129 ~ Caelum

Jourd’Althea, 6th Duema

The funeral, against all custom, was the day after Zanny had been found, asleep in her bed. She’d passed peacefully in the night, it was said.

This had to be a lie.

Caelum didn’t know exactly how Zanny had died, but he knew Zardria had killed the woman. The rumours he’d heard from the servants when they thought he was out of earshot had made his skin crawl.

“Heart ripped right out of her chest –”

“No, that’s impossible, a wild animal’d have to have done that–”

“Or a Twisted Sister–”

“You suggesting the treecat’d be one of them–”

“And why not? That or she’d really be a treecat–”

“That’s even more impossible–”

“Nothing’s impossible anymore.”

He didn’t get to check himself. Zanny’s funerary garb was a peplos that buttoned right up to her neck, in a fashion so severely outdated it could only add weight to the rumours. With the doing away of any rites except those to Umbra, funerary rites were no longer ten days long. How convenient: there was no time to get a confirmation of what he’d heard.

He didn’t want to think on it, but it rang a bell of truth somewhere deep inside him. If Zardria were a full servant of Umbra, a Twisted Sister of the Night, then there had never been any hope from the beginning.

He thought of other things instead — like Yarrow, and other members of the core rebel group. He hoped they were all well, but most of all he hoped Yarrow had gotten out of Athering before her time was up, impossible though he knew that to be.

Maybe she and Jules would be able to hold their own against their assassins long enough to be able to escape. They’d left together, he knew that much. Knowing Jules, he was sure the two would travel together.

The old Caelum would have been jealous at the thought of Jules, who had harboured a deep love for their bellica for years, traveling alone with Yarrow in such circumstances, each looking for solace in exile. The new Caelum hoped against hope both were safe, sending secret prayers to now-forbidden Goddesses.

Truthfully he didn’t mind so much Zardria’s decree that all shall worship Umbra. Religion was, and always had been, in his heart — not in the temple. A change in outward behaviour spoke nothing of what one believed within.

So he went with Zardria to pray at Umbra’s altar, made the appropriate sacrifices once a sevenday, and acted the perfect Consort in public. In his heart he still prayed to the rest of the pantheon, and hoped They still listened to his prayers.

It was strange, but in just his four days as Zardria’s Consort he found himself not hating her anymore, despite the rumours that were circulating now. Perhaps he was so far beyond feeling anything that he’d been as numbed to it all as his body would be with a winter in Atton, or maybe seeing the side of Zardria that no one else saw was slowly changing his initial opinion of her.

They’d fought the first night. It was a fight he’d started and lived through.

“You promised, Zardria,” he’d said, rounding on her angrily when they’d gotten back to her quarters.

“Yes, and I kept my promise,” she said, her voice tight but under control as she set her Sceptre down on her vanity. “Yarrow is alive.”

“Barely — you exiled her on pain of death! You may as well have killed her!” He was shouting at her, which some sane part of him was saying might be unwise.

“You would prefer that I do?” she snapped, her eyes flashing with anger, the gray darkening to an almost-black. “Give the order, Caelum, and I will send my assassins after her early. She lives or dies by your word, Consort.” He could hear the irony with which she injected his title.

He sighed in defeat. “No. Of course not. Just…. This was not what I expected when you made that promise.”

Her back was to him as she took her jewelry off and set it on her vanity next to the Sceptre, but he could see her face in the mirror. He could have sworn she looked sad as she spoke her next words to him.

“Don’t ever expect anything from me, Caelum. You’ll always be disappointed.” In the next second the look was gone, as if she’d caught his eyes on her countenance. She waved her hand. “Your quarters are downstairs. If anything you need is lacking, feel free to kill a servant.” He frowned, unable to tell if she was joking or not. When she sighed in exasperation and turned to face him, he decided she had been — but it was too late to laugh now. “Go,” she said.

“What about my Consort’s duties?” he said, looking pointedly at the bedroom door.

She waved her hand and walked past him. “You’re off the hook. I’m tired.”

Was that — hurt? in her voice? No, impossible. He turned and curtsied. “Very well. Good night, Highness. Sweet dreams.”

She paused, her back still to him, hand on the doorframe, as if such a small kindness was alien to her. “You too, Consort. Good night.”

Then she’d walked into her bedroom and shut the door.

He’d frowned in confusion. He’d half-expected her to kill him for starting an argument right after the Ceremony — had hoped for it, actually. At the very least, she’d maim him. Instead she’d said a few words and dropped it. She’d even told a joke.

The only other time he’d been this surprised was when Isidora had confessed her feelings to him.

His head full of confusion, he’d gone to bed, hoping his mind would sort it out in dreams.

It hadn’t, and in the next few days, his bewilderment had grown. She’d been forgiving of servants who made mistakes, when all rumours said she would beat or kill errant valets. What he saw made him wonder if there was any truth at all to those rumours, or if it was something the servants said to give themselves airs. He decided either possibility was likely. She did have a temper.

She was harsh with her words, he noticed. With everyone, including him. He soon realised that most of it was caustic humour — much like Yarrow’s actually — and the rest, while not in jest, was half-hearted at best. It almost seemed as if the harsh things she said and did were not coming from her, but from something that took control of her body and personality at odd times. The only things she seemed fully engaged in when she was being harsh were her condemnations of her mother and sister. Caelum could see she was passionate about hating them.

After the first night, he took care not to mention either.

He took a lot of care to keep Zardria calm and stress-free. He sensed her confusion over his compassion for her, and for a while was confused himself. It soon became apparent to him that when she was calm and mostly happy, that harsh thing that took control of her didn’t take over as often. She was still harsh, but it was more in good-natured jesting, and there was a definite difference in everyone’s morale when she was herself more often. Which she was when she was calm.

He was the perfect Consort, both in the public eye and out. He didn’t fight with her, he lent her moral support on particularly trying days. There were plenty of those, with most of the populace unhappy and petitioning daily. He even made sure she ate regularly and that the servants brought her tea during the long hours she spent in her study, the only place in the castle forbidden to him.

Such behaviour had sealed his fate. None of his old friends would look him in the eye anymore, not even newly-made Admiral Anala, who seemed to be warming up to Zardria as much as he was. No doubt they all saw him as a traitor.

He could live with being hated.

He wondered if they saw Lares Stout-Heart the same way. Within minutes of the Birthright Ceremony ending, Lares had become the Empress’ new favourite servant. Caelum could see why the man had been so valued on Voco before his defection: he played the part expertly. A fop to everyone except his mistress, no one took him seriously. Much to their damage, for Lares used his role to spy on everyone.

Not that anything of import had come to light yet. Either Lares was covering things up, or there had not yet been enough time to expose anyone or anything. Caelum was incredibly curious as to the truth.

When it came to the funeral procession for the dead Empress-Mother, Lares was one of the pallbearers with five other servants Caelum didn’t know by name.

Directly behind the wood that held Zanny’s body in state walked Zardria and Caelum, the only real royals there. Behind them came the nobles who were still in town from the Ceremony — Lady Lihin, Eorl Gray, Lady Subverra, and Duchess Ereven, to name a few, next to high-ranking military officers. Following them were the courtiers who always resided in town. Commoners had gathered up and down the length of the funereal road to watch the procession, though they were forbidden to join in.

Everyone wore white, a stark contrast to the dark river that traveled beside them on their way to the traditional funerary place for the royal family.

They walked for most of the day, mud collecting on the bottom of Zardria’s peplos — a gift from the night’s rain. She didn’t seem to notice or care, and Caelum remembered she always seemed tired when she wore her formals, a long-suffering look on her face.

The priestesses were waiting at the launch. Caelum recognised the one — Jules’ sister, Sarai — but the others he’d not seen before. The three other priestesses wore a full archery set each; Sarai had a permanently melancholy look on her face. He supposed she took the new theocratic rule and worship of Umbra harder than most, especially being ordered to dedicate to a Goddess to Whom she’d not been Called. He wished he could speak to her, but she probably wouldn’t want to spend any time with him.

The pall-bearers walked out onto the small dock that jutted into the swiftly flowing river and set their burden down into the boat that was tied there, built the night before for today’s purpose. Sarai stood in silence next to a fiery brazier, her priestesses equally stoic as they waited for the servants to return to their places in the procession.

When the pall-bearers stepped back and took their places behind Zardria, Sarai started to read from the Book of Muerta, but Caelum noticed the words were different from what he’d heard before. The word ‘Muerta’ had been replaced with ‘Umbra’ and instead of ‘eternal peace’ she talked about ‘eternal service to the Dark One’. He supposed there was no Book of Umbra and they’d had to make do on short notice.

It was a fair bit unnerving, though.

“Let us take a moment now to pray for Empress-Mother Zanny’s soul, that it may find its way to the Audience hall where the Dark One waits. Let Umbra decide Zanny’s fate, in all Her glorious wisdom.”

Caelum bowed his head with the rest, but nothing came to mind for the prayer. He couldn’t focus. Instead he found his hand bridging the gap between him and Zardria, fingers questing for hers and clasping desperately when they found each other.

Whether the rumours were true and whether his previous thoughts were true, She’s just lost her aunt, he thought, justifying his hand’s action. It is my duty as Consort to comfort her.

“So may it be,” Sarai’s voice cut through the silence, signifying an end to the prayer. Caelum looked up with everyone else, then, and saw Sarai draw a ceremonial sword. The high priestess spoke as she walked out onto the dock. “We release your body, Zanny deZora, to the water, the blood of this land that binds all creatures in life, death, and rebirth. Go in peace and rejoin with Umbra.” With one great swing the sword cut through the rope that held the boat and it was swept away in the current of the river, heading towards the sea.

Caelum watched the small woman in her boat, her final journey, hands folded over her stomach, eyes closed peacefully, and wondered if anyone would miss her.

Would it be only in the afterlife that she would finally find compassion?

The figure got smaller, and Sarai shouted “Ready!” Caelum almost jumped. The priestesses each drew an arrow, which had torch ends rather than tips, lit them in the brazier, and pulled back the strings on their bows.

“Pull!” came the order from the high priestess.

The arrows flew up through the air and Caelum was sure that they’d never make it. The boat seemed too far away now but with unerring precision they hit, one, two, three, and within seconds Zanny went up in flames.

The procession stood watching the great flame move onwards until it was a distant orange glow, and then, in the light of the afternoon sun, they turned to the horses and carriages waiting to take them back to Atherton.

Zardria and Caelum stayed to the last, until even the orange glow was gone.

The Empress turned to leave, but Caelum’s hand on her arm stopped her.

“Are you alright?” he asked, gently.

She didn’t look at him, and sighed heavily. A moment passed before she responded. “I didn’t like my aunt, but she understood me in a way that Zameera and Yarrow never could or would. We were kindred spirits.” She stopped abruptly and walked briskly away, to their carriage, as if suddenly realising she was talking to another person rather than herself.

Caelum stood a moment longer, looking down the river, until her shout of “Consort!” made him turn his heels towards the carriage as well.

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