In bed, staring at the ceiling. Or Sky would be staring at the ceiling if there were any light at all in his little pocket-universe home, but he has extinguished everything. Except for the feel of the bed under him and the soft sound of slowly circulating water from the bath, he is nearly in a state of sensory deprivation.
Sometimes it works, when sleep will not come. But sometimes his brain simply will not stop working, spinning, chewing at problems uselessly. Everything that can be prepared for has been prepared for. Contingencies have been planned. Backups are in place. Now he tells himself to discard the things that he can do nothing about. Tells himself that again and again and again, for hours, as his brain spins like a starving rat running itself to death on a rusty wheel.
There is a knock. He sits up immediately. It was not audible, but something inside his head. There is a spell on the door to his office, and another on the door to his false apartment in Three Rats; they let him know, anywhere on the Insula, if someone is knocking on one of those doors, calling for him, trying the handle.
Silently thanking whoever the knocker is, he whispers “low light” and, as the room brightens a little, he grabs his trousers from the back of a chair.
Moments later he is stepping through the personal portal from his pocket apartment and into his office at Three Rats Station, still buttoning his shirt. Sunlight streams through his small window; he leads the graveyard shift at the moment, so he sleeps during the day. Supposedly. He runs his fingers through his shaggy black hair and unlocks the office door, opening it.
He finds a sudden startled reaction from two figures. Corporal Kaur takes a step away from Sage, her hand, which had been on his shoulder, suddenly flashing behind her, as if she is trying to hide the fact she has a right hand at all. Her attempt to adopt an innocent expression causes Sky to snort in laughter before he can stop himself, but he tries to turn it into a cough that is no more believable than Aliyah’s face. Sage meanwhile hops back slightly, not out of guilt at whatever innocent flirting or caressing or perhaps even kissing they had been engaged in – Aliyah and Sage’s mutual affection was the best-known secret in the station – but out of reaction to Aliyah’s flash of fear at being caught.
But Sage recovers immediately. “Inspector,” he says solemnly. “I thought perhaps you weren’t in.”
“Sorry about the delay,” Sky says. “Corporal, did you want to see me as well?”
“Uh, no sir!” Aliyah stands to attention, for no legitimate reason.
“Then...wait, this isn’t your shift, is it?” Sky asks.
“I’m in for Wally, sir! He fell down some stairs.”
Sky winces. “Anything broken this time?”
“Cracked skull, sir!” Aliyah replies. “Should be right as rain in a couple days.”
“Very well. As you were.” As Sky pointedly says that, Aliyah relaxes and slips away gratefully. Sky returns his attention to Sage, who, now that the moment of startlement is over, looks worried, his normally erect black ears low with worry, echoing the look on his dark face.
“Come in, Sage. What is it?” Sky closes the door behind him as the Bunny enters his office.
Sage hands him a wax-sealed envelope, the seal bearing the imprint of the Council. “It just arrived.”
Sky takes it, holding it, as if weighing it. So small and light, to carry such heavy news. If the Council has decided one way, Alma and her Bunnies are free, their lives their own to determine, at least as much as anyone’s lives are. The other way, and the Bunnies will be under a sentence of death, and Alma will be devastated.
Sky looks at Sage’s face to find the Bunny looking up at him, worry marring his handsome, almost pretty features. He knows, of course. Mayumi and Alma will have told him by now. Sage especially needs to know; after Mayumi he is the closest thing the Bunnies have to a leader among themselves.
Wishing he had a reason to send Sage away but finding none, Sky breaks the seal on the envelope, feeling the trigger of magic imbued within it, an instant alert to the sender that the seal has been broken by the intended recipient. Sky pulls out the papers within, trying to ignore the feeling of dread that has grown over the past six weeks, since he was first given this assignment, and that has finally reached its apex in this very moment.
He unfolds the paper and reads. He feels the blood drain from his face. He feels as if his heart has been replaced by a block of ice.
He hears a sound. It is the thick parchment of the official missive, his orders, crumpling in his fist.
He looks at Sage, who has been watching all this in growing misery. This beautiful creature, this gentle young man, radiating simple, straightforward love for everyone he meets. A quiet voice, rarely heard except when making just the right point, wisdom cutting through all confusion, softly healing those around him.
And I have been ordered to murder him. And all the others.
He closes his eyes in pain.
Pale Rosemary, always ready to laugh. Coy, seductive Cherry, keeping her full name a secret. Sullen Kori, turning up asleep in the most surprising places. Young Chime, his dirty-blond hair falling over one eye, finding music in everything. The little unnamed one, still asleep in her atavistic animal stage, always watching, listening, as if trying to understand what everyone else is going on about. Just a child.
And Mayumi. Whom he thinks about far too much, and yet he still doesn’t know what to think about her.
He feels arms around his waist, a body pressed against him. He opens his eyes and reflexively embraces Sage back. And who else would you expect to hug his officially designated executioner?
His cheek pressed against Sky’s lower chest, Sage whispers, “I know you’ll do everything you can.”
Sky nods, unable to speak for a moment. Then he releases the Bunny and says, “Bring Alma and Gwydion. And...get the others ready.”
Sage nods. He looks like he’s about to say something, but then turns and goes.
Gwydion enters first, and seeing Sky’s face, murmurs a quiet greeting and takes a seat to wait for Alma. Sky mechanically makes tea for him, and Dion is already drinking his by the time Alma arrives. Her face is composed but her eyes have the glassy look of one spending too much energy trying to outrun her own emotions.
After activating the privacy spell, Sky asks her, “Are they ready to go?”
"I expect so, yes," Alma replies.
“Go where?” Dion asks.
Sky says heavily, “We have a contingency plan in place. In case the Council...decided what it did indeed decide. Alma will slip away, taking the Bunnies to one of the many worlds connected to the Urbis Caelestis.” He goes to his locker and puts on his jacket, and takes his field cap off its hook on the wall.
“And you didn’t see fit to tell me?” Dion comments, his face rigidly passionless.
“I specifically decided not to tell you,” Sky replies as he puts his cap on. “You can claim truthfully that you have no idea where they are. And that you had nothing to do with planning or aiding the escape. This will allow you to stay free, even work to reverse the ruling and allow them to return.”
Alma murmurs, “You know that will never happen, Sky.”
Dion’s eyebrows furrow a fraction as he inquires, “Then what are you going to be doing, Inspector?”
“I will be...making sure Alma has enough time to get away.” He takes a shortsword out of his locker and straps it on.
Dion looks at him in consternation. “Are you...are you talking about taking up arms against the Guardia?”
“They probably won’t send Guardia,” Sky replies. “The Council has its own agents. The Sikari.”
“You will do no such thing, Tuma-Sukai!” Alma stands to face him, her tone allowing no room for argument. “The Sikari are killers. Gods and demigods and combat wizards, trained to hunt down and eliminate the enemies of the Council.”
“Sergeant Alma is quite correct, Inspector. If the Council employs the Sikari, you will purchase little time,” says Dion.
“I am aware of their capability,” says Sky. “I was on an undercover mission once, infiltrating a diabolist cult. After I sent a message confirming that they were indeed summoning demons, I thought the Guardia would be sent in to make arrests. Instead, the Council sent a team of Sikari. They killed every member of that cult. As an example.”
“I am sure there are other ways,” Alma insists.
“Every minute we delay–” Sky begins, but Dion interrupts. “Please! You two are talking about being declared enemies of the Council. If you would allow me–”
“I’ve been ordered to kill innocent people,” Sky says bitterly. “I won’t do it!”
“Sky–” Alma starts.
“I won’t!” Sky cuts her off, black lines flowing up from under his skin to writhe across his face, tattoos of war and strife. “And I won’t allow anyone else to do it.”
“Please, stop that,” Alma requests.
“If I’m now the Council’s enemy, then that’s a choice they made,” Sky growls, too angry to listen to the goddess, seeming to grow taller as he speaks. “Sergeant Gwydion, I leave you in command of Three Rats Station–”
“I can't accept that. You are committing suicide.” Gwydion states.
Sky orders him, “You will uphold the values and hierarchy of the Guardia–”
“Enough!” Alma shouts, reducing both gods to silence. She asks Gwydion, “What were you trying to say?”
“Let me go to my uncle,” Dion says, his tone even. “He responded to my message with an indication that he has a plan. Before we consider more drastic actions, I would ask that you allow me to get further direction from him. I was looking to avoid a personal trip, but the situation now requires it.” Turning to Sky directly, Dion adds, “Now what do the orders say, exactly?”
Sky breathes deeply. The tattoos begin to fade from his skin. “They order me to bring the Bunnies to the Council’s dungeons, and then to, to carry out any further orders the Council has for me. The Commander has already informed me that this will mean executing them.”
“Then we have to delay,” Dion says. “Please respond with a statement telling them that the Bunnies all have colds – no...high fevers. Something mysterious that we fear could be a plague. It’s just not safe to move them.”
Sky smirks. “Do you really think that will work?”
“If our choices are between that and feeding you to the proverbial pirañas so we can cross the river, then I think we have to try. It may work if the Commander still stands with us,” Alma says. She lays a hand on Sky's chest. “He will help sell this fiction. Sky, please. Let Gwydion try this.”
Sky nods reluctantly, then raises his right hand and places it on hers. Then he puts his left hand on Gwydion’s shoulder. “Thank you. Hurry back.”
Dion nods. “I will, Inspector.”
Sky doesn’t release the Sergeant’s shoulder for a moment. “This is not Guardia business, Gwydion. I cannot order you to do things that risk making you a declared enemy of the Council. In this, I’m not your commanding officer.”
Gwydion smiles slightly. “Understood...Tuma-Sukai.”