The Curia Concilium, probably the most famous and least-known building in all of the Insula. Perched on the very top of the volcanic mountain that gives this nexus of converging and contrasting realities its shape, the building in which the Great Council of Archons, the Senate and the Council of Tribes find their home hovers just above the crater, its bones resting on the massive levitating marble platform that lends it foundation and beauty. Staircases and long, winding roads stretch from it all the way down to the First Ring, like the tentacles of a gigantic octopus, too long and steep to climb on foot, at least for the most common of humans.
Fashioned like a massive coliseum surrounded by well-trimmed gardens, fountains and imposing portals, the building stands, glistening and white, its intricately carved circular walls depicting scenes of creation and destruction, of great wars against the most fearsome children of Hell, of heroes and traitors, gods and, if one takes the time to search, even men.
Within it, the fate of the Urbis is planned and played each day, like a board game of wits and influence, by the oldest, most powerful and eloquent of gods. Most of these, like Alma’s father, make up the Senate, a body of hundreds of gods, each looking to tilt the scales in his/her/its favor, creating new laws and tweaking old ones, much to the general confusion of even the best, most studious of lawyers. They convene in the lower rings of the Curia, just above the arena, where gods requesting audience may plead their case. Sheltered from the elements by beautiful, movable roofs, the senators do their business with a sort of chaotic order and protocol, to which many a deal struck behind the scenes lends a certain level of perceived efficiency.
The rest of the populace is not without its representation, of course. The Comitia Tributa, mostly known as the Council of Tribes, made of the thousands of elected representatives of the non-divine population in the Urbis, occupies the upper benches of the coliseum. Too far up to even see the arena below, the throng of squabbling mortals stands in five concentric rings sitting far above and away from the Senate, so vast and populated that those wishing to be heard have to raise their voices above the roaring crowd – an impossibility for a single mortal, necessitating factions and parties. In the sun, the rain, under freezing temperatures or lightning strikes, they shout and quarrel every single day about little things, meaningless things as limited as a mortal’s vision can be about the great scheme of all things.
And below, far, far below, in the very bowels of the Curia, the Council of Archons dwells. Names known only to a very privileged few, these figures of myth and wonder meet away from the sight of gods and mortals, below the arena, away from the light, in heavily guarded rooms only they can describe. To reach them, one must descend into the womb of the Curia, through winding staircases and hidden passages.
Just as Math is about to do. Standing at the top of one of the inconspicuous staircases that leads down to the entrance of the Council's pleading stand, he inspects his entourage, currently consisting of seven exquisitely dressed Bunnies, their creator Alma, Math’s nephew and two other Dei, all sporting the rich blue colors of Math’s Guardia. Their clothes styled to a perfect fit, the Bunnies shine in all their glory, their slender bodies hugged and framed in splendid, light fabric, skirts and blouses for the females, except for Cherry. She looks much more comfortable in the skin-tight leather trousers she found in a closet at Math’s, and when one of the servants, trained in magic, used a simple spell to make them fit perfectly, she insisted on wearing them. The males wear shirts and pants or shorts, Sage looking particularly charming in his vest embroidered with magnificent silver-thread cornucopia and leaves.
Alma allows herself to feel slightly more confident, even if mildly uncomfortable with having had to surrender her sword and dagger to comply with the law that forbids anyone not on official guard duty from carrying a weapon within the sacred walls of the Curia. The Bunnies look extraordinary in their outfits, as they themselves keep cooing, happy to model the garments at the smallest opportunity. The goddess herself is dressed to impress in a long, light dress embroidered in silver and white, so finely and subtly that a starry sky would pale in comparison. Her right shoulder bare, the top of her dress hanging from her left shoulder, front and back made of sashes pinned together by her badge, her slim waist drawn by an intricate corset embroidered with a phoenix in flight, that slowly melts into a long, flaring skirt designed more for show than for practical means, Alma feels readier for a ball than a Council hearing. Gwydion himself, in his impeccable suit trimmed in gold thread and cut to accentuate each line and curve of his muscular form, could just as easily step out and attend a high-end party.
The two First Ring Guardia Dei escorting them look as prim and flawless as their post demands, their golden badges shined to blind the occasional victim with reflected light. One of them, however, finds his face slightly marred by a black eye and a busted lip.
“Very well,” Math determines, rubbing his hands together and composing the collar on his shirt. “Now, while I go and speak to the Council, you lot are going to be escorted by these gentlemen to one of our holding areas.” He indicates the two First Ring Dei. “And Gwydion, please try not to beat them up this time.”
They wait for the Archon to disappear down the staircase before turning away and setting off to walk the curving, winding corridors that so closely follow on the inside the rounded profile of the gaping mouth and outer heart the Curia. They walk some distance before Alma turns to Gwydion.
“Beat them up?” she inquires, eyebrow raised, her query catching the attention of the other two Dei.
“Our fellow Dei and I had a little misunderstanding, that’s all,” Gwydion offers as explanation, his eyes locked on the stretch of corridor in front of him.
“Yeah, I’ll bet you’d call what you did to Grigore’s sister a misunderstanding, too,” the yet seemingly unharmed Dei providing escort snorts.
“Shut up, Gavril,” the Dei identified as Grigore growls.
Alma glances at the jesting god, looking back at the god of magic as she speaks, “First Geryon saying you weren’t exactly welcome in the First Ring, then two Guardia Dei wanting your skin. What did you do that has so many people hating you?”
“Ah, he’s been deflowering damsels like he’s plucking weeds from a garden,” Gavril replies in Gwydion’s turn, clearly too pleased with his wits and the sound of his voice to let go of the conversation. “No daughter, sister or lover is safe if Dion there is around.”
Alma looks at Gavril and then at Grigore, her eyes showing her confusion. Gwydion’s whole image and behavior are plainly indicative of a long life of debauchery and single-night affairs. It can’t possibly be so recent as to be raising alarm in the First Ring court just now.
“I would assume this is consensual, though, even if immoral,” the goddess says, her eyes searching for Gwydion’s as she asks, “Have their parents, brothers and lovers found out about one of those liaisons?”
“Worse!” Gavril cries, a you're-not-going-to-believe-this expression on his face. “All the ladies found out about each other! They all want him dead now!”
Alma freezes in her tracks, soon falling behind from the group, that stops not very far ahead to look at the goddess, a question in every single pair of eyes gazing at her. Alma looks placidly at them for a moment, then smiles, then bursts out in laughter as the ridiculous character of the situation hits her like a rock. It is a pleasant, melodic laugh, fresh and lively, like water running in a young stream on a spring day. The group stares at her in utter shock.
“My... Ah think that’s the first time Ah’ve heard her laugh!” Rosemary exclaims in sheer incredulity. She laughs herself before walking toward the goddess. “Are ye feelin’ well, dear?”
Alma nods, unable to speak and the Bunny jumps at her, fiercely embracing the goddess.
“I’m feeling quite all right, little one, I assure you,” Alma says amidst laughter, resuming her march. “I just couldn’t help but laugh at the exquisite nonsense of it all.”
“You’re saying that ’cause it wasn’t your sister…” Grigore mutters as goddess and Bunny rejoin the group.
Alma stops laughing but smiles still, amused at the thought that someone like Gwydion, whose lines and game can so easily be detected from a distance, could fool so many ladies. She walks up to Grigore, her eyes smiling predatorially at him.
“If it was my sister, I would tell her she made her bed and very thoroughly laid herself in it, my dear,” she states, eyes locked on his. “She can take it as a lesson and move on. But you…” she adds, fingers caressing his golden badge, shaped like an eye, the white stone indicating his First Ring descent set like an iris. Her other hand touches her own, silver badge, shaped like a delicate lily, the blue stone of the Second Ring shining to one side, a phoenix in flight stretching her wings in the other. “Attacking a fellow Dei as if we weren’t all the same behind this badge… Shame on you.”
Grigore’s eyes flare with anger and the god seems about to say something, but he just snarls and looks away instead.
“Let us just keep moving, please,” Gwydion suggests, obviously ill-at-ease with the conversation. “There are enough people looking at us already.”
Alma looks around her to find that the god of magic is not exaggerating. Their attention probably caught by her laughter and the prospect of a fight among the Guardia, a number of people have stopped their mindless migrations to and fro, and simply stand in the middle of the corridor, some distance apart, watching intently. From the crowd, a little boy dressed in grey and black and looking no older than eight years of age detaches and runs in their direction.
“Alma! Sister!” he cries as he covers the distance to the goddess and leaps into her arms.
“Molochai!” Alma exclaims, holding him tightly and spinning him around, making the boy laugh with delight. “How lovely to see you, little brother!”
“It’s been so long since you’ve visited home!” Molochai complains as Alma puts him down. "I thought you had forgotten all about us!”
The goddess strokes her brother’s cheek, pulling a tiny strand of his golden hair behind his left ear, where his harem-earring in the shape of a violet shines, indicating his descent for all to see. “Never, little brother.” She looks around for other familiar faces. “Surely, you are not here alone?”
Molochai waves her off, his tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth. “Nah!” He points in the general direction he came from. “Melinor came with me.”
Alma looks back at the now not quite so attentive people standing at the end of the hall. There stands Melinor, one of her many older brothers, his heavily muscular body drawn in profile as he tries very hard not to be noticed by the goddess and her entourage. His tanned, handsome face framed by his wild raven-black hair, with the occasional auburn lock, constantly locked in a grimace of intense displeasure, struggles to look away from the goddess but glance watchfully at the little boy standing by her side at the same time. Finally, he has no choice but to turn and look directly at his little sister.
Alma is so used to the vision that she barely sees it as a deformity. The others flinch, though, stunned at how the handsome man occupying the right side of Melinor’s face so sharply contrasts against the misshapen monster taking the left. The tanned skin gives way to greyish, scarred flesh, cracked and carved by a deep gash that crosses his cheek to his lip, exposing muscle and bone beyond the dessicated, decaying skin that ripples and overhangs the edges of the perinneal wound. His left ear, jagged and almost completely destroyed as if bitten off by some wild beast, barely provides enough flesh to hold his harem mark, similar to Molochai’s. The god stares at Alma, his look of intense disapproval contradicted only by the warm glow in his rusty-ochre slanted eyes.
“He’s feeling a bit grumpy today,” Molochai comments with a shrug.
“I have never known him to be otherwise,” Alma replies, greeting Melinor with a nod and smiling with pleasure to see him look away again, the faintest of flustery-pinks tainting his sun-kissed right cheek.
“Ahem…” a voice rings in the immediate vicinity of Alma’s Bunnies.
The goddess meets their inquisitive looks and, in Cherry’s case, crossed arms and softly tapping foot.
“Yes, of course,” the Alma whispers apologetically. “Little ones, Gwydion, this is one of my brothers, Molochai.”
Sage immediately steps forward and offers his hand in greeting to the boy-god as he introduces himself and his ken. “Hi, I’m Sage and these are Cherry, Merri, May, Kori, Chime and our little sister.”
“Hi!” Molochai greets with a friendly wave of his hand and a broad smile on his lips.
Rosemary runs to hug him, holding him tightly to her, his head pressed firmly against her chest. “Oh, he’s so cute, the wee bairn!” she coos, relaxing her choke-hug just enough to look at him closely and say to Alma, “Doesn’t look anythin’ like ye, mind.”
Cherry steps closer and looks at him intently. “Hmm... Maybe a bit around the ears.”
“Well, he merely shares a father with me,” Alma explains, chuckling softly. “His mother, Macana, has always been very good to me.”
Molochai finally manages to release himself of Rosemary’s hold. “So, is this your discomfiting brood?” he asks, looking up at the goddess.
“Hey!” Cherry exclaims, poking Molochai with an accusing finger. “Who’re you callin’ discomfiting? We’re very comfortable-ing!”
“Please, Cherry,” Alma intervenes, placing a hand on her little brother’s shoulder. “Where did you hear them called that, Chai?”
“Melinor muttered it,” Molochai replies, unabashed, pointing back to where his older brother still stands. “Told me to come say hello and I told him to come with me but he just wouldn’t budge, the big, grumpy–”
“Mind your words, little brother,” Alma states sharply.
“I’m sorry,” the little boy apologises, head held down, looking deeply disheartened.
“Aaaawwwww!” Merri coos, hugging Molochai again. “Please dinnae yell at the wee one.”
“Do not let his appearance fool you, Rosemary,” Alma notes softly. “Molochai is older than you and Cherry, and even Mayumi put together.”
“I guess he’s gonna be a late bloomer, then,” Cherry mutters, prompting a warm, squealing laugh from the young child-god.
“You’re funny!” Molochai cries. Without warning, his laughter stops and he looks intently at Cherry, his boyish composure and the youthful glow in his grey eyes replaced now by a shadow of years seemingly unlived. Even his voice sounds deeper, aged as he says placidly, “I am glad you are already beyond my sphere of concern. It would be intensely unpleasant to get called to collect on you.”
He suddenly seems to remember something and his eyes shoot up at Alma. He hops in sudden excitement, looking and feeling like a boy again. “Oh! Father must be almost done in the Senate! I need to go now, Sister!”
Alma nods in agreement. “And so must we,” she embraces Molochai tightly, holding him above the floor, his little feet flailing with childish joy as she strokes his soft golden hair and kisses his temple.
“Give our brother and your mother a kiss for me, yes?” she whispers in his ear before putting him down again. “And, if you must, give Father a kiss as well,” she adds as an afterthought.
“Will do!” Molochai promises, already waving goodbye at the group and running back to Melinor. “Bye!”
“What an odd character…” Gwydion whispers as he watches the god-child join his brother and leave.
“Did you see how he totally changed all of a sudden?” Cherry comments, shuddering. “Talkin’ like he was real old. Gave me the chills.”
“And what did he mean with collecting on us?” Mayumi inquires.
“Gods come in many shapes and sizes, little ones,” Alma explains, her voice gentle and reassuring. “Molochai, son of Macana, Goddess of Merciful, Blissful Death, is the God of Child Death. He will never grow old in appearance, and even in his mind the child rules most of the time.”
“And Melinor?” Gwydion queries.
“God of Violent Death,” the goddess replies. “He has his reasons for being as he is.”
“I’ll bet so,” the god of magic mutters, looking down the other end of the corridor. “Ah, there’s Inspector Sky and the – is that the Commander?” he asks in vague incredulity.
“It is,” Alma agrees, sharing his confusion at the sight of the rangy figure of their highest commanding officer. “I wonder why he’s here.”