that type of magic than are humans. And besides, the spell is a fairly simple one, the type that only lasts a certain amount of time before normality reclaims its place. Surely none of this will be permanent. Right?

May must catch the fear in his attitude, for she places a hand on his arm and asks, “Is she going to be all right?”

“A moment, please,” he asks.

His eyes flash golden for a moment as he looks at the shape-shifted Alma with magical senses. Much to his relief, he can see the shadows of her true form within the otter body and feel the familiar, gradual weakening of a limited-time spell. He can’t help but smile in relief at that and pet her adorable little head before replying to May.

“She will be just fine,” he reassures her. “The spell doesn’t last very long. No need to cancel it at all. I’ll just let it run its course.”

That has Alma chattering angrily again.

“Hey, don’t yell at me!” he complains. “Yell at Geryon for distracting me and making me lose control of the spell.” He glares at Geryon, lying comfortably upon his rocky perch, head on his forepaws. The gryphon merely smirks at him. “Besides…” he starts stroking Alma’s back. “This new look suits you. Why not enjoy it for a while?”

She frowns at that and digs her nails into his chest. When the god grunts and loosens his hold on her, she starts struggling to free herself from his grip but all she manages to do is turn and hang vertically, head and left forepaw over Dion’s arm, right forelimb caught against his chest, her hind limbs and tail hanging limply in the most perfect illustration of adorable frustration and helplessness that nature has ever seen. She blows out a sigh and lets her head fall on his arm.

Dion chuckles and starts petting her head, tilting her so that May and Merri can pet her too. Then, followed closely by the two Bunnies, he moves closer to the edge of the pool. Sage, Aliyah, Tulip and Chime are already moving closer. Doria, who had left for a moment to attend to some mysterious duty in the grotto, is now back and already in the water, by Sky. The Inspector and his otter fanclub are all watching Dion and his precious cargo. From their rocky hideout, Kori and Max are watching as well.

Dion gently lowers Alma down to the ground. She turns her head left and right to look around the pool and the bank, then stands on her haunches, tilting her head back to look up at him and almost falling on her backside because of it.

He smiles at her encouragingly, speaking to her in a whisper “All is well. You are safe. Enjoy yourself a little.” He strokes the bridge of her nose with a finger. “You need it.”

At a little gesture from Sky, the other otters break away from the god and, swimming and breaching like a school of furry little whales, form a half-circle in the water around the little patch of grass where Alma is now standing. They look up at her eagerly, almost worshipfully, chattering at her in welcome.

She looks intently at the otter army and welcome reception, chattering…something back at them. Then, she drops to all fours and runs around in small circles, almost as if chasing her own tail but keeping her eyes on her furry worshippers. The otters chatter at her and start rolling in the water, over and over again. She stops, starts running in the opposite direction and they roll the other way. She stands and the otters turn belly up. She drops down and they roll belly down. The adorable, little furry spectacle makes everyone laugh and seems to entertain Alma immensely.

She rushes to the water and swims into the middle of her ottery fanclub, diving and rolling and twirling with them, swimming away while they follow her every movement and pirouette in the water, showing off their skills to the exotically furred, blue-eyed otter whose attention they desperately try to capture.

“And thus, a new cult is born,” Geryon announces sarcastically.

Sky’s laughter is loud and hearty at the sight of Alma floating belly up and grooming her cheeks with stubby otter forepaws. Another otter is already trying to groom her underside for her, scratching her and making her leg jerk reflexively. Apart from Ewá, May (who has since returned to her sitting spot on the grassy slope) and the kunoichi Kumiko, the not-so-water-friendly Geryon and the more solemn Pak and Nevieve, everyone is now in the water, laughing at Alma’s dalliances and looking eagerly at the otters as they swirl past them, reaching their hands out to stroke the sleek animals as they zip past. Alma herself guides the other otters towards Bunnies and humans, rubbing against her children, allowing them to hold her as if she were a furry baby and pet her without reserve. They all seem delighted with the experience, stroking her and kissing her and squeezing her in their arms amidst much cooing and banter. The temporary otter goddess looks extremely contented, closing her eyes in deep relaxation. The other otters are enjoying a similar treatment to Alma’s. Everyone seems to have picked one or two of the furry creatures to cuddle, except for Geryon, who seems satisfied in teasing a poor otter into chasing his puffy lion tail, hanging over the water, into exhaustion. Dion himself currently has one docked against him, its furry head placed on his forearm and enjoying some scratching behind the ears.

After quite a bit of struggling, Alma manages to release herself from Tulip’s loving death-grip and swim toward Sky. Three otters, that had been testing the god’s ability to scratch three bodies at once using only two hands, part to let her through, swimming away and into the squeezing arms of the youngest of the Bunnies. Alma lets Sky scoop her into his long arms and stroke her soft, sleek back, stretching to touch her wet nose to his chin. Dion can’t help but feel a twinge of discomfort at the tender look Sky gives her as he leans down to press his cheek against her head. She turns to press her nose against his cheek, then pulls back, chattering at him in what might almost pass for a conversational tone in an otter.

Sky looks as if he’s listening intently to everything she is saying, which causes some laughter from Sage and Cherry, who are following the scene closely.

Suddenly, his face lights up and he nods, rolling his eyes and saying, “Oh of course!”

He moves his arm, making her fall into the crook of it, holding her like a baby while he sloshes to the bank and strides up to the portal to the Three Rats Guardia Station. She lies still, looking up at him, unbothered by all the movement while Sky turns to make a small announcement.

“Alma reminds me of my duties.” He turns toward Dion. “Dion, sorry for that accident but it was a pleasure. Sometime soon we’ll have to have a rematch.” The god of magic chuckles and salutes at him, making Sky smile. “Everyone else, have a good time!”

Then, he shifts Alma to his hands and holds her in front of his face, rubbing the tip of his nose against hers. “And you…” He glances down at her clothes, which are still pooled on the ground, then looks at her again. “Don’t forget where these are when the spell wears off.” He grins and sets her down and waves a goodbye to everyone as he goes through the portal.

Alma stands up to watch him go, but soon she is scurrying over to where May, Kumiko and Ewá are still resisting the appeal of cool water teeming with friendly otters on a warm, sunny day. She climbs over Ewá’s long, shapely legs, poking the demigoddess with her furry head and rubbing her cheek against Ewá’s shoulder. Ewá laughs at the goddess-turned-otter’s shenanigans with a freedom and a contentment that Dion has never really seen in her. In fact, the former Eye of the Council seems to have gained as much in joy as she has gained in work after becoming a part-time Voice of Defense and full-time foster parent.

Alma is now evading Ewá’s attempts to pet her, teasing the demigoddess by running up to her and then running away, toward the pool, only to return again to Ewá’s side.

“Yes, yes, I’m coming!” Ewá exclaims as she rises and walks over to the edge of the water, where Alma finally allows her to stroke that wet, ottery fur.

As soon as Ewá dives in, the white otter is running again, swift and sure, this time toward Mayumi and Kumiko. She stops just in front of the human girl and stands on her haunches, looking intently, first at Kumiko, then at May. Then, she goes down on all fours again and turns to face the pool before turning to face them again. She runs towards them and scrambles over their legs, much to May’s laughter and Kumiko’s befuddlement, before running away and into the water. A quick dive and she rushes out once more, back to the girls. This time, she runs around them in a circle and stops in front of them to chatter what sounds like a challenge.

Mayumi smiles and nods at her mother before looking at Kumiko. “Come on…”

The girl looks reluctant, but allows herself to be cajoled by May into walking to up the slope, which rises toward the diving rock on the top of the hill. They stand there, looking down at the water. May turns to Kumiko, Kumiko looks back at her. Though Dion cannot see her expression from here, he can tell she does not resist May when she takes her hand. They take a step back, then run and leap together into the water with a loud splash, making people laugh.

Dion chuckles and looks at the bank, where Otter Alma is just leaving the water after a quick dive. Her ear twitches and she turns to tilt her head at him, blue eyes flashing briefly. Is that a smile he sees on her fur-lined lips?

And suddenly, she is scurrying up the hill, to where Pak and Nevieve are still sitting. From this far away, Dion can see her stop and stand, her back turned to the magic god, her head tilted at the Oracle and the former Academy instructor. Nevieve laughs immediately and pets her head with two olive-colored fingers.

“Go on, now, firefly,” she says brightly, jerking her head at the pool. “Go play with your friends. I will join you in a moment.”

Alma turns and takes a couple of steps away but then stops and turns back, this time facing Pak. She seems to hesitate for a moment, then moves closer to him and, without warning, starts shaking herself like a dog just out of the rain. Water splashes in all directions, sprinkling the old master, who turns his head and raises his arms to protect himself.

“Gah! You unruly little – Is that a way to treat an old man?!” he scolds her.

Nevieve’s musical, watery laughter chimes loudly by his side. The Oracle looks like she is about to tumble from the convulsive effort of laughing. Dion’s jaw is hanging from its hinges. He cannot believe what he has just witnessed! Showering Pak like that…oh, Alma will be having many a date with the hardwood sword in the upcoming lessons at the master’s dojo. Not that the prank wasn’t well worth it. Dion is still quite cross with Pak regarding the whole Kumiko issue, which could have sent the magic god’s blooming relationship with Alma into an early grave.

But he never would have pulled such a blatant prank on him. He feels sorry for a moment, that Sky cannot be here to see it. He knows the Dei Inspector would have loved to watch the much-feared Pak get showered like that.

Alma is just turning to scurry away but the old instructor is faster, much faster than he looks. He scoops her off her feet and holds her tightly to him with a cry of “Oh, no you don’t! You are going to learn respect for your elders, you insolent child!”

Uh oh…

And then… he runs to the diving stone and jumps off the ridge, cannonballing into the water, still fully dressed, otter held firmly in his arms. Bunnies, humans, divines, gryphon, everyone gets splashed by the massive wave that rises in his wake.

Alma surfaces first, swimming swiftly and diving again, away from the spot where Pak emerges just a few seconds later. On the bank, Nevieve is walking calmly toward the water, still chuckling at Alma and Pak’s quarrels. A couple of otters are already swimming to greet her.

Alma, on her hand, is swimming at full speed toward Dion, diving and pirouetting as she does so, in sheer ottery glee. His former furry companion long gone to find cuddling elsewhere, the god stretches both arms to bring her closer into a light embrace. She places her forepaws on his chest, looking up at him.

“That was…I need to start being more careful when I tell you to have fun,” he whispers, smiling brightly at her.

She rubs her cheek against his chest and rolls onto her back, eyes closed, happily grooming her cheeks. He strokes her belly, glad for having the perfect excuse to be affectionate in public but hesitating in leaning closer to press his forehead against her head or kissing the bridge of her nose. He would love to do it, and even more if she weren’t in this furry form, but too many eyes are watching. He curses their secrecy pact for maybe the fiftieth time since it was struck.

Alma is lying still, looking at his face with a serene, happy expression in those round, shiny blue eyes. He strokes her between the ears, trying very hard to hold back the silly smile he knows is threatening to bloom on his lips.

And suddenly, she is rolling over his arm and diving underwater to disappear for almost a full minute. She returns holding something orange-green in her teeth. Is that a…crab? She has a pebble caught between her forepaws and is just rolling on her back to place the stone on her belly. Then she holds the crab and starts banging it viciously against the stone.

“Oh look! Snack time!” Doria points out, laughing.

The others laugh too, watching in delight as the pale otter breaks the crab’s shell against the pebble and starts biting into the poor creature’s whitish flesh.

“She is starting to act a bit too much like an otter, don’t you think?” Nevieve notes.

“Yes,” Dion agrees. “Need to stop her before she accuses me of ruining her diet. Alma! Come here.”

Alma’s head shoots to look at him and she turns belly down again, crab held between her teeth, to swim toward the magic god. She reaches him and he tries to take the crab from her mouth but before he can grab a hold of it, she is already clutching the shelled morsel between her forepaws and banging the already half-dismembered crab against Dion’s chest as if the god were a giant pebble.

“Ow, Ow, OW!” Dion complains, prompting another round of generalized laughter.

Alma stops banging, rolls belly up and reaches up, offering him the crab. “Uhm… Thank you. But I don’t feel like seafood,” he says, taking the crab away from her and discreetly throwing it toward Geryon, who snatches it from the air with a snap of his beak.

A familiar tingle in the god’s senses makes his brow rise. He looks intently at all the otters in the pool until he sees what he is looking for. One of them is already changing back. The spell has run its course and now all the otters will be fish again.

Except for one. Dion holds Alma closer to him, adjusting his grip so her belly is pressed against his, the underside of her chin on his chest.

“Time to come back to normal,” he tells her.

She looks at him and then closes her eyes. Behind her, all over the pool, the otters are turning back into fish. In Dion’s arms, otter Alma begins to glow, her shape warping, stretching, soft fur replaced with soft skin, sleek lines replaced with pleasant curves. Soon, her beautiful face is raising an eyebrow at the god in mock scolding, her humanoid body pressing tantalizingly against his to hide her nudity.

He grins at her and raises his hands slowly out of the water in a mocking show of decorum meant for their audience. “Like I said, don’t look at me. It was Geryon’s fault.”

She does not say anything but her half-shut eyes speak volumes. Those and her hands on his sides, hidden underwater, nails grazing slowly against his skin, making it shiver with delight. She is just teasing him, he knows, making use of this perfect little excuse to taunt him, a very small punishment for not cancelling the spell earlier.

She grins and, in his mind’s eye, he can see her draping her arms over his shoulders, leaning in to kiss him. He can almost taste her wet lips, hear the mumbling of the people watching them intently muffled by the sweet, exhilarating sensation of her body pressed against his. If she were to kiss him now…oh, that pact would go out the window and into a bottomless pit.

Is she taunting him into doing just that? Right here, in front of everyone?

His heart pounds, hammering against the inside of his chest. Surely, she must feel that. Her hands tighten their grip on him. His are diving slowly underwater. Her eyes are staring into his and he cannot tear himself away from them.

But then, Alma looks away and raises a hand out of the water, with a word of “Thank you.”

Dion looks up, to his right, to find Cherry and Merri there, each holding a piece of moss-green cloth. They must have left the water and fetched Alma’s bikini while Dion was distracted. They smile at him, wink and scamper away. Alma, on the other hand, tilts her head and pulls away from him, swimming closer to the bank and turning her back to the pool to put the bikini on.

Dion chuckles and shakes his head. Fortunately, most of the others are too busy watching what are now very confused fish jumping out of the water and trying to roll on their backs, to notice what is going on with the gods.

Ewá seems to be teaching the others a song of some sort. Dion can only make out about half of the words in the language that about half of the people in Three Rats tend to fall back to after every three or four words in Urbia.

Vem peixe qu’é peixe do rio.
Vem peixe qu’é peixe do mar.
Hoje canta sereia,
Hoje canta Iemanjá.

Already dressed, Alma sits by him. Her hand finds his underwater and he holds it, thrilling at that simple touch.

Sai barco. Sai pescador.
Vai na praia p’a pescar
Tua mãe, tua mãe é onda.
Tua mãe vai-lhe ajudar.

The fish leap higher and higher, the water boiling with them.

Pega ‘ssa pedra branca
Vai no terreiro dançar
Teu pé descalço na areia
Sua onda vai acalmar

And then Doria joins in, much to Ewá’s surprise.

Joga ‘ssa rede ao largo,
Não vai a lugar nenhum,
Que o peixe vem no cabelo
Que é da filha de Olokun.

This time, Nevieve’s voice rises in song, clear and perfect.

No mar tem onda grande,
Se é brava de não voltar,
O barco vira na espuma,
Dorme essa noite no mar.

Ewá and Doria look at each other and smile before echoing in a final chorus,

O barco vira na espuma,
Dorme essa noite no mar.

An explosion of applause fills the pool. Dion catches Max, Ewá’s mortal ward looking at his foster parent with newfound admiration. It is unlikely he will be wanting to leave her care any time soon.

Convinced that they are, in fact, fish, the fish seem to relax and dive back into the depths. Chatter and banter return to the pool as the various groups of people resume conversations and start playing games. By Dion’s side, Alma has tilted her head back and is basking in the sunlight, her eyes closed at its warming rays.

Suddenly, a shape shoots out of the water, just past the god. A huge fish, bigger than any of the others and shining with a curious reddish glow, leaps up toward Geryon and slaps the gryphon’s face with its tail before diving back into the water.

“OW!” Geryon complains, shaking his head and turning it toward Dion. “Oh, as if that was necessary!”

“What?! It wasn’t me!” the god exclaims.

A sudden thought makes him look to his right. Alma is still catching the sun with her eyes closed, looking suspiciously innocent. She lets out a small sigh and smiles in satisfaction.

Dion chuckles. It seems that a happy death goddess is just as dangerous as an angry one.

Ch6.41 Trust

The first day of Year’s End, and the Sun overhead seems well aware of it. The Urbis is awash with clashing traditions, but most of them agree that this day, the first of five, is a day for eating outdoors. Perhaps somewhere over the Insula, storm gods are mischievously ruining someone’s fun, but here in Three Rats they have stayed away, and today’s Sun seems determined to make the residents know that She is there with them.

She? Mayumi pushes her hair back from where it has fallen across her face and wipes the perspiration from her forehead with the back of her hand. Everyone around here thinks of the Sun as male, and it’s true, the greater portion of those gods are. But where she grew up, in a quiet dream-district that had once been part of a land called Nihon, the Sun was worshipped as female. Mayumi, her knowledge of the nature of the Urbis Caelestis limited to little more than the people and the handful of gods of her ward, had not even realized that there was an entire clan of sun gods until her recent arrival in the waking world, suddenly finding herself in daily contact with people from very different cultures and beliefs and levels of knowledge about the nature of this bizarre mountain-universe. The fact that many of those people are members of her own family left her for some time even more off-balance, but she has, after many difficulties, come to a degree of peace with it.

And just in time to upend it all by leaving. As she unpacks the wicker basket filled with delicious rye sandwiches, empanadas of various kinds, still-warm potatoes wrapped in foil, fat triangles of onigiri riceballs, deep-fried acarajé, bowls filled with cut-up chunks of fruit, savory vada donuts, and more, she pauses to watch Kori and Chime kicking around a worn-out ball with their bare feet, Merri dashing between them to intercept and giving them a surprisingly good run for their money. Sky arrives through a magical portal that has been set up, wearing dark-green shorts and a flowery shirt, bearing with ease two huge watermelons, one on each shoulder. He smiles at her and she returns it, but that only provides a contrast to the melancholy she feels at the thought she will soon be leaving all this for six-tenths of a year, in pursuit of a dream of becoming Guardia.

Then as she watches the ball shoots right between Sky’s legs, closely pursued by Merri, Kori, and Chime. Sky spins like a drunk trying to dance, actually going up on one leg as Chime dashes beneath him. Mayumi bursts into laughter as the tall god barely recovers enough so as not to drop a melon.

“I have a feeling we could feed a small army with all we’ve brought.” Mayumi turns to look at Alma, bent to help her unpack the food and lay it out on a sheet. The goddess grins at her, with a brief glance toward Sky. “I’ll take care of this, Mayumi. It looks like Sky needs some help.”

Mayumi looks gratefully into her mother’s eyes. She knows what Alma is doing. Despite the goddess’ misgivings about her mortal child being involved with an immortal, she wants Mayumi’s happiness, and the Bunny doesn’t have much time before she leaves. Still, she hesitates until Alma insists. “Go on!” With a smile, Mayumi obeys.

“Need some help?” she asks Sky as she approaches.

The tall god looks happy to see her. “Just trying to figure out where’s best to put these. In the water?”

Mayumi nods. “If we put them there,” she says, pointing to the edge of the falls, where two rocks create a miniature pool big enough for the two melons, “they won’t float off and they will be cool until we’re ready to smash them.”

He follows her toward the waterfall. “Smash them? Not slice them up?”

“Oh we can slice them,” she says. “But when I was a child, we always took turns wearing a blindfold and trying to hit the watermelon with a stick to break it open.”

“Sounds messy,” he says, “but fun.”

“It is a little messy,” she agrees. She pulls her lightweight dress off over her head, folding it simply and setting it on the grass. The grey bathing outfit she is wearing underneath is not the one Cherry picked out for her. That one was tiny and…well she was going to keep it for some other time, when it is just family. Though as Cherry reasonably pointed out, why bother wearing anything at all in that case? But no, today she has on a more reasonable swimsuit, with a top more like a jogging bra and a bottom that provides a bit more coverage than the strings-and-a-scrap-of-cloth that Cherry favored.

She steps into the pool and reaches up to take the melon. Sky looks doubtful – each melon is almost as long as her torso – but he slips the first one off his shoulder and, bending to the side, lets her take it. Something about the way their muscles connect makes Bunnies stronger than humans of a similar size would be, especially in the legs, and while she does grunt with the effort, she manages to lower the melon safely into the water. The next one is easier, as Sky can use both hands.

As he helps her out of the water, her ears catch Cherry’s arrival through the portal, the Bunny complaining about the weight of the cooler full of beer and ice she is carrying. But Cherry is the strongest of them all, and isn’t really having trouble.

Suddenly a webbed hand grasps her ankle from beneath. A moment of childhood fear about the kappa, a carnivorous water spirit like a cross between a turtle and a duck, flashes through her, but surely the Oracle would not let such a creature live in her waters. Resisting the urge to kick, she looks back and sees a familiar face rising from the water.

“Boo!” Doria, half-naiad priestess of the Oracle, laughs and releases Mayumi’s leg.

“Priestess!” Mayumi is delighted to see her. Doria had been briefly a guest in Alma’s living quarters, back when all the Bunnies lived there together.

“Please, May – call me Doria. Hello, Inspector!” She smiles flirtatiously at Sky.

“A pleasure to see you again, Doria.” Sky’s voice is warm. “Is the Oracle joining us?”

“Of course she is.” A penetrating voice unfamiliar to Mayumi, bearing echoes of centuries that make the light fur on Mayumi’s forearms stand on end, emerges through the falls. A tall otherworldly figure follows it, her eyes white but not seeming the least bit blind, her skin showing fine iridescent scales at the curve of her jawline and on her temples, blue-green hair falling down past her shoulders and concealing her breasts. A diaphanous, scaly wrap skirt hanging loosely on her hips is her only clothing, aside from jewelry of gold and gems on her forearms and throat. “It seems we are late already.”

“The Oracle, late?” Doria asks with mock astonishment as she smoothly mounts the shore. “Impossible!”

“Oracle…” Sky’s voice is filled with respect. “Thank you for letting us hold our picnic here.”

“Oh, Tuma-Sukai,” she says with a laugh. “After what you did for me, and this ward? I owe you far more. And who is this?”

“This is Mayumi,” he replies.

Mayumi bows. “It is an honor to meet you,” she says humbly. She has heard that this is one of the most ancient goddesses still active on the Insula. Although she had heard that the Oracle took the form of a fish-tailed siren.

The Oracle must have caught Mayumi looking at her legs. Or perhaps Mayumi’s thoughts are easily snatched from the air by such a powerful goddess. In an amused voice, the Oracle says, “Taking on more form than one is not a rare ability for such as we.” It takes a moment for Mayumi to realize that the Oracle is speaking to her in the language of her childhood, with an easy fluency and a somewhat archaic dialect.

Sumimasen,” Mayumi says with a bow to apologize, though exactly for what she was not entirely sure. It’s just…how she was raised. When in doubt, apologize. Cherry makes fun of her for it, but Merri thinks it’s sweet. Mayumi herself sometimes finds it annoying, how easily she does it.

“Such a polite young woman,” a creaking, sardonic voice calls out. She turns and sees a face she has noticed on the streets of Three Rats more than once, but she has never done more than nod to this wizened, scraggle-bearded elder. She has noticed, however, that he resembles less a native son of Three Rats – as variegated as the residents of Three Rats are – and more a wise man straight from the ancient scrolls of her own ward.

He is approaching in the company of Alma, and shadowing them is a young woman who does not look happy to be there. She certainly looks like she could have grown up with Mayumi. Indeed, they are roughly the same age, though the woman is taller and lacks Mayumi’s non-human ears and tail. But the face is similar, and the woman is looking toward Mayumi with a similar curiosity.

Sky turns and says with a moderate bow, “Master Pak, welcome.”

Alma introduces the Oracle and Doria. Before she can introduce Mayumi, Pak interrupts her. “Ah, who does not know of Nevieve, the Oracle? It is a privilege to meet you.” He bows to her, but Mayumi cannot shake the feeling that his amused tone speaks of a shared joke between Pak and the Oracle, as if they have really known each other for quite some time.

She feels a cool hand on her shoulder. The Oracle says, “I might well say the same of you, Pak. But let me introduce my new-met acquaintance, Mayumi, who I believe will soon be a student at your old Academy.”

Mayumi’s eyes go wide. How does she know…? She dismisses the thought. Of course the Oracle knows. Mayumi bows and expresses her sense of honor at meeting a Guardia Academy instructor.

Pak smiles and then looks annoyed at Alma and Sky. “Why did you not tell me you had a recruit for the Academy? I could have trained her. Well, this is Kumiko. The Sergeant and the Inspector have already met her at my home. I believe she and Miss Mayumi speak the same tongue. Perhaps they would enjoy conversing in their native language.”

And with that the gods begin talking about the current state of affairs in Three Rats – though is Pak a god? It is hard to tell. Mayumi is tempted to stay nearby to listen in, but she can tell when the mortals are being dismissed. It is annoying but…Pak is right. She and Sky speak her language together sometimes, but he is rusty and inelegant, though his mistakes are often hilarious. It would be nice to talk with another native speaker.

She and Kumiko go off a little way, and Mayumi bows and introduces herself politely, to which Kumiko gives the correct response, her voice low. “Have you met any of the others?” Mayumi asks. When Kumiko shakes her head, Mayumi takes her toward the sheet of food. “How long have you been in Three Rats?”

“A few years,” Kumiko replies.

She seems uncomfortable, her words blunt, so Mayumi does not press for more information in that direction, instead opening the cooler. “Like something to drink? A beer?”

Kumiko looks at her quizzically. “You’re old enough to drink beer?” She has a rough way of speaking that makes Mayumi think she grew up in more difficult circumstances than herself. Her accent, too, is different from Mayumi’s. She adds ‘sa’ to the ends of sentences, something Mayumi has never heard before. A dialect of some kind.

“I’m not a child. Just shorter than most humans. Here.” She hands Kumiko a bottle after lifting the cap off with an opener, and opens one for herself. “Kanpai.

Kumiko raises her bottle in salute. “Kanpai.” As she takes a drink, Kori and Max, a human boy Mayumi knows from helping out at the orphanage, go running past them both, laughing, and leap into the water, making huge splashes. Ewá Nanã, smiling in the way she only smiles around the children under her protection, watches as she walks past Mayumi to go speak with the other gods nearer the falls. Merri and Cherry are prying Tulip away from Dion, who seems to want to join Alma, and getting her to join them in swimming. Sage and Aliyah are off to one side, kicking around Kori’s football and taunting each other.

Mayumi’s ears twitch back toward the waterfall. She turns her head a little to glance that way while sipping her beer. “Nothing better for a child who has grown too fast than a child who is yet to grow,” she hears Alma say. The goddess has left the little knot of immortals and is talking with Ewá Nanã, the two of them watching Kori and Max splashing around. “You look happier yourself,” Alma says to the tall lawyer-turned-foster-parent.

“I am,” Ewá replies. “But tired. I am glad we could place all the children with families just for a day or two of the New Year, and I’ve already heard that two will not be leaving those homes to return to us. Well, the family who had agreed to take in Max changed their minds… He has had a difficult time.”

“It cannot be easy at times, to be looking after so many children. But what you are doing is important.”

Ewá looks at Alma with a small smile. “It is the hardest thing I have ever done. But at moments like this,” She looks back to see Max and Kori clambering out of the water and joining in on Aliyah and Sage’s game of ball, “it is the most satisfying.”

Alma squeezes Ewá’s hand. “I must return to the station now. We can’t leave it without a Dei presence for too long. But please enjoy yourself, and I will be back in a couple of hours.”

As Alma breaks away to walk toward the portal, the Bunny sees past Alma’s shoulder. Ewá is watching the goddess, knowing Alma can’t see her. Not aware she is being observed, Ewá gives a little sigh of longing and a rueful shake of her head. Oh… thinks Mayumi. Well. She manages to keep her giggle internal as she turns back to Kumiko. “Like to swim?” she asks.

Kumiko looks at Mayumi’s swimsuit. “Didn’t bring anything to wear.” She has on a loose blouse and a pair of shorts.

“We could go back to the station and get you something,” Mayumi suggests. “Merri has something that might–”

“No. I don’t want to swim.” Kumiko pauses for a moment and adds, “Pardon me,” though it does little to soften the abruptness.

“That’s all right.” Mayumi’s voice is a little smaller. But she feels a kinship with Kumiko that goes beyond language. The woman’s discomfort and resentment at having to be here reminds Mayumi of how she felt for weeks after waking in Three Rats – a feeling that has never entirely disappeared, though the love of those here have made it less painful. If that kinship will ever be more than a feeling… “Kumiko-san, this is the first time I’ve met anyone in this world who speaks my language as a native. Please…where do you come from?”

Kumiko looks at her as if evaluating, measuring. Mayumi wonders if she will measure up. But before Kumiko can decide how to answer, if at all, the gods from near the falls are returning. Gwydion says, “Excuse me, May,” as he reaches past her to fish two beers from the cooler, handing one to Sky and the other to Pak.

“Oh!” Mayumi grabs the bottle opener and hands it to him, then gets two more beers, giving one to Dion. The Sergeant tips it towards her in thanks as he, Sky, and Pak walk off, continuing to talk.

She offers the other to the Oracle – Nevieve? – who wraps her hand around Mayumi’s on the bottle. The Bunny feels a mild jolt, like a buzz passing through the goddess into her. She looks up to see the Oracle’s eyes glowing white.

Doria sees this and chuckles. “It’s normal to ask the Oracle a question, after giving her a gift.”

Mayumi cannot look away from Nevieve’s captivating eyes. They seem to fill her whole world, and she cannot think about what she wants to ask. So she simply asks without thought.

“Will I be with my family, after the Academy?”

As she hears her own words, she realizes that they spring from her fear that she will be assigned far away. But Three Rats needs Guardia, desperately, and the Guardia command usually honor requests to be stationed at hard-luck assignments like Three Rats, where nobody but a local would ask to be assigned.

Nevieve seems to enter a trance, her eyes glowing brighter. When she speaks, the words carry a deepening of that otherworldly, alien quality than before.

“You will be separated from them, but one will go with you. You will not return home until his child arrives.”

The light fades, and Nevieve blinks her white eyes as if she was unaware of her own prophecy.

Mayumi gapes at her. Then she remembers to breathe. “Ch-child?” It’s not possible. The Bunnies are all infertile, by order of the Council. And…separated? But someone…Sky? Am I going to have a child with him? It is not something she has seriously considered. They haven’t even made love, no more than kissing and cuddling and napping together on his sofa. Cherry and Merri couldn’t believe it when she told them, but going slowly has been a pleasure, infused with frustration though it has been. Agreeing to wait until after her graduation from the Academy – that has been harder. But there is a pleasure in delaying gratification as well. The lip-biting frustration, the restrained passion, has been, in its way, excruciatingly delicious.

She looks for him. There he is, Sky, laughing with Gwydion, practicing some kind of combat block while trying not to spill his beer, while Pak observes. He doesn’t seem to have overheard. Only the Oracle and Doria have heard…and Kumiko. The human woman is looking more uncomfortable than ever, her carefully neutral expression not quite successfully covering up a look of despair at being an unwilling eavesdropper.

The Oracle nods. “A child, yes. I am afraid I know no more than that. There were no details other than what I told you.”

It seems like a boilerplate answer that she has given thousands of times before. She must be used to seekers of prophecy who demand explanations. And so Mayumi holds her tongue, though she feels about to burst with questions, harsh, angry questions. Instead, she chokes out a thank you, then turns and ascends a slope to a ridge that leans almost over the water, little more than a body-length above it.

She sits, putting her forearms on her knees, resting her chin on her arms, staring out over the water where Merri and Cherry and Tulip are playing, but seeing nothing really, her thoughts in turmoil. Just as they escape one prophecy by fulfilling it – “In the hands of a Bunny, death looms for an Archon” – now here is another. Granted, it is much smaller. It will not get them executed. Or will it? A chill freezes her heart. A Bunny having a child without the permission of the Council…that could be enough to cause the Archons to vote for extermination. She groans and hangs her head, putting her forehead on her arms.

“Want to finish your beer?” The words are in Japanese. Mayumi lifts her head to see Kumiko, offering a half-finished bottle of beer with her left hand, holding her own in her right. Kumiko makes a subtle gesture, asking for permission to sit. Mayumi nods, and the woman sits beside her, putting a hand slightly behind her on the grass, legs stretched out straight.

They sit in silence for a time, taking the occasional sip. Then out of nowhere Kumiko says, “A Fourth Ring ward, far from here. About a quarter of the way around the Insula, maybe, to windward. My father refused to pay the gangsters.” She shakes her head and whispers, “Baka…” Fool. “They made an example of my family. Only reason I’m alive is I wasn’t home.”

Mayumi stays quiet, listening, watching. Kumiko isn’t looking at her. She takes another drink of beer, draining the bottle. For a moment she looks as if she’s going to throw the bottle, but she drops it next to her, on the grass.

“Then they did it again.” Kumiko’s voice is as neutral as she can make it, but the rage is there, like a roaring blaze hidden on the other side of a locked door. “Here, in Three Rats. Another gang. Killed my friends. Almost killed me.”

“Is that why you’re with Pak-sensei?”

Kumiko nods.

“I’m going away,” Mayumi says. “In a few days, I’m leaving.”

Kumiko looks at her, her eyebrows slightly raised to ask why Mayumi is mentioning this.

Mayumi shakes her head. “The people here…they care.”

“I don’t want anyone to care.”

Mayumi says nothing to this. She knows that Kumiko knows it is not entirely true. That she is here, sitting with her, gives the lie to it.

She finishes her beer. To Kumiko she asks, “Okawari?” Another? The woman looks a puzzled for a moment. Perhaps they don’t say that where she comes from. But she seems to understand after a second, and she shakes her head. Mayumi nods.

They remain next to each other, listening to the joking and the laughter and the playful screams, around and below their island of now-comfortable silence.

Ch6.37 Trust

The First Ring. Around the portal, streets radiate away, some lined with shops, others with restaurants, others with temples so that visitors to this smallest and yet least densely populated ring of the Urbis Caelestis can feel close to their gods. For the gods who live here are almost exclusively those who are worshipped, and worshipped intensely, often by millions of mortals across the City of Heaven, and in some cases millions more on worlds beyond. Some gods have entire planets where not a single soul knows of the existence of any god but one, and pour their mana-generating prayers into that one single god.

And so the gods who reside here do not live in ramshackle apartments or tiny dens or even stately mansions. They live in palaces surrounded by miles of wilderness, plots of land the size of entire wards, shaped into whatever forms their imaginations desire. Even setting aside the astounding amounts of power delivered to these gods by prayers, mana lines built into the nature of the Insula channel magic upward, so that the zones of the First Ring are the equal of the most high-magic regions of the Celestial Mountain.

There are no real cities in the First Ring. Instead, the portal stations dotted across it are surrounded by little trade villages, mainly catering to visitors, but usually with a few shops and restaurants that tempt business from the nearby residents. Few of these highest gods ever visit any of those businesses, of course. But they have servants – often beloved members of ancient lineages born to serve their gods and, not uncommonly, bearing at least traces of divine blood in their veins as a result – who go in their stead, to purchase goods even beyond the imagination of one who can create nearly anything. For gods, though powerful, are limited when it comes to subjects beyond their spheres, and the more powerful they are, the more focused they become. And so one of the great Solar Clan deities might be capable of shattering the Insula itself with the heat of a sun focused into a tight beam, but such a god may be unable to grill a filet of tuna to perfection with the skill of a mere mortal chef.

Mortals and gods are not the only residents, either. Sky looks up to see a wingless dragon sinuously swimming through the air. And on the wide, clean street there trots a creature that at first he mistakes for a unicorn. But it is more goat than horse, smaller but imperious in stance, its eyes flashing as it glances suspiciously at those it passes. Is it perhaps some sort of private Guardia? he wonders. For he recognizes it now, despite not having seen one in decades. A xiezhi, a being obsessed with truth, to the point that those who tell lies in its presence are in great danger of being impaled by its single straight horn.

It stops and stares at Sky. He pauses, looking back at it, allowing his companion, Gwydion, to walk ahead. Sky and the xiezhi lock eyes, and the creature lowers its horn. For a moment Sky wonders if it is about to charge, ruining this unexpected shopping trip with Dion before it can begin. But the xiezhi apparently cannot puzzle out just how Sky is a walking lie, and swinging its head away, it stiffly trots on.

Sky breathes out with relief and hurries to catch up with Dion. “I feel like I should’ve worn a black tie for this shopping expedition. Where’s this special place you have to drop by?”

Dion smirks at the comment, glancing at Sky. Though they both wear the same indigo-blue Guardia Dei uniform, Dion’s is custom-made of finer material, fitting his body comfortably and never bunching or pulling tight as he moves. It is very nearly formal dress despite being everyday wear for him. Sky, on the other hand, wears a standard-issue uniform, designed to be long-lasting and easy to clean more than any concerns over fashion.

“It is just around this corner,” Dion replies. “In fact, here it is.” He gestures at an elegant yet discreet-looking shop with a small iron plate engraved with the name Tamandoo’s. “Can’t go wrong with scent, can we?”

Sky laughs briefly. “Ohhh, I can think of a few ways scent can go wrong. But probably not in a high-class place like this. I’ve spent some time in the First Ring, but I’ve rarely bought anything all the way up here.”

“Ah, that is a shame, my friend. Only the best of the best can stand to be sold here. And this master scent-maker is a god devoted to scents and – whatever they use to make scents. He has never let me down.” Since Sky has known him, Gwydion has almost always sounded reserved, aloof, but here it is as if that reserve has fallen away. Is it being back in the First Ring? Anticipation of the upcoming celebrations? Or perhaps a happiness that things are now back to whatever passes for normal, with Sky returned from his much-needed rest? Or perhaps things are simply going well with Alma.

The door opens. A plump young woman, with a thick waterfall of wavy two-toned blue and gold hair and glossy black skin like that of an orca, holds it open and stands aside for them. She smiles at Dion familiarly. “Welcome back to Tamandoo’s, sir,” she says, and nods also to Sky. “I will notify the master that you are here.”

“It is good to be back, Vasilka.” Dion gestures for Sky to go first. “Shall we?”

Sky gives him an appreciative look and says, in an attempt at an upper-crust, First Ring accent, “But of course.”

He enters and pauses to take in the elegance of the room, comfortably appointed and perfectly balanced in terms of layout, color, light, and most especially smell. Not overpowering in any way, hints of perfume drift through the air, somehow not interfering with each other, discreetly entering his nose to call to him, like sirens beckoning in the waves.

After a murmured exchange at the doorway, as the god and the mortal servant quickly catch up with each other, Dion comes into the center of the room and breathes deeply, smiling. Vasilka disappears, only to return moments later bearing a tray with two delicate glasses of wine and a plate of hors d’ouvres, which she places on an elaborately carved table. “The master has been informed of your arrival and will join you and your friend in a moment, Master Gwydion.”

Sky looks at Dion surreptitiously. “Wine, huh?”

“Oh, most First Ring shops will offer this type of courtesy to their clients. Most of their clients won’t even be caught dead visiting the stores themselves, so a little special treatment can go a long way.”

Sky sips his wine. It is, of course, almost staggeringly delicious. He has long known that he simply doesn’t have the vocabulary to describe the taste of wines. ‘Piquant’ and ‘floral’ just sound ridiculous to him. He’s eaten flowers when he was starving – there is nothing ‘floral’ about the flavor of wine. All he knows is that he likes this very, very much. After savoring it for a moment, he says, “Must be a bit strange, being back in places like this after so long.”

Dion nods, but seems less overwhelmed with his wine. “It is a pleasant place to visit.” He looks down into his glass, pensively. “But all of this strikes me as distant when compared to Three Rats. More and more so each time I visit. It’s a bit…difficult to explain. It is as if there is something missing here.”

Sky is about to agree, organizing his thoughts as to exactly why, but the curtain slides open. “Dion! My dear, did I hear you talking about rats? How lovely to see you after so long! And oh, who’s your friend?”

Gods that do not conform to a human shape are not terribly unusual. Additional arms or legs, animal heads, wings, exotic colorings, all are barely considered strange even by many mortals, and not at all by gods. And some go well beyond that, even going so far as to wear amorphous, shifting forms, bodies made of light or electricity, even having no body at all. This deity, then, does not shock Sky, and indeed his form makes perfect sense. For he is, to an initial look, an upright anteater.

That is not quite accurate, Sky realizes as he looks a little more carefully. The body is covered in long, coarse hair, a light brown on the sides, white on the upper chest, and a darker brown on the back of the neck – although much of this is concealed by elaborately embroidered silk clothes, an outfit reminiscent of a kimono. The head is also very like an anteater’s, essentially scaffolding for a long, narrow nose. The snout’s nostrils are larger, however, and the eyes are as well, as large as a human’s and very human in appearance, pale brown and quite amused and appealing. And the paws are much closer to the hands of a primate than…whatever family of animals that anteaters belong to. Sky realizes he has no idea, but vaguely remembers they are distantly related to sloths.

But Gwydion is speaking. “My faithful Doo, allow me to introduce to you Inspector Tuma-Sukai of the Guardia Dei, Breaker of Chains, Shadow of Freedom. We work in the same station together. Sky, this is master-parfumeur Tamandoo, Suzerain of Scent, the best detector and creator of perfumes in the whole of the First Ring.”

“A pleasure to meet you,” Sky says, extending his hand.

Tamandoo closes his eyes. His long, slightly prehensile downward curving snout twists, the nostrils flaring as they suck in air, and a slender round tongue covered in pink buds slithers out to wave in the air. “Oh, what an exotic scent. Tamandoo cannot place it but… Inspector, you are from far, far away, are you not?” Before Sky can answer, the god takes in a lungful again. “And both of you have recently come from the Fourth Ring, have you not? What a bouquet of smells, so variegated. So decadent! Tamandoo loves it!” He takes Sky’s hand delicately.

For the second time in less than an hour, someone is finding a way to probe tiny flaws in Sky’s disguise. It is this rather than any discomfort with the god’s flamboyancy that causes Sky to smile uncertainly and, after releasing Tamandoo’s hand, take another sip of wine rather than reply.

Dion chuckles, clearly at ease with this character. “You are right as usual, my dearest Doo. None can fool that nose. Maybe you’ll consider joining our forensic team someday.”

Tamandoo’s eyes go wide. “Tamandoo? In the Fourth Ring? Would Tamandoo not be murdered? Ah, but you are safe, and dear Inspector Tuma-Sukai is safe, so surely Tamandoo would be safe. It must not be as dangerous as silly people say with their silly little rumors, hmmm?”

Dion, though joking, hastens to assure him. “You know that I would never allow something as terrible as murder to happen to you. And who knows? You might find your new scent muse there? I have been hearing you have grown bored of privileged skins.”

The god of scents raises his palms in a gesture of despair. “Ah, everyone here smells the same, Dion. And they all want the same things. They say they wish to smell unique, but in the end they always play it safe. It is dull, yes, so dull.”

“I am sure,” Dion replies, appearing now to take the idea seriously, “these upslope people would adore the novelty of more rustic scents. Alas, you do not need to reply now. The invitation stands open and awaiting your decision. For now… I bring you a challenge.”

“A challenge?” The god clasps his hands together in excitement. “It has been long since Tamandoo has had a challenge.”

“I’m sure it will please you.” Dion looks to Sky apologetically. “Would you mind waiting here a bit while I tell Doo what I’m looking for? This will only take a minute.”

“Oh, of course,” Sky says. “I’ll, uh…” His hesitation at trying to decide what to do while waiting is cleared up when Vasilka reappears to refill his glass. “I’ll be fine right here.”

As Sky and Vasilka share a smile, Dion chuckles. “Shall we step over to your workshop, Tamandoo?”

“Ah, a personal matter.” The hirsute god puts his hand on Dion’s back and ushers him through the curtain. “Come come, let us go through here… There, now tell Tamandoo precisely what it is your heart desires.” The unctuous voice fades as a door beyond the curtain closes.

“You don’t wear any scent,” Vasilka says to Sky, the first thing, indeed, she has said directly to him. Her smile is friendly, however.

“I don’t,” he replies. “I can’t remember the last time I did. It’s just…not my kind of thing.” He shrugs.

“How do you know?” she asks. “Have you ever tried?”

“You not going to spray me with something, are you?” he asks suspiciously.

She laughs. “Not unless you tell me to. But…may I?” She takes his wineglass and sets it aside, then comes closer to him. “My nose is not as long-range as the master’s, but…”

He does not stop her when she stretches up on tiptoes to sniff deeply near his throat, her chest momentarily brushing against his jacket. Her clothes are perfectly tailored to fit her curvaceous body, and Sky cannot help but wonder at the texture of her glossy skin, how it would feel to touch. She settles back onto her heels and considers for a moment, then goes to a wall covered in small shelves on which rest hundreds of crystal bottles, each holding just a tiny amount of liquid. She runs her hand along from left to right, pauses, then goes down two shelves to lift a bottle with forefinger and thumb. She brings it to him, then opens it, the stopper having a thin rod of glass projecting from its bottom, onto which clings a drop of perfume. She sniffs it and smiles, her white teeth brilliant against her obsidian-black skin.

“You can just sniff this, but to get the proper effect, it really should be on your skin. How about your wrist?” She gives him a playful look.

“Well…” Spending much of his time in the field on Earth and the Insula, in situations where wearing added scent would be more likely to make him easier to detect, or would leave behind evidence, he has avoided perfumes. That, and they have always seemed, well, luxuries. And while he values certain luxuries highly – a long hot bath, a perfectly grilled steak, a glass of rare whisky, a handcrafted guitar – he eschews most of them. Life is complicated enough without adding more to it.

Still, he holds out his arm, wrist up. Vasilka takes his hand and applies the drop of scent, then uses her middle finger to spread it across the sensitive skin. “Wait a moment,” she says. “Wait for it to warm from your body heat.” She looks into his eyes, and he begins to suspect she may be flirting with him. “There, now smell.”

He holds his wrist up to his face and sniffs. It is subtle, not like he expected. Nothing sweet about it. Verdant, like a forest, like…oak. And just a hint of the sea. Seaweed.

A memory of England, the coast, with a team of six commandos, good men, preparing to depart on a mission. Only two survived.

He feels moisture behind his closed eyelids, a tingling in his face. He holds onto the memory for a moment, then lets it go, breathing slowly, regaining control. He opens his eyes and sees Vasilka looking up at him in concern.

“Thank you,” he says. “That was…”

As he hesitates over the choice of words – lovely, exquisite, heartbreaking? – the curtain is swept aside. Sky and Vasilka both look toward Tamandoo and Gwydion’s return as if they’ve been caught in an illicit act, but the two gods take no notice, seeming quite preoccupied. Dion’s face carries a slight frown.

“Tamandoo is so sorrowful that your principal request cannot be ready in time. But my dear, might Tamandoo recommend this?” Without a glance, he plucks a miniature bottle from one of the shelves and, smoothly whipping the stopper free, passes it momentarily past Dion’s face with a flourish, so that Dion passes through the scented air. Dion takes a sniff and he looks thoughtful. “It is a familiar scent, is it not? One that has proved successful in the past? Just until the true scent is ready to give at the next occasion for gifts.”

“Ah, this… I wonder if this would be the best choice. Maybe something a little different would be more appropriate. What does your nose say?”

Immediately Tamandoo puts the sample he is holding back and his tongue slithers out to lash the air before the wall of bottles, soon zeroing in on another one. “Ah, with her scent… This one. Most certainly.”

Dion takes a whiff as Tamandoo once again wafts the scent through the air. His face lights up with pleasure and surprise. “Heavenly. Almost perfect. Is this a new blend? I don’t recall ever encountering this one.”

The long-nosed god gives a shrug. “New…not new, precisely. Tamandoo came up with it some time back, but no one has yet purchased it. As Tamandoo says, the people of this Ring are not in search of the new and adventurous.”

“Well, this First Ringer is going to be the exception.” Dion takes the stopper and waves it in the air near Sky. “Don’t you agree that Doo is the best?”

Sky inhales and blinks at the sensation of lilac and…willow? It’s just a soft note, Sky knows the smell well, having stripped the bark and brewed willow tea in the past, to relieve the pain of…no. Now is not the time for those smell-evoked memories.

And after clearing those memories away, he realizes how well the blend of smells speaks of peace, serenity. Though he cannot recall Alma wearing scent, he can imagine that this would, indeed, suit her. “Oh…yes. That is exquisite, Tamandoo.”

The shaggy god clasps his hands in pleasure. “And can Tamandoo provide the Inspector with anything today?”

Sky looks to Dion for help. “Oh, uh…I really don’t know…” Despite the wonder of the scent Vasilka shared with him, he is reluctant to buy such a luxury for himself. He has a comfortable accumulation of savings due to forty years of spending very little on himself, but after speaking with Alma about the orphanage that Ewá Nanã has started and the school she hopes to start, he has decided to put the bulk of his savings toward that project which will be such a benefit for Three Rats.

Also, he does not want to buy a scent for Mayumi. The Bunnies’ noses are very sensitive, and he doubts she would wear it. And in any case she will not be allowed to, at the Academy. Not to mention the potential for undercutting the uniqueness of Dion’s gift to Alma.

Dion smoothly comes to his rescue. “I think my esteemed commanding officer has a slightly different gift in mind for his…special interest.”

“Ah,” sighs Tamandoo. “The Inspector has a paramour! Well remember, Inspector, you cannot go wrong with scent. It is the pathway to the most primitive structures of the brain. Scent creates and evokes memories. Please do return.”

As Sky muses on how well he has learned that lesson this day, Dion says, “Oh, I am sure we will.” He turns his head to regard Sky. “Shall we go hunt for our other gifts?”

“Yes.” Sky takes Tamandoo’s hand. “A very great pleasure meeting you. I hope it will not be long before I have that pleasure once again.”

Tamandoo puts his other hand on top of Sky’s. “So kind! Good fortune in your quest.”

As they leave the shop, Dion asks, “Is everything–”

The door opens behind them and Vasilka steps out. “Inspector?”

As Sky turns, she takes his thick wrist and places a small package on his open palm. She interrupts his protest by saying, with an impish, dimpled smile, “The first one is free. Come again soon.” Then she turns and slips back into the shop, giving a quick backward glance before the door shuts.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“There is nothing going on between us!” Sky insists, exasperated.

“Very well, very well,” Dion says playfully. “But I’ve known her for years and pretty Vasilka’s never given me any free samples.” He pauses for a moment. “Let me rephrase that. All I’m saying is, you must have made quite the impression on her.”

Sky grimaces. “Well… It sounds like you’ve ordered something unique for Alma.”

Dion’s smile persists but becomes slightly fainter, almost shy. “Hopefully something that will not displease. Unfortunately, it will take time to be ready. Something about the influence of the moons and an uncooperative fey of some sort.” The attempt at jocularity disappears as he gives Sky an intent look. “It is, however, a surprise.”

“Of course. My lips are sealed.” They walk in silence for a moment. “I, however…am terrible at choosing gifts. Once in awhile I stumble across something that cries, ‘This is the perfect gift for’ whoever, but that is rare, rare. And…the pressure when it is the first gift for someone you care deeply about.”

Dion is quiet at that. Sky glances at him and sees a still, anxious expression, but holds back from saying anything.

They go past a stall selling the sort of delicacies that visitors can purchase and give to family and friends to say, ‘I visited the First Ring!’ and turn down an alley past that. “This is not the tourist area,” Dion says, breaking his silence. “Well, that part of the street we were entering was, but back here is a little market mainly for the mortals who actually live here. The prices are considerably more reasonable, and the quality just as good, if a bit less…baroque.”

“Thank you,” Sky acknowledges. “I’ve spent time in all the Rings, but I have never really gone shopping in the First. Everything is beautiful. But I worry about it how it would play in Three Rats.”

Dion nods as they arrive at the collection of clean and orderly stalls. “It is important for the gift to fit the recipient. So…you’re having trouble choosing for May?” His voice, earlier mocking in a good-natured way, is now gentle.

Thinking back to how distant they had been with each other so recently, when Gwydion, with Alma, had been under house arrest and accused of deicide. The dismissal of charges followed by weeks of hard, dangerous work getting the gang warfare under control in Three Rats, have, however, led to greater closeness. Sky accepts this intimate question as sincere and warm-hearted, marvelling at the change. “I was thinking of a necklace or a bracelet, but I worry about how strict the Academy is about such things.”

“Ah yes. Alma told me that she has been accepted.” His eyes soften. Sky knows that Alma is distraught but resigned over the thought of her her most troublesome child’s impending absence. “May doesn’t strike me as a jewelry enthusiast,” Dion continues after a moment. “Maybe something more on the practical side?”

Sky nods glumly. “I thought about a bow. And arrows, you know. It’s what her name means actually. But again, she can’t take it with her. Might make a good graduation present though. In six months.” The thought of six thirty-six-day months with Mayumi separated from her family continues to fill him with dread.

As if sensing Sky’s thoughts, Dion suggests, “Maybe something to help her keep in touch with her family and friends? It seems to me that that’s where the greatest challenge will lie. And we both know what the Academy’s postal service is like.”

“Slow and no privacy, yes.” Sky warms to the idea. “Could she use…some kind of enchanted crystal? But you know, I really do like letters. Nobody sends letters anymore.”

Dion seems to suppress a chuckle. “How romantic of you. Well, I think we can adapt something for quick and accurate mailing that ensures privacy as well. Geryon and I used to have a little communication system back at the Magic Academy that should prove efficient enough if we can stabilize it for greater distances. I will leave the choice in stationery to your discretion. But–” He holds up a finger. “–it must be handmade. Don’t ask me why. I just know that if it isn’t, things can go very wrong.”

“That sounds like you are speaking from experience,” Sky comments with a smile. After a eye-rolling nod from Dion, Sky asks, “Do the letters just appear near her?”

“Yes. You may not want to mention to her that the transportation is imp-dependent. It might dampen the romantic atmosphere a little.”

“Oh,” Sky says. Though Sky is not nearly as skilled at spellcasting as Dion is, he knows a fair amount about it, and in particular knows about the nature of imps. In the popular imagination, they are demons, summoned from Hell to deliver messages, act as trackers, draw pictures very swiftly, and so on. Wielders of magic, on the other hand, know that imps are not demons at all, but simply an ephemeral life form, called from nothing, returning to nothing, usually lasting no more than the few minutes it takes to accomplish their reason for existence.

Mayumi, having grown up with virtually no knowledge of spell working, might find the idea of a creature showing up at her bedside to be disturbing. But messenger imps are shy, and try to deliver their messages when the recipient is not looking. “Yes, probably best not to tell her,” Sky agrees. “And it is circumventing the rules, but…everyone has to rebel against the rules in some way, don’t they? Thank you, Dion.”

“Oh I’m happy to help.” Dion picks up a filigreed brooch.

“Do you have any ideas yet for the other presents?” Sky asks absentmindedly as he looks over a display of finely wrought globes of glass.

“Personally, I was planning to get well-tailored outfits for each of them. Sage does such a good job with turning spare fabric into clothes for them, but I thought they’d like something special and festive. What do you think?”

“That’s an excellent idea,” Sky answers. “And it’s good to know, so I don’t get them something too similar. I was planning to get Kori a nice football.”

Dion nods. “That sounds like a good plan. And we all know how Tulip is so engaged in arts and crafts. I don’t think you would be mirroring anyone there if you were to pick something along those lines.”

“Oh yes, a set of pastels, and some good paper. Perhaps brushes and watercolors, too.” After receiving a nod of permission from the proud craftsman, Sky picks up a slightly blue-toned sphere, using his fingertips. It is about the size of an average cantaloupe. “And for Cherry and Rosemary, I was thinking of a wooden sign. For the bar, now that they’ve finally settled on a name for it.”

Dion raises an eyebrow. “You realize you will have to design it.”

Sky chuckles. “I’ve been making sketches, with Sage’s help. Of course he’s keeping it a secret.”

“Even Bunnies find it hard to keep secrets from Bunnies,” Dion says, shaking his head. “There is actually a woodworker’s shop not far away from the station where you could have it made.”

Sky smiles. “I think I know who you mean. Mr Mendonça, right?”

“Yes. Many artisans here would kill to have half of his skill. Well that leaves Sage, Chime, and,” Dion pauses for effect, “their mother.”

Sky laughs, still looking at the globe, examining the glass carefully for flaws. “Well Chime is easy. I have a small collection of musical instruments, and I thought I’d give him a ’ukulele.” A look of confusion from Dion prompts him to explain, “A kind of small guitar. I can teach him to play it, though I suspect he’ll surpass my skill in a day. And Sage, some tailoring tools. Though I’ll need to do a little research for items beyond needles, pins, and scissors.

“As for Alma…” Sky shows the bluish globe to Dion, holding it balanced on the spread fingers of one hand. “This is perfectly made.” The dealer looks pleased and a little smug.

“Made for what, if I may ask?” Dion sounds intrigued.

“When I was much younger,” Sky explains, “I was…attached to a pantheon of ocean gods. The new guy. One of them showed me how to make a glass orb into a microenvironment, by apporting seawater and life forms and so on into it. I haven’t done it in ages. I think it would appeal to Alma’s Life side. And perhaps Death as well. Balance.”

Dion peers into the orb as if he can see the finished result already. “You can fit an ecosystem in there? Interesting. I seem to remember a group of wizards who were very intent on that type of research but they only managed to use relatively simple life forms.” He straightens. “I think she would love it. You know, you said you were bad at choosing gifts.”

Sky laughs at Dion’s mock-scolding. “Maybe I’m having a good year.”

Ch6.35 Trust

Sky looks up from reading reports and other paperwork, catching up on a week’s worth in one double shift, to see the sunlight brightening through the window. Dawn. In two hours or so, Alma will be returning from her harvesting and Dion will probably be meeting her for breakfast, before the charming god of magic turns responsibility for the station over to the lovely goddess of death. Sky has worked almost through Dion’s graveyard shift, but he’s kept quietly to himself in his office, not wanting to bring down the ire of his sergeants who, protectively, don’t wish him falling back into old bad habits of skipping sleep. And they are right.

So he stands and stretches, but quietly. He is not, after all, alone. On his sofa, Mayumi is wrapped in a blanket, her eyes closed, breathing slowly. He pauses to look at her face, which in repose looks so at peace it brings a small smile to his face.

After the little welcome-home party, Mayumi had gone back to work while Alma and Dion had brought Sky completely up to speed. It wasn’t until later, after Sky met with Sergeant Machado and Corporals Lamore and Kaur for additional catching up and discussion of directions for the Popula, that Sky had settled into his office to go over reports.

Mayumi had brought those to him. And he had taken a break, and they had talked. She had told him, with sorrow-tinged excitement, that she had received word back from the Guardia Academy. She had been accepted. Sky had been silent at first, but simply embraced her and held her for a long while before he congratulated her, serious but heartfelt. As fast and efficient as the Academy’s training was, they both knew it meant a separation of six months. Six long Insula months, meaning six thirty-six-day months, six tenths of a year.

Sky is far more worried about Mayumi being apart from her family than about himself. Loneliness is something to which he long ago grew accustomed. In fact, he fears this love he feels for her more than the separation. He almost hopes she will find someone else at the Academy, someone more suitable than he. Liaisons between mortals and gods inevitably feature an imbalance, and by his nature, and hers as well, such an imbalance cannot be tolerated. It must be constantly corrected for, and this resistance makes such a relationship a source of great stress.

And he is not exactly a god. Or perhaps he is, in a way – he has been worshipped as one, and is able to function as one. But his origins…he feels wrong to become so close to her without sharing the truth of what he is.

She would be better off with another mortal. But she made clear, again, that she wants him. And he had given up resisting his own desire to be close to her following the murder of Stathos and his family. Life is for living. No matter how difficult that is sometimes. He will, he knows, have to tell her. Somehow.

And so after words and kisses, Mayumi asked if she could sleep in his office, and he agreed. She made sure he knew she wanted more, without pushing. She has accepted his explanation that, though affairs between subordinates are not explicitly prohibited – the privileges accorded to gods are naturally only barely restrained – that he wanted to wait until she graduates from the Academy and the matter of which station she will join is settled. If she returns to Three Rats, as is her preference, well, they will have to work things out somehow. Having her be an actual cop under his command will be even more awkward than the current situation. And if she’s sent elsewhere…the very thought makes his heart sink. Hopefully she will be nearby and he will be able to provide a portal she can use to reach the station here quickly and easily, living here and commuting to work each day. The very idea of the Bunnies’ family being broken up so soon after finding each other is enough to cost him sleep. But if she is assigned to one of the neighboring wards, such as Little Falls, that should not be too much trouble.

Speaking of which, he does not wish to wake her. But he needs to refill his kettle if he wants tea. He takes it and, conscious of Mayumi’s sensitive ears, slips out of his office.

The main office is early-morning quiet. Corporal Lamore is behind her desk. She looks up and gives him a nod and a smile, but returns to her work immediately. As he moves toward the canteen, Sky hears voices from the stairs that lead to the holding cells, and notes that the yellow rope has been unhooked and laid on the floor. The words are confusing at first, and then he realizes he is hearing Zwergen-ur, the language of the dwarves. He is not fluent, and it has been years since he had to learn it for a counter-assassination mission with Somrak, but knowledge of the language comes flooding back to him.

He sets the kettle on the counter in the small canteen, with its sink and small cooking range and single table jammed in the corner. Hmm, someone hasn’t been washing their coffee cup… He turns and follows the voices downstairs. It sounds like an argument about whether to wait or just go in and explore a little. Telling male and female voices apart is difficult with the Zwergen, but Sky is almost certain the one who wants to go into the hole is male.

Entering the room, the conversation abruptly halts, the two dwarves looking at him expectantly. Both have such advanced states of calcification that they find certain articles of clothing unnecessary, the female going topless, the male bottomless. Sky briefly wonders, as he has before, how reproduction and elimination of waste are managed in the male’s case, but he knows better than to ask. Tempted to greet them in their own language, the caution he has developed over two centuries of hiding his true nature and four decades of being one of the Commander’s ‘off-blues’ makes him reticent to reveal such an unusual skill. Questions about how a non-dwarf happened to learn Zwergen-ur would surely follow.

So instead he greets them in Urbia, extending his hand. “Mister Dwalkee, is it? I am Tuma-Sukai, Inspector of this station. I understand we have an unexpected development down here.” He looks at the large irregular hole in the floor, thinking grimly to himself, I’m going to have to squeeze through that, aren’t I? It looks just big enough.

The dwarf’s hand is like flexible stone, with a powerful grip to match. “Lad, if that’s what you wanna call it… If it’s up to me, we call it a hole and that’s settled.”

Sky shakes hands with the female dwarf as well, who gives her name as Metla Dwalkee. To them both, Sky asks, “Have you had a look inside yet?”

“Ya know, we tried?” the male says, annoyed. “Got the stuff ready, ‘bout to jump in and…zip! Other lass with the white hair said we better wait on you. I told her before you needed a sub-basement in here! Where’s the other lass, by the way?” He leans toward Sky and stage-mutters, “She’s nice in more ways than one, if you know what I mean.”

Mrs Dwalkee rolls her eyes. “Bruhn Dwalkee, you better not be bein’ permiscuous in front of me!”

In his normal volume, which is rather loud indeed, Mr Dwalkee replies, “No, shnookems! You know I always go ‘round your back when I can! ‘Cuz I’m sensitive like that.” Again he leans close to mutter to Sky loudly enough he could probably be heard upstairs, “She’s usin’ all them random long words she knows I can’t speak now but just you wait ‘till we get home and I get my hands on a dictionary. She’s gonna be cookin’ soup for a week!”

“I HEARD THAT!”

“No, Honeypie! I was just talkin’ to the Inspector ‘bout them new illustrated encyclopedias that just came out.” He mutters to Sky, “Eesh! Of all things to take outta her pappy, had to be them ears.” And resuming his louder voice, he says, “Aaanyway, wanna have a look in your hole?”

My hole. “Yes, let’s.” Sky is beginning to remember how noisy his and Somrak’s mission in the mines of the Zwergen was, and Mr Dwalkee seems to consider himself a comic who has found himself a straight man. “Is this room structurally sound?”

Dwalkee nods. “Provided you don’t expect the ceiling to stay where it is. Should be. Hey, can’t go any lower than that!” He jabs Sky in the hip with his elbow. “Ah, just kiddin’! I’m sure we can go in with a minimum of cave-ins. Here’s your hard hat.” He hands Sky a yellow helmet made of thick plastic, which Sky dons. “Here’s your light.” He gives Sky a lantern powered by compressed gas. “And here’s your rat on a stick to keep your teeth busy.” He hands Sky a grilled rat impaled on a stick.

Sky looks at the rat with a mildly nostalgic look on his face. Skinned, gutted, and grilled, but with the feet and head still on, and the tail traditionally wrapped around the skewer. He ate many a rat in his time with the Zwergen. “Looks delicious, and seeing as I haven’t had breakfast yet…” He takes a bite from its haunch. Ah yes, a proper Zwergen rat, bred for flavor. Delicious. “Speaking of which,” he says after swallowing, “why are you here so early?”

Mrs Dwalkee answers that. “Dwalkee is itchin’ to get in there. Came down here at sunrise.”

Dwalkee looks impressed that Sky took a bite, but says, “Hey, ain’t you gonna have that with ketchup?” He takes another out of a steel lunchbox that looks like it could survive a dinosaur stampede, squirts some red sauce from a small bottle, and offers the bottle to Sky while taking a bite. “Letsh hhwo, then?”

Sky indicates the hole before taking another bite and swallowing. “Lead the way, Mister Dwalkee.”

Using a harness and a pulley attached to the ceiling, Mrs Dwalkee lowers her husband into the hole. Moments later the empty harness is pulled back up and Sky is lowered as well. Mrs Dwalkee grunts with the effort of lowering Sky’s bulk, but dwarves regardless of gender are strong, and she is no exception.

He lands without incident on the floor of the room, strewn with rubble from the broken-through floor above. The ceiling is tall here, half again as tall as Sky, which is a relief for a god who has spent so much of his life ducking, or failing to duck and cracking his skull on doorways and rafters. He shines his lantern around, noting racks and shelves, barrels, an upright piano, and many, many bottles, all covered in a layer of dust as thick as the first joint of his index finger.

Their presence is kicking so much dust into the air that both spelunkers sneeze. Motes of dust dance fairy-like in their lantern beams.

“A wine cellar,” Sky says. “I wonder how long it’s been sealed away.”

Dwalkee picks up a bottle at random from a rack, wiping a blanket of dust off it. He twists the cork, pops it up, and takes a deep sniff, then opens his mouth wide. “Ah…Ah…ACHOO! Ugh, dust… Well this ain’t wine, lad. It’s whisky!” He holds the label in front of his lamp. “Balrog distilleries?! These bastards ain’t been around for over a hundred years!” He takes a swig. “Ah… The old stuff always holds better!”

The light from the room above is nearly eclipsed by a head and shoulders looking in. “BRUHN DWALKEE YOU BETTER NOT BE DRINKIN’!”

Crash! The bottle smashes to the floor, exploding, sending shards of glass and a bottle full of precious amber liquid across the floor and over both Dwalkee and Sky’s boots. “Gods damn it! Look what you made me do, you cross-eyed hag!” He murmurs loudly to Sky. “Can you turn her into a frog?” Even more loudly, he finishes, “At least she’d look right for her species!”

Sky kicks the broken bottom of the bottle off his boot, dismayed at the loss. The smell of whisky, a smell he quite enjoys but usually in less dizzying volumes, reaches his nose. “I can’t transform people into animals. I can attempt to damn something for you, but the effects are pretty subtle.” He squats down and picks up a large piece of glass that has the label on it, finding the date in fine print. “Over a hundred years?” Three Rats only became part of the Insula a bit over a hundred years ago. Or perhaps two hundred. There is disagreement. The confusion resulting from the parts of two cities breaking away from another Reality, fusing, and then crashing into the Insula – a strange process that is going on slowly but constantly – has left the exact time of Three Rats’ arrival in question. Whenever it happened, the locals must have very quickly started importing alcohol from other wards. And perhaps they even have bottles from their world or worlds of origin. Whether they came from the same Earth that he lived on has been a long-unanswered question.

“You know what you need here?” Dwalkee asks. “A bar! Got the booze, the tables, the piano, the rats. Add a few half-dressed barmaids, a fat barman, drench the floor in beer and let the red sauce run free and BAM! Old time tavern! Don’t say Dwalkee don’t help his clients.”

Sky drops the label, the glass backing it making a tink sound on the floor. “We have a bar on the property already, as a matter of fact.”

“You do?” Dwalkee shakes his head. “Then why the Hell didn’t you blow things up over there instead?”

“Mr Dwalkee, we did not blow up our own holding cells. That was an attack.” Sky goes to the piano and lifts the fall board to reveal the keys, which are almost dust-free. He presses a key and hears a deep, badly out-of-tune note. “Amazing.”

Above, the light is once again blocked. But a very different voice pierces the gloom, not quite as loud and far cheerier. “Mmmm, smell that whisky!”

Sky looks up. “Merri?”

Another voice, just as cheerful but with a slightly more cynical tone, adds, “I knew I heard a bottle shatter. Heard enough of ‘em. Can tell a dropped bottle from a mile away.”

At the same time that Mrs Dwalkee starts scolding the two Bunnies, Mr Dwalkee shouts, “Son of a bitch, I almost dropped another one! You gotta warn people before you scare the daylights outta them, lassies!”

Sky’s voice, backed with a hint of mana, rings out through the aural chaos. “Quiet!” In the absolute silence that follows, he calls out in a more normal voice, “Merri! Cherry! What are you doing here?”

The response to that is a slim body dropping down from above. Cherry lands easily next to Sky, her powerfully springy Bunny legs – looking quite human to anyone but a trained anatomist, other than the soft fur on her shins and the somewhat longer feet – easily absorbing the energy of the fall. She looks up and says, “Careful, baby! There’s some glass and rocks and stuff down here!” In a moment, Merri is next to her, straightening and looking around curiously. Cherry says to Sky, as if nothing is out of the ordinary, “Like I said, dropped bottle. Followed the sound.”

“An’ the smell hit us as we was comin’ down the stairs!” Merri finishes. “Oh goodness me! Look at all this!”

Mrs Dwalkee’s less-dulcet voice calls down from above, “Don’t you think you’ll be going down there without a hard hat, missies!” She extends an arm holding two helmets by the chin straps, and Sky, as by far the tallest in the room, stretches up and takes them from her.

“Oh gosh, sorry ma’am.” Cherry takes the hardhats from Sky. “Here, Merri, put one o’ these on.” She lays her ears back and crushes down her afro with the hat.

Merri laughs at her, but takes a hat herself. “How cute! GASP! A PIANO!”

Dwalkee looks at Sky. “Help clear somethin’ up for me here. Am I seein’ two young lasses with bunny ears? And did one o’ them actually say ‘GASP’ when she gasped? Balrog’s was famous for inducin’ hallucination.” He looks at the bottle, shrugs, then starts to open it.

“Hey!” Cherry cries. “Ain’t you on the clock? You already dropped one bottle! And how much is this stuff worth anyhow? You put that back where you found it, mister!”

Sky sighs. “Mr Dwalkee, these are Rosemary and Cherry. They are the proprietors and bartenders of the bar I mentioned. And–” He gives them a stern look. “–they are not supposed to be here. This could be dangerous.”

Cherry grins at him. “Dangerous? It’s a liquor cellar. We’re in our natural environment! This is like…our paradise!”

Merri’s voice drifts from behind a rack near the wall. “Oh aye! An’ look, Cherry! These are imports from all over the Insula. An’ beyond, I ken. We got wines, whiskies, bourbons, gins, cognacs, ports, sherries…”

“Sounds good, sweetie,” Cherry says, then turns back to Mr Dwalkee. Only instead of the stone-skinned, wisecracking dwarf, there is a hideous face, a crimson, twisted visage with tusks and a porcine snout, tufts of hair surrounding it. “UGA BUGA BUGA!” it shouts.

Cherry screams and, springing into the air, grabs onto Sky, her arms around his neck, one pretty brown leg hooked around his back, the other folded against her chest. The god had turned to see the horrific face at the same time as Cherry. He automatically puts an arm around her, and though he feels a momentary chill pass through him at the sight of such a hellspawn, he subconsciously knows it is no demon. If it had been, he would have sensed it much earlier.

Then the demon starts laughing. “Sorry, couldn’t help it! Ah, look on your face! Can’t breathe!” He slaps his knees, then looks up at Cherry with the mask still on. “Oh, don’t look at me with that tone o’ voice! Think this is scary, should have seen my mammy. Used to kill rats just by lookin’ at’em. Ah… good ol’ days…”

Cherry slowly climbs down from Sky and shakes her finger at Dwalkee. “You think you’re havin’ trouble breathin’ now, just wait’ll I get my hands around your neck! Now get that stupid mask off before you run outta air from laughin’!”

Merri calls out, “Cherry! This place is full o’ stage goods! Costumes an’ props! Oh, some of it’s fallin’ apart though…but some of it’s good! We could knock up a wee stage outta lumber an’ add it to the bar, don’t you think?” She emerges from behind the racks, dusty but smiling.

“A stage? Well, we were thinkin’ of havin’ musicians in… And this ward don’t have any decent theater. Pretty much just that place over in Jardins, and they hardly even try. Mostly just naked women dancin’ like they’re bored.”

“Oh, Cherry love, we’re gaenta put on plays!”

Sky puts his hands on both their shoulders. “That all sounds wonderful, but we really should get you two out of here.”

“But! But we gotta check out all this booze!” Cherry insists.

Merri nods her head rapidly, making her ginger curls bounce. “Oh yes! Can ye imagine how valuable it is?”

“Mr Dwalkee?” Sky asks.

The dwarf waves his hand casually. “Sure, we can take it all out while we make sure this place is safe. Need a staircase? We’ll throw in a staircase. Real beauty. Hardly been used.” He calls up through the hole, “Rest of the crew here? Hey, Jojy! Go get the spare staircase from the wagon!” He drops his voice to only its usual loudness. “Only one guy died on it and didn’t even leave any blood! Maybe that’s worth a coupl’a bottles? Don’t wanna add to your expense budget, an’all.”

Sky considers the possibilities. “The Guardia does own this land. I think these belong to it.”

Cherry pats his arm. “Listen, hon, let us figure out how much this stuff is worth first. Then we can figure out how much Mister Booga Booga Rockypants gets, huh?”

“An’ if we sell it in the bar,” Merri suggests, “little by little, we can be sellin’ it on commission like! Part o’ the money goes to the operatin’ expenses o’ the station!”

Sky shakes his head. “I’d better consult Sage and Cala on this. Anyway, for the moment, you two get out of here until we’re sure it’s safe.”

“Oh, all right.” Cherry looks up at the hole, then giggles when Sky puts his big hands on her waist, easily lifting her up until she can grip the edge of the hole and pull herself up.

“Oh! Me next! Me next!” Merri cries, bouncing in excitement. Sky lifts her up as well, and Cherry helps pull her up.

“Now that might come in handy,” Dwalkee says. “You wanna work for me, lad? You’d make a damn ugly dwarf but you’re a good ladder. Just uh… keep the helmet on, mind ya.”

Sky grabs a single bottle in order to investigate the age of the whisky further – which will naturally involve tasting it – then puts on the harness and is pulled up slowly by the dwarves. Dwalkee is soon back in the holding cells room as well. He sees two dwarves bringing in a disassembled set of wooden stairs. “What’re you bringin’ the staircase for? Take that back to the car! Didn’t you hear the man?” To Sky he says, “Sorry, ‘bout that. Hard to find good scholars to work construction nowadays.”

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.”