Returning to the station with her precious cargo, Alma enters what looks like an empty building. All of the day, night, and dawn officers, who until a couple of hours previously filled (and overfilled) the small station, seem to have left all at once. No one sits at the desks, no living soul populates the offices. The station sits as if the life has been drained out of it as well.
Well, this is… odd, the goddess muses. Not a single Guardia was left behind to man the station?
The sound of steps coming from the basement makes her turn to see Inspector Sky arriving. He looks tired, the remainder of his wounds still stubbornly marring his otherwise handsome face. He doesn’t even notice her as he crosses the room towards his office. Standing on the staircase that leads upstairs, the basement her next stop in her search for someone to tell her what exactly is going on and why there isn’t a single Popula around, Alma watches him open the door and enter. Following close behind, she knocks gently on the wood. Sky’s half-grunted invitation of “Come in” sounds from within the office.
“Sky?” Alma questions as she opens the door.
“Oh, Alma!” Sky says, rising from the sofa. “I just needed to sit and gather my thoughts,” he adds apologetically.
“It is quite all right,” the goddess replies in a sympathetic voice. “It is you who looks worn out now. Have you been drinking the water? No, no, sit.”
“I’ve just been running around. I even took a little nap, but I’m still pretty tired.” He shakes his head to clear it. “To tell the truth, I haven’t had much sleep since I started this job. Have you found out anything else about the Oracle and the Pearl?”
Taking a chair and placing it closer to the sofa, Alma sits down to be closer to Sky’s eye level. Absentmindedly placing a hand on the arm of the chair and tapping her fingers, she takes a moment to organize her thoughts before exposing her findings.
“Yes and no,” she states. “The Oracle’s name is Nevieve, by the way. She was of the First Ring once, and an Archon, but left suddenly and without explanation. The Pearl itself, or the Siren’s Pearl, as Mother called it, is a powerful, ancient item, although I have nothing on the source and type of power it holds.” A deep exhalation and the goddess adds, “Whatever it is, Nevieve’s fate hangs with that of the Pearl.”
Sky takes a moment before commenting on her words, taking longer to process the information than he normally would, his eyes unfocused on a point just above Alma’s right shoulder. “That is some very disturbing news,” he finally notes. “Did your mother know of anything we can do to help the Oracle?”
“‘Find the Pearl’, is all she said,” the goddess conveys. She knows that this is not completely true but her thoughts and suspicions regarding Lyria’s words are to remain her own for the moment.
“And find it we shall,” the Inspector states in a matter-of-fact tone of voice. However, in spite of his best efforts to look confident, in his eyes the unspoken words I hope linger treacherously.
“Meanwhile,” he adds. “Doria is already rounding up worshippers to help get clean water and distribute it out of the Copper Pot. All of the Popula who are not involved with the investigation have been stationed there to help keep things under control.”
Crowd control, in other words, Alma reasons. Everyone will be flocking there. Seven dogs to a bone.
Out loud, she says, “The people are drained and weak. I wouldn’t expect much restlessness from them. Unless we are expecting… streetwise entrepreneurs, of course.”
Sky’s nod confirms her assumptions. “There are bound to be some, yes. There always are.”
Rising from the sofa, the god begins to pace back and forth, his brow furrowed with his concerns. “Ultimately, Kyri’s may not even be enough as a distribution place. Getting water from outside this region and bringing it here won’t be easy... or quick.” He runs his hand through his thick, shaggy black hair.
As she watches him pace around, Alma decides to voice the thoughts that have accompanied her all the way back from the Academy. “Well, what if we can add another site and a different source for the water?”
Sky’s head shoots in her direction, his full attention suddenly focused on her. “What do you mean?”
“I have access to a different spring, originating outside of Three Rats,” the goddess explains. “This one has remained untainted so far. I’m sure we can use it.”
Comprehension blooms on his face. “Does this have to do with the pool in your room?”
“And how do you know there is a pool in my room?” Alma asks immediately in a voice laced with ice, her brow raised at the god, her jaw locked in the half smile of a predator waiting for the prey to start running and trigger the chase.
At the sound of her voice and the look on her face, Sky freezes momentarily, eyes widening. “I…” He almost laughs at his stab of fear. “I just knocked on the door, Alma! Merri answered, and I asked her to send Doria upstairs to the bar so I could speak with her. I saw the pool from the door. It was while you were asleep, here.”
The goddess holds silence for a long, uncomfortable moment. Eyes locked on his, she watches every twitch in his expression, searching for any indication of falsehood. She finds none.
“Alma!” he cries in response to her searching glare. “Do you really think for a moment that I would enter your home without permission?” He pauses. “Well, short of an emergency, of course.”
“Well…” she says, relaxing slightly. “The pool you saw is fed by a fountain that is still untainted. I am sure we could use it as a second source.”
Collapsing more than sitting on the sofa, Sky smiles, tired but pleased. “That is wonderful news! But…” He again looks concerned. “I am sorry if this disturbs your home.”
Her next steps already being planned in her mind, Alma replies, “I am sure we will find a way around that.”
Sky nods thoughtfully, then speaks hesitantly. “There’s something else I need to ask you. A favor.”
Raising an eyebrow at the sudden request, Alma inquires, “And what would this favor imply?”
Rubbing the back of his head, obviously uneasy with the idea of bringing this particular issue up, Sky states, “Well, in light of this new development, using the bar for a second distribution point, I mean, this is even more important than before. You see, we need more people than we have, to handle distribution. I’m going to talk to some locals, but I need a runner, someone to keep me in touch with what’s going on while I’m away from the Station.” He hesitates before adding, “And I think Mayumi would be the right person for that.”
Alma breathes deep, trying to get her thoughts under control, her expression betraying nothing of her inner struggle. “I see your point but… Why Mayumi?” she questions.
“She is desperate to get out of the station,” the Inspector explains. “She nearly punched a wall this morning. She wants to help, and she feels trapped in here. I think...it would do her good to get outside.”
Her voice cold, with an edge of steel, Alma jumps at this, her emotions taking over. “First, she needs to learn to control her impulses. All of them do. And second, why did I not hear anything about punching walls and feelings of entrapment?”
“I assumed she would tell you…” Sky says and trails off with a sigh. Breathing deep for courage, he goes on. “But Alma, she already controls her impulses. That doesn’t make them disappear, however. She can control herself – that’s not the problem. She needs an outlet for that energy. Look, I know you’re worried. I’ll show her the way, make sure she knows where to go. And she’s fast – nobody is going to be able to catch her. She’s promised me she’ll be careful.”
The goddess goes silent for a moment, processing all this, struggling with the information and the feelings of disappointment and deep betrayal it brings. After a while, however, the realization that she would only be delaying the inevitable sinks in, making her shoulders slump. “If anything happens to her, Sky…” she almost whispers.
The inspector leans forward and lightly touches her arm. “I know...my impulse is to tell her just to stay put too. But she’s right when she insists that she’s not a child. In her dreams...she had a whole life. She knows how to handle herself. We need to trust her...and eventually, all of them. And this is a real emergency. We need everyone.”
Alma nods slowly, sighing. “Go ahead, then. Let her know she gets to have her way.”
He nods in return. “Thank you. Do you want me to send her to you before we leave?”
“No,” the goddess replies in a bitter tone. “You two seem to have gotten everything figured out already. Just don’t ever tell me she got into trouble,” Alma warns him, her tone made all-the-more frightening for its serenity as she threatens, “Or I will have your skin.”
Sky merely nods at this, looking at her with sadness in his eyes as she leaves the office in quiet defeat.