Chapter 18


Nyr had never found himself stunned by the physical appearance of women before. When he was younger, he’d considered this a sign that he was meant for the priesthood, and as a priest, he had considered it a blessing to have one less earthly thing to struggle against. After living with Riyad for several months, he had a better idea of why that was, but the woman before him was possibly the exception. From where he was sitting on the couch, he could feel himself blushing and staring wide-eyed at her as she stood in the entryway.

She was the most beautiful woman Nyr had ever seen. Dressed all in white, with more dark hair than he had ever seen on a single person braided and pulled up in an intricate style that must have taken hours to perfect, she stood tall and powerful in front of Jin, who was characteristically unimpressed and telling her she needed an appointment.

“I do not need an appointment,” she said in a husky, slightly accented voice. “Riyad Shihar is my brother. He will see me.”

Jin eyed her, and Nyr wondered where he’d gotten the guts, considering the woman stood almost a foot taller than he did and that she seemed like the kind of person who was used to giving commands with single glances.

“Well maybe he’s busy,” Jin said, his lips twitching at the corners. After a moment’s consideration, Nyr decided that the other man was stalling in order to spend more time looking up at the woman’s chest. It was good to see that no matter how much some things changed, some other things never did.

The woman’s lips quirked. “Riyad Shihar will see me,” she repeated, and though she didn’t noticeably raise her voice, it seemed to echo in way it hadn’t before.

Somewhere in the basement, a door opened and closed, and hurried footsteps approached down the hallway.

“I’m here, Anusvar,” Riyad called, jogging into the front room. Recognizing the Arcadian word, Nyr blinked out of his stupor; so this was Riyad’s eldest sister. That meant she would be taking over their family since...

Nyr’s mind shied away from the images of the D’sen clan leader’s death, and he had a hard time looking at the siblings meeting in front of him. The situation they were in now, the crisis that was facing their whole family was his fault; his survival had meant the other man’s death.

Riyad approached his sister and took her hand, touching her knuckles to his forehead in what seemed like a ritual gesture. “It’s good to see you, Herazade...and...friend.”

He leaned to the side as he spoke the last words, peering at the young man standing behind his sister, near the door. Nyr shifted his eyes, noticing him for the first time. He was good-looking and somewhat tall--though not as tall as Herazade--but mostly unremarkable.

“Taj,” Herazade said. “My betrothed.”

Riyad choked and looked from the young man to his sister and then back again. “How much did she pay you?” he demanded, and then winced as his sister clenched her hand around his.

She smiled. “Taj is my betrothed,” she repeated, rolling her R’s. “You would have met him.”

“If I had ever come around,” Riyad finished for her and sighed, letting go of her hand. “So, why have you come to see me?”

“To tell you about the funeral.”

Nyr perked up a bit, listening. Glancing toward Jin where he was sitting at his terminal console, he could see that the smaller man was paying attention, too.

“When is it?”

Herazade’s brows drew together in a graceful expression of consternation. “At the end of this week. Because Solace will not allow us to recover the bodies, we will burn them in effigy.”

“Them?” Nyr spoke up without thinking, and then blushed when the Arcadians turned their gazes on him. Herazade had blue-green eyes. Her father’s eyes, he realized as she gazed at him: piercing, intelligent, and unfathomable. He felt another pang, cleared his throat and got to his feet self-consciously, feeling like he had just done something very rude. “I...that is...what I mean to say....”

Herazade’s expression softened. “What is your name?”

“Um. I’m Nyr Kelley. I uh work with Riyad.”

She offered him a gentle smile and he felt somewhat more at ease. “You mean to ask, are we honoring Du’shan Mukshah as well as our father?”

Nyr nodded, clasping his hands together. Words tumbled out of his mouth unbidden. “Du’shan was...very dear to me. To all of us. He deserves...better than what he got.”

He wanted to say more. To apologize for her loss. For his part in it. But her eyes froze the words in his throat. Nyr wondered if those eyes were what had earned her the nickname “jackal.”

“He does.” Herazade’s voice was soft, and she looked at him through her eyelashes. “Du’shan took a hard path in life. He lost his way many times. But he was the kind of man to be proud of in the end. We will send him properly to be with our ancestors.”

She turned her gaze back to Riyad. “We will burn them in effigy and then perform the libations upon the ashes,” she said, continuing her explanation. “Do you have anything to offer?”

Riyad was silent for a moment, and then nodded. “Yes. But I’ll have to ask Ath’ran. He may want to keep it.”

Herazade inclined her head and turned toward the door as she said, “Then I will go, and send you more information as I have it. I have many things to coordinate and prepare.”

“Why did you come all the way here to tell me this, Anusvar?” Riyad asked. “You could have called me.”

She paused and then turned back to her brother and placed an elegant hand against his cheek, offering him a sad smile. “To see you with my own eyes,” she said. “The sands have shifted under our feet, and I was afraid we might lose you again.”

Riyad placed his own hand over Herazade’s and stood like a small child with his head bowed, absorbing the comfort and love that was intrinsic in the gesture.

Nyr felt a small pang, but wasn’t sure which of them he wanted to trade places with. There was very little else he wanted than to be in either position right at that moment--to even have the opportunity, knowing there was someone out there who could offer him that kind of support.

After a moment, both of them dropped their hands to their sides and with a nod to Jin and Nyr, Herazade and her fiancé left.

Riyad sighed as the door closed behind them. “So, if she ever comes to see me again, Jin, you can just let her. She doesn’t need an appointment.”

“Yeah, that would have been good to know before she showed up,” Jin pointed out, and spun in a lazy circle in his chair. “Damn, Riyad, your sister’s a stonecold hotty.”

“So I’ve been told.” Without smiling, Riyad brushed his curls out of his eyes and turned to go back to what he had been doing before his sister’s arrival.

Nyr cleared his throat again and moved to intercept him. “Riyad?”

Riyad turned brown eyes on Nyr and offered him a tired smile. “What is it?”

“I was wondering...if I could go, too, to the funeral,” Nyr said, speaking the phrase as a question.

Riyad winced a little as though something pained him and then slowly shook his head. “I’m sorry.”

Nyr felt a familiar ache flare up in his chest. “Oh...”

“Why not?” Jin demanded, up from his seat and standing beside them suddenly.

He was scowling at Riyad and Nyr wished that he wouldn’t; Jin had seemed more combative than he ever had in the past since the attacks the week before, and it both worried Nyr and made him uneasy. Though he was sure he knew better, the thought of Jin snapping under the mental trauma of everything that had happened to him in the past few months and lashing out violently as a result seemed very real to Nyr. As much as he wanted to help his friend, he was almost afraid to try.

And how could he help anyone else, anyway, part of him wanted to know. He could barely keep himself together anymore. And he was terrified to approach Riyad. Since the night they had stayed at Ath’ran’s, knowing what he had cost him had made being around his friend painful.

“It’s just...not the way we do things,” Riyad said.

“That’s stupid.” Jin crossed his arms over his chest and glared. “Nyr and I were close to Du’shan too. We deserve to be there.”

“I’m sorry,” Riyad repeated, his expression hardening. “Funerals are very important ritual events for us. It just isn’t something we let outsiders take part in.”

“We’re not outsiders, we’re your friends, jackass!”

Nyr put his hand on Jin’s shoulder and could feel his muscles trembling. “It’s okay, Jin.”

“It’s not okay,” Jin said, but he lowered his voice and seemed to shrink back a little. “They think we can’t understand, but we can. We’re all here together.”

Riyad looked from one of them to the other and then sighed, looking very tired. Nyr wanted to reach out to him like his sister had, but didn’t; yet again, the barrier Riyad, Du’shan and Ath’ran enforced around themselves at times was in the way, and he didn’t want to overstep his bounds and do anything to offend. Especially not right now, when they all needed each other the most. Of course, the irony of that was that the barrier he tried so hard to respect and work around wasn’t exactly helping to keep them together.

That wasn’t the only reason, anyway, he knew, but the pills he had swallowed an hour before helped him to ignore the other. Helped him to ignore how much Riyad probably resented him, even if he didn’t mean to.

“Let’s do something here,” Riyad said, offering them a weak smile. “I’ll get Ath’ran to come and we can have our own memorial. You wouldn’t want to come to the clan funeral anyway--it’d be a lot of people you don’t know speaking a language you can’t understand, and it takes forever.”

“Sounds a lot like some of our poker games,” Jin muttered, but Nyr could feel his muscles relax and he dropped his hand back to his side.

“I’d like that,” he said, adding his opinion to Jin’s, looking at Riyad with a sad smile. “Just the four of us.”

Riyad smiled a little more. “I’ll call Ath’ran right now and set it up.”

Nyr nodded, but felt his smile slip away as Riyad and Jin both walked away. It was a sweet gesture, but somehow it seemed like putting a bandaid on a bullet hole and expecting that to be enough.