Ch6.43 Trust

The Year’s End. Renewal Week. Victory and Remembrance Week. New Year’s Dawning. Christmas. Prophet’s Ascension. Turning Time. Insular Equinox.

Many are the names by which this week is known around the Insula. It is a week like no other. For gods, mortals and all creatures in between, this week is the most sacred on the insular calendar. Many are the reasons for which it is celebrated. Some celebrate the greatest of victories over Hell’s devilish spawn, some celebrate the birth of prophets, others their death, others even their awakening to higher purposes. Some greet the spirits of their departed ancestors, some release them finally into non-existence. Some pray and fast, others are prayed to and feed hungrily on the concentrated prayers. Some make the mother of all parties to greet the new year, others see the dying year into its grave with solemn reverence. Some are busy fighting yearly battles to ensure the rising of a new sun, of a renewed moon, the resetting of the walls that keep Hell at bay. Some see to the birth of all that is new or the extinction of all that must be eliminated. It is a time for contemplation, for penitence, for sacrifice, for debauchery, for promises, for hope.

All over the great mountain hovering amidst the chaos that is the Void, this is the most magical time of all, the one that every soul must observe. And even for those who manage to remain atheist among so many divine beings, it is a week to be with one’s family, to enjoy street festivals and watch an old sun set for the last few times before it dies.

So join us now in our trip to the Insula Caelestis, the Island of Heavens, and the great city that sprawls over its mountainous profile. It has been a long time since we have seen it from such a distance. From here, among the stars, where the moon gods are carefully aligning their pale homes into neat patterns amidst the infinite swirling darkness of chaos, where Void Riders gallop to herd blooming pieces of reality toward the ever-growing mountain, we can see all of the immense Isle. It is a single peak, a volcano erupted from nothingness, angry and glorious and ever-young yet ancient, blooming with possibilities, with life, with that greatest of powers that goes so far beyond what can be touched, seen or measured. The power of thought, of creation, of things in waiting to be and do. The power of all that is in spirit, mind and body. The power from which all life and creation spring.

The power of Reality.

The mountain has existed since the dawning of time. It has seen many ages come and go, many different dwellers, many wars, many armageddons. Here, time has ended and begun, again and again. But let us not focus on the past. The mountain no longer spits fire from its churning belly. Its sides are cool, carved by mighty rivers, covered in forests, in grass, in sand, in cobblestone. Now, as we look at it, the Insula is inhabited by all kinds of creatures, magical and otherwise. Gods revered in many different worlds have their homes here, for gods seldom like to live away from their kind for too long. Immortality has its consequences. A certain distrust of change is one of them. And so gods find a haven in this divine home, where they can be as they always were even after their worshippers die off elsewhere, after mortals reinvent their gods or forsake them altogether, where Time and its swirling currents are less ruthless. And other, smaller gods, younger gods who have never known any other worlds, live here too. Along with the creatures of our Earthly myths, of other planets, with any being the mind can create. And mortals. Countless mortals. Humans, like us. And humans unlike us. Animals long extinct in this planet. Others yet to find their place among us. The Insula is very, very vast indeed.

And at its heart, at its beating, fiery, still booming heart, the hosts of Hell are imprisoned for their crimes. What crimes? Who knows? The original war was so long ago. The reasons are lost, the original victors long gone from the Insula, deceased or ascended into the Void as all truly ancient gods must. All we know now is that the gods won, the devils lost and the hatred remains. Old hatred, distilled by the eras, honed by age. Pure, immortal, without cause or meaning. Blind. Deaf. The kind that burns through reason, that festers through oblivion, that keeps Hell plotting and fighting, and Heaven fearing the return of its enemies.

Today, they are plotting as they always plot. Their agents are active, busy, hidden in plain sight among the crowd of innocents that is happily celebrating the coming of yet another year. But leave them be. In this story we weave, this account of a world so much like our own, even Hell will have its time to take the stage. Someday.

But not today. Today, great farming regions bless their newborn animals, metropolitan areas call priests to exorcise the accumulated negative energies of the old year. Oceanshore people send wooden canoes filled with flowers and food to ask for a bountiful year. In all five rings, from the poor, overcrowded skirts of the great mountain to the privileged mountaintop estates, today is a day of peace.

And, ah….here is what you have come in search for. The mountain has rotated and now we can see it. Down there, in the Fourth Ring, almost Fifth. A ward like any other ward. Poor and forgotten by the great gods of the higher rings. Well, mostly. Not completely. It has become rather interesting lately, don’t you agree? So busy. So… attractive, for some reason. Such a strange little place, to which trouble and intrigue seem to flow like a stream descending a steep hill.

Welcome to Three Rats. Let us walk its streets, busier today than any other day of the year. Decorated in garlands of bright colors, compacted earth roads sprinkled with colorful powders, flowers and sheets hanging from the balconies. Our feet take us through the darker alleys and out into the stone-floored plazas, around fountains, across the market, past derelict buildings. At the end of our journey, stands the Three Rats Guardia Station, newly painted unlike most other constructions in the area.

And just behind it, another building awaits. A brand new wooden sign hangs over a door. The image of a rabbit has been engraved and burnt onto it. From inside, the sounds of a party well on its way.

This is our true, final destination. Welcome to the Burrow.

Let us go in and join the party. The place is brightly decorated with paper garlands and signs announcing merry wishes in a variety of languages and religious tones. At a corner, a tree which has probably never seen brighter or greener fields (but certainly carries some level of genetic memory of such things) is leaning slightly against a wall in its red vase. Paper decorations and strings of popped corn hang from its crooked branches with all the mirth the poor plant can manage. A little orb of glowing, golden light hovers softly at the top, bathing the tree in glittering highlights. Under it, boxes and boxes, of all shapes and sizes and wrapped in all colors of paper are waiting to be delivered to their respective recipients. Many already have.

All around, the tables are covered in hand-painted paper towels. A tall, thick candle shines in the center of each of them. Plates with pastries and salads, meats and appetizers have been placed on every available surface and some are even now empty, in need of being replaced with the next delicacy.

Everyone looks happy to be here. Conversations buzz and sizzle between the various guests. The mortal officers that man the station next door all have dropped by to join in the celebrations. Some are just taking a brief moment of pause from their shifts. The station cannot be left unattended, after all. But most of them are not on duty at all. They have just come to spend some time with their colleagues after enjoying a warm family gathering at home. For this is their family as well, bound not by blood but by hardship, by the everyday sharing of a common, dangerous burden. They are the guardians of others, keepers of peace, vigilants of all hours. And no one can truly understand their struggles and fears but those who see the streets through the same darkly tinted eyes that have seen the worst a mind can throw at the world.

Our Bunnies look radiant. Surprised a few hours ago with gifts from their favorite god of magic, each of them is wearing a brand new outfit, of fine cloth and carefully designed to fit their bodies and personalities. A short dress with a pleated skirt for Rosemary, a pair of close-fitting trousers and a stylish vest for Cherry, an adorable frilly ensemble for Tulip. Ah, and a simple, demure summery dress with a knee-length skirt for Mayumi. She was difficult to plan for… A fine shirt and tailored pants for Sage, shorts for Kori and Chime. They look like the stars that they are in this celebration that, this year, is all about them.

And the gods? Well, two of them are currently in the kitchen and trying to make their way in and out of it, carrying trays of food and empty glasses for refilling. Even gods should be helpful, after all. The space behind the counter is small for the five people currently in it. Sky has to lift the tray that Merri has just prepared for him so that Alma won’t hit it as she squeezes past him on her way back out of the kitchen. The goddess doesn’t even hesitate before ducking under his arm. It is almost like a dance.

“Ye look like ye been at this for years!” Merri notes, laughing happily.

“It does feel like years, doesn’t it?” Alma says with a soft laugh, stopping to look at god and Bunny. “Who would imagine it was only months?”

Sky nods. “Teamwork! Ends up working in all sorts of – yow!”

Two dashing figures nearly trip him on his wait of the kitchen. It seems that Tulip and Chime expect everyone to be as agile as themselves. The tray in Sky’s hand wobbles dangerously but here is another helping hand to catch it and smoothly lower it to a table nearby.

“Guess Master Pak can’t hang up his shoes yet,” Dion comments with a chuckle as he samples the little balls made of chocolate and condensed milk paste sitting on the tray that Sky was carrying.

The tall god looks at him appreciatively. “Nice catch – yeah, I still need dancing lessons from him.”

“Well, I could offer to teach you, but you seem to have picked a partner already,” Alma teases as she brushes by carrying a jar of fruit juice. She stops, her nose twitching. “Wait a minute…” She stands on tiptoes to sniffs Sky’s neck, grinning mischievously as she asks, “Wearing scents now, are we?”

Poor Sky… His face reddens almost immediately. “Well, uhm…”

“Now, ye’ve gone and made ‘im turn red,” a giggling Merri says, watching the scene from just a few steps away.

“Oh…” Alma chuckles. “Well, I think it suits your personality. And it’s very pleasant, indeed.”

“Aye. Fer Bunny noses too,” Merri notes with a wink at a red, red Sky.

Maybe it is best to leave our sheepish Inspector for now. Something you should see is happening just across the room, where most of the Popula have been enjoying their time off and talking about…well, mostly about work. The Guardia, like so many other professions, tends to become food, drink and air for the people in it. But at times like this, they mostly share the funny stories, the little everyday events that make people laugh. Machado, Aliyah, Cala, Wallace, you know them all. There are a few others too. Like Kiko Silva and Harinder Patel, from the night shift, both young constables, both arrived from the Academy less than a year ago. We don’t know them very well yet but give it time. They will find their voices. They all do. Like Deesh. Remember Deesh, kind, quiet, red-skinned and tongueless Deesh? He is here too, smiling and laughing silently at his fellow officers’ stories. And Syro…well, he is not truly Popula but he is just as Guardia as all the others. He does not have as many tales to share but he is quite happy just listening while tinkering with a small collection of fine tools and gauges he has just been gifted by the Dei.

Their happy laughter dwindles for a moment at the mention of an old story, from the times of the old station, before the Dei arrived here. The Popula go silent. The last year has brought many good things but it has taken good away as well. A reverent pause in remembrance of their fallen companions. Stathos and his family are quietly revived in a solemn toast. All but Cala join in. Her faith has her fasting during the day, this week, and never allows for alcohol in any case. But she closes her eyes in prayer.

There is someone missing. Where is our beloved Nataniel? The new clinic, the only real place where mortals can go for proper medical treatment in this ward has been keeping him quite busy. Three Rats has many people who cannot afford to be sick or hurt. And the neighboring wards are just learning about Nataniel’s clinic. The people who live closer to the borders are beginning to flock to the already overworked doctor’s doorstep.

But he seems to have managed to pry himself from the clinic. The bar door has just opened to let him through. He looks flustered with the effort of rushing not to be too late for the party but his lips part into a bright, friendly smile at the immediate cry of “Nate!” that the Popula shower him with. He may not like being called Nate but he loves his friends. And this is home.

His eyes widen at the sight of a god of beer dressed in a velvety ale-colored suit trimmed in white faux fur, plush jacket open around his beer belly, silly hat topped with a fuzzy pompom and tilted over an eye, walking around with a load of presents cradled on his thick, heavy arms, handing out Ho-ho-ho’s and colorfully-wrapped boxes. Breowan seems to be having fun with Sky’s imported customs. And everyone is already talking about making it a yearly tradition. Maybe Brew will bring good little boys and girls some customized beer mugs next year.

But back to Nataniel. He seems to have just remembered something very important. Such as the fact that, with all his work and distractions, he has not bought any gifts to give. Seeing his panic, Aliyah rushes to his side and envelops him in a tight, friendly hug that leaves the man’s chin pressed against the tall woman’s collarbone.

“Pretend I’m just sayin’ hello and tell me real quick: what did ya get for Cala?” she asks in a slightly too-loud whisper.

“I, uhh…” Nataniel hesitates but it is useless to deny it. His head hangs helplessly as they straighten from the embrace. “Nada. No me acordé.

“Oh man…you are gonna owe me.” Aliyah chuckles and rubs the back of her head before putting a hand on his back and guiding him toward the others. As they walk past a chair covered in wrapped presents, she takes a thin box decorated with a purplish ribbon and touches it to his back so he will take it. “She was lookin at that in a shop window the other day,” she tells him, mouth barely moving with the words. “Merci’s, if she asks.”

Nataniel stops and looks at her in shock. “Oh, Aliyah.. No…No puedo… I can’t…”

Aliyah immediately puts her hands on his shoulders to force him to turn and walk again. “Will you stop makin’ a scene?” She asks through a smile that is all teeth. Then she laughs nervously before whispering, “Here we go. Pretend I didn’t tell you that she smiles silly at you when she thinks you ain’t lookin.”

If the good doctor were not completely befuddled before, he surely is now. His handsome countryside-tan face has turned a nice dark raspberry shade and his mouth is drier than many deserts out there. And now his gaze is fixed on a certain large and curvy corporal that turns his head like no goddess of classical beauty has yet managed to do. It seems our kind and shy Nataniel has a little unconfessed office infatuation going on behind those friendly brown eyes.

“For you,” Cala says to him, holding up a soft package wrapped in blue crepe paper. “I saw you needed a new one to wear at the clinic.”

Nataniel takes it with his right hand, his left one nervously appearing from behind his back, where it has been holding the package Aliyah so selflessly gave to him. He holds the thin box in front of him as if it might explode if he so much as looks at it. “For you. Because… I see you… saw it … at Merci’s…thing.”

By his side, Aliyah’s hand moves to cover her eyes so quickly that she nearly slaps herself. Too late, she remembers herself and instantly puts her hand behind her back, failing very badly to look innocent when Cala glances a question at her.

Now, a good, experienced Guardia is not easy to fool. It takes the sensible, intelligent corporal less than a second to realize what is going on. But she plays along and unwraps her gift, smiling at the wine-red shawl lying inside the box. “It is very beautiful, Nate. Just what I was wanting.”

She kisses Nataniel’s cheek in a common sign of affection for both their cultures. Still, it nearly makes him drop his brand new surgical pajamas. Cala took some time embroidering his name on the shirt pocket. “I…thank you. I was really needing these.”

Aliyah tries not to laugh but her broad smile betrays her amusement. At a sign from Machado, she moves past Cala, winking at the corporal and quickening her step when Cala squints at her and reaches out to lightly slap her rear. After a chuckle and a few meaningful glances that make two pairs of cheeks warmer, the mortal pair is not-so-subtly left alone in the middle of the crowd.

Such a lovely scene… And such a lively party. It is hard to keep track of all that is going on in the room. Conversations fill the air, too many to follow. Food is being eaten, drinks are being drunk, gifts are being gifted.

And look at that! Young Tulip is ecstatic with all the presents she has been receiving. This is her first Year’s End, after all. She is currently on the worn-out sofa, showing Saira all the brand new crayons and watercolors that Sky has gifted her with. And the great Tales of the Urbis book that her mother bought for her. And the beautiful, flowery purse that Sage took so much care in sewing. The pretty headband that Cala found at a used-items shop. Oh, and the gift of gifts: the dress that Dion designed and that makes her growing, adolescent curves look a little less childish. The young Bunny cannot stop smiling and hopping happily around and poking people to show them her brand new treasures. In the blink of an eye, she is leaving Saira alone again to go and gawk at the simple capoeira outfit that Sergeant Machado has customized for Kori. But Saira is not alone. Chime is with her, rehearsing a few bars on a shiny new harmonica. Breowan is lounging on the sofa too, his jolly hat perching on his knee, jacket now fully unbuttoned to reveal a slightly, just slightly stained undershirt, hand curled around a frosty beer mug.

And Lexie, you ask? Well, the fluffy cat has decided that this is just too much agitation for her a few hours ago and is currently relaxing in the peaceful haven of Alma’s bedroom.

Speaking of Alma…where is our lovely death goddess? Ah! There she is! Right by the bar, enjoying a drink with Sky and Dion and radiant with all the happiness that fills the room. The three Dei look around them, at the buzzing party, and then at each other with contented sighs and shaking heads like old veterans watching children play. Any of them has seen more Year’s Ends than two or three of the other merrymakers combined. But this is something new for them as well. It is their first Year’s End together, in Three Rats and with all of the Bunnies and humans of the station. And what a year it has been for them! Less than a year, actually. Much, much less.

So much has happened, so many ups and downs. They raise their glasses in that quiet toast of friends of a lifetime that says We survived another one and drink in tranquil fraternity.

Sky is the first to break the silence. “Well, uh…Alma. I have something for you.” He is carrying a purple felt bag that bulges with an ominous curvature. He holds it up for Alma to take.

The goddess looks at the bag, which looks strained by heavy contents, and carefully takes it, feeling its weight. “I hope it’s not a ball and chain,” she jests as she opens it and peeks inside. With an expression of great curiosity, she places the bag on the bar counter and carefully slides it down to reveal a blueish sphere about the size of a cantaloupe. Her eyes widen at the beauty of the hollow, handcrafted orb, filled with clear water and lined with a sandy bed and some pretty rocks decorated with flowing seaweed. “Oh, Sky… It’s beautiful. What is it?”

The god’s dark skin takes on a slightly redder shade at her sincere admiration of it. “I found the sphere while shopping with Dion,” he explains. “I was able to fill it with seawater, and a very careful balance of plants and tiny sea life, sand, shells. If I did it right, and it receives the right amount of sunlight, it should last many years. Uh, only in a high-magic environment, though.”

Alma seems entranced by the exquisite mini-habitat. Even her eyes smile in awe as if she were a child looking at an aquarium for the first time. “Oh, look!” she cries, pointing a few glittering shapes out to Dion. “There’s even fish!”

Sky nods. “Yes, teeny tiny ones. They glow in the dark.”

“Oh, I love it! And I know exactly where to put it!” Alma hugs him happily with a single arm. Her other hand is currently too busy making sure the orb doesn’t roll off the counter. “Thank you.”

“It seems that Mister Cannot Choose a Present to Save His Life was just goading us all along,” Dion notes with a chuckle.

“Ah…I really am terrible at it,” Sky insists, absentmindedly rubbing the back of his neck, his eyes flicking down for a moment in an endearing show of shyness. He seems to remember something. “Oh…I have something for you as well.” A quick trip to the makeshift Christmas tree and he returns holding a small wrapped packet, that feels compact and solid when Dion takes it. “I hope you like it.”

Beneath the simple paper, a wood box carved with intricate knotted patterns lies in waiting. “Beautiful craftsmanship,” Dion compliments it. His uncle has always favored these designs. For some reason, they seem like something that is very intrinsically theirs. Inside the box, there is a small, thin, double-edged dagger with no handguard and a handle carved to look as if it were wrapped in leather straps, now polished and worn with age and wear. Its sheath is made of engraved leather. Dion whistles quietly under his breath as he inspects it. “Gorgeous. Should make for a loyal secondary blade.” He pats Sky’s shoulder in friendly appreciation. “Thank you very much, Sky. I really like it. I just hope it doesn’t mean you have a good reason for me to need it anytime soon.”

“Considering the way things have gone in our lives?” They both chuckle at the little attempt at comedy. “It’s usually tucked into a boot top, traditionally, but it’s a good jacket-pocket blade. Called a sgian-dubh. It was a present to me long ago.”

Dion looks concerned at the revelation and carefully puts the knife down on the counter. “Oh Sky… I certainly don’t want to deprive you of a good memory…”

Sky shakes his head, smiling and gently pushes the dagger closer to Dion. “The way I look at it, it’ll serve me even better in your keeping than in my own. To know a friend has it, and that it might help him in a tight spot – that gives me comfort.” He shrugs. “You know how I tend to worry.”

Dion’s next exhalation is short, quick like a mocking snort but his eyes betray his esteem of the god of rebellion and his precious gift. He stores the dagger in his shirt pocket and pats it. “Thank you.”

Alma watches the scene with tenderness. One of her hands is twitching as if wants to be somewhere else, like stroking a certain magic god’s back, but instinct is trumped by reason this time and it stays where it is. Well…for a little while. Alma needs it to hold a wide, rectangular box that has been waiting for her, behind the bar. She sets the mysterious gift on the counter, just in front of Sky. “Speaking of tight spots, that takes us to your gift, Sky. We hope you like it and that it serves you well.”

Sky looks a question at her before opening his present. “Oh…” He looks surprised but pleased to see what almost looks like a casual jacket neatly folded inside. It is impeccably trimmed, modern and stylish and, of course, Guardia Dei blue. “Oh now that…that is beautiful.” He carefully pulls it out of the box, as if it might fall apart in his hands. The sleek jacket artfully crafted with many visible and hidden pockets and tailor-made to fit the Inspector’s long arms and beefy, somewhere-between-fit-and-fat torso looks more like something to wear on a fun night out than what it actually is: an armoured jacket. Whoever said that one cannot look good while walking into a fight? “It’s so much lighter than my old one but…” He strokes the fabric with his fingertips. “Is that Balva mesh?”

Dion shakes his head. “Ballion, a hybrid of it. Less vulnerable to piercing tips but not as flexible. Fortunately, you don’t seem to favor the more…flowing designs. It should manage to keep you safe when you forget to keep your guard up. Even cutting and sewing it is a nightmare.”

“Gwydion infused it with all sorts of protectives charms as well,” Alma adds. She urges Sky to get himself into the jacket. “Come on, try it on. It should look a lot better on you than that ugly thing you requested from Headquarters.”

“Oh, I suppose the one from HQ can be a backup, if they ever send it,” the god notes, slipping an arm into a sleeve.

Dion clears his throat with a meaningful, complicit glance at Alma that has the goddess chuckling. “I am afraid your request for a new one got…misplaced, somehow.”

But Sky doesn’t even seem to have heard him. He is too busy twisting this way and that, rolling his shoulders and raising his arms, flexing his elbows and somehow trying to bend his neck in ways that it is not meant to, in an effort to look down his own back. “Oh, this fits perfectly. It’s plenty flexible enough for me.” He looks at both his sergeants with tender appreciation. Are those tears welling up in his eyes? “Thank you both. You went to so much trouble. I love it.”

“Oh, all we had to do was misplace the little piece of paper with your measurements,” Dion says with his usual nonchalance as he takes a sip of his wine.

Alma is smiling and enjoying her cocktail, some new invention of Cherry’s. The joy around her truly warms her heart. But the occasional, subtle look toward the door that leads outside betrays a twinge of anxiety. Someone seems to be late.

She puts her glass down and turns to Dion. She has a gift left to give. “Well, now, what did I get for the god who has everything?”

“Hopefully not a bottomless chest,” is the god’s immediate, well-humored response.

“Not quite,” she replies with a chuckle. Holding one of her hands out, the other forgotten behind her back, she adds, “For my next trick, I will need your wrist, please.”

Dion looks at her open hand and raises his eyebrows in mock concern. “Uhm… Sky, could you check if she’s hiding a saw behind her back, please? I’m not so sure about this present.”

“A saw? Or perhaps a pair of shackles?” Sky chuckles and makes a show of peeking behind her back and shaking his head reassuringly at Dion.

“Oh, you two are just silly!” Alma complains. But she is not upset with them at all. Still, the goddess is looking a little nervous about this gift and when Dion holds out his wrist, she cannot help but confess as she places her hands on either side of it, thumbs touching the skin, “I hope I get it right… I did not have much chance to practice on proper subjects.”

Dion’s wrist moves back immediately. “Well, then maybe…”

But it is too late. Alma is already gripping it firmly. “Shh… I need to focus,” she admonishes him.

What happens next is a little thing of wonder. A soft scent of flowers and grass wafts in the air as Alma’s life sphere is activated. Soon, her fingers begin to glow with a coppery light that stretches in many, many lazy tendrils, twisted and intertwining, tracing complicated patterns on Dion’s skin, curling around his wrist. The brilliant light starts dulling and fading almost immediately, revealing a slim, flexible bracelet, almost like tree-bark tanned as if it were leather. On it, over a background of browns and greens, a golden, metal charm of a dragon curls in sleep, its spine traced in tiny reddish beads.

Alma looks at the final result of her efforts as if she cannot believe this is her own doing. “It worked…” she breathes.

She is not the only one who looks impressed and pleased with the final result. Dion brings his wrist closer to his face so he can admire the fine details, his fingers tracing the delicate twirls of the sturdy fabric that binds his wrist and testing the simple clasp that keeps the bracelet in place. “It surely is unique. And beautiful. Thank you.”

That has Alma smiling with ill-disguised pride. “It is also alive and aligned with you. And if you rub the beads in a pattern like so…” she taps the head of the dragon charm and then traces its spine from tail to neck, “music begins to play.”

“That is some very complex life magic,” Sky says when the music starts. “Amazing.”

It is a soft song, simple but very pretty. Like a nursery rhyme. The kind of thing that we hear in youth and then seem to forget until the time comes to sing it to our own children. It makes Dion’s eyes widen in surprise and confusion at something he did not know he remembered. “I…I think I know this song.”

“I hope you do. All the songs it plays are drawn from your memory,” Alma explains. “Things you’ve heard, even if long ago. Lullabies, nursery rhymes, songs from your first night out. Mother made one for me ages ago but…it can’t be made beforehand.” She strokes the bracelet, making sure she can’t spot any flaws in it. “It needs to be woven around its wearer to work properly. I’m glad you like it.”

A mocking frown and she holds a finger up at Dion in false scolding. “You are not easy to shop for.”

The song that Dion did not expect seems to have moved him deeply, even if he does not quite understand why. Still, he chuckles at Alma’s taunting. “I’m not sure I can top this but…” he produces a long, exquisitely wrapped box from a jacket pocket. “I hope you will like this.”

Alma unwraps and opens it, peeking inside with curiosity to find a beautiful crystal flask shaped like an elongated teardrop. She opens the flask and takes a whiff, closing her eyes in pleasure at the soft, willowy scent with notes of lilac and jasmine that take her back to sunny days of reading in her mother’s garden. “Oh… this brings back memories. I love it. It’s so light.”

She does not really see the small empathetic smile and nod that Sky gives to a very glad Dion. “I’m going to go show off my lovely jacket.” The tall Inspector knows to flee a scene before he becomes one witness too many to clandestine romance. “Thank you both, from the bottom of my heart.”

He moves away from his sergeants after a nod from Dion and a gentle pat on the arm from Alma. A subtle glance over his shoulder will tell him that he was right to leave. The couple is already lost in its little bubble of sweet, low-voice words and tender looks that are lipless kisses all of their own.

But, look out, Sky! Too long a glance and you will bump right into Mayumi, right in front of you!

Oh, good… He has managed to turn just in time. Collision is averted. A quick look around the god’s torso to see what he was looking at and May’s eyes are on his, exchanging a knowing smile with him that is like a shared secret. She takes his hand and guides him to a slightly less-crowded corner of the room.

“Thank you for the stationery,” she says in a voice that carries a note of uncertainty. “It’s really beautiful.”

“It’s enchanted,” Sky explains. “After you finish writing, it will disappear, and then appear in my office.”

“Oh…” Mayumi’s lips curl into a soft smile as realization dawns. “I suppose this means I’ll be writing a lot then.”

Gladness and sadness in her voice. Soon, Three Rats will be saying goodbye to one of our Bunnies. But worry not. The others will not forget about her so easily. And neither will we.

Let us leave her to enjoy as much of Sky’s loving company as she can. The sun is beginning to set outside and one of our more noctivagous friends is beginning to look a bit impatient. Saira is growing tired of so many people and so much friendliness all at once. This many people in one room usually means a fight to her.

So she is looking toward the stairs that lead up toward the first floor, thinking of going up on the roof to catch a breath of slightly less second-lung air. But someone is about to delay her plans. Cherry has just taken a seat by the unsettled assassin and is leaning against her shoulder. She is carrying a small box that she hands to Saira.

“Here, hon,” the Bunny says. “For you from all of us.”

Saira looks at the box as if it might snap a toothed lid and bite her hand off. She doesn’t take it. She barely even seems to breathe. “Why?”

“Snap! Because we love you, of course!” Cherry replies as if even asking is nonsense. She takes Saira’s hand and places the box in the woman’s palm. “Come on, open it.”

Saira does. Slowly, carefully. Inside the simple box lies a silvery locket, not much bigger than a quail’s egg. Its surface is delicately engraved with the image of a perching bird calmly grooming its feathers. It looks exquisite and expensive and fit for a goddess. Certainly not for a lowly mortal like Saira. Or at least that is what she thinks. People can be pretty silly about those things.

She glances at where Alma is still sharing a drink and a conversation with Dion. Cherry sees where she is looking and answers the question that Saira does not ask.

“Mom gave the locket, Dion threw his mojo on it. Everyone else…” she picks up the little piece of jewelry and opens it. Inside, soft lights project three-dimensional images, holograms of every member of the Three Rats Station family. Even Lexie is there. “We kinda gave ourselves. Everyone thought it should be me to give it to you.”

Saira takes a long time to find her voice again. It is difficult to find words when half of us wants to cry with bliss and the other half is trying to run for the hills. This stay of hers here has shaken beliefs that she thought were indestructible. And now, she does not quite know what to do with herself anymore. “It’s…pretty. Thanks,” she finally says, looking sideways at Cherry. “So, you’re callin’ her Mom now?”

The Bunny shrugs. “Eh, I’m warmin’ up to it. It’s nice havin’ a mom. Ain’t never had it before, you know?” She smiles apologetically at Saira and the woman can’t help but ruffle up her hair, making her pull away in fake irritation. “Hey! Don’t mess with the hair! That’s definitely not the right way to mess with a girl’s curls.”

That has Saira laughing. And suddenly, Rosemary is standing just in front of them and grabbing Cherry by the hands.

“Och, have ye forgotten, ye daftie? We need to show darlin’ Geryon his gift!” she exclaims.

Cherry’s eyes widen. Her full lips curve in a perfect circle. “Oooooh, right! Gotta go do that!” She gives Saira a quick peck on the cheek. “Gotta go, babe. Talk later.”

And then, they are off to find their furred and feathered lover, who has been solemnly posing for another one of Tulip’s drawings. Each of Alma’s oldest daughters grabs one of his forelimbs and they both cajole and drag him, past the couch – huh…where has Saira gone? She was just there a minute ago – and in the general direction of the stairs that lead up, where all the bedrooms are. The gryphon looks rather enticed by such a treatment.

But look, Tulip is coming along. And Sage and Aliyah and May and Sky. And Dion and Alma too. Geryon’s initial excitement is quickly fading away. It seems that he is not getting the present he was expecting. Such is life. But a room of his own is not a bad present to get at all. Will he like it?

Guess we will have to return later and find out. For now, it is time to make a little pause, stretch our legs, go outside, enjoy the sunshine and let this enchanting scene fade to black.

Ch6.31 Trust

Morning on the streets around Three Rats Station is often a time of peace. Crime and accident most often find their expression in the depths of the night, when overindulgence in alcohol and other drugs anaesthetize the wiser angels of the mind and set free their inner demons. It is in the night that the sneak-thief, the assassin, the gang out for vengeance are most likely to conduct their sociopathic pursuits. Crime and ‘hey, watch this’ foolishness can occur at any time, but those most likely to commit such acts are more probably to be found peacefully asleep in the early hours after sunrise, soon to be waking and feeling the effects of the previous night’s imprudence.

Thus Corporal Cala Lamore finds it her favorite time to be on-shift. Her promotion has brought with it a considerable increase in paperwork and meetings, but under Sergeant Machado and ultimately Inspector Tuma-Sukai, the meetings are at least productive and usually brief. There has been a spike in late-night emergencies during Sergeant Alma’s temporary leadership, but Cala is not one to lay blame. She rather finds herself identifying with the immortal sergeant who has suddenly found herself thrust into a position of greater responsibility. That she has not handled it perfectly is only to be expected, but Sergeant Alma’s character has shown through in the way she has managed those momentary fumbles.

Cala snorts as she remembers the previous morning, and Alma’s silliness. These immortals, these so-called gods – among monotheists like Cala, there is still much disagreement about what they really are: devils, djinn, spirits of temptation sent to test the faith of true believers – have turned out to be far different to work with than Cala had imagined. In the Academy, Popula cadets did not mix with Dei, and since then the rare Dei officers sent from other wards to deal with some problem were all aloof. She cannot say she is truly friends with any of the three here – after all, they are her superior officers, and no matter how much she has grown to like them, she does not believe in blurring those lines – but under them the station has regained the family feeling that it had when it was much smaller up to a few months ago, when they relocated from the old, cramped station near the border with Little Falls, when it was just Corporal Machado in charge, and when Cala and Aliyah and poor Phillipus Stathos and a few others were constables together, before the Dei arrived along with so many new recruits and transfers. She had been afraid that familial feeling, that camaraderie would be lost forever, but it has returned. And with immortals! And not only that, but with Bunnies!

And now, wonder of wonders, Saira, she who Cala had long thought dead, has returned to them. Their friendship had ended years ago, and bridges had been burnt, but the two women have been cautiously, almost unintentionally rebuilding them, a plank here and a nail there, in the time Saira has been staying at the station.

Cala shakes her head at her reverie and returns to planning. With the worst of the gang wars dying down, she has had time to move patrols to parts of the ward that have hardly seen a Guardia presence in months. At the same time, however, she must not allow areas that have seen the worst violence to feel that they are being forgotten by the Guardia. Some there would bemoan that forgetting, while others would celebrate.

With a creak of door hinges, morning sunlight slants across the main room of the station and over Cala’s paper-strewn desk. She looks up to see a statuesque form silhouetted in the doorway. Though the backlighting obscures the visitor’s face, Cala immediately recognizes the outline. Dismissing a momentary stab of unworthy envy at immortals and how they always seem to be as tall, slender, and full-breasted as they desire to be, Cala stands and, doing her best to stop being suddenly conscious of her far more ordinary, mortal shape with its extra pounds that have refused to depart no matter how often she has made it clear to them that they are not welcome, she approaches the reception desk.

“Voice Ewá,” she calls out. “Good morning! And how are the kiddies?”

Ewá Nanã, bearing the title Voice because she speaks in defense of those accused of crimes, is currently taking care of nearly a score of orphans, runaways, and castaways in a house she acquired with the intention of starting a law office. Legal representation is something out of the reach of most in Three Rats, but sorely needed. The more pressing need of children who had been snatched by slavers has diverted her, and Cala, along with Aliyah, and several of the Bunnies, has been lending a hand.

The demi-immortal takes a step closer, but a rope she holds in her hand draws tight, preventing her from moving all the way from the door to the desk. The rope, Cala sees, looks strong, and leads out the door from Ewá’s hand. Whatever it is attached to is out of sight from the reception desk.

“Pardon me, Corporal,” Ewá says, “they are well. But I wonder if anyone has reported a lost cat.”

Cala thinks. “A lost cat?”

“The children didn’t want me to bring the cat here, but…we really cannot afford to feed it.”

“Well, might be a stray but let me – Wally, did anyone report a missing cat?”

Freezing as if he’s been caught in the act of something nefarious, or at least embarrassing, Wallace Longshot, a walking collection of knees and elbows, tall, redhaired, and legendarily clumsy, responds, “Uhm…there’s Mrs Patel’s shorthair.”

“Which one?” Cala asks. “She only owns Urbia shorthair cats.” To Ewá, she continues, “Anyway, could it be that one?”

“I am not much familiar with domestic breeds, but I suspect it is not.” The lead begins to slacken, and Ewá loops the rope around her hand, taking up the slack until a large head with golden eyes looks around the door frame.

“Ya Allah!! Is that a–?” She gulps. “Definitely not an Urbia shorthair. I…I think I’ll call a Dei to take care of your case, if you don’t mind.” She mutters to herself, “They can always heal if they get bitten…”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

Through the door, Somrak hears a muffled exchange. Alma’s voice. “Good morning, Corporal.” Finally.

“Good morning, Sergeant!” Ah, that’ll be Lamore. Wonder if she’ll spill the beans?

But the Popula corporal doesn’t say anything more as the slight creak of the stairs signal Alma’s approach. The door handle turns, swinging open, and Alma enters her office and takes a step toward her desk before she stops at the tap of something against her knee. She looks down and her attention is caught by a tail, a tail furred in greyish-blue with white markings, that sleepily curls against her leg. Her eyes follow along it to see, lounging across her sofa, an exotically colored tiger, snoring gently, its forepaws and head on Somrak’s lap where he sits at the far end of the sofa, holding a folder in one hand, the other gently scratching the tiger’s neck.

“Thank goodness you’re here!” he whispers in mock urgency. “This vicious cat has put my leg to sleep!” He smirks at her look of astonishment, but holds in his laughter, not wanting to wake the tiger.

However, Alma barely glances at him. She cannot stop staring at the tiger. She whispers, “Is that–?” She moves closer and kneels by the sofa.

Somrak snorts quietly. “It had better be the same one. If there’s another one wandering around the ward… I didn’t want to wake him up, poor thing, but seriously, I’ve read this same report ten times, and it’s getting a little dull. I can’t reach my desk. Well, your desk.”

Alma starts scratching the sleeping tiger behind the ears. He sees glimmers of green around her hand, and a breeze out of nowhere carries a hint of jasmine and a momentary susurrus of leaves. The tiger opens a lazy eye, the golden eye with its round pupil focusing on her. “Hi,” she says again. “Remember me?” The tiger lifts his head, yawns, and then bumps his forehead against hers. “Oh, you do. Where have you been?”

Watching them, not wanting to move despite his earlier words, Somrak strokes the soft fur on the back of the tiger’s neck. “Don’t suppose you need another cat around the station? Just in case those dwarfs dig up some really big rats?”

“Oh, I’d love to keep him.” The tiger licks the back of her hand with its almost painfully rough tongue. “He’s so gentle. But…I can’t.” She presses her forehead against the tiger’s cheek. “I am so sorry.”

“Don’t worry,” Somrak says. “I’ll take him with me. We’ll find someplace for him. Maybe the Commander will fall for him. Or, oh! Mrs Finch! She can feed the more annoying visitors to him.”

Alma laughs. “Well, you can always try my aunt. She loves big cats like these. She’d love you, wouldn’t she?” She buries her face in the softness of the thicker fur around the tiger’s neck, her voice becoming muffled as she talks to the feline. “Of course she would. And then maybe I could visit you. Just don’t let her bite you.”

Somrak opens his mouth, then closes it. “So many things I could say to that. Well, I can make this a peace offering. Might change the nature of the bites… Now…” With a grunt he slips out from under the tiger’s paws, stands and brushes at the shed fur on his trousers. “I wish I could claim that I found him, but one of our local demigods brought him here. It seems Ewá Nanã grew up having jaguars and other jungle creatures all around her as playmates, so she didn’t bat an eyelid when she found this guy in her garden.”

Still dispensing caresses to the tiger, Alma smiles at the name. “Just shows how smart he is, going to her for help. Ewá is far from a defenseless target. She pled my case with the Council. And won.”

“I thought the name seemed familiar,” he says. “And she settled here? Interesting. Well, at least I closed the case of the missing tiger, so my stay here hasn’t been a total loss.”

Alma gets up and looks at him, about to say something, but she stops as she notices something next to the desk, earlier blocked from her vision: his duffel bag. “Somrak…your bag.” She looks at him, a shadow crossing her face. “You’re going now?”

He nods. “My week is up. I have to return to my usual duties. And Sky is awake. He will be back with you later today.”

She tilts her head to the side. “I will miss you.” She laughs as he looks up at her. “Don’t look so surprised. I was about to say that you sound disappointed with your accomplishments here. You shouldn’t be. Your stay here was…a bit bumpy, and please forgive my initial reactions, but I am very glad Sky called you. Even with everything that did not quite work as planned, you helped us get a different grip on the case.” She looks up at the ceiling for a moment, smiling. “And it was fun, playing off-blue.”

“You’re a natural, Alma.” He leans against the desk, crossing his arms and looking down. “I am sorry about last night. I was…angry. At the loss of the lead. The taunting from that…abominable rodent. I have one of those divine-nature things about the undead. I had tunnel vision and didn’t even notice how badly it had affected you.”

Alma’s expression becomes heavier but not angry. She looks away, focusing on the tiger. “You don’t need to explain. Too much has happened in too little time. Since Nekh, I… My mind has not been given a chance to rest, return to its normal axis. I responded disproportionately. Anyway, what is done, is done.”

After a moment, Somrak says, his voice low, “You’ve been under a great deal of stress. On trial for your life, the Bunnies’ lives too, the bomb, now suddenly in command…I haven’t made it any easier. I am sorry for that.”

A moment later he feels her arms around him, embracing him tightly. He hesitates, surprised, and puts his arms around her as well. “You tried to help,” she says. “That is all I would ever hope for coming from a friend. Thank you for coming.”

A friend. Somrak holds her more tightly, feeling her cool body against his, refreshing like a dive into a stream. In the past few days he has experienced more affectionate physical contact – touches on the arm, caresses, hugs – than he normally does in months. It is not something he is accustomed to from growing up. He feels a surge of emotion and to his embarrassment finds he must blink back tears. He realizes his fire-god body temperature must be rising, and he releases her before that becomes uncomfortable. She moves back slightly, sees his expression, and a look of concern comes over her face.

She touches his hair, giving him an encouraging smile. “Feeling better?” she asks.

“Ahem, yes, yes I do.” He smiles weakly. “I could get used to all this hugging.”

Alma laughs softly. “I have to admit, I wasn’t much one for it myself until I got here. But seven very huggable Bunnies make a difference. Them and, well, some friends.”

“Don’t tell me Sky…” He feels shocked when she nods. “Uh…well like I said, I woke him up and got him caught up on what’s happened. He should be back in a couple of hours, after he’s fully awake and recovered from the shock of all I told him.”

Alma nods. “We will be ready to welcome him.” She lays a hand against his cheek. “I am sorry you have to leave. Maybe you would consider coming back?”

“Yes. When I can. You know how the job is.”

“Is Year’s End week a bad time in the off-blue schedule?”

Somrak feels surprised again. “Year’s End? Well, sometimes it is…but I’ll try.” She gives him an insisting look, serious but with an edge of amusement. “I’ll really try!

“I would like a solemn promise, please. Doesn’t have to be the whole week. Even just a day. We will time the gift-giving to accommodate you.”

Somrak takes both her hands in his, looking down, thinking for a moment, then looks her in the face solemnly. “I promise, if it’s at all possible, if I’m not putting a mission at risk, I will attend. But I think it’s best if you hold Gift-Giving on the usual day. I’ll aim for that. I don’t want anyone being inconvenienced if I can’t say until the last minute when I’m coming.”

A sudden memory jolts him, causing Alma to look at him strangely. “I almost forgot to tell you. I, um, well when I was looking into the flames last night…I can sometimes see visions, minor prophecies, in the flames.” He feels embarrassed. True prophecy is a vanishingly rare talent among gods, and even such weak ability as his own is far more fraudulently claimed than real. “I tried to see something to help us. And I did learn something.”

Alma looks at him curiously. “What is it, Somrak?”

“This is, of course, unreliable. But the flames tell me that we will not find this necromancer until after the year has died and been reborn, and after one of those searching has vanished and another returned.”

Alma absorbs this. “Perhaps you are the one who vanishes, and Sky returns.”

Somrak grins. “I was thinking the same thing. All the more reason for me to disappear before Sky gets back.”

“Very well. We will be wait–”

A sudden crash, accompanied by a slight tremor, interrupts her. For a moment the two deities just stare into each other’s eyes. Alma stops breathing, and he sees a flash of terror in her eyes. Oh no, he thinks. The soul bomb…another one?

She turns and rushes to the door. Somrak follows. Distracted by sight, from the corner of his eye, of the tiger climbing off the bed, ears back at the commotion, he almost runs into her when she stops in the doorway. A young male voice shouts from the stairs, “The dwarves! They found a cellar downstairs, below the cells!”

Somrak sees Alma slump in relief. “I will be right down.” Then she turns to find him just behind her. She puts her cool hand on his cheek again, cupping it, and gives him a quick peck on the other cheek. He feels his skin become suddenly much warmer – he had thought for just a moment she was going to kiss him on the mouth. She pulls back after the kiss with her eyebrows raised at his flash of heat, and says with a smile, “I have to go. Stay safe, yes?”

He tries to cover up his fluster with a smirk. “You sure you don’t need me in case something comes out of this hole the dwarfs have discovered?”

Alma shakes her head. “Silly… I’ll see you again!” Then she turns and rushes down the stairs.

Somrak feels a bump against his thigh. He looks down at the tiger which, after a nudge, is looking up at him expectantly. “Right, time for us to go, friend.” He reaches past the cat to lift his heavy bag and shoulder it. Then he pauses. Ghosting in and ghosting out is his normal mode of operation. Goodbyes make him uncomfortable. Of course he had to let Alma know he was leaving. She was briefly his commanding officer, after all. But he feels bad to leave without word to several others: Dion, Saira, and Cherry and Merri. But the prophecy, tiny though it is, says one must vanish. Better not push it.

He retrieves the rope and loops it around the cat’s head again. “Come on now, no more scaring the locals. Be nice and there’s a juicy steak in it for you.”