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.”

Ch6.30 Trust

Timeless darkness, punctuated by flashes, moments, all vague and fleeting in memory. Drifting in and out, dreams and nightmares blooming, fading, falling away to be forgotten. Semiconscious stumbling, eating, then sinking back into a bottomless ocean of slumber. Swimming in the abyssal depths, enormous shapes drifting by. Searching for him. He stays quiet, still, dark.

But now he begins to surface. Utter exhaustion has been sated with days of rest. He longs for the sun. And as he rises…a smell.

Steak?

“Nnggggg?” One eyes opens, then the other. He peels his tongue from the roof of his mouth, smacks his lips. Mouth tastes…soapy?

“It’s alive!” The voice is familiar. Somrak? “Astonishing…I have a plate with six steaks on it already getting cold, you lazy bastard.”

“What…” Turning in bed, mouth flooding with salivation, squinting against the light. “Ugh…you doing here?”

“You called me, remember? Do not call up that which ye cannot put down. First rule of summoning.” Somrak comes into focus. Cooking in the kitchen nook. Wearing a tshirt and leather pants. Grinning.

Is that a flashy bangle on his ponytail? And…a lock of grey hair?

“I mean in my room.” Rubs his eyes. “Why does my mouth taste like soap?”

“Uhhh… Well, I did notice there was no soap in the bath.”

“Damn…not again…” Slowly gets up, walks to the table, scratching his rear. “I could eat an army.” Grabs a sizzling steak from the pile, ignoring the mild sting of pain in his fingers. Notices Somrak is not using the magical heating element built into the kitchen range, but heating the pan with his own flame.

“You know the drill from the last two times,” Somrak says. “Take a steak with you and get in the bath. Then pants. Then more steak.”

Sky mumbles around the rare steak, “Mhn mmm you?”

“Oh…I’m good.” Somrak sounds rather uncertain. “Thank you for asking.”

“Mhhhmmm.” Sky gulps. Soooo good.

“Chew! I am not giving you first aid if you choke!”

“‘m fine…” He starts chewing again, and squints at Som. “Mmmhh nnnrr hair?”

Somrak just stares at him for a moment. “Decades of interpreting Sky-ese and I didn’t catch that one. How do you command a station mumbling like that?”

Sky points to his own hair, then at Somrak’s. “Yoummnnn Mnwetty…An mnnooonn aauughh!” The meat goes down the wrong way. “Ack!” He starts to choke.

Somrak sighs. “Demons and devas…” He stomps over and hits Sky hard on the back.

Sky coughs up and spits out the meat he was choking on, then wheezes, “Thanks. Better get in the bath.”

“Please do! Now what were you saying before you nearly died?”

“Hmm…?” Sky grabs another steak and goes into the bathroom. There is no toilet in there – that is behind its own door, and from the smell coming from under the door, he has some cleanup to do. Half-conscious waste elimination has its effect on aim. Ugh. “Was I saying something?” He takes a bite out of the steak, chews, swallows while fumbling under the sink with his free hand, and finds a new bar of soap. “Oh! What happened to your hair?”

Somrak tosses another steak on the pile, then touches the silvery lock. “Oh that. I don’t know, really. Could’ve been the demon. Or the phoenix. Maybe Alma, as a joke.”

Settling into the tub, its hot, endlessly replenishing water soothing his too-long nearly immobile muscles, Sky opens his eyes wide and wonders if he’s still asleep. “Wha–? Demon? Alma? What did you do?”

Somrak’s amused voice echoes from the kitchen. “Come to think of it, maybe it was Dion. He was throwing around some pretty powerful magic there. Random side effect?”

Sky’s eyes widen. He stands, then staggers, tracking puddles through the main room, heading for the blank space on the wall that holds the currently invisible portal that leads to his office or his false apartment, depending on the gestures he uses to activate it. He is still somehow clutching the steak.

“HEY! Get back in the bath! As tempted as I am to see what happens when you walk into Three Rats Station naked, dripping wet and holding a steak…no, just get back in the bath!”

Pausing, eyes narrowed, Sky asks, “Who are you and where is Somrak?”

“Huh…you’re right.” Somrak laughs. “A week ago I totally would’ve let you do it. But Alma is pretty stressed out right now, so forget it. She doesn’t need this crap.” He points back along the watery track Sky has left. “Bath!”

Sky hesitantly obeys, gnawing on his steak. “Mmhhn Awa stressmmmd?”

“Uh let’s see…She and I and Dion and Fencer went undercover. Man, you should’ve seen that hot little leather number Alma wore as a disguise.” He glances at Sky, who has stopped with a chunk of steak hanging from his dropped jaw. “…anyway. She had to heal me up but good after the fight with a demon…herself too. Then there was the glitter fight with her and the Bunnies. Then the zombie rat…you know what? I’ll save that one for later after you’re really awake. Let’s just start at the beginning. It’s been an eventful week.”

Sky, shaken, a flood of questions logjamming in his brain, gets back in the bath. He swallows down the meat, and one question randomly pokes out from the others. “You met the Bunnies, huh? How they doing?”

“Oh, they’re good. Didn’t talk much with most of them. Tulip’s a…how would you say it? She’s a caution. Yeah, that sounds right. Sage is a nice guy. Merri’s sweet, but I have to admit I made her pretty mad about burning the table.”

“What??”

“Later. Cherry…she’s very protective of Saira, so she and I butted heads, but I think she likes me anyway. Uh, the two younger boys, hardly saw them.”

“Mayumi?” With all these befuddling revelations, Sky finds himself very worried about her.

“Oh, she’s fine. I think. Hardly exchanged a dozen words with her, though. She always seems busy. Serious. Studying and working.”

Sky relaxes in the bath, continuing to feed his famished body, trying to fit the disjointed narrative together.

“All right, from the beginning. So I came at your call,” Somrak continues. “Things started out fine. Met the mysterious Saira. She’s better than she was a week ago, by the way.” Sky can hear him cleaning the pan. As is his habit, Somrak always cleans up after himself, and right away as well.

“Ohmm good.” He narrows his eyes. “You…have orders about her?” He takes another bite.

“I was told to offer her a job. Which she refused. Good thing the old man didn’t have a ‘dispose of her if she refuses’ addendum.”

“Whamm she say?” He can feel the meat stuck between his teeth, prompting a desperate desire for dental floss.

“I bet you can guess. She’s got things to do, people to kill. Doesn’t want anybody telling her to kill someone not on her radar, or not kill somebody in her sights.” Somrak’s voice grows louder as he approaches, appearing in the doorway to the bathroom and leaning against the frame in that casual, Somrak-y way he always does. It’s like how cats have to jump into boxes: if there’s a solid vertical surface nearby, Somrak has to lean against it. “Unlikely she’ll take out anyone we don’t want taken out, so Commander will probably let her continue. Still…that could change.”

“What’d you–” Sky feels himself about to choke again. He gulps, then punches his own chest, prompting a belch like a foghorn. “Sorry – think about her?”

Somrak shrugs. “She’s a psycho, but she’s our kind of psycho. Too bad she’s so fixated. Maybe she’ll come around… Maybe she already has, just isn’t willing to admit it.”

Sky finishes the meat and looks down at the greasy film on the water. Disgusting. He hauls himself out again, sitting on the edge, and starts to fumble for a bottle of shampoo.

“And then what?”

“Hey, shampoo, then conditioner!” Somrak calls out. Sky has to admit, the guy knows how to keep his hair nice. “Anyway, a lot of that with Saira was later, really. Just met her briefly at first. So, uh, Alma shows me around the ward a bit, and…I overheard about a gang around Rio Novo making trouble.” He falls silent.

Eyes shut tight, face covered in suds, Sky sighs. “Crap…how many dead?”

Somrak’s voice is unusually quiet. “None. I was trying to be restrained. Turns out it wasn’t restrained enough, though. Prettyboy…explained things to me.”

“Who’s Prettyboy?” He grabs the simple shower head, attached by a hose to the water pipe which bring in water from…somewhere. Doesn’t do to think too closely about such things. “Is that a parrot or something?”

“That would be Gwydion.” Somrak pauses. “Good man. Fencer dubbed him Prettyboy.”

“Fencer…?! The Fencer was here?” He remembers Somrak mentioning her already now. “Why?”

Somrak laughs as Sky drops the shower head into the bath. “Alma called her in. We’re jumping ahead. So after I got in trouble, Dion mentioned the demon market.”

Sky blindly fishes the shower out of the bath. “Cal mentioned a market before… How did you track it down?”

“The amulet you got off those guys. Turns out it’s a magical map. So Alma agreed, after some consideration that I’m surprised didn’t turn my hair completely white, to let Saira be my guide to the underworld of Three Rats. Better known as just Three Rats.”

“She let you? She let you, an off-blue newcomer, take her patient out into the streets?” Sky can’t believe what he’s hearing. “Alma? My Alma? Is she all right?”

Somrak snorts. “Your Alma, huh? Hey, chicks dig the ponytail, I told you. As for is she all right…” He stops and goes to Sky’s C-shaped sofa, sitting heavily on it. “I hope so.”

Great. “What happened?”

“That’s…getting ahead again. Listen, she did a good job commanding the station. But I am glad you’re awake. She’s, I don’t know, she’s still dealing with killing Nekh or something. Why anybody would be doing anything other than dancing on his grave, I don’t know, but I do recognize that everybody’s not me. As you never hesitate to remind me.”

Sky nods grimly. “She’s a true-blue. And you know death gods aren’t much into killing.” He takes a washcloth, soaps it up, and starts scrubbing. “What about Dion? He helping her?”

“Death gods like to believe they’re not much into killing. Anyway, yeah, Dion’s taking good care of her. Saira and I talked to that Cal guy you mentioned. After that we came up with the undercover operation. I meant it to be just me and Dion at first, but it grew. Alma called Fencer in, joined in herself. We developed a couple of leads, one to the gang with that sorcerer of yours that was assassinated by the soul bomb, the other to the necromancer.” He sighs. “Then both of them got messed up.”

“How?” Sky’s voice is disappointed. How nice it would have been to have woken to news that the necromancer case was all tied up in a little bow.

“Some idiot who groped Alma – did I mention the hot undercover outfit? I should’ve taken pictures. So this moron, after she lets him live, releases a very nasty demon that crashes the whole market. That took down one lead. We had to go after the demon before it burned down the entire ward. Alma and Fencer were pretty impressive. And Dion…did you know he can improvise custom banishment spells for rare uncategorized demons?”

Sky opens his eyes wide, showering off the soap. “Really? He was very good at banishing that Walker Between. Hmm…maybe there’s a sphere there?” He eases back into the bath, the grease and dirt gone now that the old water has cycled away and been replaced.

Somrak picks up a book from the table and leafs through it, a ‘coffee table’ book from Earth, one full of gorgeous photographs and paintings of ocean life. Something that residents of the Insula know very little about, as the ocean surrounding the Celestial Mountain is merely a thin border between the land and the Void. Few are willing to explore. “Commander said something about him having no sphere…weird.” He stops to stare at something in the book that Sky cannot see. “A god who’s gone all this time with no sphere, learning magic to compensate, suddenly developing a sphere. That would be interesting.”

“Not many demons around. If that’s his sphere…”

Somrak looks up over the arm of the sofa. “If that’s his sphere, you better watch your step.”

Sky nods, sliding further down in the water, closing his eyes.

“So we fought a demon,” Somrak continues. “Alma got her hands burned, I got corrosive blood all over me. But we won, so who cares?” He smiles. “Alma healed me.”

Sky cannot help but smile as well. “Good, ne?” The memory of being healed by Alma floods back. “Gentle. Like a full-body kiss.”

Somrak nods, quiet for a little while. Then he continues, “So the next morning I come downstairs from the room Cherry and Merri deposited me in, and there’s Alma chasing the little one, Tulip, half naked.”

Sky, eyes still closed, murmurs, “They’re Bunnies, they don’t have hangups about nudity.”

“I’m not talking about Tulip. Alma was half naked. Like, shirt-no-pants.” He pauses to enjoy the look on Sky’s face: eyes wide, jaw open. “Then she blew glitter all over me. I’m still finding glitter behind my ears.”

“Alma? Walking…around…no pants? Glitter?” He thinks for a moment. “Mind spell? Possessed?”

Somrak shakes his head. “I tell you, it’s the ponytail. Anyway,” His smile disappears. “Later on we’re all three sitting around, with Saira, having a drink, going over things, and this–” He almost chokes with disgust. “–undead rat jumps up on the table, croaks out some insults at Alma, and jumps at her face.”

Sky feels the blood rushing out of his face. “She–?”

“Not a scratch.” Somrak’s expression and voice are dark. “Rat had Dion’s tracking spell on it. Necromancer was taunting us, speaking through the rat. Alma…had a bad reaction. Dion helped her. I read the flames. They told me we’ll find the necromancer, just not yet.”

Sky stands and grabs a towel as he steps out of the tub. “You…talk to Alma since then?”

“Not yet. I’ll go there in a few minutes though. Say goodbye, let her know you’re ready for duty. You are ready for duty, right?”

Sky nods. “First day will be rough. But I don’t think I can sleep another day. Especially now.” He walks into the kitchen and pours himself a glass of guava juice, and drinks the entire thing in a few long gulps. “What do you think…about them?”

“About who? And now that you’re clean, it’s pants time. I’ve had just about enough of your bulky nakedness.” Somrak goes to Sky’s closet.

Sky ignores this. “The station? The team? I don’t… My emotions have been running like stampeding horses since I got here. These people…I’ve become attached to them. They’re…family?”

Somrak pulls out a pair of Guardia uniform trousers and tosses them at Sky. “You know how many times a day I heard your name? More than I could count. Half of those Bunnies think of you like you’re their father. Machado hates me, so he’ll be real happy to see you. Dion mentions you like a contrast to reckless me, which is hilarious, oh if he only knew, and Alma…she just wants you there.” He digs through a drawer in the closet, finds carefully rolled underwear and a folded shirt, and tosses those to Sky too. “Get back there soon. You’re needed.”

Too touched for words, Sky dresses in silence. Finally he says, “I will. Do you have to leave?”

“I’m expected back. Had to push to stay this long. If I didn’t know there’s no point in looking for the necro until the time’s right, I’d find a way to stick around, but…maybe if I get back to the Commander soon, I can return here for the takedown.” He gives Sky a serious look. “You’re calling me when it’s time. I want in on the arrest. Or the kill. However it goes.”

Sky nods grimly. “It’s Alma’s case. But unless she says no, I’ll call.” He glances at Somrak sideways. “You didn’t give her a reason to say no, right?”

Somrak seems frustrated. Perhaps angry with himself. “Hope not. We’ll see in a little bit here.”

Sky is tempted to ask but knows that with Somrak, sometimes it is better to be silent. “I’ll get ready.”

Ch6.05 Trust

The well wishes from the Bunnies go on for some time, but finally Sky and Mayumi can close the door to the bar, leaving them alone in blessed silence in the breezeway. Sky looks at Mayumi, leaning against the door as if holding it closed against prisoners trying to escape, and they both start laughing.

Mayumi says, “They really did need to see you before you disappear for a week.”

Sky takes her hand. “Thank you. I probably would have forgotten… Intellectually I know I’ll be gone for several days, but to me it’ll seem brief. Just overnight, really. I have to remind myself that it won’t be that way for others.”

Mayumi steps away from the door and walks with him slowly down the breezeway. “So…we should say goodbye, hm?” She looks up at him, and he stops, drawing her close, bending down to her as she pulls herself up to meet his lips with her own. He straightens, easily lifting her off her feet. She wraps her legs around his waist, her arms around his neck. He moves one hand to her thigh, the other remaining on her back. She is the tallest of the Bunnies, but still quite far from tall by human standards, whereas he must duck through doorways, and though she is compactly muscular he barely notices her weight.

They are very different indeed, he thinks, and height is the least of it. Does this make sense? Does it ever? He is frightened by the intensity of his feelings for her, an intensity he has felt only once before. He had been certain he would never feel it again. Will it last? Is it nothing but a side effect of this strange eruption of emotion through which I’ve been thrashing ever since arriving in Three Rats?

If it is more than that, then he will have to do as he did before, over a century ago on Earth. He will have to tell her his most closely held secret. Just as the Oracle told him he must, regarding Alma and Dion, but surely he must tell Mayumi if they are to find true intimacy. The thought of revealing his true nature to someone terrifies him. Mayumi will reject him, he is sure. She will be horrified, disgusted.

But then, Laura accepted him. Perhaps Mayumi will too.

Mayumi pulls back, wearing a sardonic expression, her arms still around his neck. “You seem like your mind is on something else. Falling asleep in the middle of a kiss?”

He looks apologetic toward her. “I had better get home.”

She searches his eyes for a long moment, her face becoming serious. “Sleep like a stone, and wake with a clear mind. Shall I walk with you?”

He shakes his head. “Stay with your family. I don’t want you walking back alone, especially not through my neighborhood.”

“Everyone there knows you,” she points out. “And they know I am under your protection.”

“That doesn’t guarantee your safety,” Sky admonishes. “To some, it makes you more of a target. Stick close to the station.” He shifts his hand from her leg to let her straighten and to slide down to stand on the pavement once again. She releases him, still studying his face, then sighs and hugs him around the waist, pressing her cheek against his chest. He holds her gently.

“It’s good not to rush,” she murmurs. “I love this slow unfolding. But…”

“I know,” he almost whispers. The desire to bring her home with him, to reveal his hidden pocket-universe home, to tell her that he is no god at all, but very much the opposite, almost overwhelms him, and he holds her tighter, knowing he is in no state of mind to make such a decision.

She squeezes him back. “We’ll be all right.”

He nods and releases her, resting his hands on her shoulder. “Go on. Back inside.”

She nods. “Oyasuminasai,” she whispers. Have a good rest.

Ki wo tsukete,” he whispers back. Be careful.

She smiles. “You can’t say that to the person staying behind. Only to the person who is leaving.”

“I don’t care,” he says softly. “Tell me you’ll be careful. So that I can sleep.”

Her cheeks flush and she blinks, touched at his concern. She has to take a breath before she can say, “I promise. Now go sleep. I would stand here watching you go but I think you’d never leave, so…” She steps back, gives him one last look, then turns and walks to the door to the station, opening it and stepping through. She pauses, as if trying to resist turning around, but she gives in and looks over her shoulder at him.

She smiles, and then she closes the door.

Sky suddenly feels a century older, as if an enormous weight were settling on his shoulders. The need to sleep increases rapidly, and he almost trips over his own feet as he turns to exit the breezeway. When he rounds the corner he freezes as he hears a small “Ahem” and sees Alma, her back against the station wall, looking at him with some amusement.

For a moment he can think of nothing to say. Alma rescues him by speaking first. “I thought you could do with an escort home. Despite what you told Mayumi.”

He sags further. “Did you hear all of that?”

She looks faintly guilty. “I had not intended to overhear. And I know it is none of my business.”

“I…” He shakes his head. “I meant to talk with you about it before. Mayumi told me she had told you, but I should have–”

Alma takes his arm with both hands. “Come on. You are half dead on your feet. And you don’t need to feel bad. We’ve been very busy.”

“I just couldn’t find the right moment.”

“I know!”

“And it is your business…”

“Sky!” Alma shakes him a little. “It is all right!” She chuckles ruefully. “If she has to fall for a god, at least I can console myself that it’s you.”

He looks down at her in surprise. “That…that’s the nicest thing… Thank you.”

Alma shakes her head. “And you find my words touching. What a strange person you are, Tuma-Sukai.”

They fall into companionable silence, and Sky puts his free hand on one of hers where it rests on his bicep, patting it, smiling as they walk. After a minute, he asks, “Are the prisoners processed then?”

“We are just waiting for them to be ready for questioning. The humans we captured had been enslaving the elementals, it seems, but we’ll learn more once we interrogate them. Gwydion is handling the paperwork and will begin the questioning.”

“Fortunately destroying an elemental’s body does not kill the elemental, merely sending it back to its world of origin. Otherwise…” His voice takes on a hint of regret. “Well, I’m very glad to hear that we freed slaves. I can go off to bed with a lighter heart.”

“Are you ready?” Alma asks.

“Honestly? Now that I’ve accepted it, my body is demanding that I collapse right here and now.”

Alma smiles. “Good thing you have me to walk you there. Or we’d find your snoring body stripped and dumped in the river.”

“You don’t have to do that.” But despite his protestation, he smiles.

She squeezes his arm in return. “No, I don’t. But I am doing it, anyway. And don’t try to argue. It was all I could do to stop Gwydion from tagging along as well. I will never hear the end of it if I just let you go all by yourself.”

Sky laughs softly. “I just talked three Bunnies out of following me home and tucking me into bed. But the place is a real mess.”

“I will see you to your bachelor pad and then you can collapse on your living room floor among the discarded food wrappers and odorous socks if you like.” Her voice is drily amused at picturing the interior of Sky’s home. “But my mind won’t be settled unless I can see you safely there.”

“Alma, I can’t tell you how sorry I still am that you were injured.”

“Oh, stop. I have been through worse. And accidents happen.”

Sky mutters, half to himself, “That oven must have been magical to heat up that much that fast…” He shakes his head. “Anyway, I have another thing to apologize to you for.”

Alma looks up at him, suspicion on her face. “And that is…”

Sky smiles. “Somebody has to be in charge of the station. That somebody is you.”

Alma’s brow furrows. “And why?”

“The simple answer is you have the most seniority.”

Alma purses her mouth. “You do realize I have never been in charge of a station…”

“Neither has Dion. Neither had I until that time that seems both so long ago and only yesterday. Honestly, Edison has by far the most experience running a station of the four of us. But protocol just won’t allow a Popula to be in charge of Dei officers.” He stops and turns to face her, and she releases his arm. “You’ll make a fine commanding officer, Alma. I know it.”

She looks at him and straightens her always-straight posture almost subliminally. “I will do my best. Will you need anything during your hibernation?”

Sky smiles and starts walking again, and she matches his pace. “Merri and Cherry are going to do some shopping for me and have the groceries delivered to my landlady. She’ll leave them inside the door.” He stops for a moment. “Oh! I almost forgot…I’ve sent for someone to come help out for a week. I’m not sure he can make it, though. But you might have some assistance.”

“You certainly are nearly unconscious if you forgot that little detail! Anyone I know?”

Sky smiles. “Well, yes. But I don’t want to embarrass him if he can’t make it.”

Alma shakes her head and they resume walking. “I will keep my eyes open for any stray Guardia Dei wandering around.”

The neighborhood becomes even more dodgy than that surrounding Three Rats Station. Chowringhee Road is not the worst part of Three Rats Ward, but it is not far from it. Even in the daylight, the toughs on the corners watch them, though more with curiosity than aggression. They are both known around here, and not entirely as Guardia: Sky as a resident, Alma as Lady Death, gatherer of souls.

As they near his ramshackle building, stopping at the bottom of the dubious stairs, Alma speaks up softly. “I hope you understand…we are not trying to keep you away. But you have been so tired lately… I feel like I have just been looking the other way while you burn yourself out, pretending not to see it.”

Sky turns to her and takes both her hands in his. “There is absolutely no reason for you to feel guilty. I’ve been ignoring advice from all corners. I know I need to rest. And, well, I am glad we took out these slavers. Just…be careful. Please. I couldn’t bear it to wake up and find…” He closes his eyes, pained by the visions his overactive imagination insists on inflicting him with.

Alma squeezes his hands gently. “You will wake up to normal station life. And to friends waiting to see you again. I will see to that.” She looks at his building. “Really, Sky, why do you live here instead of the station?”

“I know, I know. Seems like it’ll fall down any moment.”

Alma snorts. “Which sounds fitting, when I think of it.” She releases his hands, reaches up, tilts his face downward and, rising on her tiptoes and stretching, she kisses his forehead. “Sleep well and long. And sweet dreams.”

Sky smiles, immensely pleased at her affection. “Obrigado. I’ll be back on duty soon.” He gives her a swift kiss on the cheek, in the local custom, then stands to attention. “You have the station, Sergeant.”

“Sir, yes, sir!” she replies, sardonically, smiling and watching him ascend the stairs to his apartment, wincing as she sees them flex under his weight, until he fumbles for his keys, opens the door, turns to wave. She holds up a hand, and he disappears inside.

Ch6.04 Trust

“Here are the reports you asked for, Inspector–” Mayumi pauses, wrinkles her nose at the smell of burning paper, and carefully shuts Sky’s office door behind her, then waits quietly as he finishes burning what appears to be a namecard.

Sky drops the last smoldering corner of it into a small stamped-metal ashtray on his desk and smiles tiredly at Mayumi. “Thank you.” He sees the unspoken question in the tilt of her head, one black-furred ear slightly back, and answers, “I was sending a message. I’m not sure it will be answered, but… Anyway, let me check and sign all of these. And then, for the next few days, you’ll be taking them to Alma to sign.”

“Eh?” She approaches his desk and, coming around the side, hands him the file folders.

“She’ll be in charge while I’m away,” he says. His smile fades and he looks quite weary. “I need to rest.”

“Finally! I have been telling you for weeks!” She almost immediately feels embarrassed at her outburst. “I suppose Mother convinced you.” She cannot hide the tiny hesitation before the word “Mother.” Though they are in private, though she knows Sky’s feelings of friendship for Alma are as strong as her own feelings of kinship with her mother, Mayumi still feels uncomfortable with that level of informality during working hours.

“That’s not what convinced me,” he replies, “though it should have. You know I was keeping myself awake before Dion and your mother returned because I was the only Dei here. There was no real choice. But now, even burning through more and more mana each day just to stave off sleep, I’m having moments of dizziness, throbbing headaches…and poor decision making. Mayumi…” He pauses and takes one of her hands in his without looking at her, breathes in, and sighs. “I made a mistake. Alma was injured.”

Mayumi stiffens, feeling her body feel cold and empty for a moment. He must have noticed, for Sky turns to her and takes her other hand as well. “No, no – she’s all right now. She’s healed herself. But…it could have been worse. And it was my fault. So yes, you are right. I need to sleep.”

She relaxes, breathing again, and squeezes his hands. “Yokatta,” she whispers in relief, both at the news that Alma is safe and that Sky is finally going to rest. “Sage was saying you might sleep soon. That it seems like the worst gangs have been rounded up or have moved out.”

He nods. “But there are still dangers.”

“The ones who killed Philippus?” The horrific murders of Corporal Stathos and his family still haunt her dreams. Mayumi had had to read the reports. Twice since, she has woken up nearly hyperventilating, her face wet with tears from dreams of being forced to watch Stathos’ little daughters die slowly, as Stathos’ husband had been forced to before his own agonizing death.

“Yes. And others we know nothing about, I’m sure.” He pulls her a little closer, her legs touching his knees, his face deeply serious. “Mayumi, keep the others close. And you play it cautiously as well. No going out without Guardia escort. And keep an eye out for visitors to the station and the bar. Report anyone suspicious.”

She nods solemnly. “I will.” She slips one hand free and lays it on his cheek. “You look like you’re about to collapse. Let’s get these reports taken care of so you can go to the bar. You have six other admirers to bid oyasumi before you stagger off to bed, Inspector.” She smiles and begins brewing tea.

During the next half hour, they quickly go over the reports and Sky signs off on them. As he puts down the pen and stretches in his chair, she hesitantly asks, “Sky…do you think I could visit you during this break?”

He looks embarrassed. “I’m just going to collapse and sleep for a week. I’ll sort of sleepwalk to eat and…use the toilet and such, but I wouldn’t even know you were there. Or worse, I’d notice and it would break me out of the sleep cycle. Then…I’d have to start over.”

 

“Oh.” Her ears droop. “Well, I know the other Bunnies will miss you. You’ve been our guardian for weeks while Mother was gone. They’ll all want to say goodbye and goodnight.” She glances at the window. “Even though it’s barely midmorning.” She looks back at him, turns his chair slightly to face her, then leans forward, her hands on the arms of his chair. “I’ll miss you, too.”

He smiles, his eyes almost crossing as their noses touch. “Really?”

By way of answer, she kisses him.

They have shared kisses once or twice a day over the past week, since that terrible night the soul bomb took away one of their own. That night had been a series of shocks. Sage had been kidnapped, then Mayumi had foolishly, madly run to the place he was being held, and had to face up to how badly she was losing her grip, how badly she was adjusting to this world she needed to start living in. Then Sky had been nearly killed before her eyes, and she’s witnessed the summoning of a demon, another source of nightmares that were disrupting her own ability to sleep. The relief of Alma and Dion’s return, the rescue of Sage and a group of children – and then the bomb, and the sickening news of Stathos and his family. She had felt shattered, lost, and she had known that Sky would feel the same. And unlike her, he had nobody with whom to share it.

So she gave in to the feelings she had held back from for months now, that had started quite soon after she awoke to this world. So far, it has only been kissing, cuddling, but she doesn’t mind. She loves it, this going slowly. She wants more, of course. He does too, she can tell, but…it is awkward. The power differential: boss and secretary, god and mortal. He is old enough to be her great-great-great-great-grandfather, easily. Maybe even one or two more greats in there.

She doesn’t care. She knows what she wants. Mortal-immortal liaisons are as common as office romances. How else are there so many demigods? It happens. They will find a way to make it work.

He pulls her closer and she climbs onto him, straddling his hips, her knees on his chair seat, her hands cradling his head, his hands on her back. There is no definite break in the kissing until she pulls back, heart pounding.

“This could turn into something more,” she whispers, half warning, half offering. “Before you sleep.”

He just looks at her, the temptation and the need obvious in his expression, in the way he holds her, and in what she can feel stirring below her. She settles more fully onto his lap, pressing herself against him, feeling his body respond, the heat, the growing firmness, and feeling her own body respond as well. “Shall I lock the door?” she whispers, her heart racing faster. She doesn’t even want to do that. She doesn’t want to part from him that long.

Nobody will come in…probably.

Despite his dark skin, she can see the flush. He closes his eyes and hangs his head, and shakes it. “Not yet,” he whispers huskily.

She leans back a little, easing the pressure. Disappointed, but not surprised really. She does not ask why, but he looks up and says to her, “I’m sorry. I really am.”

“Sky, it’s all right.” She strokes his hair, still yet to regain its full, shaggy length since much of it being burnt away in Sage’s rescue.

“There are things we need to talk about first. And I’m…I’m not thinking clearly now.”

Thinking that this sounds a bit ominous, but not wanting to pry when he needs to sleep, she repeats, “Daijōbu desu. Don’t worry. We’ll talk about it when you’re rested.” She climbs off him and holds her hands out to help him up. “Come on. A quick goodbye to the others and then it’s oyasuminasai for you.”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“And ye’re sure we cannae come over an’ ‘fluff up yer pillow’ now an’ then, dear?” Merri winks at Sky so comically that no one would think her serious.

“Oh yeah!” Cherry joins in as she sets a small whisky on the bar for Sky. “Me, Merri, and May, oo la la… Sage, you wanna come along?”

Sage smiles tolerantly. “He needs rest, not more exhaustion.”

Cherry giggles, “Oh, and you’d be the one to tire him out, huh?” She turns at a sound to see that Saira is entering the bar from the stairway that leads down to Alma’s room. She’s walking steadily, but Sky notices that she is moving a little more cautiously than she normally would. He also cannot help but notice her uncharacteristic mode of dress, a green saree blouse and matching silk pyjama-like trousers. It suits her remarkably well, and yet it is not something he would ever have imagined her wearing. He assumes it is Alma’s, modified slightly to fit Saira. Though he’s never seen Alma wear green.

Cherry moves swiftly to Saira and falls in with her, hands clasped behind her back but close enough to catch her. Her voice just barely above a whisper, Sky hears Cherry ask, “Doin’ okay, hon?” She’s trying to look casual, but Sky can see the concern on her face.

“I’m fine, sunshine,” Saira murmurs back, trying but failing to sound annoyed. She sits at the bar, leaving an empty seat between herself and Sky, and looks at his tired face. “Man, you look like you’ve been on the run from the cops. What’s everyone gathering around you for?”

Sky raises his glass to her. “Going to take a nap.” He sips, savors the interplay of peaty, oceanic, medicinal, nutty flavors, eyes closed, then opens them again. “For about a week.”

Saira rolls her eyes. “Gods…bunch of weirdoes. Well, having done that myself recently, you might want to have someone come by to change the sheets.”

“Ooo yes!” Merri says. “We’ll come by and ‘change the sheets’!” She uses her fingers to make little quotation marks, a gesture that had started becoming popular in Three Rats recently.

Mayumi shakes her head. “That innuendo doesn’t work at all,” she says, prompting Merri to pout, though she’s laughing again moments later at Kori and Chime trying to see who can win a race around the bar without touching the floor, jumping from table to table. Tulip runs to join them, and Mayumi, Sage, and Merri turn their attention that way.

Sky leans toward Saira. “You look much improved.”

“Well it has been awhile since you last saw me,” she says, her voice heavy with implied criticism. She chuckles at the guilty expression on Sky’s face. “Oh come on, love. I know you have better things to do.”

“Still… That venom really messes up the nervous system.”

“Tell me about it,” Saira grumbles. “I think my left hand is convinced it’s my right foot.” She raises her voice. “Hey, what’s a woman gotta do to get a drink around here?”

Cherry leans on the bar across from her. “Whatcha want, sweetie? And don’t say whisky.”

Saira looks honestly annoyed now. “How come he gets one if I can’t?”

“You know why, hon,” Cherry says gently. “No booze until…”

“Yeah yeah. Guava juice.” She looks at Sky while Cherry pours. “You could at least let me smell it.”

Sky hands the glass to her. “Smell all you want.” He smiles at the long sniff she gives, the pleased smile, the look of temptation as she clearly wishes to gulp it down. His smile fades. “Saira…I’m so sorry.”

She looks at him. “For what? You didn’t sting me. That demon son of a bitch did.” She hands the glass back.

His voice reflects the pain he feels. “Yes, but I put you in that situation. Pressured you into it. I am sorry for that. But if you hadn’t helped, Sage would probably be gone.”

Saira shrugs. “I don’t even remember most of it, anyway.”

“Well you were very brave. And despite having your head rung by that explosion, you took out a large baboon that I believe was some sort of demigod.”

Saira shifts on her barstool so she is leaning back against the bar, and raises her glass of purple-pink juice to him. “Yeah, I’m usually pretty awesome. But I still don’t get why I ended up here.”

Sky looks at her quizzically. “Do you really think we’d discard you? When you’d just saved Sage? Not to mention all those children. I’ll always be grateful to you for that.”

“Really?” Saira’s smile is mischievous. “And what’s in it for me? I mean, gratitude’s great but…”

Sky takes another sip of whisky. “You’ll never pay for your drinks in here, that’s for sure. Once you’re given a clean bill of health, of course.” He glances toward Cherry, to make sure she hears. “It’ll be on my tab.” The Bunny nods, solemnly. “And I’m sure someday you’ll need help again,” he continues. “I’ll be ready to return the favor. But more than that… Friendship?”

Saira snorts. “I don’t have friends, Mister. Friends make you weak. Get you killed.”

Sky looks at Cherry again, whose ears are laid back in sadness at Saira’s words. “I think you’re wrong about not having friends. As for the rest…in some ways you’re right. But only if your goal is to pursue a solitary path of vengeance, with nothing but death in the end.” He pauses. “I hope you will reconsider that. For those who pursue another path, friends lend you their strength.”

Saira chuckles bitterly, but Sky notices that when she places her empty glass on the counter for a refill, she brushes her fingertips gently against Cherry’s forearm when the Bunny reaches to take the glass, as if to apologize for her words. Still, the assassin’s voice is determined. “Sure. As soon as all the Dukaines are dead, I’ll consider retiring.”

“But there are no Dukaines anymore,” Sky says. “There are only shards. And not many of them left.”

“Here in Three Rats, maybe. There’s enough for a lifelong career across the Fourth Ring. And it doesn’t matter what they call themselves, I know them like the back of my hand. The new members, I don’t mind. They’re mostly clueless teenagers. But the original Dukaines, they’re like wasps. They sting without provocation just because they know it won’t kill them.”

“You’ll never live long enough to kill them all,” Sky says sadly. As he speaks, Mayumi returns, putting a hand on his arm. He looks at her concerned face and smiles, then looks back at Saira. “I really should turn in before I find myself unable to walk home. Alma will be busier than usual while I’m gone. I hope it doesn’t inconvenience you.”

Saira drinks more juice. “Nah, I got a good nurse. Even if she is a pest.” She smiles at Cherry to soften her words, and the Bunny sticks her tongue out at her, making Saira snort. “And Alma always comes to bed eventually.” As Sky slowly rises and starts to turn toward the door, Mayumi still holding his arm, Saira drawls, “She’s a nice bedmate, in case you’re wondering. Hardly ever snores.”

Sky smiles and shakes his head, then says, “Goodnight.”

“It’s not even lunchtime,” Saira points out. “Lazy blueshirt.”

Sky chuckles. “Get well soon.” As he walks toward the door, Bunnies giving him hugs and kisses and bidding him to sleep well, he glances back for a moment and sees Saira watching him go, a small smile on her face.