“Ah, Dion!” Math calls with relief. “Finally you arrive.”
Followed closely by Alma and the Bunnies, still carrying the youngest of Alma’s children on his back, Dion crosses Math’s marble platform, bound for the Archon sitting behind the imposing stone desk.
“And I see you’ve managed to bring the lovely Lady – forgive me – Sergeant Alma and her Bunnies with you,” Math notes with a pleasant smile as he rises from his chair and joins the group.
“Uncle,” Dion greets him with a short bow.
“It is an honor to meet you, my Lord Archon.” Alma smiles and curtsies gracefully, hands held together at waist level, her elegant posture and nearly perfect composure almost erasing from memory the ubiquitous blood stains on her garment and skin and the small tears on her clothing where enemy blades managed to pierce cloth and, in some cases, even flesh. “And, please, do forgive our delay. We were…detained on our way here.”
A Second Ring goddess, covered in blood and sweat, and yet refined enough to outshine many a lady in the First Ring, Dion thinks to himself. I wonder if Death has taken as much care in the education of all his children.
Before the god, Math holds his hand out in invitation to receive the goddess’ hand, her fingertips placed softly on his as he raises them for closer inspection. The Archon looks at the smooth, pale fingers, stained with blood of different colors, and gently strokes the back of her hand as if that movement alone would remove the taint of violence and restore the exquisite beauty of the goddess’ delicate skin. He raises her hand to his lips in a soft kiss and lowers it again, releasing his gentle grip on her.
“Do call me Math,” the Archon bids. Looking at the Bunnies, he adds, “And I take it these are the famous Bunnies.”
Alma nods, her smile serene. “Yes. These are Cherry, Rosemary, Mayumi, Sage, Kori, Chime…”
The goddess introduces each of her Bunnies with a touch to their shoulders and, one by one, they greet Math in their own way. Cherry waves congenially at the Archon, while Merri curtsies. May bows stiffly, with an almost military rigor, contrasting sharply with Sage’s simple, amiable nod and Kori’s clumsy attempt at a bow. Chime nods sharply, as if annoyed by all the protocol.
Math replies to each of their greetings with one of his own, his beard waving slightly as he smiles and nods at them.
“...and the little one clutching Sergeant Gwydion’s neck is yet to be named,” Alma concludes, gesturing at the young Bunny still stubbornly perched on Dion’s neck.
Slowly, gently as to not scare her, the god of magic releases himself from her grip and lowers the little female to the floor. She stands there by him, holding his hand in a tight grip, looking up, first at Dion and then at Math as the Archon moves closer and reaches out a careful hand to her. The Bunny looks intently at the hand, eyes wide, her perky little nose moving as she sniffs the god’s hand, almost touching it in her inspection. Moving slowly, smoothly, Math stretches a finger and taps her nose twice, making the Bunny flinch and shake her head at the sudden touch, her white ears pulling back for a minute with the fright. After a moment of perfect stillness, she sniffs his finger again, allowing another touch as the Archon lightly strokes her cheek.
Math smiles at her and then turns back to Alma. “They look extraordinary, Sergeant.” He looks at the other Bunnies. “Albeit a little… dirty.”
“Yeah, we could use a shower,” Cherry agrees, fondling her mucous-covered ears with a sad expression.
“An’ somethin’ clean t’wear, please,” Merri adds, looking down on her stained clothes, made stiff here and there by a now dry mixture of blood, dust and worm-goo.
Math nods his agreement. “I think we can arrange that.”
He paces behind the desk, beckoning to the group with a wave of his hand. “Here, come this way.”
Gods and Bunnies follow the Archon to the free-standing door at the rear of the platform and step through. This time, Dion finds himself in a magnificent room, sumptuous but welcoming. It is the Great Hall of his uncle’s estate, the place where all parties are held, where all important guests are received. Lined with full, mounted sets of armor, as well as quaint weapons from all over the Insula, the wood-paneled, marble-floored room stretches almost endlessly behind Math, who stands facing his nephew, his feet resting on a thick carpet embroidered with complicated motifs of game-birds and hunting scenes. High above his head, the ceiling looms with its carved rosaceas and impressive chandeliers that bathe the room in a soft, forgiving light, only slightly intensified by the perpetual magical flames on the countless torches and many hearths lining the walls. While Alma and the Bunnies marvel at the sheer grandeur of the Hall, Dion relaxes for a moment, his muscles loosening their grip on his joints at the familiar feel and the scent of burning wood. He senses more than hears the servant approach, her footsteps muffled by the rich carpet.
“See to it that the Bunnies get a nice relaxing bath and a clean change of clothes, please,” Math asks of the elderly woman before turning to the Bunnies. “You can follow this nice lady and she’ll tend to you all, now.”
The woman nods and smiles, pleasantly and appeasingly, indicating with a small, slow gesture of her hand that the Bunnies are to follow her. They turn to Alma for guidance, the questioning looks on their faces blending uncertainty with fear.
“I would prefer to accompany them, if it is all the same,” Alma requests.
“In a moment, Sergeant,” Math replies. “I’d like to have a word with you and Gwydion first.”
The tone of the Archon’s voice and his use of formality must register with the goddess, for she nods reassuringly at her children, watching them intently as they exit the room, Sage gently dragging his youngest sister behind him.
“What is the matter, Uncle?” Dion asks as soon as the last of the Bunnies disappears from sight.
“I assume from the way you two look and the reports I’ve been receiving that my sources were correct?” the Archon inquires, his eyes scanning the faces of both Dei in anticipation of an answer.
Dion’s jaw locks again, his body growing tense at the gravity in his uncle’s tone. “Yes, we were attacked while leaving the Fourth Ring. Several hit teams it seems, mortals and divines.”
“They seem to have come from multiple wards. Some of those gang colors had never been seen in Three Rats,” Alma adds, by his side, looking every bit as rigid as he does, a proper Guardia Dei standing to report.
“And some even from higher Rings,” Dion completes. “One of them was a mercenary who had already attacked me on my way to Three Rats, several weeks ago. He had been hired by someone in the First Ring, then.”
Math listens to their words with an expression shifting from concern to incredulity to pure anger. His fists clench as he turns his back on them in fury. “An open attack against the Bunnies… It takes some nerve.”
“Who is attacking us, Lord Math?” Alma asks, taking a step forward.
Math looks at her over his shoulder, his breathing heavy with his attempts to regain self-control. “Someone who will soon regret it if I get him tried for treason.”
He exhales deeply and turns to face the two gods again just as a servant, a young man with curly red hair and pale skin, materializes just behind Alma.
“For now, Lady Alma,” the Archon states, “I believe you too should wash and change into something less…aggressive on the eye. And don’t worry. Your Bunnies will be ready and present when you get back.”
A quick glance at Dion, who nods millimetrically in reassurance, and the goddess curtsies again before Math. “Thank you.”
Dion watches as Alma walks away behind the servant, her head held high on the graceful column of her neck, her elegant movements making it look like she is not walking, but gliding just a finger’s width above the floor. She hesitates at the door and glances back, locking her gaze on the god’s for a mere fraction of a second before disappearing beyond the threshold.
“Stop it,” Math states, deadpan, suddenly standing beside Dion.
“Stop what, Uncle?” the god of magic asks in honest confusion.
“Stop reassuring her,” Math insists, his voice stern, his eyes burrowing deep into Dion’s soul. “She is not one of your innocent, overprotected little conquests. She knows the truth of her situation. Do not create false hope where they might be none.”
“I was merely reassuring Sergeant Alma of the safety of your estate, Uncle,” Dion argues, his eyes holding Math’s gaze. “It is the least I can do after convincing her to bring the Bunnies here.” He adds, now fixing some point over Maths left shoulder, his hands clenching his wrists. “And besides, I have seen what she can do. I am perfectly aware of how dangerous it can be to stand on the wrong side of her affections.”
The Archon snorts at him. “And who are you supposed to be fooling there? Me or yourself?” He asks derisively before waving off his nephew. “Now, go. Get yourself cleaned as well. I will not go into Council with the Bunnies and my Dei looking like wild beasts and filthy beggars.”
Dion bows stiffly in response. “I will do so right away, Uncle.”