Ch3.41 The Pearl

Alma returns to the grotto with her precious cargo to find a troubling scene. She sees Gwydion sitting against a stalagmite, head hung low, almost as if nodding off. The Oracle lies unconscious in her pool, looking again like the poison is taking its toll on her health, her breathing labored once more. Carefully and quietly, the goddess walks up to the nearly slumbering Gwydion, who raises his head at her approach and smiles weakly.

“You look exhausted,” Alma notes on seeing his paleness and sunken, glassy eyes.

At her words, Gwydion rises, clumsy and struggling. “I am in need of rest, yes,” he concedes. “It is my mana that is exhausted, though.”

“Too many filters to maintain?” the goddess asks for lack of something better to say.

He rubs his eyes and nods in confirmation. “That and whatever is tainting the water seems to be getting stronger.”

“Or the Pearl is getting weaker…” Alma little more than whispers.

“And so is the Oracle,” Gwydion adds, glancing at Nevieve’s agonized form.

Glancing briefly at the Oracle herself, Alma offers Gwydion the container with the four precious mana orbs, being careful to open it for the god’s inspection and immediate usage.

“I brought you these from the Academy,” she announces as his eyes flicker with something close to relief. “Your… colleagues? were rather friendly, if a little stumbling at times.”

Taking an orb in his hand, his need greater than any thoughts of a façade, Gwydion quickly consumes its contents, incorporating the much-needed power into his own reserves. Color returns to his cheeks, his eyes retrieve their healthy shine and the god smiles pleasantly and charmingly, his normal self renewed for the time being.

“Thank you so very much, my dearest Sergeant. And yes, they usually are, especially around beautiful women,” he comments, carefully removing the remaining orbs from the container and shrinking them down to fit in his jacket pocket. “Are you any closer to finding the Pearl?”

“Working on it,” Alma replies vaguely, trying to maintain her growing concern away from her voice. “How much longer will you be able to hold?”

“As long as it takes,” Gwydion responds, rubbing a temple undoubtedly afflicted by the beginnings of a mana headache.

Provided that’s not too long... Alma thinks to herself.

Out loud she says, “I hope the mana helps. We are doing all we can to find the Pearl and restore it.”

“It helps me immensely. Thank you again for it,” Gwydion assures her. His expression  darkens slightly. “So, you found Geryon…”

Alma nods. “He found me, as you said he would.”

“Yes. He has a knack for that. Did he mention anything of consequence?” the god inquires.

“Nothing of use to us right now – we can speak of it later,” the goddess replies evasively, her voice lined with ice. “We have set up water-distribution points at the Copper Pot and at the station. I should return and help the Inspector with keeping things under control while we look for the Pearl,” she states. “Unless you need me here, that is.”

A moment of silence falls upon them as Gwydion considers this, broken only by Nevieve’s heavy breath and rhythmic tail movements.

Finally, the god says, “Although I would treasure the company, I believe you’d serve a better purpose tracking the Pearl. I will hold things steady here.”

“I will hurry,” Alma promises, a hand rising tentatively to comfort but falling again almost immediately as the goddess recalls her meeting with the wizards.

Her expression darkening, she turns to leave and walks away quickly. Behind her, the goddess catches the softest of whispers.

“Please do.”


Ch3.40 The Pearl

Mayumi turns to Kyri and says, “I am sorry about earlier. I should not have shouted like that.”
“Well,” says Kyri, “I seem to have touched a nerve – in both you and the Inspector. Mayumi–” Movement catches Kyri’s eye. She looks at Doria, who is sinking into a chair. “My dear...are you all right? You look like you’re about to collapse all of a sudden!”
“I feel...strange.” The half-naiad puts a hand to her forehead, her shoulders slumping. “Like I have no energy at all…”
“Oh,  Sweetheart!” exclaims Kyri. “You haven’t drunk the tainted water, have you?”
“No, I…” Doria pauses, then her eyes grow wide. “Oh Kyri...the source from which all the water of Three Rats springs, the tainted source...Kyri...that’s also the source of my water!” She tries to stand, but her legs buckle and she slips to the floor.
Kyri gasps and bends to help her up, just as Mayumi grabs her, then gasps and pulls away. “Noooo,” moans Doria. “D-don’t touch me...you’ll be affected too…”
“But...but…” Kyri looks around for help. The remaining gang members, along with Sundar, pause on their way out of the café. They look at each other, not sure what to do, unaccustomed to the idea of gods needing help from mortals. Meanwhile, the people in line outside the shop seem to be getting anxious at the long delay in receiving their water rations.
From the floor, Doria gasps, barely audible, “Dunno why it didn’t affect me before...somethin’ ‘bout how the water gets to me? Some...delay? Innerstin’... Kyri? You there?”
“I’m here! Oh, Doria, what should I do?”
Doria doesn’t respond. Mayumi calls out to the gang members, “Hey, give us a hand!” The youths approach and stand around the fallen demigoddess in a half circle. They all look to Sundar. One of them says, “Come on, Sundar. You’re the one with the brains.” He licks his lips nervously, then says hesitantly to Kyri and Mayumi, “Maybe, if we put her in one of the barrels of clean water, it will dilute the bad water? For a little while, anyway?”

Kyri claps her hands. “Brilliant! Yes! Oh, that one over there is half empty! Let’s put her in that. Now don’t touch her directly, boys! That’s right, use your jackets, good idea! Right, on three!”
Holding the demigoddess’ jacket-wrapped legs, Mayumi guides Doria’s feet into the barrel first. Precious water sloshes over the edge, soaking her and all the gang members who are helping, and she feels a slight tingle as a very little tainted water from Doria’s skin affects her as well, flowing along with the pure water imported from outside the ward. It’s not enough to have much effect.
Once they have her in the barrel, shoulder-deep, Doria revives a little. “Thank…thank you,” she slurs.
As they reach Chowringhee Road, Sky finishes his conversation with Paolo. “So are you on board with this?” he asks the young man.
Paolo scratches his jawline. “Sure. I mean, it ain’t gonna work, you know. The other gangs, they ain’t got no reason to trust you. They don’t know you. You’re not from Three Rats. An’ you’re Guardia.” He chuckles humorlessly. “You ain’t even mortal.”
“But you trust me,” Sky says.
Paolo shrugs. “I wouldn’t say that. I mean, you seem all right. You come here, you move in, live in the neighborhood, make nice with the locals. Show respect to the old folks. Don’t try makin’ people pray to you. You ain’t been here long, though. An’ you’re still Guardia. You got a long way to go before I trust you.”
“Still, your gang will help with keeping peace in this neighborhood.” Sky doesn’t make it a question.
“Yeah, yeah. Shit, man, it’s our neighborhood! Of course.” Paolo shakes his head like Sky is stupid. “It’s what we’ve always done, without help from no Guardia. You guys only get in the way anyhow, getting’ in our business.”
“There’s someone else trying to get in your business now, isn’t there?” Sky studies the young man’s dark, hard eyes.
Paolo spits. “Fuckin’ Dukaines. Word on the street is all this crap with the bad water is their fault.”
“It is. They want everyone to bend the knee. Is that what you’re going to do?”
“Hell no!” Paolo shoots back vehemently. “They’re outsiders, like you! We heard what they done after they moved in on Little Falls – everybody there is slavin’ for ‘em now, even the Guardia! To Hell with those guys! Where were they when we were holdin’ this place together? Makin’ sure people ate, getting’ kids medicine an’ shit?”
“If you fight,” Sky says, “you’ll need allies. And there’s no bigger gang in the City than the Guardia.” He pauses, puts out a hand. “Talk to the other leaders. Tell them there’ll be Dukaine thugs making trouble, trying to scare people into submitting. Report this to the Guardia – we’ll come to help. We’re on the same side in this.”
Paolo looks at his hand, considering, then takes it. “Sure, sure – for the moment, anyway. Later…we’ll see.”
“Now isn't that better?” exclaimed Kyri, clattering down the stairs, “It’s just as well that we got you out of those clothes before you got sick, or even worse, caught a sniffle!”

“Yes,  Kyri,” says May, looking ruefully at the lace blouse and dirndl she is wearing as she wrestles another barrel into position and pries the top off, to start ladling water for the people in line. “How is Doria?” she asks Kyri.
“She’s fallen asleep again,” says Kyri, sadly. “I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not.”
“Maybe we should change barrels soon,” suggests Mayumi.
Kyri shrugs helplessly. “I don’t know what to do,” she says. Then she gasps. “May! Do you know someone named Atheist Jack?”
Mayumi looks mystified. “No, I’m sorry but I don’t.”
“He could help her!” Kyri says. “He somehow stops gods’ powers from working!”
Mayumi stares at her in confusion for a moment, then realization dawns. “Doria’s power is hurting her right now. And this Atheist guy…he would stop her power …”
“Yes!” says Kyri. “Can you find him – no wait, that’s silly! You don’t even know what he looks like. I will go find him! You stay here, all right?” Kyri grabs a shawl and a small hat. “You hold down the fort! I’ll be back in three shakes of a bunny’s tail!”


Ch3.39 The Pearl

As Mayumi and Sky stand in the doorway of the Copper Pot, they both sense the tension filling the air. Sky immediately recognises the two teenagers he had seen outside his apartment only the day before.  The older boy stands with a group of other youths, dressed in matching gang colors, refusing to meet Sky’s gaze. The younger of the pair stands at the other side of the room, behind a young woman – her status as some sort of immortal indicated by her preternaturally pale skin and vague aura of power surrounding her – who wears the colours of an opposing gang. The schoolboy stares pleadingly at Sky as the immortal female mutters at him over her shoulder. Sky can only hear fragments of what she is saying, “...family… safe… y’not gonna… scum…”

One of the gang members standing with the older boy fails to notice Sky’s presence and calls across the café, his voice dripping with machismo, “C’mon Mira, let the kid go, I don’ think ya doin’ it for him! Eh puta?!”

“The boy doesn’t know what he likes… yet!” retorts the demi-goddess, loading her final word with innuendo as she provocatively caresses the struggling boy.

“HEY!” shouts Kyri, as she storms back into the cafe, “I said to stop! Don’t make me force the issue or I’ll have you all singing and dancing like chorus girls!”

“Yeah?” snears Mira, “an’ what about after that? I’m sure all of them’d just love dancing like a bunch of pretty girls, but I’ll have our old friend Frogsy pay you another visit when he gets out – gonna be soon, from what I hear! How’d ya like that?”

Kyri looks over the immortal’s shoulder to Sky, “I trust that you heard that Inspector?” she trills, tipping her head sweetly to one side as she bats her eyelashes.

“Yes, I did,” growls Sky, stepping in front of the blushing demi-goddess. “Now Mira,” continues Sky, his voice taking on a paternal tone, “have you had a nice drink of water?”

“Uh-huh,” nods Mira, her normally chalk-white face now beet-red.

“Good. So why don’t you be a good girl and run along? And send my best to your mother.” Sky looks after the suddenly child-like demi-goddess as she swiftly leaves the café, trying but failing to maintain some dignity. To the teenager she was bothering, he says gently, “Você está bem, Sundar?” The boy nods and joins the others, his boyfriend putting a protective arm around him.

“Thank you Inspector,” says Kyri, smiling with only barely controlled mirth. “Now, why don’t you bring those barrels out to the kitchen so we can have a little chat? You too, May. Doria, d’you mind if I leave you in charge out here? I’m sure you can find some generous souls who can give you a hand,” she continues, nodding knowingly at the bewildered schoolboy.

“OK boss,” says Doria, sticking her tongue out at Kyri. “Right. You and you,” she commands, exhaustion tingeing her voice, pointing at the boy and his paramour, “can you two roll these empty barrels out to the back of the cafe?”


As Kyri closes the kitchen door she begins to giggle infectiously, May soon joining her, their laughter increasing until Kyri’s is uproarious, while May’s quieter but even more intense. Kyri wraps her arms around May for support, the Bunny seeming surprised but happy at the contact. Their laughter finally subsiding to a quiet giggle, Sky looks at the pair and smiles with amusement. “Are you two quite finished?” he asks, raising his eyebrows questioningly.

As the two look at Sky they once again start laughing. “My goodness!” gasps Kyri, struggling to regain her composure. “That was positively brilliant!”

“Quite excellent,” trills May, in a passable imitation of Kyri’s voice and accent. “Do you really know her mother?” she continues, as Kyri collapses against her into gales of laughter, sinking to her knees, her arms helplessly around May’s waist. May bites her lower lip, smiling and looking at Sky with a shrug.

“Yes,” admits Sky, grinning. “She’s my landlady.”

After a moment, Mayumi stops smiling. “You know you’ve made an enemy of Mira now,” she says, her voice serious.

“I know, but I think I can manage one adolescent demi-goddess, regardless of who she thinks her friends are,” he says, nodding.

I only hope you’re right, thinks Kyri as she stands with May’s help.

“Kyri,” Sky says, “I wanted to thank you, and apologise for getting you to lie about May to Sergeant Alma. I had no right to ask that of you.”

“That’s quite all right,” responds Kyri, “but I don’t like having to tell lies, especially to people like Sergeant Alma.” She smiles wryly. “She doesn’t seem like someone I’d want angry at me!”

“Of course,” says Sky, nodding contritely.

“I would, however, like to know why you needed me to tell that lie. Was it because May wasn’t meant to be out and about? Or was it because you don’t want Alma knowing that you two were out and about together?”

A moment of embarrassed confusion passes as both Sky and May struggle to find a way to answer the heavily loaded question.

“Well, it was the first one of course!” May bursts out, her voice fierce. “Why should Alma mind that I was with Sky? Why would that be a secret?”

Stone-faced, only his eyes betraying his discomfort at Kyri’s question and May’s insistent response, Sky says, “I had better keep moving, Dona Kyri. There are a few other people that I need to speak with.”

“Oh...of course, Inspector,” says Kyri, taken aback by Sky’s sudden return to crisp formality. “I’ll see you two out. Coming, May my dear?”

As they walk back into the café, Doria stops them, nervously pushing her ever-damp hair back. “I… I… just wanted to say thank you for helping the Oracle and me,” she says clumsily to all three of them, before continuing more confidently, “Kyri, I was wondering – if you had made everyone in the room sing and dance like chorus girls, would that have meant that our dear Inspector Tuma-Sukai would have been dancing like a chorus girl, too?”

“I rather think he would have been,” giggles Kyri archly.

“I wouldn’t mind seeing that,” laughs Doria, her eyes twinkling mischievously despite the dark circles under them.

Upon hearing this, Sky smiles thinly, his earlier discomfort lingering. “You are most welcome, Priestess. But I am only doing my job – a job that is far from complete. Mayumi here will be running messages between the Guardia Station, and the Copper Pot, so she’ll be staying here with you and Dona Kyri. It’s possible she may even need to go to the Oracle’s Grotto, in which case I would appreciate it if you would show her the way. Now I’m afraid I have business to attend to.” He catches the eye of Sundar’s boyfriend. “Paolo. I need to speak with you.” With a jerk of his chin, he indicates the door of the café. Touching a finger to his cap, he says to Kyri and Doria, “Ladies,” and with a quick glance at May, he heads out the door just behind the gang leader.


Ch3.38 The Pearl

Mayumi luxuriates in being on the street, in the open air, in the slanting late-afternoon light. She is nearly dancing despite the nearly empty streets.

“Thank you,” she says, taking a deep breath. Her keen nose sorts out numerous scents, many of them unpleasant, but she enjoys them nonetheless.

Sky smiles at her pleasure, then frowns. “Mayumi, just promise me…”

Carelessly, she says, “I know, I know, ‘be careful’.” She freezes as he stops walking. She looks up and sees him frowning down at her, practically glowering. Her ears sink back. “I...I’m sorry. Of course...I will be careful. I really will.”

“If anything happens to you,” he says, his expression softening, “I don’t know how I would forgive myself.” He starts walking again. “More importantly, I doubt Alma would ever forgive me.”

They walk for awhile in silence before she asks, “Alma...you like her very much, don’t you?”

“I do,” he answers after a moment. “We got off on the wrong foot, but we seem to be doing well now. I think of her...as a friend, now.” He sounds rather surprised.

After a little while, Mayumi says, “I’m glad. She needs a friend.” After another pause, she says, “Sky? I wish...I wish I hadn’t lied to her about going outside, a week ago.”

“Then you should tell her the truth,” he replies.

“But you’ll get into trouble too!”

He shrugs, though to her he looks more concerned than he thinks he does. “If we’re really meant to be friends, she’ll forgive me eventually. I don’t want to leave that lie festering any more than you do. And now Kyri is having to lie as well…and Aliyah will have to eventually.”

Mayumi feels miserable. “Oh no...oh this is terrible. I’ll tell her, when this is all over...though she’ll probably never trust me again.”

“You know, Mayumi, what she really wants from you, needs from you, is communication. She wants to know you, desperately. I feel bad, telling you this – I feel I’m betraying her confidence – but I can’t stand to see both of you suffering when you both want to talk to each other but neither of you dares be the first to speak!” He sounds quite frustrated and embarrassed.

They walk in silence until they are nearly to the Copper Pot, outside of which is a long line of people bearing jugs and pots pitchers and jars. A cart bearing heavy barrels pulls up, drawn by patient-looking pachyderms, like small, short-trunked elephants with small ears. The people in the line cheer weakly, and a few Guardia who are policing the line come to help unload the barrels.

Mayumi finds herself sorting through her roiling feelings: resentment at his presumption, shame at knowing he’s right, even gratitude at this evidence that he cares. She opens her mouth to speak, but before she speaks, he says, “I’m sorry...perhaps I shouldn’t have said–”

“No,” she interrupts. “No...you were right. I’ll talk to her. I want to talk to her.”

He nods, relieved. “Well, let’s find out how things are going here.” He smiles at her, his face shadowed in the deepening gloom of the oncoming evening; then he goes to assist the unloading, lifting a heavy, sloshing barrel under each arm and carrying them inside.


Ch3.37 The Pearl

Moving through empty streets and dark alleys, Saira follows the silent crowd without ever blending with it. Shuffling their feet in absent quietude, like mindless drones, the people drift toward a single place, following in an almost religious trance. Their destination? A building adjacent to the Guardia Station where a Popula, almost definitely a Probe Constable from the way he looks so out of place in his uniform, stands by the door, welcoming people and making sure no one walks in armed.

The people leaving the building carry pitchers and bottles of clear water and look overall somewhat less weakened than the people walking in.

Hmm… First Kyri’s and now this place gets turned into a water-distribution spot, Saira cogitates. Machado would never put his neck out against the Dukaines like this. This must be the Dei’s doing, she reasons. What’s the name of that Inspector, again?

Now moving into the crowd, lowering her head to try and blend in, the woman searches her memory for the name.

Tuma-Sukai… she remembers it finally. Hmm… Why do I feel like I’ve heard that name before?

Walking past the GP with ease, Saira enters the building to a silent mess. Well… not exactly silent. The large room into which the door opens is absolutely packed with locals, too weakened by the poisonous water to be loud and rowdy as would be expected in any case where free stuff is being given away. But, in the background, behind a long wooden counter, clear, cheerful voices sound, warm and inviting, like they belong to people who are having a world of fun doing their job.

“Come along, dearies! Dinnae be shy!” someone calls out.

“Yeah, there’s water for everyone and when you’re done drinkin’ you can take some home too!” a second voice rings. “Come an’ take it while it’s on the house!”

“Cherry, we’re not going to charge people for water!” the first speaker scolds the latter.

“Well, not now, of course!” the owner of the second voice retorts. “But once this is over and done with…”   


“Oh, OK, OK! We’ll talk about it later on!”

Without really meaning to, Saira smiles. The cheerful tone of the female voices, whose owners she can’t quite see, vibrant and infectious, brings a long-drowned memory to her mind.

This used to be a bustling bar when I was growing up. If only the owners hadn’t refused to pay for protection… she recalls with a sigh.

A small pull at her jacket sleeve and a glass of water coming into view bring her back to the present. Looking down, she sees the vessel of appetizing liquid and beyond it, a dark-skinned graceful face topped with…

“Bunny ears?” Saira whispers in disbelief.

The short young man looking up at her from somewhere at chest height, nods slowly with a gaze of infinite patience, like that of one who is getting used to answering the same question over and over again.

“Yes, they are real,” he says in a soft, kind tone. “I am a Bunny and my name is Sage. You look thirsty,” he remarks, moving the glass a little closer to Saira, inviting her to take it.

After a moment staring back at him in silent shock, Saira focuses on the glass and takes it slowly from his hands. Gazing at the crystal-clear liquid, she realizes for the first time just how parched she is. In her quiver, the Pearl hums slightly, as if parched as well. Her throat dry, both from water deprivation and amazement at the novel creature, Saira gulps the liquid in a single go.

“Thank you,” the woman says, drying some spilled liquid on the corner of her lips with the back of her hand.

The Bunny called Sage smiles and produces a full pitcher, asking “Would you like some more?”

“Uuhh…” Saira hesitates. “Save it for the rest of these people,” she finally replies, giving him back the glass.

“That is very kind of you,” Sage states softly. “But we do have plenty of water for them too,” he claims, pointing at a patch in the crowd a little further to his right. “See?”

Looking at where he is pointing, paying slightly more attention to the crowd, Saira spots another male Bunny, this one fair-skinned and blonde, carrying a water pitcher and glasses. Not very far away, a couple of overturned boxes provide a secondary counter, where three slightly younger looking Bunnies, two males and a female, fill and line up bottles and jars with water from a large keg for people to take home.

“The ones at the counter, are they like you too?” she asks Sage.

“Yes. There are seven of us in total,” the Bunny states. “And the ears are real on all. As are the tails,” he adds.

“I’ve been to lots of places and seen many things. But I had never heard of Bunnies,” Saira notes in wonder. “Well, not your kind of bunny, anyway.”

“We moved here recently with our mother, Alma,” Sage explains. “She’s with the Guardia Dei.”

“Did she put you up to this?” Saira asks, gesturing to encompass the crowded room.

The Bunny nods in response. “We are glad to help. It is our gift to everyone.”

Saira nods slowly as the information sinks in.

A bar and a station full of gods and Bunnies. Three Rats is getting interesting for the first time in all its history, she muses.

“Thanks for the water, Sage,” the woman says aloud. “I won’t keep you any longer.”

“Take this,” Sage offers, producing a small, tin-plated canteen from the belt hugging his tunic. “So you don’t go thirsty again.”

Absent mindedly taking the canteen, Saira offers a small smile of thank you. “Take care of yourself, Sage,” she states, turning to leave.

“You too, Miss,” the Bunny replies with a nod and a smile at the woman’s back before going back to his duties.

Exiting the building as fast as possible, Saira blends with the crowd, only half conscious of the way she is clutching the canteen as if it were a precious treasure. Glancing back just as she turns to disappear into a shadowy alleyway,  she sees a familiar face staring intently in her direction over the ever-growing mass of people flowing toward the building.

Oh, crap! she swears inwardly. Cala…