Kneeling on the floor in a wide, bare room between his elder sister Harshita and his brother Ra’vna, neither of whom he’d ever gotten along with, Riyad would rather have been anywhere else. He would rather have been sitting with his younger siblings, who liked him and wanted to play with him whenever he visited the clan home, but they had to sit in age order. He’d rather have been sitting with Ath’ran among the Mukshah, where he felt comfortable, but he had to sit with his family. He would much rather have been back at headquarters during their private memorial for Du’shan days before, half-drunk, laughing at Jin’s too-accurate imitations of their friend, and trying to assuage Nyr’s despondency with comforting looks. He’d even rather have been back at the headquarters trying to coax Nyr out of Du’shan’s room, to coax him to eat, and to ignore the rate at which the pain medicines in the infirmary were disappearing.
Herazade was at the front of the room with a lit candle in either hand, standing between two pedestals, each holding a wide brazier. The smell of incense in the room was cloying, and the smoke made Riyad’s eyes water as it drifted between the rows and rows of D’sen and Mukshah kneeling in perfect lines across the room, all dressed in blinding white.
With her eyes half closed, ceremonial golden jewelry glistening, the new clan leader went through a prescribed set of motions. She chanted Arcadian funeral verses in a voice that was low and powerful, and the congregation thundered reply lines back at her, as one prostrating themselves with their palms and foreheads pressed to the floor. They had all learned the process as children, but Herazade’s actions were subtly different from those Riyad remembered. The ceremony had been changed to compensate for the absence of the corpses; the braziers were there as substitutes. Each was soaked in coconut wine poured over it by the mourners.
Herazade’s voice swelled, she touched the candles to the braziers and they simultaneously caught in a rush of flame. The chant was at an end. The congregation pressed their hands to the floor a last time and held that position for several moments. They were supposed to be praying, internally saying anything they had left to say.
Silence filled the room as densely as the smoke from the incense. Riyad’s mind was blank. He had never had anything to say to his father when the man had been alive. Anything he could say now had always been understood between the two of them: though they had never gotten along, though they had been too stubborn to compromise, though they may not have actually liked each other all that much, they had each respected the other, and had loved the other.
As for Du’shan, everything had been said back at headquarters with the others. Now with his forehead pressed to the ground in this rigid, blinding white room, the scene that filled his mind was of him and Ath’ran, Nyr and Jin at the kitchen table, bent over beers after the wine was gone. Ath’ran and he had already mourned, and so they spoke and smiled easily. His normal jovial self to begin with, Jin had become both more sentimental and bolder in the things he would say. Nyr had been somber, had cried quietly at several points, and didn’t seem to understand the Arcadians’ composure.
“It’s really funny,” he heard Jin saying through the silence now ringing in his ears. “The people who loved him the most can’t go to his real funeral, but every ben tiansheng de yi dui rou that’s going to be there except you two didn’t give a crap about him.”
Riyad sat up, taking his cue from Harshita on his left, and wondered if that was true. He also wondered if he should have brought his two friends. It wasn’t forbidden for outsiders to attend these ceremonies--he could remember Du’shan’s mother had gone to the funeral when his paternal grandfather had died, even though his father had been absent. But Ath’ran hadn’t brought his wife or his children, although they were technically related to Du’shan, and Herazade’s fiancé was absent as well. The situation would have been awkward and complicated. Trying to fit them into the hierarchical seating arrangement without insulting them or anyone else would have been impossible, and they didn’t know the chants or the prescribed prostrations. On top of that, Riyad had a feeling that the lack of mourning among those gathered would have seemed unnatural to Nyr and Jin.
Despite all of that, Riyad couldn’t help wondering if getting to attend the ceremony would have set the two of them at ease somehow--if it might have acted as some sort of closure for them.
Without any signal, the kneeling participants began to rise and move around the room. Some drifted to the exit to prepare food for the gathering, others moved toward the small fires to continue to pray. Riyad swept the room with his eyes and found Ath’ran, who had also found him. He tilted his head toward the doorway, signaling that he was going to help his family.
Riyad began to weave through his brothers and sisters to follow, but became distracted by several of his youngest siblings. Ayir, at five years old, was the youngest of his father’s children, and she found Riyad as though she had smelled him out among the roaming people and the incense. After a few insistent tugs on his pants, he picked her up and set her on his hip, but didn’t stop in his trek to the door.
“Is Riyad Shihar sad?” the girl asked in Arcadian.
“Of course,” Riyad answered, brushing his nose against hers, and slipping into her odd speech patterns. “Isn’t Ayir sad, too?”
“Ayir doesn’t want papa to go,” was the reply, but her long-lashed eyes were dry. “But maybe papa just has important things to do somewhere else. Papa always has important things.”
Riyad nodded and wondered what would happen to his clan now. The line of inheritance was clear and he had left all of his children and wives with ample resources, but it seemed like there were so many of them that Riyad had no idea what they’d all do. His father had been the nucleus around which they had all orbited in concentric rings. Without his gravity, would the structure that had become their universe collapse totally?
He paused, looking back over his shoulder for Herazade among the gathered Arcadians. It took him a moment to locate her, but when the crowd parted he spied her kneeling beside one of his father’s younger wives with one hand on the other woman’s shoulders. Riyad couldn’t hear them, but he could see her lips moving. The other woman’s face was hidden in her hands; she was only Herazade’s age, or perhaps younger. She had no children and he was sure she had no job. It was possible she wasn’t even from New Arcadia, but had been born in Solace.
Riyad had never considered himself to be a particularly empathic person, but he could imagine the fear that woman was experiencing. Yet under his sister’s hand, she seemed calmed. Her hands dropped into her lap, her shoulders relaxed, her body straightened like a sapling after being bent by a strong gust of wind.
A smile quirked Riyad’s lips. The D’sen clan wouldn’t crumble. Herazade had just as much of a pull about her as their father had.
“Riyad Shihar is happy?”
Ayir’s voice cut through his thoughts and he looked back at her. “Mm. Because the future will be beautiful.”
His sister giggled. “Ayir thinks so, too.”
Riyad kissed her head and set her back down on her feet, then followed Ath’ran out of the room.
He found his friend in a hallway on the way to the kitchen, speaking quietly to a Mukshah woman whom Riyad recognized Du’shan’s grandmother. As he drew closer he could hear their voices.
“He seemed so like his father,” the woman was saying. She was stooped and gnarled, but her hair was still a thick black braid down her bent back. “I worried for so long about him.”
“You don’t need to any longer.” Ath’ran’s voice was quiet, gentle. “He did you honor.”
“He did your whole clan honor,” Riyad added as he drew up beside Ath’ran. He acknowledged the respectful gesture of welcome the old woman gave him with a slight nod and went on, “He died to protect me from death. I am beholden forever to his memory, and my children’s children will hear of him.”
Though his words were formal, his tone was warm and he spoke with a gentle smile. Whatever Jin thought, there were those among the D’sen and the Mukshah who had held Du’shan dear even as he held them at arm’s length.
Riyad wouldn’t mention that Du’shan’s death had been unnecessary, because the creature wouldn’t have been able to touch him. Saying so would only mean unanswerable questions and would discredit Du’shan’s legacy, and Du’shan deserved so much more than that.
The old woman inclined her head. “You are kind to my grandson.”
“The world is not kind, so those of us living in it must be,” Riyad answered.
She gave him an approving glance, bobbed her head to Ath’ran and walked away toward the kitchen. Riyad looked at Ath’ran.
“Your words are a comfort,” Ath’ran said.
“They’re also the truth.”
Ath’ran nodded and crossed his arms over his chest. The look in his eyes made him seem older than his age. Riyad could understand that. Ath’ran hadn’t known about Du’shan’s death until the evening of the day after the attacks. He had survived the night and lived through the next day thinking that his cousin was alive, and the news had come as a great shock.
“I still don’t understand,” Ath’ran said, shaking his head slowly. “How did I survive when he died?”
Riyad was silent for a moment, looking at the ceiling in thought. He wasn’t sure he entirely understood either. When he spoke, it was with deliberation. “Quinn told me that it had to do with those books Du’shan was reading. That he realized he had control over the bond Alan created between the two of you, and all he had to do was let it go in order to have control over the moment of his death.”
He looked toward his friend to find Ath’ran looking back at him.
“I owe him a great deal.” The sincerity in his voice was wrenching. “He saved you and I, and spared my family much grief in the process.”
Riyad offered him a gentle smile and put a hand on his arm. “It’s never been a matter of debts or favors. You’d have protected him, too, regardless of your other obligations. You always have.”
Ath’ran nodded. He let his arms fall to his sides and turned to walk in the direction of the kitchen. Riyad followed him. He would rather spend time with Ath’ran and the Mukshah in the kitchen than try to mingle with his brothers and sisters.
“You’re right,” Ath’ran said. “This is just what we are.”
Riyad’s smile widened and he linked his arm with Ath’ran’s. “And it’s what we’ll always be.”
Ben tiansheng de yi dui rou - Stupid inbred sack of meat. (Chinese)