Sky pauses in writing at the sound of a knock on his door. He looks up. “Come in!”
The door opens, the slight form of Sgt Alma silhouetted in the frame. Sky feels a mixture of surprise, apprehension, and a hope that he quickly tries to quash at the sight of her. They’ve been avoiding each other as much as possible for weeks.
As she enters and closes the door behind her, he sees her cold expression, and finds the hope very easily extinguished. “I woke up to this,” she says, setting a slip of paper on his desk and then crossing her arms, glaring at him balefully.
Sky picks up and reads the short message, brow furrowed in consternation. He turns it over, then holds it up to the light from his small window, before looking back at her, his eyes asking a silent question.
“Do you have anything to do with that?” she demands, more in accusation than inquiry. But he can see her shoulders already relaxing slightly, as she realizes from his confused expression what his answer will be.
“No, Sergeant, of course not.” He pauses, then continues. “You say you woke up to this. It was in your sanctum, then? Uh, please...sit.”
As she slowly takes a seat, she says, “It was on my bedside table. And before you ask, no, none of the Bunnies noticed anyone come in to leave it.”
“Sergeant...I know I’m not your favorite person. But why would you think that I would–” He stops, suddenly thinking hard. “Just a moment.” He stands and goes to his locker, taking out a small first-aid kit and removing a scalpel from it. At Alma’s apprehensive expression, he tries to smile reassuringly. Speaking normally, he says, “I’m glad you came. I was going to ask to see you a little later. I’ve almost finished the report to the Council, about the Bunnies, and I wanted you to read it, of course, before I send it in.”
As he speaks, he slices the tip of his left index finger, a small cut to let blood flow slowly, and goes around the room, reaching up to touch a complex ideogram near the ceiling in the center of each wall. The ideograms are painted in the same color as the walls themselves, but more recently, so although they are not obvious enough for her to have noticed them before, she can spot them easily now, especially as when he touches each one and breathes the word “Silence!” in the ancient Language of Blood, the symbols glow blue.
Following his example, she keeps her voice normal as she says, “Interesting coincidence then, that this note should reach me just as you finish this report!” She sees the report on the desk, facing away from her, sitting on its open folder with some other papers. Having been told she would be reading it, she reaches out and picks it up. A memo written on a half-sheet of paper adheres briefly to the report and then falls onto her lap; she picks it up and the signature of the Commander of the Guardia catches her eye. She is about to put it back in the folder unread, but she also sees the name “Sky,” and intrigued by the Commander’s use of such a familiar mode of address for her commanding officer, she cannot help but read a few words of it:
Sky, you need to be prepared to be ordered by the Council to execute the children of Sgt Alma.
Sky turns to face her after touching the fourth symbol, and sees her pale and rigid with fury. For just a moment he thinks, Now what have I done? Then he recognizes the paper she is holding, and realizes what she must have read. Oh no. “Sergeant…”
“You knew.” Her voice is as cold as death itself.
“I was just about to tell you.” Funny how the truth can sound so weak when it comes at the exact wrong moment, he thinks.
“You knew. All this time, you knew.” She stands, her fine white hair stirring in a rising wind as shadows gather around her. “He left you a note to terminate them – to murder them – and you didn’t tell me immediately?”
“This note arrived yesterday,” he says, keeping his voice steady, knowing how cornered she feels, how she could at any moment turn her full powers of the Divine Sphere of Death upon him. “But I knew...I knew that one possibility was that I would be ordered to kill them. I did know that.”
“And why?” she nearly screams at him. “Why would you not tell me that? You who claimed to be a friend!” She steps closer to him, her fingers looking ready to slash into him, glowing with black energy.
“I was ordered not to!” he shouts back at her, standing firm.
“Oh, that justifies it all! I am so very sorry for my outburst!” She is nearly touching him now, glaring up at him, her face at a level with his chest. The wind is whipping papers all over the office now.
“You don’t...I can’t just…” Sky struggles. “When he orders me to do something, I have no choice! Don’t you understand? I had no choice!” He takes a deep breath. “I am bound to the Commander by the Adamantine Vow. I am unable to violate his orders.”
The wind lessens slightly, as a hint of doubt creeps into her expression. It seems to Sky as if she wants to believe him. But the venom in her voice persists. “Words. So many flying from your lips and what do they mean to me? Nothing! Don’t waste your words lying to me! If you are bound by that ancient oath, you should be incapable of telling me now.”
“The memo includes a coded message,” he says, calmly but urgently. “On the surface, he is telling me to be ready to receive the order to execute. But we have a code. Underneath the surface, he is telling me to be ready to defy that order, and protect the Bunnies.”
The wind lessens further. “Do you think I would put their lives in the hands of their assassin? How do you expect me to trust you?”
“I...don’t.” His shoulders slump in defeat. “But Alma...you must.” He only realizes he has used her name after it slips out. “They are in danger.”
“Danger?” she almost spits. “What do you know of danger? The Bunnies have been in danger since the day Cherry and Merri were created. The things I’ve done, the deals I’ve struck just to keep them alive, even if trapped in stasis… I have risked my life to keep them here! Constantly under the steady gaze of the Archons…we have paid such a heavy price…”
“I know that,” he says, sadly. “And the risks are far from over. A– … Sergeant…you will need help. If the Council votes for death, I will help you protect them.”
He sees her hesitate, then strengthen her resolve. “I cannot trust you,” she insists. The wind has died away, her hands are no longer limned in black light. “Trust is earned. Trust is paid for. You… All you did was betray whatever sliver of trust I may have granted you before.”
He nods hopelessly. “And there is no time for me to earn your trust, if that is even possible.”
“Then what more do we have to say to each other?” she asks, a sadness coloring her implacable voice, as if she wished it could be otherwise. She starts to step past him toward the door.
He holds out a hand, almost touching her arm but holding back. “Wait.” She stops as he stands, silent, his face working. Finally he says, “There is one way.” He locks eyes with her. “The Adamantine Vow.”
She looks at him unbelieving, unable to speak for a moment. “And what is it you would vow?” she asks, finally.
“To protect the Bunnies, to do what is necessary to keep them safe, even if it costs me everything.”
“But you are bound to the Commander! This could put you in conflict with your vow to him. The results…” She trails off.
“Would be the same as my breaking the vow. I would be cursed. I would lose all my powers, and be marked as an oathbreaker. Every god I meet would know me for what I am, and none would be punished for hurting me, not even for torturing or murdering me.”
“Then why would you do such a thing?”
He smiles wanly. “I cannot think of anything else. Besides, the Commander sent me here to protect them.” He frowns. “At least...I’m almost sure he did. He plays his cards close. But at this point, I no longer care. I’ve come to know them. Merri and Cherry, Sage and Mayumi, Kori and Chime. And the other one.” His smile widens slightly. “Even if I am wrong about the Commander, at least I’ll be removed from the board. I’ll be one less threat for you to worry about. The youngest...she will have a chance to learn her name. Besides, this is my nature. I champion the weak against the powerful. Once I’ve formed an attachment, I am committed. This Vow...it is merely a stronger version of a divine compulsion that I can no more resist than you can resist assisting a soul on its path.”
She studies his face as he speaks. “Very well, then. I...know of the Vow, but I’ve never enacted it. What must we do?”
“I will make the Vow to you, in the Language of Dragons. When I am finished, you will reply… ‘I accept your Vow, Azzageddi’.”
Confused, she asks, “‘Azzageddi’? That is not a word in the Language of Dragons.”
He swallows before he says, “That is my name.”
“... Your name? Even your name has been a lie?” She looks at him in a kind of disgusted wonder.
“My true name is known to few, Alma,” he says. “The Commander, the Oracle, a few on the Council.” Perhaps your mother. He keeps that thought to himself. “And now you.” Indicating the sigils on the upper walls of the room, he says, “If you speak it outside this enchantment of privacy, you will be putting me in danger. Grave danger.”
“I will do my best to forget it then,” she says drily. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
“Being protective of me now?” He wonders at his jocularity for a moment, then recognizes it for what it is: a kind of hysterical relief. She knows my true name. She will hold my Vow. I have put all my trust in her. There is no more point in worrying.
He takes her hands in his, bows his head. In the Language of Dragons, he says the words, that he will guard her children with his life, that he will not allow the Council or their proxies to harm them. As he speaks, he summons his power, sending it into their hands, creating a vortex of mana that, when she speaks her acceptance, slams into her like a gust from a hurricane, leaving her gasping in shock from the cold-ocean feel of it.
And there is something more, carried along with it: a strong sense of an aching, almost unrelieved loneliness, a sense of profound isolation, and a longing for its end.
She takes a half-step back, and weakened, he stumbles, almost falling against her. She releases one hand and wraps an arm around him to support him, while he grabs her shoulder to keep upright.
She guides him to the sofa. As she helps him sit, he says, “I forgot how much power that takes.” He chuckles. “Seems like one of us is always almost fainting in this office.”
“At least it’s you for a change,” Alma mutters. She tries to help him lie down, but he resists. “You need to rest,” she insists.
“We’re not done,” he says weakly. “Your mysterious note. It wasn’t me, so who?”
She shakes her head. “Very few would have the power to enter my sanctum, leave the note, and not be witnessed. Possibly my mother, but she would have little reason for this subtlety. Perhaps the Oracle...”
“Maybe,” he replies. “But whoever it is either doesn’t want you to know their identity, or assumes you know it...and is therefore incompetent. Unless...have you tried examining it magically? Perhaps there is something encoded within it, a fuller message, or the sender’s identity?”
“I’ll try. Now rest.” She relents trying to make him sit and looks at the mess her earlier fury caused. “Your report…”
“I’ll clean it up later,” he says. “Come back at lunch. I’ll be recovered by then. I want you and Gwydion both to read it over. If there is any chance to sway the Council and avoid...what we fear, well, I want to make sure it’s as persuasive as it can be. And he knows how those of the First Ring think far better than I.”
As she turns toward the door, he laughs and says, “Wait! If you open that door, you’ll overload the privacy spell and set my office walls on fire!” He starts to stand slowly, and Alma sighs in exasperation and grabs his elbow to help him up.
“Can’t I just deactivate the sigils for you?” she asks.
“It’s a rather paranoid variation on the spell,” he says, abashed. “The ideograms explode if someone else tries to deactivate them.” He stumblingly deactivates each sigil with a touch and a whispered word.
She shakes her head. “Layers upon layers. And what will be left when all your masks are peeled away?” She guides him back to the sofa and practically forces him to lie down. She stands and looks down at him, her face on the edge of smiling. “Rest now...Sky.”
She quickly turns to leave, and misses how he closes his eyes and smiles in joyful relief.