Chapter 2 "Snakes" 22

Mayumi quietly opens the door to the bedroom she shares with Alma and the other Bunnies, and enters, shutting it carefully behind her. Her large, light-gathering eyes quickly adjust to the dim light from the sun-like magical lamp. She sees Starfax, Alma’s phoenix, perched on a branch and sleeping with its head under a wing, and Alma herself asleep on the bed, with Sage next to her and one of the three younger ones, the younger boy, sprawled lengthwise across the foot of the bed. She has to search around a bit to spot Cherry and Merri, on a makeshift nest of pillows and blankets, spooning together, Rosemary in Cherry’s protective arms, and the other two unnamed Bunnies, the older boy and the girl, the youngest of them all, near them, likewise holding each other as if in imitation.

Mayumi strips off her sweat-soaked shirt and shorts, wrinkling her sensitive nose at the smell, and her underpants, tossing them into the corner. We need to get a basket, she thinks. There will be a lot of laundry to take care of. She pads across the room to the pool and slips silently into it, remembering the piping hot, muscle-soothing baths in her other life, her dream life, knowing that she’ll never be satisfied with bathing in this lukewarm water.

Was it really all just a dream? It did feel less...real than this. So many moments, lost to memory, faded away like a dream. She fights to hold onto those memories, to hold them close. They were – still are – her life! Over twenty years! It wasn’t right that it should all just disappear.

She hears movement behind her, and cranes her neck around to see the halo of Cherry’s afro silhouetted against the light. “Hey, sweetie,” Cherry whispers. “Where ya been?”

Mayumi indicates “upstairs” with a movement of her head. “I was training,” she whispers.

Cherry moves closer, touches Mayumi’s face lightly with her fingertips. “You been cryin’, girl. What’s wrong?” She takes a deep sniff, her nostrils flaring, and she looks surprised. “Hey, you been with Inspector Sky,” she whispers slyly, smiling, but then she frowns. “Did he make you cry?”

Mayumi sighs. Can’t hide anything tonight, can I? The thought reminds her of the sphere of mana that the Inspector had given her, and she is glad she tucked it into the back corner of a cabinet in the bar rather than bringing it here and trying to find a place to hide it. “It’s nothing. We just talked. He was kind.” She pauses. “Cherry...do you remember your dreamworld?”

“Sure I do.” Cherry sits on the edge of the pool behind Mayumi, her legs to either side of Mayumi’s shoulders, dangling in the pool. She scoops water up from the pool and starts to gently rinse Mayumi’s hair. “Me and Merri had us a bar.” Mayumi hears the smile in her voice. “We had loyal customers, and great times. A little trouble now and then, but nothin’ we couldn’t handle.” She chuckles almost silently. “May, you should hear Merri tellin’ off a customer for bad behavior. I might be standin’ there with an axe handle, ready to whup some ass, but that girl can make an ogre apologize and beg her not to ban him with just a mean look.”

As Cherry starts to shampoo her hair, Mayumi asks, “Did you have anyone who...took care of you?”

Cherry is silent for awhile. “No,” she whispers. “We took care of each other. I can’t really remember a time when we didn’t.”

Mayumi nods, then shuts her eyes as Cherry rinses her hair. The suds drift away in the water, going...somewhere, and fresh water coming in from...somewhere. Like a stream in a forest. She takes a piece of soap that Cherry hands her and stands, lathering up her body. It still seems almost sacrilegious to her to be washing herself with soap and shampoo in the bath rather than beside it.

Though making as little noise as possible, she sees that the splashing has woken Sage, who is sitting up, looking over at her. Alma, fortunately, continues to sleep deeply. Cherry holds out a towel and envelopes May in it as she steps from the bath, drying her vigorously. May relaxes into the massage, marveling at how strong Cherry is despite being smaller, especially when Cherry wraps her in a tight hug at the end and kisses her on the cheek. “Wanna sleep with us?” she whispers to Mayumi, nodding toward Merri, who is still fast asleep.

May smiles and shakes her head, looking toward the bed and Sage, who has lain back down but is still watching her. Cherry nods and releases her, returning to Rosemary. Mayumi towels her hair a bit more as she steps toward the bed, then tosses the towel on the pile of dirty clothes, and takes a moment to run her fingers through her hair. She climbs into the bed slowly, not wanting to disturb Alma or the unnamed Bunny, and she puts her arms around Sage, pressing her forehead to his.

She listens carefully to Alma’s breathing to make sure she is really asleep, then she says to Sage, her voice barely audible to anyone without ears of Bunny sensitivity, “I’m sorry.” She knows he will understand what she is apologizing for.

“Where did you go, May?” he whispers. She had not answered him earlier in the day.

“It was a café,” she replies, “called the Copper Pot.” She pulls him closer, her skin against his, and she presses her face against his shoulder. There is a goddess there, who pulls you into song...”


Chapter 2 "Snakes" 21

As he reenters the station, Sky sees Sgt Gwydion casually seated on the edge of Cpl Kaur's desk, smiling seductively and chatting with her. She is seated, chewing on the end of a pen in her hand, eyes wide, looking up at him, smiling shyly. Gwydion says something with a smile, and she looks shocked and delighted, her blunt-featured, lightly freckled face blushing before she bursts into loud laughter, her head thrown back. Gwydion looks slightly surprised at her earthy reaction, but pleased as well.
At the next desk, Constable Lamore sighs heavily at Aliyah’s laughter and looks daggers at the back of the beautiful god. For a moment Sky wonders if she is jealous, but no...that look is not one of jealousy. It is a protective, quiet fury. If she had a weapon that could slay a god, Sky thinks wryly, Gwydion’s name would soon be decorating a mausoleum’s wall.
Two other constables – Sky takes a moment to remember their names, Silva and Patel, the former short but burley, hair shorn very close; the latter a local, nephew of the same Patel who owns the nearby grocery, fresh from the Academy, skinny and standing like someone unsure of himself – stand near the coffee pot, watching all this with amusement.
Just then the door to the street opens and the goddess Kyri peeks around the edge, smiling. “Goodness me,” she calls out, “it sounds as if things are going well in here!”
Aliyah stands, breaking free of Gwydion’s alluring hazel eyes, and swiftly walks toward the plump goddess, looking concerned. “Dona Kyri! I heard you came for a visit this morning! Are you all right? Is your café all right? Oh, did you hear about Rocco?” Aliyah presses her palms together in a perfunctory prayer and bows her head to Kyri for about half a second, then takes both of Kyri’s hands in hers.
“Oh, yes, yes, and sadly yes, my dear,” Kyri says as she clasps the mortal's hands affectionately. “In fact, on that last point, I need to speak to your Inspector – hellooo, Inspector!” she sings out, releasing Aliyah’s hands and waving. “May I have word with you in private?” At his nod she switches her attention back to Aliyah, unslinging a bulging cloth bag from her shoulder and handing it to her. “This is for the officers on duty, my dear.”
Aliyah opens it, breathes the aroma in deeply with closed eyes, and exclaims in joy. “Oh, Kyri, you make the best pastries in the City! Thanks!”
“Thank you, my dears, thank you all,” the goddess says to all the cops as she follows Sky into his office.
Sky closes the door behind her. “Dona Kyri, please sit. Now, if you’ve come to ask me to take Zeffretti back, I'm afraid –”
Oh pish-posh, Inspector – Rocco was never much of a cop, and I’m not here to question your decision. No, no, please, no time for tea,” she says, her voice transitioning to song, perhaps something titled “No Time for Tea,” as catchy music fades in, but she slaps both hands over her mouth and squeezes her eyes shut, face turning red from exertion. The music trails off, with a final dopey-bassoon note, and she releases her mouth and breathes deeply. “Sorry...sorry about that...I'm here to tell you that Rocco knows where Eater of Frogs is!”
Sky escorts Kyri out, thanking her again, then turns to the officers in the station. “Sergeant Gwydion, my office. Corporal, choose two constables to accompany us. We could use some assistance with crowd control. Full riot gear.”
Aliyah looks alarmed. “I-I’ll come with you myself, sir! And –”
“No,” he says firmly. “I need you here. You're the ranking officer while we’re gone. Also,” he takes her aside and speaks to her quietly, “Sergeant Alma is...resting.” At the woman’s confused look he says, “It’s...a god thing. Just, if there’s any trouble, you go pound on her door. But, um, don’t try to wake her yourself.” He’s not sure what an ill Death Goddess’ reaction might be on being forcibly shaken awake by a mortal, but he imagines it might possibly be unfortunate. “Get Mayumi to do it.”
“Do you think there might be trouble here, sir?”
“I don’t know, but it’s best to be prepared. A little paranoia goes a long way.” He lightly claps her on the shoulder and heads to his office, where Gwydion is already waiting.
He shuts the door. The sergeant looks at him expectantly.
Sky takes off his jacket as he walks to a stand-up locker in the corner. “Corporal Kaur,” he says.
After a brief pause, Gwydion replies, “Yes, sir?”
“She's a fine officer, isn’t she?” Sky opens the closet and takes out a wooden hanger.
“She appears to be capable, sir,” Gwydion says.
Sky hangs up his jacket and pulls out a heavier one of leather, reinforced with metal plates and studs. “Attractive too. Pleasant, good-humored, cute smile. Freckles.” His voice sounds stoney, with a hint of anger.
Gwydion chuckles. “Oh...earlier. That was just...a conversation, sir. A little friendly flirting –”
“Does she know that?” Sky interrupts, shooting the sergeant a hard look.
Gwydion opens his mouth to reply, then, smile fading, closes it.
Sky’s expression softens a little as he slips on his armored jacket. “Gwydion...have you had much experience with mortals? I mean, romantically? No, forgive the personal question. You don't have to answer. But even if you have...you’re from the First Ring. The mortals there, the palace servants and priests, they know the score. They know affairs with gods are brief. They don't expect more from us. But here...” Sky sighs as he buckles up his jacket. “She’s probably never met someone like you. And mortals’ hearts...they break, perhaps more easily than ours...and they don't have as much time as we have, to heal.”
Gwydion’s back straightens as he addresses his commander formally. “Are you saying the Guardia Popula are off limits, then, sir? As per regulations?”
Sky pulls a beautiful, long, handmade truncheon out of the locker. The wood is nearly black, highly polished, carved with sigils of power along its length up to the well-worn sharkskin grip. He hefts it, then slides it into a loop on his belt. “Well, there’s a reason for the regulations. However...I wouldn’t cite regs at you if both of you were serious.” He looks Gwydion in the eye. “But you’re not... Are you, Dion?”
“No sir.” Gwydion pauses, considers. “Understood sir.”

“Good.” Sky grins at him, and takes out a pair of silver handcuffs, encrusted in charms. “Now, gear up. We’re going to arrest a god, and he’s new to the area, so the cops I spoke to about him earlier today weren’t able to tell me anything about his powers. All we know is, he’s deaf and he hisses a lot. So be ready for anything.”


Chapter 2 "Snakes" 20

Leaping, spinning, crouching, kicking...muscles burning as Mayumi performs the kata she was taught in her dreams. It is a variation on the standard Guardia combat training, modified for one of her smaller stature and greater speed. As she passes a broom leaning against the wall, she seizes it and immediately changes the kata from unarmed to armed, making quick debilitating jabs at her imagined opponent’s vital spots. There is little that is flashy about this style. It is meant merely to end a fight as quickly as possible, nothing more.

She feels a breeze waft across her sweaty skin and realizes the door to the bar has opened. Automatically, she turns to face the intruder, weapon at the ready...then sees the tall form of Inspector Tuma-Sukai in the doorway. She straightens to attention, controlling her breathing, and bows as she says, “Keibu.”

In Japanese, his voice mildly amused, the inspector replies, “At ease.” He looks around. “Where is everyone else?” he asks in Urbia. She sees he is holding something in his hand, something spherical wrapped in a colorful cloth.

“In Alma’s room,” she says, setting the broom back against the wall. “She’s resting.”

“Good. And you? It’s getting late and I know you got up early.” He moves over to the bar, leaning against it, looking at her, then around the room. She glances down at herself: a pair of shorts, modified for her tail, and a too-loose t-shirt with a cutesy pony on it and PONY!!! in huge rainbow-colored letters, now soaked with a broad V of sweat down the front. She frowns and longs for a chance to buy her own clothes. Cpl Kaur's choices don’t quite suit her.

“I was...restless.” She goes to the bar and hops up to sit on the edge of it, near him. “Thank you, for not telling her,” she says quietly.

“Well...I’m not sure that was the right thing to do, but she won’t find out about your excursion from me. And Corporal Kaur knows it’s a secret as well.”

Mayumi hangs her head. “I’m sorry. If she finds out, she’ll be very angry at you, too.”

He chuckles ruefully. “Angrier, you mean.” He shrugs. “It’s done.”

They remain silent for a moment, not looking at each other, then both try to speak at once, then fall silent.

Tuma-Sukai smiles and says, “Please, go ahead.”

“I, uh...I was just wondering about Constable Zeffretti.”

“Ah...Zeffretti has resigned.”

“Oh.” Mayumi reflects on this, surprised at her mixed emotions. Was he a good cop, otherwise? Should he have been given another chance? She shakes her head to clear it of unworthy thoughts. He was corrupt. There is no place in the Guardia for one such as him. But she is still unable to free herself of a feeling of guilt, for her part in ending the man’s career.

After a brief period of silence, the Inspector says, as if attempting to change the subject, “What did you think of all that at the Copper Pot?”

She laughs, almost silently, and looks at Tuma-Sukai. “The singing and dancing?” He nods. She considers, then says, “It was...well, it was a lot of fun. But a little strange, to let myself be...controlled like that. Even a little frightening. A bit like being drunk.”

“Yes. That power...it would be terrible in the wrong hands. We’re fortunate that Kyri is so benevolent.”

“Sorry about hopping onto your lap like that.” She laughs again.

“Oh...nothing to be sorry about. I’m just glad you didn’t miss.” He looks away, smiling, and she’s surprised to detect a hint of a blush in his dark face.

Then he looks at her again. “You said it was like being drunk. Have you ever been drunk? Did you mean, in your dreams?”

She nods.

“Your dreams. I don’t really understand how that works. Did you really live twenty years of life there?”


“But...who raised you? How did you grow up?”

She thinks. “I don’t really remember the early years. I...I think I must have been like the younger Bunnies are now. Asleep. Not knowing my name. But I was pretty young when I began to...think, be aware. Maybe ten years old?” She pauses, straining at memories. “There was a man. I lived with him. He was strict...but also very kind. He taught me everything. How to read and write, how to eat and dress properly. How to fight. How to read a crime scene and handle evidence...”

“He was a cop.”

“An inspector, actually. Like you.”

Tuma-Sukai raises his eyebrows in surprise. “Popula, or Dei?”

“Popula. Mortal.”

“And you grew up speaking Japanese with him?”


He studies her face. “Was he a father to you?”

She nods and is shocked to feel her eyes filling with tears. Still seated on the bar, she pivots away and squeezes her eyes shut, but the tears spill over onto her cheeks as she does. She wipes at them with the back of her wrist, angry at herself.

She hears him move nearer. “Mayumi...I’m sorry. Are you all right?” He very lightly lays a hand on her upper back.

“I am, I just...I...I don’t know whether I’ll ever see him again.” She tries to get herself under control, but suddenly she sobs loudly, just once, and buries her face in her hands. Her shoulders shake as she cries almost silently. She can feel the god’s hand resting on her back.

After a few moments, she takes several deep breaths and reasserts control over her emotions, internally cursing herself for her childishness. She feels the warm, friendly hand leave her back, and when she takes her hands away from her face, she sees in front of her the brightly colored cloth that had served as a wrap for the spherical object the inspector had been carrying.

“A furoshiki?” she asks, recognizing the large square of cloth, decorated with images of plants – bamboo – in front of geometric patterns of gold and blue on a field of crimson. It seems old, the stitching of the narrow hem unraveling at one corner. Where she had grown up, in her dreams, such beautiful but utilitarian cloths were used for many purposes: as small tablecloths, as scarves, as wrappings for lunchboxes or other packages, and even as handkerchiefs.

She takes it and wipes her eyes and cheeks. “I’m sorry...I don’t know what came over me.”

The god says gently, in Japanese, “Now, everything is different, isn’t it?”

She sniffles. In the same language, she replies, “Yes. I was there. I had my whole life. Friends and...family. My job. Now...”

“Now you have reality. And you have your family...a wonderful family. And...you have friends too.”

She turns back toward him and looks up. Even though she is seated on the bar, he still towers over her. His smile is kind. She holds the cloth out to him. “Thank you.”

He gestures for her to keep it. “You’ll need that, to wrap this in again.” He holds up a sphere made of a smoky glass, filled with a thick liquid that seems to slosh about more slowly than it should. Within it, motes of light wink in and out of existence. It seems to be all of one piece, with no way to open it.

Seeing her puzzled expression, he says, “This is mana, in its liquefied, transportable form. The stuff of magic, and the result of prayers.”

She looks up at him, confused. “Why...?”

“I would like you to hold onto it until Alma is fully recovered. And if she is in need of it – if there is some emergency, for example, and she needs to be able to function at peak efficiency – I want you to give it to her. If she hesitates, I want you to tell her, from me, that I order her to take it.”

Mayumi looks concerned. “Why would she need to be ordered?”

“Well...she’s very proud.” He smiles a little at that, and she can hear admiration in his voice. “I don’t know if she would accept it. But this mana...it’s not my personal mana, you understand. It’s just from my monthly allowance as an officer of the Guardia. Part of my pay, really, just like the mana she receives each month. It’s gathered from the millions of daily prayers directed at the greatest gods, so homogeneous that it has no particular resonance.”

“But if it were your personal mana, from prayers you received, it would be more...” She remembers Sgt Gwydion’s offer to share his mana with Alma.

“Er...that could be a bit more...intimate.” He looks embarrassed. “Anyway, just please keep it for now and, if she is fine tomorrow or the next day, you can give it back to me.”

She spreads the damp cloth on her palm and accepts the sphere from him. It is warm, like something alive. She carefully wraps the cloth around it and ties it so that there is a little loop at the top, making it easier to carry.

“I’ll make sure she takes it, if she needs it, sir.”

“Mayumi, if you really want to call me ‘sir,’ go ahead, but I would be pleased if you would call me by my name, as I call you by yours.”

“Tsumasukai?” she asks, altering it to fit Japanese phonetics.

“Sky is better.”

She nods and smiles. “You can call me Mai, if you like.” She pronounces it like ‘my.’

He chuckles. “The others call you May, don’t they? It’s not really a proper way to shorten your name, is it?”

She shakes her head, smiling ruefully. “But I think I’m stuck with it.”

“All right, Mai-chan.” Hearing him say her name with the affectionate, diminutive suffix, the same way the man in her dreams used to, tugs at her heart, but she keeps it from showing on her face. Even so, he corrects himself: “Sorry, perhaps I should say ‘Mai-san’.”

“‘Mai-chan’ is good,” she says, quietly.

He grins. “I’ll leave you to your exercise. I hope you can find sleep soon. And...I hope that you can still find that other place, in your dreams.”

He leaves, and she finds herself alone again in the dimly lit, empty bar.


Chapter 2 "Snakes" 19

In the deepening evening, Kyri stands behind the counter of the Copper Pot and surveys the tables. There is only one customer, a large man who sits, dwarfing the little table in the corner, his faded shirt pulled tight across his shoulders. Amused by the bias of her observations, Kyri corrects her first thought, he only seems big because I’m so small. She continues observing the man as she makes his coffee, looking puzzled by his aluminium hat. Try as she might, Kyri cannot get any sense of the man and where he fits in the dramatis personae. The goddess is disturbed by this – it is the first time Kyri’s inner casting director has failed her and she cannot tell if the man is a hero or a villain, a dramatic lead or the comic relief.  

As Kyri finishes making the coffee, two little bluebirds pick up the mug and saucer, slowly flying it across the cafe. Suddenly, she is startled out of her reverie, as the two bluebirds vanish with a pop, leaving the mug to come crashing to the ground, splashing her customer with hot coffee and causing him to spring from his chair, swearing loudly.

“Oh dear! I’m so very sorry – I don’t know happened then! I’ve never seen the birds just disappear like that!” Kyri exclaims apologetically as she rushes to the little table, clutching a cloth to clean up the spilt coffee. As she gets closer to the table, Kyri starts to feel strange, and the pimple she had been using her powers to prevent appears, red and irritated, on the end of her nose. Perfect! the goddess thinks to herself, vanishing bluebirds, spilt coffee, unreadable strangers in my shop, and now a pimple?!

“Your ‘god-tricks’ won’t work on me” says the man, pointing at her accusatorily.

“Looks like they won’t even work near you,” replies Kyri, mopping up coffee. “Though I’m not sure I like the way you refer to them as ‘god-tricks.’”

“If you’re gonna make me that coffee, you’ll need to do it like a real person. And no trying to read my thoughts either!” he says, pointing to his foil hat.

“Since you don’t like mind readers, I’d better ask your name then,” comments Kyri, smiling as she pours another cup of coffee. “Most people call me Kyri,” she adds, ducking behind the counter to heal her pimple.

“I don’t have to tell you anything!”

“No, you don’t, but if you’re going to come here often, it sure would be nice to know your name. I promise I won’t use it against you,” responds Kyri coquettishly, thinking to herself, I don’t need to use “god-tricks” to make you like me.

“They call me Atheist Jack.”

“Well Jack, here’s your coffee. No tricks, but since you wore the first mug, this one’s on the house.”

As Kyri walks back to the counter the bell over the door jingles and Zeffretti enters the cafe.  He’s dressed in snug jeans and a wide-collared shirt, open far further than is tasteful.

“Constable, this is a surprise visit,” says Kyri by way of greeting.

“Not a constable no more, Kyri. The ‘spector kicked me out.” snarls Zeffretti, his lip curling into a sneer at the word inspector.

“Oh Rocco, I am sorry, but you were never happy in the Guardia, and I’m sure that there are so many other things you could turn your hand to.”

Rocco snorts derisively as he flings himself onto a chair.

Reaching under the counter, Kyri produces a large plate of tiramisu and places it in front of the dejected young man. Returning to the counter, she opens a cupboard and grabs a large bottle of clear liquid and three glasses. The goddess then walks back to Rocco’s table and sits down.


“Don’t ask,” responds Kyri as she pours two glasses, “Hey Jack, you want some?” she asks, gesturing with the bottle.

“Why not, but only one. And don’t think this means that I trust you so-called ‘gods,’” answers Jack, dragging his chair over.

After draining his glass, Rocco turns to Kyri and asks “Hey, what’s happened to the music? I don’t hear them violins no more.”

“I’ve discovered I can’t use any ‘god-tricks’ around our atheist friend here,” she answers, raising her glass to Jack.

“You’re a pretty useful guy,” comments Rocco. “But seriously, she’s ok. Doesn’t want worshipping, makes good dolcé...”

“She still pretends to be a god. Makes good moonshine though,” replies Jack, downing his glass and standing to leave. “You just be careful,” he says, slipping out the door, his eyes darting furtively over the street outside.

Kyri pours another round of drinks, which she and the one-time constable quickly drink, repeating this routine a third, fourth and fifth time.  Eventually, she stares intently at Rocco. “Cop or not, you owe me some answers. So, tell me about Eater of Frogs...”

Zeffretti looks around as if someone else he just hasn’t noticed yet might be hiding in the café. Then he leans forward conspiratorially. “Funny you should bring him up. Guess who I just saw over at the Singin’ Cockroach? He just walked inta the place and started bossin’ the owner around. Sounded like he was plannin’ to settle in for a long night, too, and he didn’t care who knew it. Me, I got outta there fast.”

“Oh my goodness, Rocco...perhaps you should tell the Inspector!”

“Me? No way...people see me goin’ to the station, they’re gonna finger me for a stool pigeon, and then they’ll be fittin’ me for concrete waders! But you, Kyri...”