Cala and Aliyah arrive at the station, still exchanging whispered words about their recent encounter with Saira. It is telling of how troubled their minds and hearts are that Cala’s jaw is locked in painfully reigned-in anger and nervousness, and Aliyah’s eyes can focus on nothing but the ground ahead, her countenance pale and waxen with grief. Cala can barely stand to look at her friend as she feels Aliyah’s pain and anguish radiate through her.
“Come on, Allie,” she says in a soft, motherly tone. “We need to report to Inspector Sky and tell him about Saira.”
“I know...Oh Cala…” Aliyah responds, her voice sounding as if she is about to break into tears. After a moment of silence, stops herself and straightens up, her expression indicative of her resolve. “Okay, I’m fine, okay…”
“Yeah… fine indeed…” Cala grumbles to herself as they cover the distance to Inspector Tuma-Sukai’s office.
A couple of deep breaths before they knock, and then a couple of knocks on the door, and it opens wide, revealing the Inspector’s worried face.
“Yes?” he asks, his brow furrowing as he takes in their expressions. “Come in.”
They follow him into the office, watching as he moves smoothly into making tea without bothering to ask what brings them to his presence.
He knows what this is about, after all, Cala gathers. He’s just waiting for us to talk. And he can see how distressed we are.
“Sir, we…” she starts but then stops and looks at Aliyah, yielding to her as the senior officer.
Her eyes now cold and steely, Aliyah notices Cala’s move and clears her throat to speak. “Um, sir we found her,” she half stutters despite her best efforts. “She...she says she has the Pearl. And...we talked her into agreeing to hand it over.”
“Yes,” Cala confirms. “On her own terms,” she adds hesitantly.
Still apparently focused on his tea, almost refusing to look at them, the Inspector pours water into the teapot, swirling it a bit before inquiring, “And what are those terms?”
“She wants to talk to a Dei first,” Cala announces, a cold shiver shooting down her spine in anticipation of what comes next.
“I see,” Tuma-Sukai replies, nodding slowly at the teapot, his voice lacking the empathy and warmth it usually conveys. “Where and when can I meet her?”
“Sir...she wants to meet Sgt Alma,” Aliyah blurts out quickly, her face and words indicating how badly she wants to get done with the issue. “She says she’ll only talk to her.”
“Yes, she was pretty specific. No one else will do. And even then…” Cala adds to her friend’s words, almost whispering the last few words.
The Inspector raises his eyes from his tea-brewing utensils and looks at them both, unreadably, for a long minute. “This friend of yours...she has slain a demigoddess,” he says in a calm but tense tone. “What is your assessment of her? Would Sgt Alma be in any danger, meeting with her?”
“Sir, she’s–” Cala starts.
“She’s no friend of ours, sir,” Aliyah interrupts, crossing her arms over her chest and looking away, her voice heartbroken. “And I...until a couple hours ago, I’d’ve told you there’s no way Sgt Alma would have anything to worry about...but now…” She looks up with tears filling her eyes, threatening to overspill. “I just don’t know!”
As the Corporal turns to face the door and wipes angrily at her eyes, Cala sees the Inspector’s impassive expression crack ever so slightly, filling with compassion at Aliyah’s pain. She fights her surprise at this to fill in the gaps left by her best friend.
“She wants the Sergeant because she…” Cala hesitates, her next words burning like poison in her mouth. “She knows about the Bunnies, sir. She said if she was doublecrossed, she’d know where to find Sgt Alma’s children.”
“And just who is looking for my children?” a voice rings softly at the door.
Cala, Aliyah, and the Inspector turn their eyes to Alma, standing by the now-open door of the office. The goddess gazes at Aliyah’s flushed cheeks and red eyes as she closes the door behind her, her eyes then travelling to Cala’s worried expression and finally to Inspector Sukai, questioningly.
“Perfect timing,” the Inspector states, motioning to both Cala and Aliyah. “Corporal, Constable, have a seat on the sofa. Sergeant, I’m just about to serve tea. It seems these two have come through on finding the Pearl. There’s a complication, however.”
Tea now poured into cups and distributed all around, all four Guardia sit, Sergeant Alma and the Inspector listening carefully as Cala and Aliyah report on their findings and suspicions. They are careful to mention only the absolutely necessary, leaving behind the whole truth of their past relationship.
“I see…” Alma states when silence finally falls in the room. “So, this… Saira, how well do you know her?”
Aliyah is the first to reply in a low, strained voice. “Once, we knew her as well as, well...I was going to say as well as we know each other, but maybe that’s not really true. Saira...there’s always been something held back with her.”
“She’s an orphan, from that place near Little Falls we told you about before," Cala explains. “We lived nearby, and pretty much grew up together, did everything together. Until she started running with this gang…” she trails off, looking at Aliyah, who is staring into space. “She thought that her new friends loved her more than we did.”
Aliyah shakes her head, almost whispering her next words. “No...she didn’t think that. She just thought our love was holding her back,” she says, her voice growing an edge of anger. “It wasn’t what she needed. It didn’t fit in with her plans.” She looks at Alma. “I don’t think she’ll hurt you, ma’am...I think she’s just looking for a way to get rid of this dangerous thing she has, and making sure the Dukaines don’t get it. But you’d better take backup, and whoever it is better be good and stealthy, because she’s very good at what she does.”
“And you are sure she has the Pearl?” the Sergeant asks, her tone cautious, her words slow as if speaking to particularly frightened children.
“Yes,” Cala confirms with a nod. “I don’t see any reason for her to lie about that.”
“And what does she want in return for it?”
“She said she just wants to take revenge on the Dukaines by messing up whatever plans they have with the Pearl. She wants to be sure the Dukaines can’t get it back,” Aliyah answers. "So you’ll have to reassure her on that.”
Sgt Alma seems to take their replies into serious consideration before turning to Inspector Sukai and noting, “We really don’t have a choice but to humor her. The Oracle is weakening rapidly.”
The Inspector merely nods, stone-faced. “You’re right. I’ll be your backup. Corporal – when and where?” he demands of Aliyah.
“She said she would meet Sgt Alma at the warehouse, where she took the Pearl from the Dukaines,” Aliyah prompts immediately. “As for when...she didn’t say. As soon as possible, I guess.”
“She must already be watching it,” Inspector Tuma-Sukai reasons, focusing his gaze on his Sergeant. “I won’t be able to set up ahead of time. You’ll have to go in, wait for her to contact you. Then I can move in and be ready in case she tries anything. It’s...risky.”
Sgt Alma only sighs at this. “Isn’t it always...?”