Kelena stood at the water’s edge, inhaling the salty breeze. One of her arms was looped through that of Nog, the other through Rani’s. Her head was resting on Nog’s shoulder, and Rani’s head on her shoulder, and so the three of them stood looking at the funeral boat that would carry Kohir on to his final journey.
Despite the cold, Kelena was barefoot, as the ancient customs of mourning required. The water was icy as it lapped her feet, but although she shivered, she didn’t step away from the salty waves. For the last time, she wanted to be as close to her brother as possible.
Rani, by her side, was barefoot as well. Although only the close kin of the dead – his parents, spouse, siblings and children - were required to put their shoes away for the funeral, and Rani wasn’t even Kohir’s cousin, she had allowed herself to grieve. She is like me, Kelena realized as she felt the warmth of Rani’s tears through the fabric of her gown. She grieves for the life that could have been, but never was. She grieves for how senseless our suffering is, and how easily it all could have been avoided, if only...
Her thoughts trailed off. Instead, she looked at her mother and father, who stood a little to the side. Rohir was upright, proper, grave. Hinassi’s face was pale, her eyes puffy as though she hadn’t slept in days, but her most prominent expression was that of disappointment, as if her most sacred principles had been betrayed, and she couldn’t understand how it happened.
“They never loved him,” Rani blurted out.
“Please be quiet, Rani, they will hear you,” Kelena said firmly but gently, squeezing the other woman’s arm.
“She is right,” Nog said all of a sudden, fiercely, firmly, as if he became a man all at once. “They grieve the loss of an heir, but they knew not a single thing about Kohir. About any of us,” he concluded, and Kelena tugged anxiously on his sleeve and pressed a finger to her lips, imploring him to stop. People were already beginning to stare.
“Please, Nog,” she said. “We can talk later. Look, they are going to... do it.” Her voice quivered.
Someone passed a torch to her father, and Rohir Kotsar lowered it to the bed of straw and dry wood on which Kohir’s shroud-wrapped body lay. The fire took on at once, and with a firm, smooth motion, he untied the boat and pushed it away, entrusting his eldest son to the strong wind and the swift current.
“Kohir, son of Rohir,” he said loudly and clearly, and his voice didn’t quiver. “You were born to the noble and ancient people of the Kotsar, and from the day of your birth, you were destined to lead this clan some day. Alas, it was not to be. The Great Spirit decreed that you would be taken from us in the prime of your youth. We shall find comfort in the thought that you lived, fought and died as befits a noble man and warrior. You left no sons, but all the people of the Kotsar shall always carry a part of your spirit.”
“I carried more than his spirit,” Rani whispered, so that only Nog and Kelena could hear. “I carried his child once.”
They looked at her, grief mingling with shock. “Rani, you cannot mean – ” Kelena began.
She nodded. “Yes. It was when we both were half-children ourselves. They killed it, of course. They made me drink some vile herb infusion, told me it would calm my nerves... they killed my babe, and I never had another.”
Kelena didn’t know what to say. Tears blurred her vision as she looked at the burning torch of Kohir’s boat glide further and further away, a speck of flame on the seeming stillness of water under which strong currents were running.
People were beginning to crowd around Rohir and Hinassi, murmuring meaningless words of comfort, saying what a brave man Kohir was and expressing hopes that their youngest son, Nog, would soon be fit to step in his brother’s shoes.
“I grieve for Kohir,” Nog said abruptly, “but I will not live my life as his replacement.” And having said that, he turned and walked away, leaving a stunned silence in his wake.
“I do not blame my son,” said Rohir, shaking his head solemnly. “It is pain speaking through him.” But his eyes blazed with cold anger, and Kelena wasn’t fooled.
...When the crowd dispersed and the boat burned and sank and went down, down, down, and it was just the two of them left staring into sea and space, Rani raised her head from Kelena’s shoulder and asked her:
“What are you going to do?”
“I will go to Jada and thank her for staying behind and looking after Emm,” said Kelena.
“I think she was only glad for an excuse to remain at home and nurse her sickness,” remarked Rani. “She is new with child, did you know that?”
Kelena nodded. “What news for Akira when he comes back,” she said.
“Never mind that, though. You did not answer my question. What are you going to do?”
“I just told you – ”
“You know perfectly well what I mean. After mourning is over, and everything is taken care of, and you don your shoes again, what will you do? Will you go back to Aldon-Sur?”
Kelena considered this for a moment. To go back to that house, the luxurious comfortable house that she hated and had hoped to escape forever... and yet what else was there? Torwen was dead, Kohir as well, Jadine was lost, her parents, her entire clan forever altered... in the whole world she now had nothing but little Emmet and – as much as she inwardly squirmed at the thought – her husband.
“Do you realize that Dankar is half prepared for the possibility of never seeing you again? He told me so himself.”
Kelena looked up in surprise. It was very much unlike Dankar to share his thoughts in this manner, especially with someone like Rani, who was not known for keeping secrets.
“Where does he think I might go?”
Rani shrugged. “I have not the least idea. Dankar is a sly bastard, I could never quite figure him out. I do believe you have tamed him, however, though how you did it I cannot understand.”
“I assure you I had no such intention.”
Rani smiled for the first time. “Perhaps that is the secret,” she said.
“Perhaps,” agreed Kelena, her thoughts drifting elsewhere, to another funeral which might, for all she knew, be taking place at this very moment. “What about you?” she asked Rani, just to think of something else. “Will you be able to go back to your old life?”
“Oh, of course not,” the other woman assured her. “That would be impossible. No, I will shave my head and wear a hair shirt and find myself some dreary cave to spend the rest of my life in remorse and penitence.”
Absurdly, desperately, they began to laugh, clinging to each other and wiping their eyes.
“Why didn’t you seek him before?” Kelena finally asked. “After your husband died, I mean. No one could have prevented you from doing so then.” She stopped, worrying that her words might inflict needless pain, but Rani merely furrowed her brow, as if pondering the right answer.
“I think I was still a frightened, gullible girl,” she said. “I allowed the clan elders to coax me into silence. I would never see Kohir again, even if I were free, lest the shame of our first liaison came out... and later, of course, there was my infamous reputation,” she smiled again, defiantly. “Your father in particular made it clear he would never allow such a disgraceful match for his eldest son. So I allowed them to convince me, threaten me, frighten me... while in truth, they could do nothing worse than what they had already done.” She stopped, and her eyes grew dim, as though all light had suddenly gone out of them. “I allowed them to do it to me,” she concluded, “and then came a time when I thought it is too late. It wasn’t, but I didn’t understand. It is now, though. Too late. Much too late.”
Kelena thought she would cry, but Rani smiled again – a terrible smile that spoke of a lifetime of suffering. “Let us go,” Kelena urged her. “It is getting chilly. Come with me to Jada, and we will have something to drink. Hot tea with herb liquor and perhaps some dried figs and apples to regain our strength. You ate nothing today yet.”
But Rani shook her head, and looked out to the sea again. “I will stay here for a while longer, if you don’t mind,” she said.
“As you wish,” said Kelena, “but do not linger too long. A bitter wind is rising, can you feel it?”
“Yes,” said Rani, lifting her face up to the sky. “It feels good. It feels as though I am alone with Kohir again, for the first time in too many years. Oh, do not worry about me, Kelena,” she added. “I will come back soon, I promise.”
After Kelena walked some distance away, she turned around and looked. Rani’s hair was rippling in the cold wind, and she stood motionless, her arms stretched out to the sea, as if she wished to embrace the one that had gone forever. Her eyes burning with tears, Kelena turned around again and kept on walking.
She did not stay long at Jada’s; her cousin, as Rani rightly noted, looked quite ill and pale, with dark circles under her eyes. Kelena did not know whether this sickness should be attributed to pregnancy, or to the fact that Ned Kamtesir returned to town, and decided against asking. She thanked Jada profusely for watching her son, took little Emm by the hand, and walked to her parents’ house.
She found her father perusing a letter. He was so deeply immersed in reading that he did not hear her steps immediately, and for the first time, she was struck by the thought that perhaps she was mistaken in labeling her father’s grief as superficial. Rohir was always fair, slender, smooth, elegant, but the man sitting in front of her now was hunched and bent, the lines in his face prominent, the silvery hair at his temples making him look almost old.
A gust of wind stirred her skirts, and the rustle startled her father. He looked up from the letter.
“Kelena,” he said. “I have just received some satisfying news. That eerie Shadow is gone... and so is your sister, it appears. It seems she had something to...” he ran a hand over his eyes, a gesture of extreme tiredness. “Well, no matter. It is all over now, and hopefully, Jadine will finish her life in humility and regret.”
“Was it Akira who wrote to you? Did he tell where she is?” Kelena walked over to her father’s writing-desk and lifted Emmet in her arms, to feel the comforting warmth and weight of his little body. Her son put his arms around her neck.
“No, but it matters not. I forbid you to ever look for her, do you understand? She was a dark sorceress who connected herself with rebels and traitors, and our clan is better off without her.”
Was, Kelena noted her father’s choice of words. He speaks of Jadine as if he knows she is dead. But even if she wanted to defy this command, she had no idea where to look for Jadine, and so she decided it is best not to argue.
“Yes, Father,“she said like the meek, obedient daughter that she was.