Monday, June 29, 2009

71 - Mourning

The question gnawed at me all through the rest of my lesson and all through the Noon meal. I gorged, forcing down each extra bite. Father was pleased that I was showing more and more appetite like him.

After the meal was the first time I could slough off a lesson. Ailadas would search the Marble Palace in vain for me when I did not show up. He’d probably eventually ask the guard if I’d gone out. No matter, I’d make up for it later.

At the Mezem, I could hear a man keening, all the way to Iska’s desk and didn’t bother to ask. I went straight past Iska’s desk and he leapt up to follow me, the eyes of my Mahid following both of us down the corridor like a weight.

“Spark of the Sun’s Ray, if this most lowly worm might interest the most exalted one in something else, I–”  I cut him off, holding up my hand, not looking at him.

“Which man killed himself?” By this time we’d turned down toward the cells and the morgue, out of sight of my Mahid. He really didn’t wish to tell me. I could see that in the way he went completely still. I just waited, quietly. It felt as if my silence would be more powerful than words. At last he sighed.

“This lowly one... this worm... regrets to tell the highest one...” I wanted to shake him and scream ‘get on with it!’ but stood still and quiet. “Shefenkas...” no. No. You’re wrong. He wouldn’t. “... his best friend, Mannas the Wolf cut his own throat last night.” I exhaled. It wasn’t Shefenkas. “The Durakis... talked to the writers here this morning.”

“The Durakis,” I said.

“This lowly one cringes in anticipation, Spark of the Sun’s Ray, the man... revealed himself to the writers.”

“And if they’re smart they won’t write or breathe a word of it.” I had only had contact with Mannas, close contact, once or twice, and I found myself seized with a surprising grief. “Go away, Iskanzas.” I knew the way to the morgue. I turned my back on him and walked down the corridor, the voice... rasping but now I could recognize it... was Shefenkas.

On either side of the morgue door were two Mahid. I recognized both of them, Tenth Meras and Seventh Amitzas, senior men. I turned to Seventh Amitzas and asked, “What is the Imperator’s will regarding your orders?”

He looked at me as any Mahid did, with a reptile’s eyes. “These are to guard the gladiator, Karas Raikas.” I nodded and stepped between them.

I opened the door and shut it behind myself, stepping over the channel that circulated cold water around the edges of the room to help the chill. It made the floor look like an island of marble floating on ice water.

The room didn’t stink. It was too cold to stink and the corbelled brick ceilings were washed down with ammonia periodically. The marble floor and slabs bore ancient stains and only one of them had a body on it. A plain sheet covered most of his body, leaving his head, shoulders and arms uncovered. His red curls had been neatly dressed and he lay, emptied out of everything that made him human. The gash in his throat gaped slightly, dry and crusted dark red against the palor of his skin. It reminded me gruesomely of the vision I’d had of my older brother. It went from under his ear angled across the great veins in the neck all the way to his collar bone. It looked like one stroke, firm and deep.

He’d joked with me about the horrid situation they were in. He’d made me wish I had a friend like him. And now that Mannas was gone, I searched the still, quiet face, looking for that person he’d shown to me.

I’d not known him long enough. I became convinced of that as I studied the planes and angles of empty flesh, no longer animate, no longer driven by a force that I realized was a kind of joy. My eyes, without my wanting it, filled with tears and I had to blink hard to keep them from falling. I missed him and I barely knew him.

Shefenkas sat on one side of the slab, his head on Mannas’s chest, keening. I couldn’t understand any of the words, but I knew they were in their own tongue, as private as he could get, except for the few others also captive here.

I was suddenly uncomfortable, didn’t want to be there, ashamed that I’d seen his mourning, but I’d learned. People didn’t usually like to be left alone in emotion... even my own people, who were supposedly so unemotional. His boy was with him, holding onto him.

I walked around to the other side and without saying anything put my hand on his shoulder, his already hoarsening cry vibrating through it. Skorsas looked up then and froze, even as I shook my head at him. Shefenkas’s noise stopped and he looked up.

“Minis.” He said. His eyes, that I had seen in the ring, full of sickness, were washed clean of the madness, at least for a short time. I wondered how that could be with the germ in his head growing bigger and shoved that ugly thought away. They were red-rimmed all around, he’d wept himself dry of actual tears some time ago but their marks were on his face. What clarity he had I told myself I'd take as a mercy.

I didn’t understand all that was there in his eyes. I couldn’t even understand everything in my own heart. I’m sorry was too small, even the words uttered would cheapen the amount of grief and horror he felt. I shook my head, wordlessly, one hand on Mannas’s corpse. The other I raised to cup around the red, still healing scar on his face, my fingertips and the edge of my hand and the base of my palm the only part touching his skin.

He closed his eyes. Skorsas just stood, watching for a moment. I think to see if I would hurt Shefenkas. The boy was in such a state he’d probably have done something to try and stop me if I’d been that kind of asshole and I loved him for his loyalty. Not that I would ever show it to him.

He said. “Chevenga,” the best, most Yeoli sounding version of Shefenkas’s name I’d ever heard on an Arkan tongue. “Please, you need to drink something.”

“You do.” I said nodding as his eyes popped open again. “Let him look after you, all right?” He sighed and one hand flipped over to sign chalk, then took the water cup Skorsas offered him. He drained it, handed it back and put his head back down on his friend’s chest.

It felt as though I needed to say something but the grief here was so big, so overwhelming, that speaking, asking that someone comfort me, would be like farting in the Temple. It wasn’t right.

There was nothing for me to do here, except offer my company if that was any kind of consolation at all. It wasn’t my place to be reassured, or cosseted. I needed just to be there no matter how uncomfortable I was. I desperately wished I knew Misahis’s skills to help someone in pain, and thinking of him made my tears spill over. That was when Shefenkas reached up and hand and pulled me close to him too, even though he didn’t say anything.

Mannas’s body, under me was cooling fast in the icy morgue and it felt as though Shefenkas clung to that fading warmth. My tears set him off again and I hugged him and didn’t say anything. Don’t distract him from his grief. That’s not fair.

I stayed almost a bead before I realized I could not stay any longer. One thing I had read in my purloined books was a funeral custom. I let go of him and he of me. With my dagger I cut a lock of hair at the nape of my neck, underneath where it could be hidden, coiled it up tight and tucked it under one of Mannas’s hands. Skorsas muffled his gasp when I cut the lock. I hadn't realized. I had wanted Mannas to be a friend, as well as Shefenka, and because Father wanted their country, wanted their bodies and souls and land and goods, because they’d been made slaves despite everything they could do, I never would have him as one.

I nodded at Skorsas and left quietly. Outside, I almost ran into Mannas’s boy, dithering outside, wanting to be there to grieve too. But he’d not come in, afraid because I was there. His eyes widened all the way around the blue from something he saw on my face. I’m not sure what. “Go on, fessas,” I said. “Pardon me for having interrupted your grieving.” He didn’t answer but bowed and fled into the morgue behind me.


  1. The second quote is wrong-way around:

    “Spark of the Sun’s Ray, if this most lowly worm might interest the most exalted one in something else, I –“ I cut him off, holding up my hand, not looking at him.