2014/06/30

Ch3.61 The Pearl


Most of the night has gone by, a night of painful revelations, of ill-spoken words and inconvenient rendez-vous... It has taken her a long, lonely walk through the ward to process the full meaning of May’s words, of her betrayal. And Sky’s… Alma shakes her head and looks down at the package in her hands, carrying the Copper Pot logo. It wasn’t Kyri’s fault she got sucked into the lie, after all…

Now, Alma faces the running waters of the Waterfall, looking at her own image reflected on each and every drop of water that passes her on its downward path. She breathes deep and repeats the sacred words.

“Voice of the waters whisper to me, show me a glimpse of things to be.”

The falling waters part to allow the goddess entrance to the Oracle’s grotto and she steps in, carrying her offerings. The silence that often reigns in this temple, broken only by the occasional drop falling into the deep pool where the Oracle lives, greets her in a friendly embrace, filling her with a welcome sense of peace. Walking among the great columns that support the grotto’s ceiling, sculpted over the years by the constant, never-ending dripping of the mineral-rich waters that seep through the grotto’s stony ceiling, she proceeds to the Oracle’s pool. She sees the tall altar meant for offerings along the way, wrapped in the perpetual twilight of the room, but ignores it as she walks to the edge of the pool. Somewhere in the darkness, a play of shadow and light confirms that the nagas are still keeping the Pearl constantly under their watch.

A short, low ledge protrudes into the pool, sitting just above the water, and it is here that Alma kneels and deposits the small cardboard box, carefully wrapped in waxed string, containing her offering. The goddess undoes the string and opens the box, setting down to wait for the lovely and alluring scent of Kyri’s delicious freshly-baked pastries to fill the air.

She doesn’t have to wait long before hearing the water rippling with the graceful movements of  Nevieve’s tail. The Oracle surfaces just beyond the very edge of the ledge, smiling at the marvelous aroma of Alma’s offering and coming to rest, elbows resting on the dry stone, with her upper torso out of the water.

“Hello, child,” she says, her clear, melodious voice reminding Alma of a stream singing its way through a peaceful garden during a spring day. “I was expecting you.”

“I have heard these are your favorite,” Alma replies, gesturing toward the box with a slight wave of her hand.

“Yes. Kyri’s pastries make for a rather strange offering.” Nevieve takes in the delicious scent of the freshly-baked pastries with a contented smile. “But a delightful one, I’ll confess.” She takes one in her hand and pushes the box toward Alma. “Please, do join me.”

“I thought only the Oracle was supposed to take the offerings.”

“Well, once I accept them, they are mine to give away, no?” Nevieve asks with a kind smile. “And your offering is welcome. Now, please, join me. I imagine it has been a while since you’ve last eaten.”

“A while, yes,” Alma concedes, choosing a delicately decorated, apple-sauce-filled pastry. “Thank you.”

“So, tell me, child,” Nevieve asks in a conversational tone. “What question do you bring before the Oracle?”

Alma remains in silence for a long time, making the simple consumption of the delicious pastry look like something of a century-old religious ritual.

“Why aren’t you dwelling in the First Ring?” she finally inquires. “You were once an Archon, after all.”

Nevieve looks at her for a moment before replying. “Is that really the question that brings you here?”

Alma resumes silence again, thinking of how unwise it would be to lie to the Oracle. “No.”

Nevieve slowly nods her head in agreement, picking another pastry from the box and consuming it slowly. “I didn’t think so either,” she notes after a moment. “Well, child, I did dwell in the Inner Ring for a long time. I had power and I had glory, and an enormous temple full of servants,” she explains, her voice denoting no nostalgia or loss at the memory.

“Then why did you leave? Is that not all a god could aspire to?”

“Oh, child, is that all you think that matters?” The Oracle looks at Alma with an expression full of pity and melancholy. “A title and a nicely-located temple? Servants and things?” She sighs at Alma’s confusion. “Tell me, Alma, when you wake up each morning, is that what fills your mind?”

Alma considers her words for an instant, images of the Bunnies and of the Station staff popping into her mind in response to the Oracle’s question. An image of the Three Rats neighborhood hovers at the edge of sight as she slowly shakes her head. “I guess not. It just happens to follow me to sleep each night.”

Nevieve looks deep into the goddess’ eyes, her colorless gaze appearing to Alma like bottomless pools into which all her thoughts soon rush to dive. The rhythmic motions of the Oracle’s long, scaly tail gently emerging from and diving into the water turn into a soft lullaby in Alma’s ears, merging with the mesmerizing effects of that alluring gaze as she stares, unresisting, into Nevieve’s eyes. As they cross through her mind, headed straight into those endless pits, some of Alma’s thoughts, secret and forbidden thoughts, awake her from the Oracle’s hypnotic gaze, making her look away in nervous urgency.

Nevieve smiles simply as the young goddess struggles to keep her thoughts to herself. “Well, it didn’t fill mine either,” the Oracle states, finally breaking the silence. “I woke up each day to nothing more than that. I could go for years without seeing a single worshipper. I was powerful and yet... I was completely out of touch with the source of my power, the people. I was precious but useless. Worshiped, but not loved. So, one day I just left. Doria was the only one that followed me – all others were too accustomed to the luxurious First Ring life to give it up.” She shrugs. “I don't blame them. I don't miss them, either. Here, I can be worthy of the prayers I receive. Here, I can shape the future and not just watch it unfold.”

“I see. My clan has worked and fought so hard and for so long for a place in the First Ring... Father has always tried with such ardor to become an Archon. I just...” Alma says with a sigh. “I find it very difficult to bend my mind around your words.”

“Well, child, maybe you have been pursuing someone else's dream for so long that you've forgotten to find a dream for yourself.” Nevieve smiles kindly at the younger goddess. “Still, I refuse to believe that Lyria has brought a child into this world and forgotten to teach her how to dream.”

“You know my mother,” Alma states, not a hint of doubt in her voice.

Nevieve nods. “And your father, and your brothers, and every creature that has ever set foot on Urbis Caelestis.” She turns and gestures toward the pool. “Tell me, Alma, what is it that you want? What do you see in your future?”

Alma exhales deeply and hangs her head. “Nothing, Oracle. I see nothing in front of me and very little around me,” she confides. “All my life I have walked in the shadows and yet...” The goddess shakes her head. “I have never been so blind.”

“Ah, yes,” Nevieve nods slightly. “Finally I hear the question you have come to ask.” She lowers head until her lips hover just above the pool’s mirror-like watery surface and blows into the water, making it ripple for a moment. “Look into the waters of this pool. What do you see?”

“Nothing but ripples in the water, Oracle,” Alma replies obediently.

“Very good,” Nevieve notes. “The future is pretty much like these waters. You can't see much in it other than ripples and swirls when the winds of change are blowing over it. But wait for them to settle down...” The Oracle indicates the clear, now absolutely calm water with a wave of her hand. “And suddenly, the veils lift and what lies beneath them becomes clear again.”

“Why won't they settle down, then?”

“Why don't you?” Nevieve touches Alma’s forehead with a wet finger in soft admonishment. “For a long time, you have moved and changed and left your original path for another, less-travelled one. So often and so suddenly  that I have not been able to see you, no matter where I look.” Her smile fades as she says, “You keep blowing on the water, child. Settle down to wait and let your fate come to you.”

“You're not the first person to tell me that,” Alma concedes as her lips twist in a sad smile.

“Then why don't you listen? And while you're at it, tell your friends to listen too. You all have a rather interesting destiny to settle into. One where all you know will be seen under a new light.”

Nevieve’s words hit Alma like an ice-cold wave, sending chills down her spine. The wheels of her thoughts begin to turn into the dark corners of her mind, as her fears rise to the surface.

“What is it that you have seen, Nevieve?” she asks, her voice denoting her nervousness. “Oracle, please. Are we in danger?”

Nevieve shakes her head slowly, her tail flipping idly in the water. “You have asked your question, Alma. And you have been given an answer. You only get one of those for each time you come here. But I will tell you this: You and your friends are very interesting creatures. Unfortunately, in this world ‘interesting’ often means ‘short-lived’.” She pushes the now empty box of pastries away from her. “All the more so if one such creature insists on standing alone against Fate.”

“Can I trust them to stand by me, Nevieve?”

“Well, you really don’t have an option now, do you?” The Oracle smiles, raising herself slightly out of the water and stretching out a hand to hold Alma’s chin in a gentle grasp. “Trust your friends to stand by you, child,” she says as she brings her face closer to Alma’s, her eyes never leaving those of the young goddess. “Trust them to stand by you or trust yourself to fall without them,” she advises as she lets go and submerges again, disappearing into the deep, dark waters of the pool.

Alma awaits in silence, trying to catch a glimpse of the Oracle among the peaceful waters of the pool. Yet the silence remains unbroken, and the stillness of the water betrays nothing of Nevieve’s presence. The goddess sighs and gets up. She walks back towards the entrance of the grotto, leaving perpetual twilight behind her and taking more questions than answers on her way out.

2014/06/23

Ch3.60 The Pearl

Night stretches the full darkness of its cloak over the never very brightly lit alleys of Three Rats. In the shadows, the night’s inhabitants lurk, slither and run as they live at the very edge of what can be considered a proper existence. Here and there, muffled sounds betray what the gloom so efficiently seems to hide. Half-choked screams, moans and shrieks fill the black and grey of the slumbering ward with hints of other colors, adding to the nightly pallet the sinister tones of lust, greed and blood, filling the apparent peace with tales of bleak survival and violent affairs.

For now, he welcomes the shadows around him, shrouding his massive body in them, hiding tail and wings and claws from a world that does not expect to see him here. His exotic shape makes stealth a challenge whenever it is required. And right now, he really can use it. Wings tucked tightly against his body, tail curled around his haunches, he lies on a rooftop, watching intently the scene going on in the streets below. His eagle eyes locked in what little light a street lantern provides, he watches as the door to Three Rats Station opens to allow the goddess access outside. In her long robes, she steps out into the dim light, the reflection of which taints her long white hair a golden shade of yellow.

She doesn’t take more than a couple of steps before a figure dressed in a pristine Guardia Dei uniform leaves the building as well, his whole countenance set to charm even the cold stones that pave the ground beneath their feet. Dion…

I knew that following the beautiful lady would lead me to you, my friend .

His beak opening in satisfaction, the stalking figure turns keen ears to the exchange going on below.
“Stepping out this late, Sgt. Alma?” Dion asks in a soft, almost worried tone of voice. “I would take it you would like to rest after the exertion of these past days.”
The goddess stops and turns to face Dion’s inquiring tone. Even under this dim light, her eyes seem to glow with the polite, serpentine ice in her voice.
“I was unaware that I must ask your leave before going about my business in my own free time.”
“Of course you need not,” the god immediately responds, taking a few steps in her direction, the sweetness in his voice rivaling with the best of honeys. “I was merely hoping I could convey to you what a wonderful job you did on this mission. I heard about your actions on restoring the Pearl to its full glory.”
“Ah, but the credit goes to you as well, does it not, Sergeant?” Alma says, mimicking almost perfectly his sugary tones. “Had you not kept Nevieve among the living, there would have been little left to save.”
“Is that a compliment I am getting from you, my dearest Alma?” the god asks, a perfect, bright smile looming on his face like a half moon just showing between the clouds.
“A simple observation, nothing more,” Alma states, moving closer to Dion until her nose is but an inch from his. “And to you, my fellow Dei, it is still Sergeant Alma,” she adds, taking a step back.
From his perch on the rooftop, he sees Dion bow gracefully to the goddess, smiling still as she walks away into the darkness. A few moments later the god turns and begins walking towards the merchant side of town.
“So here is where you hide, Dion, fleeing the First Ring to this forsaken hole without so much as a note…” he says to himself, shaking his feathered head slowly. “You always did have a soft spot for a pretty face. Although, I doubt you would ever leave your hunting grounds in pursuit of such beautiful prize. No...something else has you here.”
Turning to leave himself, he stretches his wings, stealth no longer an issue after he’s seen his clueless prey’s home.
“And I do hope you have not forgotten our bargain, my friend,” he adds with a sneer, almost spitting the last word. “I will soon make sure you hold up your end of it…”

2014/06/16

Ch3.59 The Pearl


Sky sits, holding a glass with a liberal dram of whisky, neat, poured from a bottle he keeps in his locker, the gaslight in his office turned low. He has not yet sipped the whisky. He is sitting in one of the chairs for visitors. He did not want to have the desk shielding him from the visitor he is expecting.

The frosted glass inset on his door darkens, and he sets the whisky behind him on his desk just as the door flies open and Alma enters without bothering to knock. She closes it behind her, not quite slamming it, but not being gentle either. He stoically faces her, and sees not what he had hoped for but what he had expected. She is silent, shaking with anger, fighting to restrain herself.

“Alma,” he begins.

“No!” she cuts him dead. “Not Alma. Only my friends call me that!”

He feels the sadness wash over him like a wave, unstoppable. You should have known, he hears, that voice that sounds like the Commander’s. The way you recklessly opened your heart to her. Idiot. Desperate fool. You don’t have friends. You can’t afford friends. How can you have friends when you have to hide everything you are from them? The voice sounds like the Commander, but always much crueller. Just as honest, though.

As his face settles into a familiar emotionless mask, he nods and says, “I see. Sergeant...I am sorry. What I did was wrong. I should not have concealed Mayumi’s actions from you. I foolishly agreed to keep her secret for her. But after that, I could not break her confidence.”

Still standing in front of the door, Alma glares at him. “How can I trust you? How can I trust anyone when even my children lie to me with the aid of my commanding officer and the gods know how many other people? What a wonderful joke it must have been! Oh, how you must have laughed at my expense!”

Sky half rises, fresh sorrow breaking out on his face at these words. “No, Sergeant! I never felt the slightest humor in the situation. It ate at me. I have wanted to tell you, and feared telling you, ever since I made that mistake.”

Ignoring his words, Alma moves back a half step and raises an arm to ward him off. “I only wish I could ask for transfer from this viper’s nest… Keep your lies, Sky!” She spits out his name like a curse. “I hope you are better at living with them than you are at choosing your loyalties.” She turns away.

He tries to think of the words that will make this better. He tries, and is left still trying as she flings the door open and leaves without bothering to close it.

Minutes pass before he picks up the glass of whisky. For minutes more, he just holds it. Then he places it back on his desk, untasted. He feels no desire for it. He is already numb.

2014/06/09

Ch3.58 The Pearl


Dion, now alone after Mayumi’s interruption and appropriation of Alma, ponders internally the Bunny’s plight, but is suddenly interrupted by Cherry’s nearby laughter. Turning, he sees the dark Bunny chatting with two of the Guardia Popula, both drinking from beers which, according to Dion’s trained senses, have been magically altered.
His curiosity piqued, he steps over towards the laughter.
“Well, hello there, Sergeant!” Cherry greets him with a salute as he approaches. “Ain’t this great? We get to be bartenders again!”
“I can see that you are in business here…” he says, pausing to look at the magical aura of the bottles, adding, “with magically enhanced ales.”
Aliyah and Sgt. Machado quickly look at their drinks with suspicious concern, but Dion’s small nod gives them needed assurance, and they continue their consumption.
“Oh, I just asked our new friend, Brew the beer god, to help improve the image of the place. Give the customers the best and they keep comin’!”
Dion looks over at the large god and whispers to himself, “Interesting magic…”
“Besides, we’re not in business quite yet,” Cherry corrects, breaking the god’s musings. “This here’s just a party, with a lot of folks just bringin’ their own and some extra beer for others. We’ll still need some start-up money and a good supplier. But we have hopes!”
“An' th' good sergeant is gaenta help us, is he no’?” another voice asks further down the bar. Dion looks to see Merri stepping over and joining the conversation. “We could sartainly use yer help. Bein’ a friend o’ th’ bar that ye are,” she adds.
Dion smiles slightly at the smaller Bunny, his reserved fa├žade only slightly diminished. “I have some capital that I may be inclined to invest to help get this worthy establishment started. As for a good supplier,” the god starts, reaching into his pocket and retrieving the lost earring of a merchant’s daughter. “I may know of a merchant who may be of assistance here. I am seeing a relative of his fairly soon, and I’ll be happy to inquire on your behalf.”
Dion’s surprise at the joint squeal of glee from the Bunnies is quickly surpassed by the abrupt hugs he receives from the two as they reach over the bar and wrap their arms around him. After swift Bunny kisses to his cheeks, the two hold hands and dance on their side of the bar singing a song about owning a bar again.
Quickly ending their dance to return to bartending duties, Cherry returns to the two Guardia Popula as Merri turns back to Dion. “Thank ye, Dion,” she says.  Then looking at the pocket from which Dion retrieved the earring, she adds. “Och, it looks like yer jacket pocket has a tear in it.”
Noticing the tear for the first time, Dion sighs slightly. “Yes, it appears so. I must have received it from battling the eels. Sadly, this pocket seems to desire daily mending.”
Nodding to Merri, he then adds, “Allow me to address this little rent, and then I’ll see to your merchant issues.”  

The god steps away and glides towards headquarters, the most direct path to the merchant’s quarter.

2014/06/02

Ch3.57 The Pearl


Mayumi reenters the bar, having gone to the room she shares with Alma and the other Bunnies to change out of the dirndl Kyri had lent her. The tension she feels is plain on her face, but she knows that the longer she keeps her secret, the worse the impact of revealing it will be.

The room is crowded with people, mostly Guardia Popula, just going off-duty after the emergency had brought the entire station into action regardless of watch. She can hear Merri and Cherry at the bar, calling out jovially, ecstatic to be acting as bartenders even though all they are doing is opening bottles of beer and passing them to tired but celebratory officers. Pushing between bodies that keep jostling her, wrinkling her sensitive nose at the sour scent of unwashed human, she suddenly breaks into the open and sees Alma talking with Sgt Gwydion. They both look worn out, but they are smiling, Gwydion a little seductively, Alma a little cynically, still unsure of each other but, to Mayumi’s eyes, sharing a growing camaraderie.

She glances to the next table, and sees Sky talking with that beer god, Brew – the one Cherry keeps talking about. In fact, as she watches, the dark Bunny traipses over, grinning, and holds four bottles of ale up to him, holding two in each hand by the necks. He smiles and holds his hand out in blessing, and the bottles almost seem to glow, some not-quite-visible effect changing them from the indifferent local brew into something remarkable. Cherry bites her lip seductively and leans forward, giving him a good look at her bosom, and thanks him warmly, then returns to the bar and hands the drinks over to Dr Nataniel, Aliyah, and, after being waved off by Cala, to Sgt Machado, keeping the last for herself, and sharing it with Merri.

Mayumi looks back over to Sky, and finds him looking at her. It’s clear from his expression that he knows what she is about to do. He looks sad but resolved, and he nods at her encouragingly.

She nods back, then – feeling sick to her stomach – she approaches Alma, who notices her and breaks off to say, “What is it, dear?”

“Alma...may I speak with you? Alone? I...I have something to tell you.”

Alma looks at Gwydion, nods to him, and stands, taking Mayumi’s hand. “Yes, of course. Let’s go to our room.”

As they start to leave, Mayumi glances back at Sky. He seems to be making an excuse to Brew, getting ready to leave – and then she can no longer see him as the tall human bodies cut off her view.

Going through the crowd is now easier – no one jostles them. Mayumi looks up at Alma’s face. Alma seems to take no notice of the way everyone moves out of her way at her approach, like waves breaking from a ship’s bow, then returning to their places after Alma and Mayumi have passed. Even those who move hardly seem to notice they have done so, continuing their conversations with barely a pause.

They go down the stairs and enter the warm, welcoming room, the sound of the fountain calming. At least I hope it will be calming, she thinks as she sits on the edge of the bed. She finds herself looking down, unable to meet Alma’s gaze. She takes a deep breath...but she can’t form the words. She takes another–

“You are making me worry, little one,” says Alma. “Is there something wrong?”

Mayumi nods. “Alma…” She forces herself to look up, to look Alma in the eye. She sees that the goddess is indeed worried, her face serious and concerned. “Alma, I lied to you.”

Mayumi feels herself go cold at the blooming shock on Alma’s face. The Bunny can hardly believe she actually said the words and wishes she could take them back. She wishes she could take so much back. Alma asks her, her voice stiff with tension, “When?”

“That first morning,” Mayumi replies, hating the trembling in her voice. “After you awakened us. I...I followed Constable Zefretti outside, into Three Rats. When you...were looking for me, I wasn’t in the station.”

Her voice cold and flat, Alma demands, “Why?”

“I overheard him. I knew he was corrupt. I wanted to find out what was going on–”

“Why did you lie to me?” Alma’s voice cuts her like a razor.

Mayumi just looks at her for a long moment. Finally, her voice small, she says, “I didn’t want you to be mad at me. I knew I had made a mistake...and I was scared. I didn’t want you to be disappointed in me.” She can’t look at Alma’s cold face any longer. She hangs her head. “And...I didn’t want you to confine me to the station even longer. I’m sorry! I was stupid, and selfish, and worse...cruel. I let you think that you were in the wrong. I’ve never felt so ashamed in my life. And I…”

She pauses and feels tears filling her eyes and spilling over. “I asked Inspector Sukai not to tell you. He agreed but he only wanted to get me back to the station. And Kyri – please don’t be mad at them! It was my fault!

She looks back up at Alma, only to see the goddess has half-turned away from her to stare at the light in the hands of the statue, dimmed for the evening. “Lied to,” Alma mutters to herself in cold fury. “Lied to from day one.”

“Alma,” Mayumi says in a voice barely above a whisper, “I’m so sorry.”

“You are not going to be the only one,” the goddess grates out as she turns to leave.

“Wait, please!”

Alma pauses at the door, one hand on the handle. Without looking back, she says, “If there is anything in you close to respect for me, you will stay here. Get the others to bed. Don’t wait up for my return.”