[BE] Tarrak's Funeral (flashback), 4 [Corinne, Alvega, Sheva]

edited June 2018 in burning-empires
I scan the crowd, trying not to draw attention. I don't have to worry--Alvega has arrived with Baron Gorey. I can feel the weight of eyes lift from me, and I breathe a sigh of relief. My black nano-weave veil hides my expression, but I have to manage my body language myself. I haven't seen Sheva in three years. Surely he'll be here.


  • edited June 2018
    During those days of dreadful suspense when Gorey had been balancing on the very edge between life and death, driven to hallucinations by both the pain from his injuries and the drugs she had given to keep him alive, he had called a single name over and over - "Tarrak". And in the years that followed, whenever he talked of his home on Xuria, it was not ever without also mentioning his mentor Tarrak in the same sentence.

    Tarrak was the son of the man who had convinced the Darikhan emperor that the holy world of Xuria should again be populated and raised to its former glory, and during all his adult life he had been the informal leader of the reclaimant noble faction - fighting to reclaim their ancestral lands. But to Gorey he had been so much more, he had been a father figure, teacher, mentor and friend.

    On their wedding in the previous year Gorey had presented her to hundreds of dignitaries, expecting them to awe at her beauty and lineage. But from Tarrak he had only sought approval, the old man's opinion had meant the world - and she suspected that had Tarrak disapproved he would have called the whole thing off, then and there, to please the man.

    Tarrak was already then very weak and bound to his wheelchair, though he had stood up for a moment to embrace them both in congratulation. From then until a month ago Gorey and Tarrak had meet weekly, to discuss plans, politics, the future. Tarrak knew his end was coming, and he did all he could to prepare Gorey for his role as his successor.

    And now he was dead. Gorey already stepping in to fill the role of the reclaimant party leader, giving serene nods to friends and allies as they moved through the crowd.

    It was the first funeral Alvega attended on Xuria, and the first time she wore the grey ceremonial mourning dress.

    Though it was not the first she attended in the custom of the Darikhan Eternal Dream faith. Aboard The Caelestis she had witnessed over a hundred funerals, almost all of them officiated by one of the ship's fire control techs, summarily raised to the position of ship's priestess as Quinn had perished in the same bombardment that had been a hair's width from also killing Gorey. The Eternal Dream acknowledged no priests, only women could speak to and for The Sleeping One.

    They reached Tarrak's young widow - so young that people would have taken her for his daughter, or even grandchild.

    "May The Sleeping One dream his deeds a thousand times over."

  • edited June 2018

    "And find no terrors unvanquished before dream and day unite."

    She gave the traditional, somewhat darker response, though even at that time, many chose to omit mention of terrors, as if belief in such things was an embarrassing relic of the past.

    With a slight motion at her temple, Lady Grey thinned the mourning veil, a million particles of the nano-weave reconfiguring their positions and opacity. Taking the hands of the Baroness, she leaned forward, nearly brushing the other woman's cheek with her veil, first on one side and then the other.

    "Your Royal Highness," she said too softly for the Baron to hear. She had no desire to foment rebellion, and yet she felt that the Baroness should know that someone remembered the title stolen from her. Pulling away, she addressed the couple. "Thank you for coming, Baron, Baroness. Tarrak would be pleased."

    If only I could trust my husband’s faith in his protege. For my part, I see all the steel of Tarrak but none of the compassion.

  • edited June 2018
    "If there's anything ... let us know."
    She put a slight stress on the 'us', slipping the royal we into the parting phrase. It would pass her husband by, he was still a warrior, and in spite of Tarrak's mentoring he had a long way to go before he would become a politician. But her invitation to the other woman was genuine, she had few friends here on this foreign world. Those of the ship's crew that she had come to know on their long journey had been spread like the wind on their return. After having been absent from their homes for so long, and now wealthy from their shares of the captured treasures, they had sought civilian lives, or found places elsewhere. And in the palace she was surrounded by servants, who, she suspected would have preferred that their lord had taken a local woman rather than one of the enemy, princess or not.

    She had met lady Grey for the first time at her wedding, and had become fond of her charm at once. Also, the young wife of her husband's friend seemed to see her as more than another exotic treasure.

  • "Lady Corinne," After his wife was finished, Gorey bowed slightly and took Corinne's hand between his large rough ones. His hard eyes tried for some semblance of compassion. "Tarrack was, as you know, more nearly a father to me than my own. I loved no other man more than he. Thus you are family to my Baroness and I. Many times have I promised my honored Lord, Dreamer keep his soul, that I would look after you and his family should he pass into the waking world and I take that vow as the very core of my honor. My hand will defend you. My estates are open to you. My fortune will support you. Anything that you might need, you have merely to ask and I shall do all I can to satisfy your requirement." He spies little Iberis with her Nanny. He nods towards her and continues. "And perhaps in time, as the Sleeping One wills, we shall become the family in blood that we are in our hearts"
  • edited June 2018

    "Baron Gorey, I so appreciate your kind words in this time of sorrow. I shall think on them for many days to come." And I will. A flush of shame accompanies my instant distrust. The Baron has been nothing but pleasant and supportive. So, why do I have this sense that there's more to this than kindness? Is it because he has a captured wife? Or perhaps it is a thing learned too well from my father. "A gift offered with one hand may be a means of distracting from the dagger in the other."
  • edited June 2018

    Gorey guided her out in the crowd. He needed to be seen, there were people he needed to be seen with, people he needed to speak to and acquaintances to make. The reclaimant party was headless, and now was the time to prove himself the remedy of that ailment.
  • "Men who die at home in their beds are not soldiers" — my drill instructor's favorite line for getting grunts out of their foxholes and into combat. When you're surrounded by young men who are filled to the brim with piss and vinegar, the drums of war calling them off in the distance, those words cut you deep. They're meant to separate the boys from the men. They haunt you with every minute you spend behind cover, and away from your unit. It's that exact reason I struggled with the news that my Father would soon be passing. It's the reason I told myself it was OK to take those contracts on the far reaches of this damned rock while he lay on his deathbed — he was a soldier, and he would live to fight another day.

    The day of his passing was not an easy one for me, and they have not been easy since. I keep telling myself that my place was not at my father's side, but I do not believe it. I arrive at the funeral in formal regalia, which makes my skin itch. I always hated these kinds of gatherings. Lord Tarrak always insisted I get some experience dealing with nobility in these kinds of situations — I begrudged him for it then, but I wish I'd paid better attention now... Then again, I'm not really here for the benefit of the nobility. I'm here for him, and everything he gave me.

    I do as I've always done, and take up an inconspicuous spot at the back of the room — but the heavy footfall of my boots on the marble floor make it impossible to sneak about. I scan the crowd for Iberis, hoping to make eye contact. I don't know much about my place here, but I know I belong at her side.
  • The dome over the grand courtyard where Tarrak lies in state darkens almost imperceptibly, a riposte to the sun’s clearing the jagged canyon wall. The dome’s action keeps the ambient light and heat at a constant level. Still, the sun’s rays, however tempered, find refuge amidst the gathered mourners and those posing as such. My eyes trace the light collecting on the rims of crystal goblets, gilding silver serving trays, and turning the medals on the chests of the many soldiers in the crowd into small echoes of the sun itself.

    In one such pool of light, I find the Kanishka family crest, and my stomach clenches. I steel myself before looking up at Sheva. Dressed in full regalia and looking profoundly uncomfortable, he’s making his way through the crowd toward the casket, stopping every few steps to accept condolences. He’s so very much easier to hate in the abstract then when he’s right here, every bit the handsome, dutiful soldier I fell in love with. But that’s always been the crux of the problem: dutiful to whom and to what?

    My long-held anger dissolves into a pang of sympathy as I watch Sheva. I can’t be upset that he chose his father’s wishes over mine—over us—without also acknowledging how much he loved and respected Tarrak. His father was the star by which Sheva navigated, and now that star has gone out.

    I make my way through the crowd toward him, less hampered by the influence and propriety that draw mourners into Sheva’s path. The Baroness is one of few at court that doesn’t seem to credit, or at least want to credit, the stories about Sheva and I. My approaching him here will feed the gossips. As son and wife of the deceased, we are expected to exchange condolences, but proper form dictates that I wait for his approach. Scorch proper form.

    ”Sheva, I say softly as I draw near. ”Your father fought valiantly. His was a brief, fierce battle—with sickness rather than weapons, but no less a battle, and he no less a warrior.”

  • edited July 2018
    She stayed by his side as they paced the floor, not speaking anything but pleasantries and nothings, in the rare cases she was addressed at all. Still she was a stranger in their eyes, perhaps even an enemy. She wore a dress by their fashion, but her tall and slender build made her stand out in the crowd all the same. Her training let her mask her apprehension, the same that was even now building her a mental map - a spider's web of connections and relations before her inner eye, every individual placed in the right spot along with a l note of what they seemed to think of her husband as the new leader of the reclaimant party. Could they be counted upon for support?

    Gorey was a raider, or an admiral to those who cared less about the war and more about the person. A brute. Not a politician, perhaps meant to lead in war, but not in peace. That was her assessment of the man. Even with the training he had received from Tarrak he had a long way to go. She wondered if he'd get restless and press the civil war upon them, and neither victory nor defeat would bode well for Xuria.

    She exchanged short words with the wife of one of his old friends, one who had stayed behind during the war. They seemed equally smitten with her husband. They had been noticed, and with that out of the way Gorey continued, hoping to sow the seeds of further alliances, not just strengthening the present ones.

    The star rose into view, bright, sharp edged in the thin atmosphere. And for a moment she allowed herself a thought of home, of Coscade, of the warm fields surrounding her palace in Iaohines. Iaohines where she was just 'princess' with the servants and she could leave the court's rigid etiquette behind, ride, paint and play all day, and stay at the table into the late hours with her companions, giggling, gossiping, tasting wines. Perhaps the war would end, and she could return there. Could she convince the baron to be her consort as she ruled the seven stars of the Coscan kingdom? To let Hardin run barefoot in the tall grass like she had done when she was a child?

    She pushed the thought aside.

    Tarrak's widdow, Lady Corinne, had left her place and crossed the hall to speak with a soldier. An officer. Though she couldn't tell his rank from the insignia on his collar, not yet, she'd have to learn. From the whispers around them she gathered that the man was Tarrak's bastard, and according to the rumor, the true father of the girl that Tarrak had raised as his daughter. The scandal was obvious, had she had both the son and the father? Did it matter? Alvega still didn't understand the strange twists and turns of the local customs when it came to inheritance. Had Gorey tried to negotiate a marriage between Harding and the 6 years older Iberis for political reasons? Probably. Had lord Tarrak suggested it? Probably. Gorey's foting would be strengthened, making his position as leader of the party more secure.

    She observed the two, though trying to not appear to be doing so.
  • I make my way through the crowd on autopilot, shaking hands and accepting condolences with the stoicism expected of a soldier. I recognize half of the faces in front of me, the ones with sincere pain on their faces, as Lord Tarrak's closest confidants. The ones who would visit, and deal with him while I was under his roof. The others, who knows... Opportunity and obligation must have drawn them here.

    And then there's Corrine — ever stately, despite her mourning — who appears to be cutting through the crowd towards me. A dozen stolen memories of our time together run through my head — our meeting at the academy, that night under the stars, the arguments about what to do with Iberis, and her wedding my father — and I can't help but wonder if that woman is gone, replaced by the woman who became my step-mother. I keep my composure as she approaches — people are watching, after all. She stops before me and I grip her hand – firmly, because I must – and I bow my head in sympathy; after all, I may be blood to Lord Tarrak, but I am not family.

    Corinne's words slip past all my defenses – even after all this time apart, she still knows exactly what I need to hear. I nod. The sentiment means the world to me. "My sincerest condolences, Lady Corinne," I answer, as sturdily as I can, "despite his passing, I want you to know that my house will always be there for you, and your daughter."
  • I drop my eyes from Sheva's--just in time, I think, to hide a flood of memories so vivid I'm certain he'll see them before they fall as tears. With a small movement of my fingertips and rotation of my wrist, I make the sides of my veil more opaque. A coldly-calculating part of my mind notes that it's to my advantage that the crowd saw my tears, but I need them not to see more. I need a moment to recover my face.

    It's infuriating. I deal with difficult, sensitive negotiations for a living, but I can't exchange words with my ex without betraying my emotions? And why didn't I darken my front veil? Is it a challenge to myself, or does some part of me want Sheva to see...whatever this is that has me bursting into tears. It's not Tarrak's death. He was a kind man, treated me well, if overly-formally, and he practically doted on Iberis. There was respect between us, a reserved sort of kindness, but never love. Perhaps I mourn the death of something else.

    I raise my eyes a bit, not meeting Sheva's yet. Over his shoulder, I briefly lock gazes with the Princess. Unfortunate timing, that, but better her than some. My eyes drop to the medals on Sheva's chest, and I purse my lips a moment, waiting for my voice to rejoin me. As it does, I reach out to the empty space under Sheva's row of medals, willing my hands to stop shaking long enough to pin the iron griffon of House Kanishka there.

    "You were his son in all ways that were important," I say, straightening the strange, winged creature I've pinned to his uniform. Fitting that this house be represented by a creature as much a myth and a contradiction as the deception we've lived. "The command of Kanishka Iron is yours." If that weren't a purely ceremonial post, the nobles might fight my unilateral granting of it. As it stands, Sheva is the only one who is likely to care--and that, deeply. I'll not wait until Gorey contrives something to legitimize a claim to Kanishka holdings, and I'll not make that my fight. Let him try and wrest it from Sheva, now that it's been given.

    "There will be no other male heir," I add with finality. By right I could retain the Kanishka name, remarry, and continue the line...continue the lie, live this twisted reflection of the life Sheva and I might have lived together.

    I'm taking Iberis away from here, away from this life of appearances and whispers, is I want to say. I don't. It is neither the time nor the place for that conversation. More than that, I cannot bear to hear whatever he says in response, because I know that it will not be, I will go with you.

  • edited July 2018
    It takes everything I have not to break down right here and now. The weight of that tiny pin pulls me down more than an entire suit of iron. I shoulder the burden as best I can, but it never lets me forget its presence. I bow respectfully, "then I will wear it in Lord Tarrak's stead, and I will bring honor to his name." I lean in to embrace her, as a son would embrace his mother, perhaps for the last time this charade will require of us, and I whisper, "what will you do?".
  • edited July 2018

    I pull back from Sheva’s embrace. Gods forbid I embarrass anyone. He gave me to his father like I was a prize aurochs, rather than risk his precious family reputation. Even now, it’s not "what will we do?" or "how can I help you?" or "what do you want." No thought of giving up the charade.

    "What will I do?" My voice is winter honey, and the smile I turn on him too frost-rimed to be melted even by the rage and betrayal flash-ignited in my eyes. I pitch my voice low, intending it only for Sheva's ears, taking advantage of the nearness as he leans in. "Do you mean to say, stepson, that you haven’t already decided what I’m to do? Am I to have a choice in the response to this major event in my life?" I’m losing it. I need to stop talking. But it’s as if reopening an old wound and finding that it has not healed after all, but is as fresh and painful as the day it was inflicted. "Surely there is some honored tradition I must follow to preserve the honor of House Kanishka. I suppose I should be thankful that there is no funeral pyre you wish me to throw myself on."

  • Her words wound me. I have nothing to offer in defense of myself, except that my Father insisted Iberis be spared the difficulties of living a bastard's lineage — and with no small amount of debate, I eventually agreed. Lord Tarrak had a golden tongue, and it is my greatest failing that I could not resist its alure. I shake my head, "Do you truly think me that much of a monster?"
  • "No," I heave a sigh, and taking his arm, walk to the casket, where even the most avid eavesdropper would fear to follow the widow and son of the deceased. "I didn't mean it about the pyre. But I'm tired of other people--of convention--making my life choices for me. I study the smooth, black surface of the casket, unable to meet Sheva's eyes. "I would have endured any disgrace to be with you. I've had to endure some measure of it anyway--half the court guesses at the truth. I should thank you. You taught a naive girl the value that romantic love has when weighed against family honor."

  • I hang my head in shame at Corinne's admission, though it might seem like I'm lost in prayer to the casual observer. I am actually a romantic at heart, or at least I like to think of myself as one... On any other day, I would have regretted my decision to convince Corrine to marry my father, and raise our daughter as his — but staring at this obsidian casket, ruminating on my own mortality, and feeling the judgemental eyes behind me screaming "BASTARD", I cannot bring myself to acknowledge that. Not here, and not now.

    "I didn't do it for us, Corinne... I did it for Iberis. I pray nightly that this ruse holds open the doors that were shut to me. Don't think that I didn't love you – I did, and it was a tremendous price I continue to pay – but I truly believe it was best for her."
  • "I know you do. I care about her well-being too." My eye falls on Iberis, six years old, precocious, and fearless, engaged in animated discussion with Baroness Alvega. I'd swear that the rather reserved princess looks...charmed and indulgent. The baron looks on, his expression unreadable. "As someone who has gone through those doors," I say without taking my eyes off Iberis. "I might describe them as the doors to a gilded cage. What lies beyond them? An arranged marriage calculated to benefit the House? Subservience to a husband she barely knows?"

  • I smile, but I don't look back to Iberis — I'm not stupid. "Then we reveal the truth, and she gets to walk away — for all we know, she'll figure it out and do it herself." I sincerely wouldn't put it past her... "I'll be at the estate tonight. Will I see her? Will I see you?"
  • I take a long moment, looking at Sheva, deciding whether I want to hug him or hit him. I have blamed Sheva for years for caving in to his father's wishes. I've thought unkind things...many unkind things about his motivations. His willingness to support Iberis's decision is part endearing and part infuriating. Mostly the former--probably more so once I've had a bit to process it. Still, there's an undeniable sting--petty, maybe; partly unjust, maybe--that he didn't accord me the same support. Did he? Was I so hurt by his willingness to give me away, abandon me--because that's certainly how I thought of it then--that I didn't see clearly?

    I decide that neither hugging him nor hitting him is very wise...for multiple reasons. Nor is my being at the estate tonight...for multiple reasons.

    “I believe Iberis will be at the estate. I'll let the staff know you intend to visit. Unfortunately, I will not be there. I have promised to call on Lady Vienne this evening.” If all she says about the opportunity we discussed is true, I should move quickly. Meeting Sheva at the estate this evening raises possibilites that endanger my resolve.
  • I can't decide whether I'm disappointed or relieved that she won't be there tonight. Either way: news that Iberis will be there, and my attention will be undivided, is good enough for me. I nod. "I meant what I said earlier. Don't hesitate to contact me if you need me. I'm always here for you and Iberis..." Then I give her a respectful bow, and make my way to the back of the room to pay my respects — where bastards belong.
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