Ch6.40 Trust

“All right, that should take care of your gift problems,” Lyria announces cheerfully.

“Yes, and of the carpeting problems I did not know I had,” Alma notes, looking down at her bedroom floor.

Where there once was good, solid stone, now there is fresh green grass just tall enough to make a soft, fluffy mat that covers most of the floor. The scent of it must have captured Lexie’s attention, because she has woken up from her daily nineteen hours of sleep and is now trying to stretch herself all the way down to the floor without actually leaving the safety and warmth of the bed covers. Both forepaws on the edge of the bed, the cat sniffs suspiciously at this strange, new green thing that was definitely not there this morning. Hopefully she will not interpret this as an extension to her personal little litter box.

“Well, you needed some way to practice, did you not?” Lyria counters. She takes a deep whiff at the certainly fresher, greener scent in the room. “Oh, that smells wonderful! All that vibrant new life! Ah… Bare stone floors are a thing of mausoleums, if you ask me.”

Alma chuckles and grazes her sole of her bare foot against the grass. The sensation she gets is that of walking barefoot in a lawn, without the unsavory effects of getting one’s feet covered in dirt or rubbed against slithery creatures. Maintaining it will be a slight extra drain on Alma’s mana reserves, but not so very much. In fact, Lyria’s little lesson has been mostly about teaching the young goddess how to use her life sphere more efficiently, spending less mana to achieve the same results. And some of the things Lyria has shown her… Alma had never even considered such things were available to her, let alone attempted them herself. There will be hours of practice to follow up with it, that is certain.

“It is…strange. But not at all unpleasant,” she concedes. “If the Bunnies like it, I just might keep it.”

Lyria’s face lights up at the mention of the Bunnies. “Oh yes! Time to go see my grandchildren!” She raises an eyebrow. “Or do you have another project to keep me stuffed away in here?”

Poor little Lyria… Alma thinks as she chuckles. “But I thought you were too busy with the Dawning to stay for long, Mother,” she notes in sweet tones, a grin blossoming on her lips at Lyria’s obvious look of irritation. “Come, let us go see what your grandchildren are up to.”

A short pause to put her shoes on (Alma had discarded them at Lyria’s command) and the young goddess guides her mother to the door. As soon as they open it, they hear a commotion of voices from above. Cherry’s voice…and Rosemary’s as well. Alma and Lyria exchange a confused glance and swiftly climb the stairs, past the bar and straight to the first floor. Whatever is happening, it is happening in one of the Bunnies’ bedrooms. They can hear Tulip’s voice now, annoyed and whining. Cherry’s and Rosemary’s are distorted with laughter.

What on the Insula is going on?

The goddesses arrive in Tulip’s room just as the youngest of the Bunnies is darting out the door. Her head turned back to glare at her siblings, caught between laughter and cries of “Aww, is nae so bad!”, Tulip nearly rams into Alma as she stomps her way down the hall.

“Careful, little one!” Alma exclaims, gently holding Tulip by the shoulders. “What is going on here?”

“Oh, you gotta see this!” Cherry cries, looming by Tulip’s bedroom door. “Look at her face!”

Alma looks down at Tulip. “What is wrong with your face, dear?”

But Tulip just lowers her head further and looks away, seemingly hiding her visage from Alma’s sight. With a confused look at Lyria, the goddess kneels and cups the Bunny’s cheek with her hand, gently bringing Tulip’s face up toward her mother’s. The sight is something between shocking and hilarious. Tulip’s face is covered in makeup of all types and colors, everything spread and blended so chaotically that the Bunny looks like a canvas for an abstract piece of art. Dark rouge is spread along her pale forehead, eyeshadow is smeared in various shades across her eyelids and the bridge of her nose. Bright red lipstick is pretty much everywhere. There is even some makeup on her ears!

Surprise quickly gives way to an almost overwhelming urge to laugh. It takes all the self-control in Alma’s body to keep her amusement down to a smile. “Oh Tulip…”

She tips Tulip’s chin up so that Lyria can see what is going on. A soft gasp and almost immediate giggling fill the hallway.

“I just wanted to see if it’d make me look better!” Tulip protests, frowning and nearly crying, her hands clenched in fists, her long ears plastered back in anger at being laughed at.

Alma strokes the Bunny’s soft, white hair to soothe her. “Well, you may have overdone it just a little bit. Where did you get all that makeup, anyway?”

Tulip looks down, ears drooping, shoulders hanging low, all of the anger gone from her frame and replaced by a different type of nervousness. This is clearly an uncomfortable question and Alma already suspects the answer. Even if she does not wear makeup with any level of frequency, the goddess has always somehow felt an urge to keep a box of it close. Just a silly instinct, as if it were almost expected of her to do so. Tulip must have taken it. She could have kept it for months before Alma eventually found it missing.

“I’m sorry…” Tulip whimpers.

Alma cannot help but smile and wrap her arms around the Bunny, careful to keep all of that makeup away from her clothing. “You could have just asked me, little one. Now, why don’t you go wash your face and I will show you how to do it, if you like?”

She feels Tulip’s hug tighten around her before the Bunny releases her and steps back. A quick kiss from Lyria to Tulip’s forehead and the young Bunny dashes off happily toward the bathroom. Cherry and Rosemary are just now moving closer, having witnessed the exchange from Tulip’s bedroom. Eyes held down, ears at half perk, they look abashed before the goddesses, probably as much from witnessing Tulip’s anger and hurt feelings as from the scolding look Alma is giving them both. The oldest of her Bunnies can be rather childish in some respects. This is one of those times that puts forward so clearly the fact that, albeit being twenty-four years in age, the twins have only been awake to rationality for half of that time. They are grown-up children. And children can be so cruel…

“You two…” Alma whispers, shaking her head.

“Oh, don’t be too harsh on them,” Lyria intervenes. “It’s clear they already feel bad enough about it.”

The older goddess opens her arms to her granddaughters and the Bunnies rush to hug her tightly in a double-sided embrace that brings a warm, contented smile to Lyria’s face.

“Why don’t the three of us go downstairs and you can meet us there when little Tulip is done washing?” she asks.

Alma nods. “We will be right down.”

Cherry and Rosemary do not follow Lyria right away but pause to hug Alma. She holds them tightly. “Silly Bunnies” she whispers. “Go on, now.”

That earns her two bright smiles and soon she can hear Lyria chatting happily with the twins as they move downstairs. Done with the herculean task of removing all that makeup from her skin, Tulip eventually joins her mother, and looks at her expectantly. Alma tells her to go fetch the box of makeup. She could have easily gotten it from the little Bunny’s room but a childhood spent in a house where privacy was something that happened to other people has taught her the value in respecting some boundaries. Tulip’s room is meant to be her little haven and, without a proper reason or the Bunny’s approval, invading it would feel a bit like breaking and entering.

Makeup kit safely held in her hands, Tulip follows her mother downstairs, where the lighting is better. Cherry and Rosemary seem to have disappeared into the kitchen. Lyria already sitting on the sofa, apparently caught in the middle of a lively chat with Nataniel, who is sitting with Syron, at a table nearby. Alma catches but the end of that conversation but it seems to be about some sort of plant extract. The way Syron is paying such close attention to it has Alma wondering what exactly the extract is meant to do but she does not get a chance to figure it out. As soon as they notice her presence, goddess and mortals fall silent and turn to look at her.

“Ah, much better!” Lyria cries, putting her hands together. “Ready for your first makeover, Tulip?”

Tulip nods and takes a seat at a table, halfway between the sofa and Nataniel’s table. She opens the makeup box, spreading all the pencils and brushes and the various pull-out drawers of compressed powders and waxy pigments with great care. Then she waits, looking intently at Alma as the goddess picks a chair and brings it closer to the Bunny’s. Cherry and Rosemary choose that moment to leave the kitchen carrying trays with juice glasses and pieces of a delightfully fragrant carrot cake. Tulip’s head shoots to glare at them but Alma gently brings the Bunny’s face to look straight ahead. The older Bunnies serve Nataniel and Syron with soft-spoken words of friendliness and, with glances at Tulip and Alma, sit down by Lyria, one on each side of the goddess and holding a treat for their grandmother.

Alma picks a soft, wide brush from her array of tools and strokes Tulip’s cheeks with it, making the Bunny giggle with its tickling touch. Then she dips it in a faintly tan powder and starts applying it close to Tulip’s jaw, to accentuate her delicate frame, still too round and childlike.

“Tell me, dear, why the sudden urge to experiment with makeup?” the goddess asks, picking a slightly different shade that will go on the cheeks.

“I don’t want to look like a kid, anymore!” Tulip replies with an energy that nearly has her headbutting the brush off Alma’s hand. “I want to be pretty.”

Alma tilts her head at this. At her young age, Tulip is already stunning. Of course, she is a stunning child but her features are all promising of a budding beauty that will probably capture many a man and woman’s fantasies. Almost an exact copy of Alma at the beginning of her transition into adulthood, even prettier for the healthy light and warmth that radiates from a child never burdened with chronic, life-threatening fevers, Tulip has nothing to complain about in the beauty department. “But you are pretty. You are, in fact, quite beautiful.”

Tulip scowls at that. “I’m pretty sure you have to say that, being my mom and all,” she mutters

Lyria’s laughter erupts at the swift response from the Bunny, bringing to Alma’s mind some old conversations from her own childhood, around this same issue. For as much as Alma is aware of her beauty and form now, this was not always the case. Lyria is probably enjoying seeing the proverbial shoe being shoved over the other foot.

With a slight glance at her mother that has both goddesses rolling their eyes and smiling in sympathy with each other, Alma stops applying the powder meant to highlight the softness of Tulip’s forehead. “Don’t scowl, please.” She looks intently at Tulip as she waits patiently for the Bunny to relax her face. “Why would I say it, unless it was true?”

“And it is true, guapa,” Nataniel volunteers.

Tulip turns her head to shower him with a bright smile. The soft-spoken mortal doctor is a favorite among the younger Bunnies, doting on them and spending time showing them some of the more mundane wonders of nature whenever his work-filled schedule allows. Although extremely careful not to step over his limits, Nataniel has thus far revealed a talent for storytelling, using old tales to teach the Bunnies important lessons about life and mindfulness of others. If spoken in the right tone, his words carry the weight of law with them.

So Alma does not take it amiss when Tulip seems to accept his comment so readily after dismissing hers with barely a thought.

“Did you look like me when you were my age?” the Bunny asks, turning back to Alma.

“No, I looked much younger at age 13,” the goddess replies, glancing at Lyria. “Mother?”

“Oh yes. Much, much younger,” Lyria confirms with a nod. “Why, it took her decades to look like you, Tulip.”

Not turning so that Alma can apply the eyeshadow, Tulip nevertheless narrows her eyes, making Alma exhale in mild frustration. “How old were you, then, mom?”

Alma tries to remember exactly how long it has been since she last looked that young. “Hmm… I had probably seen a little over thirty – maybe forty turns of the year by then.”

Tulip’s eyes widen in shock. Alma can barely avoid poking her in the eye with makeup brush. “Forty?! How old are you now?”

“Tulip!!” Cherry cries, fanning her face in simulated shock over a background of Lyria and Rosemary’s laughter. “A proper lady don’t ask those things!”

“It’s fine,” Alma replies, chuckling herself. “I am one hundred fifty-three years old, little one.”

“Wow…” Tulip whispers, making the goddess smear the lipstick she was trying to apply on the Bunny’s lips.

“Tulip…” Alma breathes, licking her thumb to wipe the peachy pigment off her daughter’s cheek.

“Sorry…” Tulip apologizes. “Just, that’s really, really, really old.”

That makes Alma chuckle. She looks at Lyria intently. “I am really, really, really old.”

“Oh, dear me!” Lyria jests, the back of her hand pressed dramatically against her forehead. “I do not dare think how many more reallies I would warrant at my age.”

“Och, but ye two look so young!” Rosemary coos.

“Yeah, how do you manage?” Cherry asks.

Just as Alma is about to answer that, she hears a soft mutter from her left. She looks a question at Nataniel, who very subtly jerks his head in Syron’s direction. The technician-slash-scientist is not even looking at Alma or at any other person in the room, for that matter. His eyes are distant, as if he was thinking about something else and simply happened to react at some word that caught his attention.

“Syron?”

He looks at her, seemingly returning from so faraway place. “Species-linked metabolic divergence.”

Silence spreads around the bar. Six pairs of eyes focus on the man, all probably waiting for him to start to make sense.

Syron rolls his eyes and breathes deeply. The kind yet often cluelessly dangerous genius is used to speaking to audiences that do not understand him.

“If I may, lady,” he starts. “The prevailing theory around that is of species-linked metabolic divergence. It is quite a fascinating comparative work on the life expectancies of different species. Imagine a…” He seems to hesitate for a moment. “A rat! And a man. Anyone will rush to say that the average man lives longer than the average rat. But take that man and that rodent and count the number of times each of their hearts beats in a minute, an hour, a day. Now, multiply it by the number of days their lifetime lasts. You will find that the final number you obtain is similar.” His fingers tap the wooden table, punctuating his words. “Conception, gestation, birth, growth, mating, reproduction, aging and death, they all fit in a rat’s two years just as well as they do in a man’s seventy. So it is my understanding, and that of some esteemed colleagues, that rats don’t live shorter lives. They live faster lives, exhausting themselves in less time than men. The same happens between men and gods, where men are the proverbial rats. Gods only seem to live much longer lives than us, maturing slower, aging slower, effectively living slower.” He looks meaningfully at Alma. “Is this not what happened to you, lady?”

Alma smiles at him. The mortal scientist can barely be bothered to treat anyone by their Guardia rank titles, usually addressing his fellow mortals by their first names. But when it comes to gods, and especially to Alma, the inveterate atheist has always shown a delicate reverence, all the more charming because he barely seems to be aware of it.

Sadly, she cannot confirm his strange theories. “Not entirely so, I’m afraid. Gods age pretty much at their leisure. Some never do. Some are created fully grown. To a god born of gods, age does not necessarily link to maturity or physical appearance. We may age overnight, go from young to wrinkled in minutes.” She turns to face Tulip again. “I looked very much like you for a long time. And younger than I look now until Cherry and Rosemary were born.”

“What happened?” Tulip asks. On the sofa, Cherry and Rosemary are looking expectantly at Alma, hanging from her every word.

The young goddess looks at them, lowering her gaze as she moves from one to the other to avoid locking eyes with Lyria. With a sigh, she replies, “I realized that I was not a child anymore? There was no pregnancy, no time to adapt. Suddenly, I had two babies in my arms, whose safety and well being depended on my being able to take good care of them.” She puts the makeup brush down. “I was forced to grow up, and so I did. My face soon followed my mind in that aspect. In a few months, I was looking years older.”

“Oh…” Tulip’s ears droop at the melancholy in Alma’s voice.

Cherry and Rosemary are both holding Lyria but Alma does not look at her mother. Lyria was there, the day Arion left the Insula. She knows better than anyone about the original deals struck to ensure the Bunnies’ safety, about Death’s anger at knowing that his daughter had once again created forbidden life forms. And Alma knows what she will see in her mother’s eyes if she looks that way: empathy, regret, disappointment and a bitter, hardened pride.

The young goddess smiles softly at her youngest child. “I am very glad I grew up. It brought me here.” Her smile widens at the sight of Tulip’s ears slowly perking up. Alma strokes her cheek to remove a little speck of misplaced makeup. “There, all done.”

Tulip’s eyes widen and she rushes to pick up the makeup box so that she can see herself in the mirror. Her jaw drops, making Alma chuckle. “Wow… I look…”

“The way you will look in a few years, most likely,” the goddess completes the sentence. “And those years will pass in the blink of an eye, little Tulip. There is no point in rushing them.”

“But I look…beautiful!” Tulip insists, turning to look at Lyria. “Don’t I?”

“Gasp! How lovely!” Rosemary gasps.

“Dang, you look gorgeous, girl!” Cherry chimes in.

“Ah, little one, you have always been beautiful!” Lyria exclaims with a giggle at the Bunny’s enthusiasm. “Even without the makeup.”

“Well…” Tulip hesitates, looking at herself in the mirror again.

Alma strokes the Bunny’s hair, wanting to freeze this moment in time, to keep her little Tulip always this age, always this innocent and sweet. And yet, at the same time she is curious to take the rest of the journey with the young Bunny, eager to watch Tulip blossom into her early adulthood. What will that be like? Who will Tulip become? She catches movement at the edge of her sight and looks in the direction of the kitchen to sees Gwydion entering the bar, coming from his room, looking like someone still trying to drown away the sweet sirens of slumber.

“Ask Gwydion if you don’t believe us, little one,” the goddess suggests, jerking her head at him. “I know you treasure his opinion.”

Tulip’s head shoots back to spot Gwydion, nearly turning 180 degrees in the process. The young Bunny dashes off to stand just in front of him, hands clenched behind her back, face looking up at him with intense anticipation. “Hi…”

Gwydion smiles pleasantly at her, although Alma detect some hints of uncertainty in that smile. “Hello, flower.”

“Notice something different?” Tulip asks, standing on tiptoes to bring the god’s attention to her face.

Gwydion’s expression freezes suddenly. Any man who has ever interacted with women for any given amount of time will know and dread moments like this. He looks at her appraisingly for a long time, inspecting her clothing, apparently sniffing the air around her. Alma tries to signal to him but he seems too focused on his inspection to notice her.

Finally, he speaks, “Hmm… is it the hair?”

Alma cringes even before Tulip’s cry pierces through the room. “No! I’m wearing makeup!” Her ears droop in a most heart-wrenching fashion. “You don’t think I look better than before?”

Gwydion glances at Alma, who smiles and shrugs helplessly at him. “I can’t quite tell. You have always looked absolutely stunning.” He recovers with barely a pause. “However…”

“Yes?” Tulip squeaks, beaming at the compliment.

“It is never pleasant to kiss a cheek that tastes of makeup,” Gwydion notes. “You look older than your years. It seems to me that the makeup robs you of that vital part of your natural beauty, your youth.”

“But I look like a kid!” Tulip shrieks, flailing madly.

“No,” the god states firmly, placing a hand on her shoulder and raising her chin with the other, so that the Bunny focuses on him. “You look like a young lady. And soon, you will look like a grown woman and then like an old woman. I would understand it if you tried to look younger then than older now.”

Tulip’s eyes move down. “Well…”

“You already know what you will look like,” Gwydion notes in those soft, charming tones of his as he guides the Bunny’s face to look at Alma. “Look at your mother. It will not be long before you look like her without need for any makeup.”

“Yeah, but…How old will you be by then?” Tulip argues meekly.

Gwydion seems to consider this. “Hmm… Not much older than I am now, it seems. A decade, maybe?” He looks at Alma for confirmation and she nods at him. “It may seem like a long time to you but it will go by in an instant to me.”

Tulip looks somewhere between confused and slightly hopeful. “Oh…” She shrugs. “Well, this all seems like too much trouble to put on every day, anyway.”

“Now, there’s a smart girl!” Cherry quips.

“You’re just saying that because you don’t wear any makeup either!” Tulip retorts.

“Does it look like I need it?” Cherry replies. She immediately adds. “Don’t anybody answer that!”

The room explodes with laughter. In a glance, Alma catches Gwydion looking inquisitively at her and makes a little mental note to reward the god later for his outstanding performance.

Chapter 4 “Fatal Prophecy” 16

Calimari Cal watches impatiently, nervously tapping a tentacle on the floor, while Nataniel and Syro run their analyses in the Sanctuary room.

“You done yet?” he asks for the twentieth time in the last fifteen minutes.

“No,” Nataniel replies automatically.

“I am afraid we are just about as done as we were two minutes ago, Mister Calamari,” Syro notes.

“Don’ you call me that!” Cal hisses, stomping the floor with his tentacle.

Syro looks at him, a slight look of confusion on his perennially impassible face.

“I’m sorry, is that not your name?” he asks.

“No, it’s not,” Cal says with the cephalopod equivalent of a pout. “It’s a street name some squids gave me on account o’ bein’ almost cooked alive when I was jus’ lil’ ’n’ playin’ in tha street, close to a fried-goods stall. Stoopid squids. Cuttlefish will get’em all!”

“With flames an’ butter!” a child-like cuttlefish voice cries.

Cal turns around to look at his nephew. “Oh, there ya are, Frankie, ya lil’ hatchlin’!” he exclaims, placing a couple of tentacles vaguely where they hips would be on a human. “Where were ya when I needed ya?!”

“I went tah cook tha holy offerin’s fer yer lunch, Uncle,” Frankie says apologetically.

“Shut up, Frankie!” Cal hisses. He turns to Nate and Syro. “Sorry ’bout that. Kids ’n’ their big mouths.”

“And their way of telling the truth…” Nataniel mutters.

“Yeah… Real bugger, that,” Cal comments. “So, ya done yet?”

“No!” the Guardia officers cry in unison.

Calimari Cal throws four tentacles to the air in  exasperation, the chromatophores on his mantle flashing red and purple. “C’mon, guys! I got prayers tah say, people tah rip-o – oooooooooooff  tha jaws of their misguided beliefs.”

“And intoxicate with these sulphurous fumes, it seems,” Syro adds, shaking his head slowly. “The bathroom has a fissure on one of its walls, through which toxic fumes are infiltrating. I am afraid you will need to seal that room from public use, Mister Calamari.”

“Oh…” Cal whispers. “How ’bout private use?”

Cierra-la, Cal!” Nataniel nearly yells. “Just seal off the damned room.”

Cal hesitates for a moment, syphons flaring open in silent contemplation, but then waves a tentacle in agreement. “Fine, fine. Will that fix it?”

“Yes, provided it is properly sealed,” Syro states.

Cal nods in acceptance. “Good. So… you’s done now, right?”

“Yes, yes we are,” Nataniel says, probably as glad to get rid of Cal as the cuttlefish is of putting some distance between him and the cops.

“Good!” Calimari Cal replies, rushing Nate and Syro out the door of the Sanctuary. “A-di-ós, coppers!”

“Goodbye, Mister Calamari,” Syro greets, bowing his head slightly in old-fashioned etiquette before turning to leave. “Our colleagues will come by shortly to sort out the fines and fees.”

“Good, good,” Calimari responds, turning back into the Sanctuary. A moment later, he emerges again, nervously flushed. “Wait, what fees??”

Chapter 4 “Fatal Prophecy” 10

“So, you just found them lying on the street like this?” Cala asks, looking at the two pitiful figures now safely deposited in the chairs of the little reception area on the ground floor of the Guardia station.

“Sí,” Nataniel replies, sitting on her desk. “Must have not come from far away. They could barely stand, let alone walk.”

“Look, look! It’s so pretty!” the young man currently identified as one of the seemingly nameless kitchen staff of the Singing Cockroach says, pointing at a far corner of the Station and gawking, his mouth opening and closing slowly like that of a particularly lethargic fish. His eyes shine in glassy fascination.

Nataniel sighs with a knowing, commiserating glance at Cala. “There’s nothing there, amigo.”

“What’ya mean?” the young man insists, salivating. “Look at the fountain! Mmm… chocolate…”

“Is he saying there’s an invisible chocolate fountain in here?” Aliyah asks, leaning over her desk to peer in the general direction being pointed. “Cool! Where?”

“Right there, Miss!” the young man exclaims, leaping to his feet and running to look something currently and most definitely not occupying the corner. “And look, there’s hippos swimming in it!”

Aliyah rises from her chair and walks over to where the man is standing and pointing excitedly. She looks and looks, even tries to touch the seemingly invisible fountain with her hand, only to finally give up and stomp her foot on the wooden floor in frustration. “Aw, man! I wanna see it! Where did you get those powers?”

“Aliyah, they don’t have powers,” Cala scolds her. “They are hallucinating.”

“Aww, they have a baby floating around!” the young man by Aliyah’s side coos. His brow furrows. “At least, I hope that’s a baby…”

Aliyah looks from him to Cala, to the corner and back to him, and finally decides to go with what she knows.

“All right, then. No hippos at the station. Check!” she says, walking back to her desk. “So what else have we got?”

“Llamas! Llamas everywhere!” comes the cry of the owner of the Singing Cockroach.

Aliyah’s head shoots up. “Llamas? Really? Wow!” she exclaims excitedly, only to turn to Syro almost immediately. “What’s a llama?”

Syro explains in a patient tone, “It’s a Camelid characterized by its adaptation to life in high altitu…” he trails off, catching Aliyah’s look of utter confusion. “It’s a bit like a tall sheep with a long neck and an unusual tendency to spit.”

“Oh… Kinda like Aunt Cora, then,” Aliyah mutters.

Sitting by Cala’s desk, the owner of the Singing Cockroach beckons to the Constable, leaning towards her in that complete disregard for the concept of personal space that severely drugged or drunk people seem to share.

“Pssssssst! They want me,” he whispers.

“Who wants you, Felix?” Cala asks.

“The llamas,” Felix whispers, his words carrying throughout the room, much in contrast with the supposedly expected effect. “Look at them! It’s in the eyes. They want to…” His eyes widen in terror. “…breeeeeed with me.”

“Well, at least someone finds him attractive,” Alyiah mutters.

“No! Not the bells, not the bells!” Felix yells, climbing onto Cala’s desk and curling into a fat, greasy ball of sheer horror.

“You got some serious problems, my friend,” Nate says, tapping the terrified man on the shoulder.

“And now they’re eating all the crickets!” Felix whimpers, pointing meekly at the floor. “Stop them!”

“Nuh uh! No way I’m getting near those llamas!” Aliyah says, shrugging. “They sound nasty.”

“Aliyah…” Cala softly admonishes as she stands up and rolls up her sleeves. “Right, let’s get these two in a cell where Syro and Nate can examine them safely and you and I can go feel the streets for these new drugs.”

Chapter 4 “Fatal Prophecy” 8

Three Rats is, for lack of a better description, a mishmash of cultures and places and people, all cooped up together in something that could only be described as the masterpiece of a particularly evil-minded maze-designer. Fraught with poorly lit, narrow alleys that unwind and give place to even more dark, dangerous alleys, the whole ward seems intent on staying well away from the sun’s unforgiving light, lest the petty criminals and unintentional murderers be disturbed in their daily comings and goings. Organized crime has been the main career path for most sons of the ward for decades now, which is all well and simple compared to the hassle that freelance criminals must endure in order to survive and do business in a territory crisscrossed by a myriad of invisible feudal borders painted in gang colors. Needless to say, it is not a very promising career in the way of longevity or financial security but considering what is happening to the poor fellow on the other end of the transaction, probably a better one than “professional innocent bystander”.

The old and the weak are common victims of such tragedies. Although illness and hunger may claim their fair share of lives, many deaths in the ward can easily be attributed to acute intoxication with the rusty steel of an ill-kept blade or the “accidental” repeated tripping of incredibly clumsy people into doorknobs and carefully misplaced clenched fists. Many have learned the basic arts of wound stitching and dressing, also referred to as “Three Rats Haute Couture”, but only a very rare few have actually benefited from any kind of medical training.

He is one of the few. Doctor Nataniel Santiago e Santamaria, rescued from a life devoid of proper education by the Guardia’s scholarship programs, is a rare case of a poor man free to follow his calling as a healer, repaying with his work the education he couldn’t have afforded otherwise (while effectively managing to avoid any real Guardia duty). But still, he wishes he could do more.

And that is why he keeps staring at the old abandoned barbershop, with its tiled floors and mirrored windows, every time he walks by it in his wanderings through the ward.

“That would be a good place,” Syro says conversationally, wrenching the good doctor from his daytime reverie.

Nataniel shakes his head, half-startled, half confused. “For what?”

“Your clinic,” Syro replies as if reading his thoughts. “Isn’t that why you keep staring at the building?”

Nataniel smiles bitterly, looking at the abandoned shop one last time before filing away the dream of a neighborhood clinic one more time. “Sueños, mi amigo,” he sighs. “I have no money to make that happen.”

Syro merely shrugs. “Shame. Although, I still don’t see why you believe you are wasting your skill. Your work at the Station has never been questioned.”

Nataniel nods slowly. This is an old discussion, had and buried countless times. His dreams were never, after all, a secret. A child of poor parents, raised in a low-magic ward ravaged by disease, Nataniel had always dreamt of becoming a healer. Like Three Rats, his home-ward, a Fourth Ring area called Torre de la Tierra, is a poor one, although considerably less urban than his current address. Land of cattle and cattle ranches run by rich breeders with considerably less-wealthy employees, where the knowledge of animal healing is far more valued than the healing of humans and creatures alike, Torre holds a wonderful reputation for its tasty, healthy cattle, while secretly hoping no one will notice the scrawny, chronically ill (ill-fed, ill-washed, ill-payed, pretty much just ill) people who tend to the magnificent beasts. And, without magic,  the people need more… empirical ways of healing. They need people trained in the arts of a kind of medicine that goes beyond sun-dried cow-dung infusions (which is good for pretty much anything, by the way). Nataniel had set out to be that person, very much against his father’s wish that he learn how to heal animals.

That is where money can be made, mi hijo, he had said. Working for all the big rancheros. You can’t make a living out of healing people who can’t even afford to be sick.

Wise words for Torre de la Tierra. Completely wasted on Nataniel, though. One day, the Guardia recruiters had stopped by, promised him an education in return for his service and that was that. Except that now, years later, he is no more of a doctor than he was back at his home-ward. Sure, he has all the diplomas and certificates but most of his work consists of stitching up officers (and the occasional criminal) and autopsying dead bodies, which in turn also results in some more stitching, down the line.

Nataniel sighs again. It is just not enough.

“I want more, Syro,” he states. “I want to do something good for these people.”

Syro looks around at the landscape of faces darting in and out of side alleys, of people talking to each other in that shouting manner that politely allows neighbors in adjacent buildings to gossip and spy without leaving the comfort of their windowsills. His eyes soften at the sight, glimmering with the broken compassion of one who contemplates lives he can pity but not understand.

“Yes, they always do seem to be falling apart…” he barely whispers.

Nataniel walks the next few steps in silence, listening to the sound of his own footsteps on the old, damaged, frequently absent cobblestones.

“Anyway…” he finally speaks. “Why the sandias?”

“The what?” Syro queries, raising his eyebrows at the unknown word.

“The…como se dice?… the melancias, watermelons,” Nataniel explains, lifting the two cloth bags he has been carrying for the last twenty minutes, each of them filled with two good-sized watermelons bought, after much bargaining, for half price on the basis that most of the fruit is made of water and water, as everyone knows, is free of charge pretty much everywhere in the Insula.

“Oh!” Syro exclaims, looking at the fruit-filled bags he too is carrying almost as if he has just now noticed their existence. “Well, they are a vital part of my next trial in the field of applied physics.”

“Applying physics to watermelons,” Nataniel chuckles. “You mean you squash them?”

“No!” Syro exclaims immediately. He thinks about it for a moment. “Well, I mean… Not squash them per se…”

“Then will there be juice or not?”

Syro nods reluctantly. “If all goes well, yes. It may be splayed a bit all over the walls, though.”

Bueno…” Nataniel idly rubs his thumb against his forefinger. “What in the Isla are you testing, then?”

Syro’s face lights up, as it always does at the chance of a dissertation on one of his complex theories and experiments. “I wish to test the propulsion and behavior of particles when moving at high velocity between two points in space.”

Silence falls between the two, marked by the almost audible churning of Nataniel’s mental gears as her deciphers his friend’s words. “You’re going to shoot something at the sandias, then.”

“Yes. Pretty much so,” Syro concedes.

“And why are you doing it?” Nataniel inquires with a mixture of dread and curiosity.

“I have developed a new, more efficient way to neutralize potential criminals that I am pretty certain is both practical and non-lethal as per my calculations and preliminary tests,” Syro says brightly.

Mui bien… Why shoot it at fruit, then?” the physician insists. “You would be more certain if you shoot it at a living target.”

“Like… you?” Syro asks with a glimmer of hope in his eye.

“No!” Nataniel nearly shouts, immediately attracting attention to the odd pair. His next words come out in a hiss. “No, no, no, no, no. No hay manera! Virgen… No, I mean like… a god. We have some of those walking around now.”

Syro looks disappointed. “Yes, I tried to convince that nice gent… Dwayne? Dimi?”

“Dion,” Nataniel offers, caught in macabre fascination over how that conversation may have gone. “You asked Sergeant Dion if you could shoot at him.”

Syro looks at his friend, nodding energetically, seemingly unaware of anything strange with this. “I showed him my calculations and explained the manner of functioning of the weapon. He seemed quite impressed and interested in it but, alas, he also seems to be a very busy man… well, god.” He shrugs. “A shame, really.”

“A loss for science, mi amigo,” Nataniel chuckles.

Syro hangs his head low and shakes it slowly, sadly. “And people wonder why we remain so far behind in relation to this whole ‘magic’ business… As if the secrets of the Universe could be reduced to a quick gesture and some colorful puffs of smoke.”

“Speaking of colorful,” Nataniel comments jutting his chin at two reclining figures sitting in the cool shade of a filthy gutter. “Those two seem to be enjoying the pretty colors right now, no?”

Syro takes a better look at the two men, one in his thirties, thin, coarse, black hair over tanned skin, the other already in his mid-fifties, too heavy for his height, pale skin permanently tinged with lobster-red rosacea, the remnants of what was once red hair fading away into gray. “Don’t those two work at the Singing Cockroach?”

“Work? One of them is the patrón!” Nataniel cries.

They cover the distance to the reclining pair, setting down the bags of fruit at a safe distance from what may just be two cases of alcohol-induced bad mood waiting to happen. Currently, however, only the young man seems restless, while the older gent smiles beatifically.

“Crickets!” he moans, gesturing at the ground around him. “Look, crickets! Sooo pretty…”

“Aaaaaaaaaargghhh!” the younger man screams, trying to melt into the wall behind him while slapping random body parts. “Get’em off me! Get’em off, get’emoffget’emoff!!”

“Hey, compañeros!” Nataniel greets them, crouching by them. “Que pasa?”

The owner of the Singing Cockroach, possibly the worst, most cutthroat pub in the ward, pulls the good doctor to him, grabbing him by the sleeve of his shirt, a massive hand holding Nataniel’s shoulder while the man asks in an almost childish tone, “Can I keep the crickets, mister? I promise they’re just for keeping.”

He brings his face very close to Nate’s, whispering in a drunken drawl. “No stealing food so people will buy mine more expensively this time.”

“So that’s what happened three months ago…” Syro mutters.

“Fire! Use fire!” the young man keeps screaming. “Aaaaaarrrrrrgghhh!! NOT ON ME, DAMMIT!!”

“I think they’re delirious,” Nataniel notes, examining both men intently. “May be some drug,” he offers.

“Your hands are so soft,” the older man goes on in a scary-sweet voice, his hands locking around Nataniel’s and forcing them against his reddish, stubbled cheek. “I like a man with soft hands. R’minds me of my mammy.”

“See?” the physician says, struggling to release himself. “Delirium.”

“I don’t know,” Syro hesitates. “Your hands are quite soft.”

“Stomp on them!” the young hallucinating man screams, kicking wildly. “Don’t stop ‘til you hear the crunching!”

“Well, that’d be a perfect waste of a good pair of surgeon’s hands,” Syro admonishes him.

“Soft…” the owner of the Singing Cockroach carries on, stroking Nataniel’s increasingly sweaty hands. “Like the hair on granny’s back.”

“Syro, they’re not talking to us,” Nataniel says while using his own sweat to finally free himself from the man’s iron grip. “They’re both under the effect of some strange drug. We should take them in and examine them better.”

“Yes… Maybe we should,” Syro concedes.

“Can we bring the crickets, mister?” the older man pleads, eyes wide, lower lip pouting like a six-year-old, while Nataniel holds his arm and help him to his feet. “I wanna train them to ride the llamas.”

“Uuhh… Por supuesto que sí, hombre!” Nataniel agrees, on the basis that crazy people are not to be contradicted. “Bring the crickets.”

“But Nataniel, where are we housing the llamas?” Syro asks, worry tinging his voice as he helps the younger man up.

Nataniel looks at his friend and shakes his head in confusion. “Llamas? What llamas?”

As if on cue, the younger man jumps and grabs Syro, screaming and flailing madly, trying desperately to climb into his arms. while pointing at something invisible right next to him. “Keep it away from me! I’m allergic to wool!” He suddenly stands very still, his expression locked in deep disgust.

“EwewewewEWEWEWEW EWWWWWWWWWW!! It’s licking me!!!”

“See? Llamas,” Syro says, impassibly, ignoring the young man and picking up his bags of fruit. “Here, hold that,” he adds, handing two of the bags to the man, who clutches them like some sort of makeshift shield.

Ay, Madre Virgen…” Nataniel sighs while helping the older man along, who keeps trying to hold the good doctor’s hand and skip merrily alongside him. “This should be interesting.”

Chapter 3 “The Pearl” 55

Alma walks into Syro’s basement workshop with the Bunnies following close behind. While Sage looks around in fascination at the numerous gadgets and models that cover the workbenches and effectively crowd  the whole room, Rosemary cringes slightly and tries to hide herself behind the much more courageous Cherry and Mayumi. The three younger Bunnies spread out around the room, a look of slight incomprehension on their faces.

“Excuse me, Syro?” Alma calls out.

Syro, who is currently standing with his back turned to Alma, leans over a yet-unidentifiable metallic object, banging on it with a wrench to cries along the line of “Why won’t you work you stupid little…?!” His head shoots up as Alma’s words register with him. He turns to face the goddess, removing his goggles and smiling apologetically.

“Oh, it’s you again! Alma, right?” He pulls out a grubby cloth from some unseen recess and wipes his hands on it before extending a friendly hand to Alma.

“Yes,” Alma replies, gently shaking his hand.

“So, what brings you to my humble workshop? Please don’t touch that,” he says swiftly as one of the as-yet-nameless younger Bunnies, the female, stretches a hand to touch a delicate model of what seems to be an overcomplicated spoon. She flinches back nervously, knocking down the model, which crashes to the floor in a cacophonous mix of shattering glass and grinding gears. The sudden release of pressure on a spring causes the model to lash into spasmodic motion, tearing itself apart as it skitters across the floor, making the young Bunny leap into Alma’s arms. As it winds down, a smell of burnt oil rising from it, the remaining gears emit a death rattle, punctuated by a sad little SPROING.

“Oh, I am so sorry, Syro,” Alma rushes to say, putting the rather panicky-looking Bunny gently down on the floor.

“It is of no consequence, I assure you,” Syro replies, motioning both goddess and Bunny to leave the wreck where it lies. Rubbing the back of his head, he looks around and adds, “I’m sure I have the sketches for that piece somewhere around here…”

“Please, little ones, do not touch anything,” Alma tells the Bunnies. Turning back to Syro, she says, “Again, I am sorry for the model, Syron. However, I bring you a small challenge that I hope you are not too busy to undertake.”

“Oh, not at all. I love challenges,” Syro replies absentmindedly, looking at the each of the Bunnies as if committing every single detail on them to memory. “Are these the Bunnies you mentioned?”

“Yes, Syro. These are the Bunnies. As you can see, they are somewhat different from what you are used to.”

“Oh, that is so very true!” Syro exclaims, walking to the door and sticking his head out. “Hey, Nataniel!” he calls out. “Come see the Bunnies!”

A short moment after, Nataniel comes walking into the workshop.

Buenos dias, Señorita Alma!” he greets as soon as he sees the goddess standing just beyond the door. “So, let us see these Bunnies you speak–” He suddenly goes silent, his jaw dropping in awe at the sight of the Bunnies, spread around the room inspecting all those wonderful new things.

“Good morning, Nataniel,” Alma greets him back, smiling softly at the physician’s look of fascination.

Silence fills the room as both mortals watch the Bunnies walking around, themselves awed into speechlessness, staring at everything and nothing, marvelling over Syro’s amazing sketches and models. Little things, simple things like a dead leaf or a bird’s feather, become objects of wonder when seen through the inventor’s eyes.

“So, what does this challenge entail?” Syro intervenes, breaking the silence.

“The Bunnies need shoes, Syro,” the goddess explains.

“Oh, I can see how it could be difficult to find shoes for those feet,” Syro notes as he begins to walk around the room, following the Bunnies to see the movements their feet make while walking and standing still. “It’s not so immediately noticeable, but they are rather longer and narrower than human feet. Do you mind if we use that examination chair of yours, Doc?” He asks, turning to Nataniel. “I’m going to need to take some measurements.”

The question seems to pull Nataniel away from his daydream.“Uh… Sure. Please.”

“Thank you, gentlemen,” Alma says, bowing her head slightly in appreciation. Turning to the Bunnies, she says. “Come, little ones.”

As the Bunnies walk by him on their way to his office, Nataniel takes the chance to pet each one on the head, touching their hair and brushing his hand against their ears, almost as if he were trying to make sure they’re real.

Que maravilla…” he whispers in wonder. “So perfect…”

“I often think the same thing,” Alma whispers to him with a smile as she walks by him, after the Bunnies.

Nataniel smiles in return and follows them, entering his office to see the Bunnies gathering around the examination chair, looking uneasy. Syro stands behind the chair, armed with one of his trademark “Now-This-Is-a-Proper-Scale” measuring tapes.

“So, who goes first?” the inventor asks.

“Merri can go first!” Cherry replies almost immediately, pushing Rosemary into the chair with a sudden movement and a naughty giggle.

“Cherry!” Rosemary complains, twisting uncomfortably in the chair.

“It is quite alright, Rosemary,” Alma assures her, walking over to the Bunny and placing a hand on her head to pet her. “Syro will just be taking a few measurements, nothing to be afraid of.”

Rosemary closes her eyes and enjoys the little moment of tenderness, settling down with a whispered word. “‘kay…”

“Sit back, please,” Syro requests of her. “Thank you.” Taking the opportunity to have a closer look of the Bunny, he spends some time looking at her, examining her arms and legs, her eyes and ears. “Amazing…” he mutters, palpating Rosemary’s furry ears. “How did you get over the cartilage undergrowth problem?” he asks, turning to Alma.

“Excuse me?” the goddess replies in confusion.

“And the whole problem with the fused metacarpals?” The inventor looks at the Bunny’s bare feet. “That always had me grasping at straws!”

“I really never did give that issue much thought, I confess,” Alma concedes.

Restless from all the attention being paid to her various body parts, Rosemary begins to squirm in the chair, eager to escape the impromptu examination. Alma’s gentle touch on her head settles her down for a moment, but soon the Bunny’s expression contracts into a grin and Rosemary bursts out laughing, kicking with her feet in uncontrolled laughter.

“Miss, please, I really need you to stay still for a moment,” Syro tells her as he places the measuring tape against the sole of her foot and tries to measure the total length of her right foot.

“I can’t!” Rosemary cries as her ticklish body convulses.

“Rosemary…” Alma admonishes her softly.

“It tickles!” the Bunny complains.

“Miss, please!”

“Here, Señorita,” Nataniel intervenes, crouching by Rosemary. “I will help. What is your name?” the good doctor asks with a smile.

“Rosemary.”

“Nice to meet you, Rosamaria. My name is Nataniel.”

“Rou-sa-mah-ria…” Rosemary repeats, trying out the Nataniel’s strange way to pronounce her name. “Ooooh, I like that!” she exclaims with a contented giggle.

“I will just hold your foot steady, yes?” Nataniel explains, holding Rosemary’s leg by the ankle and placing the other hand lightly under her toes, so that the bunny can rest her foot in a better position for Syro to work on it. “So that Syro can take his measurements.”

“Go ahead!” Rosemary replies, regaining control over herself and relaxing her foot under Nataniel’s touch.

The physician offers the Bunny a reassuring smile while Syro works away, envisioning the perfect pair of shoes.

Chapter 3 “The Pearl” 33

In the basement, Sky knocks on the doorframe to the lab. “Syron?”

“Yes?!” comes the sharp reply.

Sky enters the lab, looking around curiously. The scientist is pouring something from a small beaker into a larger one over the sink. “Syron? How is your research coming along?”

The larger beaker slips out of Syron’s hand and shatters in the sink. He angrily hurls the smaller one down on the floor, sending slivers of glass everywhere. “How is it coming along?? How is anything supposed to ‘come along’ with these incessant interruptions?! Science takes time and focus! This is a lab, not a carnival fortune-teller booth! If I could just draw cards and tell you what they say, don’t you think I would have given you an answer by now?!” The mortal glares at the inspector, shaking with fury, then slumps against the counter and sinks down until he is sitting on the floor, looking worn out.

“Syron…you look exhausted. Did you drink the water?”

“I don’t know,” Syron says. “I had to taste it, after all. Or maybe it was when I boiled it and breathed in the steam. Or when I threw a sample of it into the acid bath to see if it caused any reactions.” He trails off, his head nodding. He begins to lean over, getting ready to curl up on the glass-strewn floor like a housecat in a sunny spot.

Sky sighs and stops him, getting an arm under an armpit and lifting him. “Let’s get you to bed, Syron,” he says.

Chapter 3 “The Pearl” 31

Back at the station, Cala watches in silence as Nataniel prepares the corpse of the demigoddess for autopsy. Standing by the door, her eyes linger on the blueish skin of the female, her skin made pale by the bloodless livor of death.

“Do you ever talk to them?” the Constable finally asks, her arms crossed over her chest as if to keep the touch and scent of death in the room from reaching her hands.

“Do I ever do what?” Nate asks back in absent tones, the focus of his attention remaining on his current task.

“Talk to the people you autopsy,” Cala explains, her voice solemn and restrained.

Nate looks up at Cala, his eyes unfocused for a moment as if doesn’t even recognize her. As her words sink in, his gaze once again moves down to the cadaver. “I don’t autopsy people,” he says flatly. “I autopsy dead bodies.”

Cala rolls her eyes at this. “All right, then. Do you ever talk to the dead bodies?”

“No.” Nate shakes his head. “I don’t talk to di dead, di dead don’t talk to me.” He looks up at Cala once more, smiles and winks. “We have a deal.”

The Constable quickly looks away, hoping her cheeks don’t look quite as red as they feel. A quick glance back at Nataniel and she sees he is again focusing on the corpse. “They just look so… exposed, lying naked on the table like that,” she notes. “Like, they’re not entitled to dignity anymore.”

The doctor merely shrugs. “Están muertos, cariño. They don’t even care if I defile di bodies.” His head shoots up at her, his brows furrowing. “And I don’t defile di bodies. I just try to find out how dey died.” He pokes the cadaver’s shoulder lightly. “Muerta, de qué moriste?”

Sighing, Cala watches Nataniel working for a minute, whispering a short prayer for the demigoddess’ soul as she does so. “Bye, Nate,” she says, once the prayer is over.

Hasta, bella,” the doctor replies, raising his head for a moment to watch her leave.

Now alone again, Nate leans over the body and starts inspecting the roof of the corpse’s mouth, looking at the crossbow bolt sticking out and thinking of a way to remove it. A wandering glance catches the demigoddess’ still-open eyes and Nate straightens up, feeling somewhat uncomfortable around a cadaver for the first time in a long time. He hesitates for a moment.

“So…” he half stutters. “Que tal? How are you doing?” He thinks about it for a moment. “I mean… besides being dead.”

Only silence answers his queries. “Imbécil, Nataniel!” he admonishes himself,shaking his head at his own silliness. “La chica está muerta, no te va a responder.”

Resuming silence he works on removing the bolt. It takes half an hour to do so, mostly due to the absolute need to avoid the deadly, poison-laced tip. When the corpse finally relents and lets him have his prize, he smiles contentedly, examining the bolt under a lamp.

“Did you know that a handmade crossbow bolt can be as unique as a fingerprint?” he comments to the dead demigoddess, satisfaction at his accomplishment almost making him feel comfortable with the one-sided conversation.

“What are you doing?” Syro’s voice rings all of a sudden, startling the good doctor and almost making him drop the bolt.

It takes Nataniel a couple of deep breaths before he can explain, “Well, I’m just… having a little chat with di body. So it doesn’t feel so…” he gestures vaguely, bolt in hand. “Strange.”

“That’s just stupid!” Syro exclaims. “It’s a dead body, Nataniel. It doesn’t feel at all.”

“I know that!” Nataniel retorts. “Shouldn’t you be analysing some water, or something?”

“Yes, about that…” Syro looks down at the vial in his hand and reaches forward, offering it, the clear liquid it contains sloshing slightly inside. “Do you mind drinking this?”

“Is that di evil water?!” Nate inquires.

“Oh, come on, Nataniel!” Syron waves him off with his free hand. “Water is not evil! A bit bland at times, but not evil per se. Besides, I boiled it.”

“Vete de aqui con la agua mala!” Nate yells at him. “I’m not drinking that!”

Syro looks at his friend with sincere disappointment. “I thought you were a man of science, Nataniel. We who are educated need to sacrifice for knowledge.”

He offers the vial again.

“I give already at di church! Go sacrifice your own body!” Nate shoos him.

Syro stares at the doctor for awhile but eventually relents and leaves.

Waiting to hear the door to Syro’s workshop close, Nate then returns to the task at hand and whispers to the corpse, “Don’t pay attention to him. He’s a bit loco en la cabeza.”