Decent Funeral

by Helen

It is not a military funeral.

She knows how to react at military funerals. She's attended enough, in her time. Full dress, Guard chaplain, stand to attention, eyes front and a twelve-sabre salute for the glorious dead. This is not a military funeral. The Island is full of them - when she walked down from the harbour she could see the priests, grey-eyed and exhausted, blessing the bloated corpses in batches of three before loading them onto the fires. Career military, volunteers and draftees alike – all accorded the same honours: a regulation white sheet and a Navy chaplain intoning the last words which will send them on to the Burned Realm. One by one, the poor bastards seconded to grave duty - cloths tied about their faces to dull the smell of rotting flesh - slung the bodies onto the hungry pyres tended by the Temple of Ash, affording soldiers of every rank the last, great equality of death. But not for Marine First Class Chermes, fifty-eight years old, late of the Silandra, two months' service, never mentioned in dispatches, killed in action October of this year. Ambriel has a little money in her purse, and such a small luxury as a private funeral seems appropriate, under the circumstances. It is a quiet affair. There are many faces missing. She is in uniform; she has little else to wear. The dress-jacket provided by the sailors who dredged them up from the harbour fits badly, and her tattoos itch constantly beneath her shirt. She stands a little apart from the company, in their ragged mourning blacks. Her mother, still weeping quietly behind her veil, looks reproachfully from time to time at the rank slides on her epaulettes. The priest - some stuttering acolyte from the Temple of the King-in-Fragments - mumbles his way through the service, badly. Nobody has any particularly stirring words to say. There are some platitudes about how he was a good man, a family man, how he loved his country. Ambriel helps shoulder the body, next to some distant third-cousin who nods companionably at her; and her mother, still sobbing, lights the first flame of the pyre. It goes out, once, twice, three times before the salt-soaked wood catches. Someone at the back mutters something about bad omens, and she has to clench her fists hard not to wheel and snarl. Afterwards, they walk through the makeshift streets of the dockside shanty-town, to the place where her mother and father had set up their temporary home. It is a rickety house, a quarter of the size of their rooms above the shop near the Bazaar, built like its neighbours of driftwood and scrap timber and plaster. Inside, it is small but immaculate; her mother has done her best to turn the place into something appropriate. Something like home. There are a few little pictures that Ambriel recognises hung on the walls, salvaged from the ruins of the Port. It is not a military wake, either. No rousing songs, no outrageous boasts of the dead man's glory and ridiculous exaggerations of his prowess in battle, or in bed. No cheap beer, and nobody to toast the Duke and get everyone sniffling and singing when they're all too drunk to remember that soldiers aren't supposed to be sentimental. Her mother, comforted by red-eyed neighbours who Ambriel doesn't recognise, brings out that bottle of port that Father had been saving for a rainy day. And those wineglasses, that Father bought from some Eastern trader and then couldn't bear to sell on, to be used only when they had Company. How on earth did they save those wineglasses, fleeing a city in the throes of civil war? Ambriel remembers, when she was fifteen and Suri had just entered the Priesthood, how they'd used to laugh and argue over whether Ambriel would make Sergeant first, or whether Suriel would make Temple Priest. Which sister it would be, that would finally give Father occasion to break open that special bottle of port and bring out those wineglasses. In the end, years later, neither had been a particular cause for celebration. Sergeant Chermes, promoted in the field because all the other NCOs were dead and the Lieutenant was a gibbering lunatic, came back from the Breathing Isles blank-eyed and limping; slept through her week of leave on a cramped bed in the attic, because they'd turned her bedroom into a guesting-space for lodgers, and was back on duty before anyone had a chance to collect war stories. Less than a week after that, Suriel, in the robes of a full Priest, swept through the front door while they were at dinner, looked blankly at her mother, told Father she'd been promoted and swept out again. The neighbours, who'd known little Suri since she was old enough to run around in the dust and chase the neighbourhood cats, didn't recognise the cold-eyed priest visiting the Chermes house, and had to ask Mother who it had been. Things at home became… difficult. Ambriel started spending more and more evenings at the barracks. The next year, field promotion confirmed, she volunteered for a tour of duty in the Garden Lands rather than stay home for Solstice. But even then, when things got bad, she could still escape to her parents' house, to find a hot meal on the table and some gentle nagging about that nice Simmons boy, who's your age and still a bachelor, and isn't it about time you started thinking about the future… She sips at the port and stares at the pictures. On the mantlepiece, a pair of little carved roses, one yellow, one white; she remembers Father whittling those from bits of driftwood his daughters had found on the shore, one long, lazy summer's day in the shop when business was slow. A small and pedestrian show of faith in the Princes, for a small and pedestrian family. A sudden wave of homesickness hits her, rising up like seawater flooding her mouth and throat. She could really do with some Silverleaf. Not here. Not now. He was a genial man with a slow, thoughtful way of speaking. He had strong hands, and an easy smile, and he didn't like cold weather. Not too abstemious, never quite ambitious or cruel enough to outdo his business rivals. A decent man. Fond of riddles, and salt fish the way mother used to make it on feast days. Quietly patriotic. A good man. “Such a shame your sister couldn't be here.” That third-cousin, whose name she can't remember, startles her from her reverie. She looks hard at him, wondering how much he knows. He leans close, and continues, “You know, your mother said she hadn't seen Suriel for months. You have to wonder… what with the situation in the Port… and your father always used to say, you know…” He has a greasy, sideways smile. His phrases trail off half-finished, as if he's sharing some ugly private joke. “It's such a shame you girls didn't visit more often… if you'd only said something to him…” Ambriel's right hand flexes involuntarily, tightening on the wineglass. The third-cousin draws breath to say something else, and the glass shatters in her hand, spraying fragments everywhere and cutting thin red lines into her palm. She looks down, shocked, at the mess of blood and shards. Well, that's familiar. Chaos. The room descends into recriminations and flapping women. Some neighbour she vaguely recognises as the apothecary from three streets away, when they used to live by the Bazaar, starts trying to mother her and “have a look at that hand”. Her mother has started crying again. The third-cousin is cowering halfway across the room, and she has no idea why - she hasn't struck him - until she realises that her left hand is white-knuckled on the hilt of her dagger, which has somehow left her belt and is lying along her forearm, reversed in a killing grip. She turns away and shoulders through the crowd of shocked friends and relations, jamming the knife back into its scabbard. ”'Scuse me. Getting some air. Hand's fine,” she growls. Worse than the looks of confusion and concern are the glances at her wedding-ring, and the half-heard mutters that follow her down the street, and the terrible caution in their eyes. There are aunts in there who wouldn't have thought twice about chewing her out for breaking one of Mother's best wineglasses, not two years ago, Captain's pips or no Captain's pips. Now… things are different. You watch your tongue around the nobles. It's drilled into you from birth. ”'Scuse me.” She makes her way to the door. The room is suddenly too hot, stifling. She bursts out into a light rain and the smell of the sea. Outside, she starts walking fast, head down, trying to breathe. The taint of salt-water brushes at her lungs and lips, and she coughs, and spits, and fumbles for the packet of silverleaf on her belt, brushing glass from her bleeding right hand. She manages to roll herself a shaky cigarette, and convinces a recalcitrant lucifer to spark on the damp sandpaper. As she breathes in the thick, sharp smoke, a final shard tumbles from her sleeve to the cobblestones. It hits, and smashes, and suddenly in the shards she sees the Silandra again, tiny at first, then rising to fill her vision. Ghostly, the ship turns - trying to come about, to aid the Crystal Rose, she thinks, and she can see figures on-deck and she desperately squints her eyes to see if there's anyone she recognises. And then, slowly - as slowly as it happened in real life - the ship begins to founder, a great shard of glass piercing her heart dead-centre, splitting her in two as neatly as a rosebud opening to the sun. She swears and shakes her head, as if she's trying to clear water from her ears after a long dive. Time to get back to the Embassy. Time to go home.

misc/fiction/decentfuneral.txt · Last modified: 2011/04/05 19:35 by osj01
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