Back in his office, alone, Sky sighs. What is wrong with me? My emotions are like stampeding horses. If I keep going this way, I’m going to lose control of my form. And people are depending on me. Ever since arriving here… The Commander was wrong to post me here.
He thinks back to how he was up until a few short weeks ago: distant, cold, stoic. Controlling his emotions at all times. Always acting, never letting the mask slip, like a good undercover agent, a good infiltrator. But then there had been incidents years ago, hadn’t there? That gang of slave-breeders summoning demons to create exotic hybrids. He had lost control entirely then. The official report was that they’d been killed by their bound demons.
It was almost true.
What was causing this loss of control? Was it being in command? Alma’s friendship? It had been decades since he had had a friend. The Commander, his master, really can’t count. And his partner under the commander – certainly one of the best people to have on one’s side in a fight, but “friend” was an uncomfortable term to apply to their ambiguous relationship.
But does Alma count? She had held back information that put them all in danger. Still, he had to admit that Gwydion had made a good point. Fleeing off-world should be a true last resort, and if Sky had known what Alma had just revealed, then she and the Bunnies would already be on the run. Perhaps it is for the best she kept her secret this long.
He opens the door and calls to Aliyah. “Corporal Kaur! Is Sergeant Machado in?”
Aliyah stands up from her desk, dark circles under her eyes. “Yessir! Shall I get him?”
“Yes, and Corporal Stathos?”
“Uh, it’s not his shift, sir. But I know where he is! He just got off and he said he was gonna do some shopping at Patel’s on the way home!”
Sky hesitates. “Could you run get him? This is important.”
Aliyah’s eyes widen. “Sure thing, sir! I’ll be right back! Oh, but the Ser–”
From upstairs on the first floor, Machado’s voice booms down, “I’ve already overheard, Corporal. On my way down.”
As Aliyah dashes out the door, Machado arrives at Sky’s office and nods. “Inspector.”
“Thank you, Sergeant. Please have a seat. If you don’t mind, I’ll wait until all the ranking Guardia Popula are present. Tea?”
A few minutes later, Aliyah arrives, with Corporal Stathos in tow. Stathos, looking worried, is carrying two cloth bags filled with vegetables. Sky welcomes them and apologizes to Stathos as he closes and locks the door and activates the privacy enchantment. He can feel the tension in the room rise as he slices open the tip of his middle finger – yet again, how many times in the past week or so? – and he wishes he had Dion’s command of magic. The spell Dion had used was so much more elegant, and less messy.
“Inspector,” intones Machado. “May I ask what you are doing?”
“Forgive me, Sergeant,” Sky replies as the fourth ideogram glows red. “This is a spell. It will prevent anyone outside from listening in via magical means. I have something sensitive to tell you three.” He turns to face them. “There is a threat to the Bunnies. A deadly threat. We need to move them. As such, Sergeants Alma and Gwydion and I will be escorting them to safety. I wanted to explain why we were leaving.”
Aliyah’s face flushes and she stands. “Who’s threatening them? Who wants to hurt ’em?” Her fists are clenched as if she is just looking for a face to punch.
Sky looks down. “It’s the Council of Archons.”
The room falls silent. Invoking the Council, which normally operates behind the scenes, cloaked by the polite fictions of the Senate – a squabbling mass of hundreds of elected gods – and the Comitia Tributa – the Council of Tribes, representatives of the mortal population and widely regarded as a powerless joke – provokes fear even in immortals, but among mortals the Council holds a near-mythical status. Faceless, unnamed gods far more powerful than those they might meet on the streets, far more ancient, with a thousand years or more of intrigue and backstabbing behind their climb to power, are barely imaginable by mortals. Members are selected by the Council, not elected by outsiders; answerable to no one, their pronouncements outweighing any made by the lesser branches of government. They are the true power of the City.
Stathos is the first to recover. “The Council...has ordered their deaths?” His voice is shaking. Sky remembers, from the Corporal’s file, that Stathos’ grandparents had once lived in the First Ring, serving a high-ranking god’s household for untold generations. Something had gone wrong, and that god had been stripped of everything by the Council. And Stathos’ family, once prosperous and respected, had ended up in Three Rats, deep in the Fourth Ring, with nothing.
“They can’t!” Aliyah shouts suddenly. “They...the Bunnies haven’t done anything wrong! Why would anybody want them dead?”
“It’s complicated,” Sky says calmly. “But suffice it to say, we are not going to obey the order. Therefore, we must leave. I thought you should know why.”
“I’m going with you!” Aliyah shouts, surprising Sky. As he is about to object, Machado, who has remained silent, speaks implacably. “No.”
Aliyah looks at him, her jaw clenched. “Sir...I respectfully request permission to accompany–”
“No, Corporal Kaur,” Machado states. He is still sitting in his chair, back straight, not looking at her, his round, shaven head sunken into his massive shoulders, looking as if he is thinking hard. “You may not accompany the Guardia Dei.”
“Sir, please!” When she sees that Machado is still refusing to look at her, she turns to Sky. “Inspector, please let me–”
“Constable Kaur!” Machado rises from his chair now, eyes wide and blazing in his dark face. “Need I remind you that you are under my command?”
“Constable?” Aliyah asks in a tiny voice.
“That is correct, Constable. I will choose someone to replace you as corporal tomorrow.” Machado narrows his eyes at her. “Obviously you are exhausted from working double shifts recently. Go home, Constable. And if I see you anywhere near the Dei on their way out of Three Rats, you will be a civilian before you can blink!”
Aliyah’s chin trembles and her face turns red. Tears fill her eyes. Sky moves swiftly to deactivate the privacy spell, knowing that she wants only to flee, and as soon as he unlocks the door, she stalks from the room, glancing at him momentarily, her face a warring mix of emotions. He looks at her apologetically, and nods thanks to her for her foolish but brave offer.
As soon as she is gone, Machado turns to Stathos. “Sorry, Corporal. You’re not going home yet. You’re in charge of the station for the next shift. I’ll send someone to run the groceries home to Luís and your girls.”
Stathos turns pale. “S-Sir?”
“Go on now,” Machado says softly. “I need to talk to the Inspector.” After the young man is gone and Sky has closed the door, Machado says, “I’m not sure what’s safe to say without that spell, but, uh, I understand you need an escort.”
“No, Sergeant,” Sky says. “This is not Guardia business.”
“Sure,” the burly mortal says, rubbing his dark-brown bald pate. “But we don’t want any trouble on the way out, do we? I’ll just go along. Purely in a private capacity.”
Sky can’t speak for a moment. “Edison...I’m touched. But I cannot ask you to do this. There could be trouble on the way.”
Machado looks at him with a sad smile. “You may not know this, but I’ve been teaching Kori capoeira. He has a real talent for it, that kid.”
Sky skeptically glances at the Sergeant’s burly body. He looks more like a small sumo wrestler than a capoeirista.
Apparently Machado gets such looks often enough to recognize the glance. “Yes,” he growls with narrowed eyes. “I do capoeira. I’ll be glad to give you a lesson some time.”
“Oh, of course, yes,” Sky murmurs, imaging getting kicked in the teeth by the man.
Machado continues, “And Sage and I, well, we’ve had some talks in the bar.” He shakes his head, smiling. “I don’t know how anyone could talk with him for five minutes and not feel like he’s got a new friend. Cherry and Rosemary, too. They’re good girls. All of ’em are good.” He frowns and reiterates, “I’m not going to let Aliyah torpedo her career, but I’m going with you. Besides, you Dei are so impractical. I need to make sure you’re properly kitted out. Armored jackets, crossbows. Let’s hit the armory, sir.”