Even spattered in dried blood and pieces of the dead man’s flesh, they cut a striking pair
of figures on the dunes of the falend. Jet and dark poppy, their hair hung down their backs in the
colors of atrocity. Light caressed them, knowing they were more than human, rippling iridescent
over their tresses like quicksilver in the presence of the divine.
As in the youth of her former life, Ra was attired in the manner of a Meeric prince, the
plain kaftan of black silk muting much of the violence that covered her.
MeerShiva was less subtle, the pearl-embroidered train of her sheer citrine gown, from
the same ancient era, dragging behind her, caked in mud from the heath they’d left behind. They
were two livid strokes of pigment on the canvas of sun-blanched sand.
Satisfied with the decimation of the remains they’d dumped in the marsh outside the
small trading post beyond Mole Downs, they had simply walked away, and continued walking
until they’d left the high country altogether. Coming down out of the mound-riddled moors and
across the lowland heath, they followed the Filial River toward the east, past the falls that
plunged beneath the bluff at the wasteland’s edge, and into the high desert north of the
Anamnesis delta, until at last even Meeric sensibility demanded rest.
The palette of the sky behind the scattered stars held the deep lack of pigment that came
with the hours after midnight, and they were in the center of nothing, a vast stretch of arid land
that separated mound country from the Deltan lowlands. With a few murmured words, Shiva
raised a single tower around them, round and made of stone, with windowless walls that
stretched up over them into immeasurable heights. Meeric conjuring was often merely out of
whim, influenced by the current state of mind and body. They lay on a floor of heather, an
anomalous afterthought, with barely a pause between waking and sleep.
Jak lay at Geffn’s side, staring at the ceiling. They shared a bed for comfort, though
nothing more. The question of their long estrangement had been settled once and for all in the
formal dissolution of their bond after Ahr’s body had been consigned to the elements in the Bone
Fire. During all that ceremony—the harvest rites marking the turn of the year, the final parting
with Ahr, the unbinding rite in which Jak and Geffn had cut the red braided strings they’d worn
around their wrists to symbolize their union and set each other free—Jak had been in a state of
stasis. Unable to feel anything, unable to fully comprehend the loss of Ahr, despite the grand
In mound culture, funeral rites were less dramatic. Haethfalters didn’t believe in the
necessity of the destruction of the body by fire to free the spirit for its next life. Hadn’t, at least,
until Ra had come, having effected her own cremation from the grave in order to hasten her
return, “renaissanced” as a fully formed adult in an instant on a cold winter night. But that was
an exception to the rule. Ra’s renaissance was devilry and madness, and Jak should have
recognized it from the start.
Haethfalters practiced a form of sky burial, building a platform for the deceased and
laying the body out in the elements to be excarnated by carrion birds. Burying bodies below
ground was impractical in a place where the ground was frozen half the year and where
underground real estate was at a premium for their souterrain dwellings. When the bones were
picked clean, they were taken and placed in the family’s burial cairn—a place that didn’t require
such deep digging, and which they had to dig only once, during the warmer months.
They’d used the sky burial platform as Ahr’s crematory, and Jak had watched his
elements spiral up into the warm autumn wind. Smoke and embers and ash. It hadn’t seemed
real. It hadn’t seemed like Ahr’s body wrapped in fragrant oils and spices and covered in flower
garlands. It hadn’t seemed like anyone’s body at all as the platform was consumed in bright
flames against the dusk sky. It had all been too surreal.
But there’d been no denying the reality once the urn was placed in Jak’s hands. Within
the unassuming clay vessel was all that was left of Jak’s dearest friend.
Jak had led that final ceremony, the procession to the family cairn, the slow march alone
down the dank steps beneath the circle of stones, accompanied by Oldman Rem’s mournful
highland fiddle from above, to place Ahr’s vessel in the narrow vault that normally held the
bones of the dead. By custom, and not belief, Jak murmured prayers to the ancestors—Jak’s
mother, Fyn, and Fyn’s parents, whom Jak had never known—and then tried to say good-bye to
Ahr somehow. The finality made it impossible, and Jak dropped onto wobbly knees before the
vault and wept.
Ahr was family to Jak, and no one had questioned his interment under the cairn. Family,
after all, was a broad term in mound society, having little to do with blood. In the niche beside
Ahr’s were the bones of Fyn, the last person Jak had said good-bye to here. And on Fyn’s other
side lay the remains of Geffn’s brother, Pim, who’d died before Geffn was born. They were all
connected to Jak in one way or another. But kneeling there among the sputter of tallow candles
as the sobs receded into sighs, Jak had felt the wrongness of it. Ahr was a Deltan. His ashes
didn’t belong below the highland moor.
Jak sighed, still staring up at the stone ceiling. There was still so much damage in
Haethfalt from the rains. It was a terrible time to leave. But Jak couldn’t let this wait until spring.
“I have to take him home.” Jak spoke in the darkness beside Geffn. “I know I’m needed
here to help rebuild, but Merit deserves to know. They were lovers. He should have the ashes.”
“You do what you need to.” Geffn squeezed Jak’s hand atop the blanket. “The
moundhold will be here for you. Whatever you decide to do will be all right.”
But it wasn’t true. It would not be all right. Nothing could ever be all right with so much