Chapter fifteen: The Funeral
Belladia was inconsolable.
She screamed obscenities and attacked anyone who tried to talk to her, to calm her down, to convince her to eat or sleep. Her eyes were glassy and crazed, her fingers red under the nails from the flesh she had scratched from those who tried to help her. Earlier, she had stopped screaming and found her composure by the time they had reached the end of the rock face and the safe place to climb down to the other side of the South Ologo River. She had seemed distant but relatively calm as she stood vigil at the edge of the bank, eyes trained on the nearly endless expanse of water, waiting for Osarius and Fredric to emerge from the sparkling lethal water. The sun finally set, taking the light and all chances of discovering the missing pair with it. Nolle had approached her with an Teideko blanket to wrap around her shoulders; she had accepted it detachedly, never taking one eye from the river. Gently, Nolle had taken her elbow and tried to steer her toward the camp.
I need to wait for Osarius, she had insisted, dove eyes dark in the phantom light. He’s going to need help. He probably won’t be strong enough to get over the bank.
Oh, and Fredric, too, of course. He will probably be exhausted.
Belladia. Nolle had taken her hand gently, turning her carefully to look at him. Belladia, they fell a long way. The river is going too fast, and it’s too deep, and we all saw those sharp rocks at the base of the falls. I don’t think they could have—
She had slapped him hard across the face with a sudden and feral scream, raking her nails over his cheek. With surprising strength she flung him over the bank and half into the stinging water, he unable to fight back in his double-edged shock, and ran off, keening like a lost and tortured soul
He sighed at the memory, and took several swigs of wine.
It was like they had lost three people. Belladia was no longer with them. Concerning competence of things such as cleaning, food, mending and healing, Belladia had been the leader, followed by Fredric. Chimley and Xarthanias seemed not to know what do with themselves, and so the burden fell to Nolle to organize set up of their camp and preparation of their meal. There was nothing more than flatlands here, with the mountainous expanse of the Larentac behind them and the ominous Ologo River beside, only grass and scrub trees could be made out otherwise. It was warm enough to go without a fire’s heat, so they made as much use of the dying light as they could. Although Belladia had disappeared by the end of their rapid meal, her sobbing could be heard in the new-fledged night.
Their clothes had been ruined by the hour-and-a-half stretch under the Larentac. All three of the people who could have explained…well, none were in a position to explain. Nolle stared in mystification at their inconsistent capes and the acid-eaten clothing he wore, wishing Belladia was there to maybe weave the grass into patches or sew them up or something. He couldn’t sew and knew as much about weaving as he did about sewing. At a loss, he tossed the capes aside and went back to work.
The shock of losing Osarius and Fredric both in one day was like ice in the pit of the stomach. Nolle, Xarthanias and Chimley did not lose themselves to wild despair as Belladia did, but their motions were detached as they sunk further into their private yet communal grief. Chimley hadn’t known Osarius or Fredric in the manner that Belladia had, but he couldn’t get passed the thought that he would never see them again. He had never actually known anyone who died before. He thought of Osarius, seeing him fighting with the thugs in the woods only a couple weeks ago, recruiting him to join the Escort. Though it could have been anyone, it had been Osarius who extended the invitation. Fredric had found Chimley in the forest, dying from the bear claw infection, and had carried him, half-delusional, to Belladia to be healed. Chimley had not known either young man the morning before, yet he felt that a bond had been forming between them. He had never had to pretend to like them, and now they were gone.
…pretend to like them…
Chimley held his breath, drowning in his own existence for a moment. He let the breath out, shaking his head, heart heavy, but forced composure onto himself and hardened his heart into ice. It was better this way, it meant that he would not have to kill them himself, something he wasn’t even sure he could have brought himself to do. This thought made his white-hot rage flare, and he snarled silently at himself not to get soft so early in the game; if he wasn’t careful, weakness would get the best of him. The danger of forcing yourself to like someone likeable, but knowing you could never, should never, like them sincerely, was that you ended up liking them anyway.
Pretend. This is only pretend, he reminded himself savagely, and though he continued to act as though he were in mourning, he smothered all feelings of fondness.
Xarthanias helped Nolle unroll the blankets—they had retrieved the one Belladia threw on the bank—lost in the world of his thoughts. He had always been too jealous of Fredric to invite him into the circle formed by himself, Nolle, Belladia and Osarius, and it ate at his conscience now. Fredric was always such a cheerful young man, even and maybe especially after the death of his mother, Princess Chanurise. She had been much like Fredric in her quietly jovial and jesting ways, always finding a way to make people smile. Xarthanias wondered loathsomely of himself: how could he be such a terrible person as to direct such internal malice toward Chanurise’s son? After all she had done for him, and knowing Fredric didn’t deserve it at all? He thought of Belladia, the object of his jealousy, and hated her for making such a brute out of him, along with all the other reasons he hated her.
Her brother had always been a part of the circle. He had almost been like an older brother to Xarthanias, even if he was with his sister. His thoughtful, prudent wisdom was like an anchor when they found themselves in trouble, and he, Belladia and Nolle were always the ones to find a way out. Osarius was one of the few sparring partners Xarthanias considered worthy, and he could find solutions to problems and predicaments in a way that Xarthanias never could. He almost never knew what to do in times of jeopardy. Without Osarius, they would have been late for dinner more times than Xarthanias could count, and his mother would have aged more years than she was willing to count. He almost smiled at this thought, as he wiped a tear from his eye.
There were no trees for Chimley to sleep in, but he still wouldn’t sleep on the blankets. He bid them good night and wandered off into the darkness. Belladia had fallen silent and no one was quite sure where she was, so Nolle took up one blanket and Xarthanias the other. The air was a bit cooler, so they kept their capes on, only removing their boots so they could dig their toes into the soft wool. Nolle’s foot was still stiff, but he enjoyed the freedom of movement he had not had yesterday. This was only a distant enjoyment, because his heart was with Osarius and Fredric.
He had agreed to embark on this journey for the sake of keeping his brother alive. Now, other than himself, there was only Chimley, who seemed to secretly detest Xarthanias—the reasons were understandable to anyone; Xarthanias could be a difficult person to carry a torch for—but Nolle wasn’t sure what Chimley was willing to do for Xarthanias. If Belladia didn’t come back to them, Nolle had the sour certainty that Xarthanias would be next. In his state of grieving irrationality. It was to Nolle as though his brother was as good as dead.
With a feeling of inescapable trepidation in his stomach, Nolle fell into dark, fitful sleep, his fingers locked around his wineskin in a death grip.
Xarthanias was not yet blessed with unconsciousness. He remembered the last time he had seen Fredric, beleaguered with loathing and jealousy over the powerful words to men who were, in futuristic essence, Xarthanias’s subjects. In that moment, Xarthanias had angrily thought that he should be the one to erase fear in his Escort to continue on in dire circumstances, he should have made the speech that moved them into action.
Xarthanias felt empty, and he knew that he really couldn’t have, didn’t have the power or the credibility.
And now, whether he could or not was irrelevant, because the task again fell on him to lead his Escort. He could no longer hide behind the others, and the sick dread of being exposed as the weak and incompetent leader he was beset him like a waking nightmare.
He had never known such a faceless terror that turned the night into a suffocating blanket, the heat into a stifling hand over his mouth and nose. He thought it would consume into itself until he felt a hand alight on his chest. His eyes flew open and he gasped, horrified for a moment that it was one of death’s reapers come to take his soul.
Adjusting to the faint silver moonlight, Xarthanias saw that it was not an imaginary nightmare but Belladia, shining blond hair and grey eyes drowning in tears of sorrow. Her black clothing turned her into a looming silhouette. She lifted his arm and crawled into its protection, burying her face into his shoulder and clinging to him like a dying person clinging to their last chance of life. She was careful not to touch the wounds on his back, but he gasped in a different sort of pain. He carefully turned on his side, bringing his other arm around. He held her as she shook him with her sobs. The waking nightmare came back after only a few minutes, but he revelled that he was not alone in the twisted labyrinth of bereavement. And so he held onto the woman who had made him—a brute of a man.
* * *
The barest touches of light were enough to jolt Nolle out of his sleep.
His head ached, and his entire body was slick with sweat, and he shivered in the breeze coming off the river. His first instinct was to look down at himself for red onion worms, and he thought of Fredric’s amusement because of the parasites. The morning was cool and fresh, and Nolle smiled a slight smile at the memory of Fredric’s hysterical face. He rolled to his feet and stretched, mouth dry. He was thirsty, and glad that they had slept beside a river. South Ologo, no less; it was known for having the clearest, sweetest water in the land.
The sunlight broke the barrier of the horizon, and Nolle could see clearly once again the holes eaten through his shirt and pants. His heart sank as he remembered the river wasn’t sweet anymore. They still had some water packed from the day before, but the river would take them for four days to the Volcano Belt, and though they wouldn’t be completely dehydrated, it would make the going slow and they might not get there for nine or ten days, and by then not only would they be much too late to cross the Cremarian Gulf, they and the horses would be dehydrated. Maybe even dead.
Is it even possible to have just one good day on a Pilgrimage? Nolle wondered to himself, shaking his head disgustedly.
He turned toward the river anyway, if only to have something to look at, and was dismayed to remember that this was also the river that had taken his friends. Anathema!
About to turn back and wake Xarthanias, he caught sight of the figure stooped at the bank. Belladia. Her shoulders were hunched and small, her hair completely undone and hanging long and limp down her back. It hid her face like a veil when Nolle approached her, staring at the flowers she held in her hand. Of course, she knew he was there, but she continued her odd pattern of picking a petal from a flower, holding it to her lips for a few moments, and then clutching it briefly to her heart before sending it away into the river.
What are you doing? Nolle finally asked after watching her do this three more times.
She turned to him tearfully and he tensed for a moment, fearing another lash-out, but both of her hands clutched the flowers. Saying goodbye to Osarius and Fredric, she said hollowly. One flower petal for one happy memory, to bless them and keep them in their river grave. They gazed at each other for a moment, and then Belladia offered him a handful of flowers. I’m very sorry I scratched your face, she said, touching the scratches gently. I just couldn’t believe…I didn’t want you to say…. She stared miserably at her feet. Nolle squeezed her hand, still on his face blinking his own tears. This simple touch from her made his soul sigh with relief to have someone to share its burdens.
Taking back her hand with a guilty glance toward Xarthanias, she continued on with her ceremony. Anyway, I was just remembering when I started exploring fashion design, back when I was eleven or twelve. My mother helped me make dresses in the beginning, and it wasn’t long before I could do it all by myself. Once I had completed my first masterpiece, a little ball gown for myself, I made Osarius put it on so I could make adjustments without taking it on and off; he was my size and shape back then, having not hit a growth spurt. It was pink and sparkling, with hundreds of diamonds and emeralds sewn in, just the way I liked it. Days passed before I had it just the way I wanted it, so much time spent on something I would wear only twice. Daymial walked in while I was working on it, she was only four back then, and she thought it was the funniest thing, our big brother in sequins and pink lace… She was crying again, softly this time, her face silhouetted in the rising sun. I don’t know how she’s going to take it, Daymial. The only good I could see in joining this escort was that I could make sure Osarius came back, and now…She turned into his shoulder, shaking and crushing the flower petal in her hand. He stroked her hair, which was coarse and stringy from the acid falls, tears streaming down his own face. Dimly, he was surprised that she had been thinking of her brother the same way he thought of his, and they had similar motivations for being part of the cursed Escort.
Her fresh round of tears subsided by the time Xarthanias woke up to find everyone gone. Belladia had held the flower petal to her lips and heart, and was letting it drift down into the river when he shuffled up beside them. Nolle was surprised to see the tearstains and the haggard look on his twin’s face; even when Princess Chanurise, who was much beloved by Xarthanias, had died, Nolle didn’t think Xarthanias had shed a single tear. He had simply hidden inside himself and pined for months, not speaking and hardly eating, though his eyes were always dry.
What are you doing? he asked dully, hardly paying them a glance.
Paying tribute to Osarius and Fredric, Nolle replied, biting his lip and swallowing the tears that rose in his throat. Their names brought back the image of watching them tumble over the falls, one after the other, along with that snake. What had a snake been doing there? Nolle angrily thought that if it hadn’t been for the snake, Osarius and Fredric would still be there. Curse the snake too!
Belladia explained the ritual, and it was Nolle’s turn to share a memory about Fredric. He thought for a moment and then remembered a day that seemed longer ago than one year.
I didn’t know Fredric as well as I knew Osarius, he began, eyes trained on the glittering golden river, but last year I was sad about something, and Fredric came up. He didn’t try to ask me what was wrong, he just said he was looking for someone to go with him to the Raspberry Festival in Deshale. Even though the four of us—you two and Osarius—had already gone three times, I always liked it, so I agreed. It was about two months after Princess Chanurise had died, and as you know, Fredric was still as merry as he had always been. I’m sure she told him to keep on smiling, even though she was gone. It was a good thing too, because he became like her. He was the only one with a hope of filling in the space she had left behind.
He smiled tightly and continued. In any case, we rode to Deshale and played games and watched shows at the festival. It was the very last day, and there were a lot of grand finales to see. After a Bridge Race, we bought a slice of raspberry pie from a poor old woman in the square. No one was buying them from her, and we went because there was no line. It was the most wonderful pie either of us had tasted, and we were surprised that no one had bought any. Fredric, of course, asked what the secret ingredient was, and she said love. I thought it was kind of a ridiculous thing to say, but she explained that she and her late son loved raspberry pie, and had planted thirty bushes by their house on his thirtieth birthday so they could have a steady supply to make the pies. It was then that a little boy of about seven came running up, and the woman introduced him as her grandson. The boy recognized me, and his little eyes went so wide when his grandmother told him that we were princes. Fredric grinned that grin of his, and asked the boy if he wanted to be a prince too, for the afternoon, and let the boy ride Fang and wear his ring as we sat in the royal box to watch games. Fredric told him stories and “secrets” about being a prince, and even taught him to do the jig. They danced together in the square and I couldn’t believe how happy the boy was, just to be with Fredric. The boy said that Fredric was just like his daddy.
Wiping away a tear, Nolle pressed the petal to his lips. Fredric was always doing things like that, taking great fun in making other people happy. Here’s to the brightest person I have ever met. After pressing his hand to his chest, Nolle set the petal free.
Xarthanias was in an alien state of detachment, and his memory of Osarius was brief. I remember that time when I was twelve and the four of us got stuck in that bog in the forest near Deshale. I was screaming like a kettle but you two and Osarius barely batted an eye. It was my fault we got stuck, because I was so certain we could get across if we were careful, and Osarius thought of making that vine bridge to get us out, and we made it home just in time for dinner. He quickly touched the flower petal to his lips and chest. Osarius was a person who you could always count on to stay calm and find a way. He dropped the petal into the river.
Belladia told a story about Osarius saving her life when they were cliff diving on Revetu Beach, and then Nolle recalled a family picnic when he had been fourteen. There had been no servants or attendants, just the King and Queen and their sons, Prince Gyi and Princess Delaira, Osarius, Belladia, and Daymial, and Princess Chanurise. Fredric had come down with some ailment, and it was a wonder that Chanurise was there at all. The picnics were a rare affair, but they were always days to remember. Though they ate fine food and drank shagar and other foreign wines, they sat themselves on the ground. The children were allowed half a glass each tempered with equal parts of water, though none of them wanted more than this. The King had been in good spirits after three or four glasses of Rolan White, as had Prince Gyi. They had fallen into banter over the King’s sword skills, and King Ziyan had declared he could take on and defeat anyone at any time. Feeling full of himself, Osarius, military prodigy, had challenged the King. King Ziyan had laughed, and Osarius persisted by insisting he could take on and defeat anyone at any time without even using a sword. Ziyan asked if the sixteen-year-old boy meant hand-to-hand or wrestling, but Osarius had increased the stakes by having the King use a sword while he fought weaponless. Confused but willing in the interest of a good show, King Ziyan agreed to Osarius’s terms.
Both men stood and took their positions, and the fight was over in minutes. Who won? Osarius, of course.
The King had raised his sword but Osarius hadn’t moved, and while the King was deliberating over striking an unarmed boy, a whole tree fell from the sky and knocked him over flat.
Osarius knocked him out with just one blow, with a tree? Fredric asked incredulously as Nolle relayed the story later, at the sick boy’s bedside. Fredric had a sore throat and a slight fever, and his muscles were too weak to move him much, some sort of flu.
Yes, a tree! Nolle confirmed, laughing at the sight of his father being flattened. The King had deflected it at the last moment to save himself from being hurt, but it had indeed been a good show.
Must have been some tree, Fredric said in marvel, with a sideways grin.
Belladia, Nolle and Xarthanias stayed by the river for nearly an hour, taking turns telling stories about Fredric and Osarius while the sun climbed steadily higher in the sky. When it was silently decided that too much daylight was burning away, they said a final farewell to their friends and dropped the rest of the flowers into the river, where they were swallowed instantly by the ravenous waves. Watching the river rush by, they took deep breaths and steeled themselves to face the first day without Fredric’s antics or Osarius’s quiet steadiness. When they were ready, Belladia took Xarthanias’s and then Nolle’s hands and they made their way back to camp.