Thanks to Bataav for participating.
Intaki V – Moon 5 – Astral Mining Inc. Refinery
New Lenoika – Rissa Bar
Water lapped at the shore not far from where Sakaane and Bataav sat sharing a bottle of Payloqan k’Adharnam. The biodome’s afternoon sun shone off the lake and cast slanting shadows into the bar. Birds in trees lining the shore sang delicate songs which they could hear through Rissa’s open windows and ceiling. Sakaane closed her eyes and turned her face up to the light, basking in its warmth, even if it was artificial.
“We should come here more often,” Bataav said, refilling their glasses.
Opening her eyes, she cast a glance around the Intaki establishment: its limestone construction was accented by natural wood beams overhead while the white of the walls set off bright three-color paintings by renowned Intaki artists. Other patrons, some of whom she knew, sat together or alone at nearby tables or the bar itself.
“Mhmm. Though I’d love it if I could convince Njal to move Deck 17 back to Intaki. We could just stick the whole thing in a blockade runner and bring it down. Easy.”
Bataav smiled. “There’s just the small question of how to get the bar out of the station still intact.”
“Minor technical detail!”
They laughed and drank some more. Occasionally, pilots they knew stopped by their table to pass on greetings and chat briefly, but otherwise, the couple was left alone.
The biodome’s sun dipped toward the horizon as the bottle of nectar slowly emptied. Sakaane’s comm link alerted her to an incoming call. “It’s Aranza,” she said to Bataav. “Do you mind if I take this?”
He indicated she should go ahead, watching as her gaze drifted into middle-distance. Then he frowned. Sakaane’s face had gone white as the limestone around them. Leaning forward, he spoke quietly. “What’s wrong?”
She reached for his hand; her skin was suddenly like ice. After a few minutes more he saw a change in her gaze and knew the call had ended. Then she turned her face away from the bar to stare out across the lake, blinking rapidly and drawing a measured breath in an attempt to maintain her composure.
He waited patiently, slowly caressing the back of her hand with his thumb.
Finally she met his gaze. “I need to go down to the surface. Mom has…” A teardrop escaped down her cheek. Quickly she brushed it away, but her face turned red and she ducked her head, embarrassed.
Bataav had already called up their bill and paid it, and then shot off a message to ILF leadership advising he and Sakaane would be indisposed for the time being. “Let’s go,” he said gently. “We’ll catch the next shuttle.”
Intaki Prime – South Hemisphere – Drahaana City
She said little on the trip down other than “I should have come home sooner,” and then didn’t speak again except to give the address of her family’s estate to the AI driver at the spaceport. The hovercar wound its way into traffic and then sped its way through the city.
After a while, mostly to distract her, Bataav asked, “Were you born here?”
“Yes,” Sakaane answered shortly, her face turned away to the window. Then she grasped his hand and looked at him. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be so…” She swallowed and took a ragged breath. “We were all born here, my brothers and I. My family lived just outside the city’s western limit, a little ways into the mountains.” A bit of a smile tugged at her lips. “Great place for two precocious boys to run around and get dirty. The twins were forever exploring outside. And me, I could make all the musical mischief I wanted and only had to worry about driving my parents crazy. No neighbors.” She sniffled. “We, uh, have quite a bit of land out there, most of it covered in forest. The house is pretty big too.”
“What about your extended family?”
She shook her head. “I never knew my father’s relatives. He rarely spoke of them except to say they passed before he met my mother.” A wave of emotion swept over her; she took a moment to rally against it before continuing. “My mother’s parents used to visit us often out at the house. My grandfather would get into the most spectacular arguments with my father over Ida. I was young then but obviously they didn’t agree about raising us kids according to its philosophy. Mom’s family weren’t followers and not Reborn,” she explained.
Bataav stayed silent, allowing Sakaane to talk as it suited her, but smiled privately as he noticed her eyes starting to dry and the color slowly returning to her cheeks. Outside, the city was giving way to outlying regions: more and more trees with residential homes peeking out between them rather than the gleaming skyscrapers of the city’s center. The land rose toward the mountains.
“Ida was something she adopted after she married my father. By the end of the visit he’d always make peace with mapah over it, at least until the next time. Mapkam simply liked to see us and visit. They both passed when the boys were…four? I would have been twelve then.” She paused. “I’m the last one now…”
Lapsing back into silence, her brows knitted close together as she tried to sort her thoughts and feelings. Bataav’s arm wound around her shoulders to pull her close; she sighed and gratefully leant against him. “It’s still a ways to go,” she murmured.
“We’ll get there when we get there,” he said quietly, kissing her forehead.
Aranza appeared in the doorway to the Eionell home as the taxi pulled up and let Sakaane and Bataav out. Sakaane raised a hand to shield her eyes from the sun’s red rays so she could look up at the house before sweeping her gaze around the grounds immediately surrounding it. The land and its gardens had been kept well: flowers bloomed between lush ferns; the stone paths were free of intrusive weeds and grasses; the stone wall marking the edge of the property stood firm.
After the climate-controlled interior of the taxi, the air outside was quite warm. “We liked it here because the mountains help keep the area shaded and a bit cooler. Plus all the trees.” She pointed at a particularly large, gnarled specimen some distance from them in the yard. The trunk was huge and split into numerous thick, low-lying branches which then forked upward. The foliage was long and draped nearly to the grass, drifting gently in the slight breeze. “Maekari used to climb that all the time. He got stuck once, went too high up chasing after a gecko and couldn’t get down. Mom ended up going after him. Strange how easily I can recall that just now, yet later…it might seem just a bit out of grasp. Even the house itself looks…different. Smaller than I remember.”
Bataav nodded. She’d spoken before of the residual effects the Serpentis attack years ago had left on her memories from before the event. Most were intact and had returned to her after the amnesia abated, and her memories of everything that had happened since then were stable. But occasionally those earlier experiences clouded up, and among them remained a few specific things she’d been unable to recall again no matter how hard she tried. Most frustratingly for her, Sakaane still had yet to recover anything she had previously known regarding her prior two incarnations.
She heaved a sigh and looked away from the nevayake tree to the house where Aranza remained waiting. “We should go in.”
Aranza was a petite but slightly plump woman in her sixties, with steel grey hair braided up around the back of her head as a nod to the more traditional fanned style that some younger Intaki women still preferred. She wore a simple blue robe with long sleeves which she absently wrung through her hands as the capsuleers approached. Her brown eyes looked sadly upon them.
“Khasri,” she addressed Sakaane as they followed her into the house’s cool interior. “I’m so sorry to welcome you home under these circumstances. If you had let me know you were coming I would have sent a car to the port for you.” She swallowed. “I sent the staff home for today. There’s no one here but me.”
Sakaane laid a comforting hand on the elder woman’s arm. “It’s all right, Aranza. I imagine…you had other things on your mind.” Then, remembering her manners, Sakaane turned to Bataav, reaching out her hand to him. He took it and came to stand just behind her with his other hand resting on her waist. “This is Bataav,” she said, glancing back to smile at him. “He’s a Pasha with the corporation I work for. Bataav, this is Aranza, my mother’s caregiver, and head housekeeper.”
“Former,” Aranza amended, giving Bataav a respectful bow in greeting, which he returned.
“I’ll have no talk like that today,” Sakaane said gently. “We can discuss all of that…later. Right now…” Sakaane’s eyes flicked upstairs, looking toward where she knew her mother’s room was. “Where is the…” She swallowed. “Where is my mother now?”
Aranza became agitated. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t think you would come right away, so I… They came last night, after I… Oh, Sakaane, she’s gone already, to the funeral home…and I already signed the release for her arrangements.”
“Yes…of course.” Taking Aranza carefully by the arm and guiding her through the house to the kitchen, then to a chair at the table contained within, Sakaane asked, “Is the tea still kept in the cupboard, here?”
“Khasri, oh no, I couldn’t possibly let you— Here, I’ll make it—”
Sakaane glanced over her shoulder. Her expression was kind but, seeing it, Aranza slowly sat back down. Sakaane went back to making the tea, pulling down a mug for Aranza, and an additional mug for Bataav when he indicated he’d have some too.
After some minutes of silence, Sakaane quietly prompted, “Tell me again what happened. Please.”
Aranza nodded and took a moment to gather her thoughts. “It was yesterday evening, after dinner. Ilaayda had been sitting out in the garden.” She wrapped her hands around the mug of chai Sakaane placed before her and managed a small smile. “She likes to watch the fireflies come out at dusk.”
Sakaane handed Bataav his mug, then slid into a chair. He came up behind her and rested his free hand comfortingly on her shoulder.
“She’d been really quiet,” Aranza said. “I mean, even for her.”
“She never spoke to you either? Even after all these years?”
“Never to me directly. Not once. I’ve only heard her voice that one time, years ago…”
Sakaane felt herself tense up. Then Bataav was squeezing her shoulder gently, easing the stress. “I remember,” she said. “Go on.”
“She didn’t seem to be enjoying the garden so I brought her in and helped her back into bed. Lately your mother had been listless and barely eating again. She was too weak to walk so we had to go back to using her chair. But…but I just thought it was another spell, like the ones she’d had before.” Aranza blinked rapidly and then gulped at the tea, wincing as the hot liquid went down. “She’d always come through them in the past.”
Silence fell over the kitchen, save for the subtle scraping of the mug against the table as Aranza fiddled with it. Eventually she said, “I went upstairs later to check on her before retiring for the night. That was when… She was just…gone…” Her eyes shone. “I’m so sorry. I should have called you sooner. But I thought it was just one of her spells… So then I…I called the doctor, and everyone came, and then eventually they took her. By then it was the middle of the night and I thought I shouldn’t call…because it was the middle of the night. But today I realized of course you are in space and the time is different there, so I could have—”
Seeing Aranza becoming so upset, Sakaane reached out and clasped her hand in an attempt to stem the tide of emotion before she ended up swept away by it too. “It’s all right, Aranza. Thank you. I know you took excellent care of my mother, and you’ve done wonderfully managing the house. You mustn’t worry over this. Really. Okay?”
Aranza nodded and looked into her empty mug before glancing between Sakaane and Bataav. “Let me clean up these dishes. You two have more important things to do than listen to me go on.”
Out in the foyer, Sakaane stopped to cover her face with her hands, choking back a sob. She felt Bataav’s arms around her and they stood quietly together until the bout of sadness passed. “At least she went peacefully,” Sakaane murmured.
“Mhmm. What do you want to do now?”
Sakaane pulled back far enough so she could look at him. “I don’t know. I really have no idea.” A sort of half-laugh escaped her. “Would you like to see the house? Sounds so…normal…to suggest it, but…”
He was keen for her not to be upset. “Sure.”
Though the Eionell home had been largely empty in the last eight years, Aranza and the house staff had kept it clean and maintained, with most of the rooms left the way they’d been the day Sakaane’s family had departed Intaki to accompany her to Stacmon for the Quafe talent event.
They moved from room to room, Sakaane pointing out mementos for her own benefit just as much as Bataav’s. One particular door revealed a large room along the back of the house. Generous windows lined one wall, allowing Intaki’s red sunlight to spill in, while hardwood flooring stretched away from them. The room was bare save for an empty mic stand at the far end and a number of items hidden beneath white drop cloths.
“This was supposed to be a dining room, but I used it to practice in.”
Bataav looked around. “No clackers?”
“Actually, I never learned those.” She stepped forward to gently touch the cloth covering the instrument nearest her, and almost—almost—pulled the covering away. “But I did record a lot of my songs here, even after I was able to get access to a studio in the city. The apartment I had after I moved out wasn’t big enough for all this so it was just easier. Father had the room specially renovated so I would get better acoustics, though he wouldn’t agree to take out the windows.” She withdrew her hand and turned away. “Let’s go upstairs.”
Bataav followed her. At the landing, Sakaane gestured to three doors to the left down the length of the hall. “Maekari and Kiraeni’s rooms, plus my old bedroom.” But instead of going to any of them, she turned right and went through another, much wider, doorway.
The master bedroom was neat and smelled, ever so slightly, of cleanser mixed with the scent of flowers from a vase on the dresser. In one corner rested an empty hoverchair, powered down and with a woven blanket folded and hung over its backrest. A set of glass doors led to a balcony with a single chair and small table on it. The bed was made up as though it would still have an occupant later that evening.
Sakaane both embraced and rejected the idea that she was standing in the room her mother had last drawn breath in. A dizzying sensation swept over her as her thoughts circled that point and it wasn’t until she felt Bataav’s steadying hand around her waist that she realized she’d swayed.
“Deep breath,” he said. “We don’t have to do this now.”
“I’m all right.” Taking his hand, Sakaane led him to the dresser. In addition to the flowers it was crammed with sheerite frames, each containing a different holopic. “These used to be all over the house, but over time Mom collected them all, since she spent most of her time in here.”
Sakaane picked up a photo. The five people in it were easy enough to discern: a much younger Sakaane, the breeze blowing her long hair away from her shoulders, standing next to her mother, tall and beautiful in traditional Intaki dress. Ilaayda had a fine figure and was the source of her daughter’s green eyes and honey-blonde hair. One of her dark-haired sons was perched on her hip. The other son stood just to Sakaane’s side, with her father just behind. Nasiir had dark hair and a muscular build. Everyone was smiling.
Sakaane tilted it so Bataav could see, and he took the opportunity to slide his arm around her waist again, keeping her near.
“Family vacation. That’s Maekari. I think. Wait.” She squinted to study the details. “Bah. I have no idea now which is which. The twins always took great pleasure in trying to convince everyone they were the opposite brother. They’d even swap entire drawers from their clothes dressers! Mom always knew who was who though. They could never fool her.” She tapped the brother standing next to her. The boy was grinning widely, showing a gap in his front teeth. “This must be Kiraeni. He was generally just a bit less rambunctious and more prone to actually standing still on command.” She put the frame down.
A particular photo caught Bataav’s eye. It showed Nasiir Eionell, younger than he’d been in the first photo and dressed in casual trousers and a work shirt, sitting on a smooth outcropping of rocks with his legs stretched out before him. In his lap was Sakaane, maybe not more than five or six years old. He had his arms around her, helping her to hold a fishing rod. Its line trailed off to the edge of the photo. Sakaane’s little hands gripped the rod and she looked like she was concentrating hard.
Sakaane smiled gently. “Probably one of my first fishing lessons. I was always so excited whenever I caught something. Mom stopped coming with us after a while though. She said it was our ‘daddy-daughter time’. We didn’t even need to go very far, just hike up into the mountains from our own backyard.”
Bataav returned the photo carefully to its place, then slid his arms around Sakaane, hugging her close to him so he could rest his chin on her shoulder. “I don’t have any photos from when I was a child. Just a few keepsakes of my parents…but nothing like this.”
She stood quietly with him then, gazing at each of the photos. He made no move to hurry her. She could feel his heartbeat through her back and the gentle brush of his breath against her neck. How would I do this without you? She was certain it was his calm, steady presence that was helping to hold her together.
Pulling gently out of his embrace, she went to the bed and sat down, looking wearily around the room before grabbing a pillow to hug, burying her face into the fabric. “Kamjai,” Bataav heard her say.
A heavy sigh followed. Then she looked up and rested her chin on the pillow. “Honestly, she died a long time ago. She died the day the Serpentis attacked even though her body survived. It was like she just…gave up on living. She wouldn’t take care of herself anymore. That’s why I needed Aranza when I decided Mom should be at home instead of the nursing home. And it might sound cruel but…in a way I’m kind of glad she’s gone now, you know? She wasn’t doing well. Even after I came back to Intaki and could come down to see her a lot more, it didn’t seem to make a difference.”
Bataav sat down beside her. “What about that time Aranza mentioned, when your mother last spoke? Surely that should have been a good memory, but you both acted like it wasn’t.”
“It wasn’t.” She swallowed thickly. “I was still at FNA, just about to get my first training capsule. It was right after those diplomats were killed… I called home to talk to her about it but also because I was excited, I was on my way to becoming a capsuleer. She…reacted poorly.” Although her voice remained steady a few tears escaped down her cheeks; Bataav gently wiped them away. “The last word my mother ever said to me was ‘no’. A cry of denial. I don’t understand why. I never have. I guess she didn’t approve. I’ll never find out now either way.”
They sat in silence for a while. Then Sakaane said, “I suppose I’ll need to go through all her stuff at some point. And the rest of the house. I went through my own things a long time ago, sold most of it so I could leave Intaki…but I left the rest. I thought maybe Mom might do it when she was better…but she never got better.”
“There’s no rush. It will still be here when you’re ready.”
“I know.” Her fingers touched the small tattoo on her left cheekbone: three solid dots, one hollow circle. “I’ll need to change this, now, too.”
He’d never asked her before about the tattoo’s significance despite knowing it had one, but looking at it now, it made sense. Three solid circles to represent her father and brothers, all passed. The hollow circle, for her mother, still alive. And now…
“What’s this?” Her gaze had drifted to the floor near where the bed met the wall, beside the dresser. She’d been staring, lost in thought, until something there caught her attention. The pillow was cast aside. The corner of a small box was peeking out from beneath the bed.
She retrieved it and placed it in her lap. It was wood, lacquered, and looked as if it should have contained jewelry, but when she opened it only some odds and ends and a few papers were inside. She rifled through them. Most were yellowed and in her father’s handwriting.
Sakaane read one. “Does this make any sense to you?”
He looked. It was written in Intaki but seemed to be gibberish. Before he could finish reading, the box suddenly slipped to the floor, dumping its contents everywhere. Sakaane seemed not to have noticed; she was staring, open-mouthed, at a hardcopy photo in her hand.
“What is it?”
Silently, she handed it over. The photo was old and had been hastily folded at some point: a crease marred the picture. Nevertheless, he recognized the face in it, though it showed a much younger depiction of the person he remembered. The skin on the face was free of scars; he had hair; and the right eye was not blind. He still had a haughty scowl though, and the small green tattoo on one cheek.
“The pirate,” Bataav said grimly, “from the holoreel convention.” Despite all his efforts since then, the identity of this man had eluded him. Now, looking at the photo, he felt a rush of emotion, the same rage he’d felt upon bursting into the storage room that day. He’d been denied the satisfaction of retribution then, but now… On a hunch, he turned the photo over. There, in delicate handwriting which he assumed was Ilaayda Eionell’s, were two words, and he felt the barest of smiles tug at his lips. “Darac Rin.”
“Darac Rin,” Sakaane repeated. “So he wasn’t lying. He did know my father, and my mother too apparently. Somehow.” She shook her head. “I…don’t understand this at all. Never mind that he’s a capsuleer…but he’s scum. Why would they have known anyone like him? Why would they keep a picture of him under the bed?“ She groaned and massaged her temples. “I think I’m getting a headache.”
Bataav gave the photo back to her. Sakaane looked at it for a moment more before kneeling down on the floor to gather up the box’s contents. “Perhaps you should hang on to all that for now,” he suggested, “and look through it a little more thoroughly later on. But right now, you should rest for a while. Do you feel up to having something to eat?”
She clutched the box to her and nodded. “Yes…all right, then.”
He looked at her carefully, watching her reaction as he asked his next question. “Do you want to go back to the station tonight?”
“No. I still have to get…” She bit her lip. “I made sure to handle Mom’s arrangements a long time ago, in case I was out of touch when she died. If they’ve followed instructions then I just need to pick up her remains. Tomorrow, maybe. And then…” She met his gaze. “Will you stay, and come with me? It’s a day’s hike each way and…I don’t want to go alone.”
He kissed her briefly. “Of course, love.”
The next day they went into the city. Sakaane said little to Bataav about the specifics of the arrangements other than to confirm her mother had been cremated but there would be no formal ceremony. The box they picked up from the funeral home was larger than Bataav expected: nearly as long as his arm and quite heavy. Sakaane didn’t remove the urn it contained, even after they’d returned to the Eionell estate.
They spent the afternoon quietly. Aranza insisted on packing the gear they needed, remarking it was a good thing Bataav was fit and roughly the same size as Nasiir had been, so he could borrow some appropriate hiking clothes. After that the pair went out to walk through the forest and ended up simply sitting together on a slope, watching the natural surrounds from the shelter of a stand of trees.
“It’s lovely here,” Bataav said. “Reminds me a bit of the cultural center.”
Sakaane smiled, the first true smile he’d seen since their arrival. “This is nice but not anywhere near as grand. Are you kidding? With all those students to meticulously tend the gardens there?” She gestured to the forest around them. “The cultural center has amazing grounds, but this is just nature. My father especially wanted the land we have left alone, to grow however it wanted. He let Mom have her gardens in the yard around the house and that was about it. The only thing we really did out here was make sure the wild melons were doing all right. Speaking of which!” She hopped off the log they’d been resting on and darted into nearby bushes, emerging a moment later with what looked like a nice specimen slightly larger than the size of two fists. Her fingers probed the melon’s outer shell. “It’s been forever since I had to gauge ripeness but I think this one is about ready. We could have it tonight after dinner.”
She sat back down and rolled the melon between her hands. “Thank you for staying,” she added quietly. “We’ll have to get an early start in the morning to make it to the ridge before sunset.”
“Then we should probably head back now, to have our dinner.” He stood and held out his hand to her, which she took. He didn’t let go the entire way back to the house.
18 January YC114
They set off the next morning just as the sun began to color the sky behind the mountains. Sakaane heaved her pack onto her back, reaching out to steady herself as its weight threatened to topple her over. The pack had the box containing the urn strapped to it.
“Careful, wide load coming through,” she said dryly, then reached back to pat the end of the box she could reach. “Come on Mom, time to go.”
Bataav looked at her dubiously. “Are you sure you can handle that?”
Sakaane trudged off ahead into the semi-darkness. “The last time I did this, I carried three of them.”
At first they retraced their route through the forest, passing the spot they’d sat at the afternoon before. The path wound its way further into the forest, gradually heading uphill and dwindling to a trail. As their surroundings grew brighter they began to hear the forest waking up and spoke very little, comfortable in the silence of each other’s company and that of the wilderness around them.
After a few hours Sakaane stopped, lowering her pack gently to the ground so she could peel off several layers of shirts, leaving her wearing just a light top with her trousers. It would be a warm day and that, combined with the exertion of the weight she carried, easily banished the remaining chill of early morning.
“Let me carry that for you for a while.”
She gulped down a mouthful of water from a canteen. “Thanks hon, but…no. I need to carry her the whole way.” She started to lift the pack but, seeing his still-concerned face, paused to pull him to her for a kiss instead. “It’s enough that you’re here with me,” she said, a little breathlessly, when they parted.
By midday they’d gained nearly a thousand meters in elevation and the air had adopted a slightly crisp, pleasant feeling. The sound of rushing water had grown louder and the trail finally opened up onto a small clearing at the bank of a stream which had cut a shallow canyon into the mountain. Pale grey rock stretched away from them, worn smooth eons before when the stream had flowed over it.
“Here we are,” Sakaane breathed gratefully, heading to a particular spot a little distance from the water where the ground was reasonably even. Remnants of a stone firepit were still just visible within a semi-circle of larger, flat-topped stones positioned perfectly for sitting on. “We’ll stop here for lunch and a break. Still a ways to go yet.” She set her pack down and then slumped onto a stone, reaching around to rub her back.
Discarding his own pack and rolling his shoulders gratefully, Bataav joined her. They were both winded from the hike and took several minutes to simply sit while their breathing and heart rates eased. Then he stretched and reached to drag his pack over. “Hungry?”
“Starving. I’m sure whatever Aranza packed will be delicious.”
After devouring the first half of his sandwich, Bataav retrieved the second half and shifted onto the ground so he could lounge against the rock, stretch his legs out before him, and take a bit more time to enjoy his meal. The rock had been sitting in a bit of sun and warmed his back. A slight breeze picked up, whispering through the trees surrounding the clearing and kept them from getting too hot. Sakaane, sitting beside him on the stone, rested her hand at his neck, stroking his skin gently.
“This spot looks familiar,” he said. Her fingers trailed into his hair. “Is this where the photo was taken, of you fishing with your father?”
The semi-circle of stones faced the water, babbling along about fifteen meters away. She pointed slightly upstream. “Right over there. We used to pitch the tent just behind us here.”
“You hiked all this way as a child?”
“Yes, though when I was that young we’d take an extra half day to get here. Usually we’d leave the afternoon beforehand, and stop for the night about halfway along, then still get here about noon the next day. As I got older we didn’t have to stretch it out so much.”
They finished eating. After a while he reached up and tugged on her waist, encouraging her to sit with him so he could put his arm around her. “How do you feel today?”
“Better at the moment. Still…you know.” She looked at the box containing the urn. An ant had crawled onto it and paused in a splash of sunlight filtering through the trees just behind them. Its small antennae waved in the air before it scurried on and disappeared out of sight. Then she looked back at Bataav and pressed closer to him. “Even though I’ve been waiting for this a long time now, when it finally happened it was still a shock. But…I’m okay. I’ll be fine.”
He nodded. “Good. How long before we have to get going?”
“Not too long. Another hour or so is fine. The hardest part of the hike is done.” She gestured upstream again. “The trail picks up there and follows the water for a while, then gradually climbs again into a—”
He’d placed his finger under her chin to tilt her face up to his. Their lips met and she forgot what she’d been saying, content instead to lose herself in his comforting embrace. A long moment later the kiss ended but he kept her close; she settled down with her head against his shoulder and her arms around him.
They remained that way, resting and watching the scenery, until it was time to get the packs and continue on. After it left the stream’s side the trail widened enough that they could walk side by side, their fingers entwined as they made their way up a much gentler slope leading into a pass.
Some hours later, as the sun was starting to dip down to the mountain peaks and the light was turning a deeper crimson, Sakaane suddenly gave Bataav’s hand a tug. “We made good time. We leave the trail here.”
He stopped and looked around. “How do you know?” They were thick in trees again and all of them looked the same. There were no signs or markers of any kind that he could see.
She smiled, but the smile was strained. “I just do. Come on, this way.” The land immediately off the trail sloped steeply upward. Finally, after another hour or so of winding their way back and forth across the mountainside as they climbed, the land leveled out again. They turned to walk along the flat until the trees began to thin out and Sakaane stopped, removing her pack and indicating he could do the same.
She gestured to a spot covered with mosses and short grass but also a few fallen tree trunks. “This is the best place for the tent. A little lumpy and it sort of slopes in that direction…and we’ll have to try getting those logs out of the way. But…” Her voice trailed off.
“We’re here,” he finished for her.
The tent, when they finally retrieved it from his pack, looked like a rolled up grey floor mat. Bataav spread the mat flat in the center of the area they’d cleared before pushing a small node on its surface. They heard a beep; the mat suddenly expanded, springing up and outward to deploy a fully-formed tent which they then pegged down.
As they worked, Bataav saw Sakaane glance repeatedly at the sky, visible only in patches between the branches overhead. When she saw he’d noticed, she said, “It’ll be sunset soon.”
His gaze slipped to the box, which they’d leaned carefully against a tree. “Now then, or…?” He wasn’t sure what exactly was going to happen with the urn.
“Not yet. I want to wait for the fireflies.”
Time passed while they finished setting up the camp. At last, Sakaane carefully lifted the urn box and picked her way through the remaining trees with Bataav following close behind. The trees ended and they stepped out onto a wide ledge which stretched away for some distance to either side. Before them was the vista of the pass they’d hiked into, with the valley floor a dizzying distance below. A waterfall cascaded down the side of the mountain opposite them, its white spray tinged pink in the waning light. The sun had nearly sunk into the crease between the peaks at the valley’s far end. Long shadows covered the forest.
Immediately in front of them, positioned halfway between the edge of the ledge and where they stood, a terraced pedestal about a meter wide and a foot high sat on the ground. The two lowest terraces were at either end, with a slightly higher terrace in the middle. Three brilliant white markers floated just above the pedestal: two of equal length, one each positioned above the lower terraces, while the third, larger marker floated slightly off-center above the upper terrace. An inscription across the front read: Vyiiba prayomaan illoren, cahet juhambhaata. It is necessary to die, before being reborn.
“Hi guys,” Sakaane said quietly. “Everyone’s here.” She stepped forward and crouched before the pedestal, gently laying the box down and opening it along one of the long sides. Inside lay the urn; its design matched the others on the pedestal. It was of equal length to the largest one on the higher terrace.
As Bataav crouched beside her he saw the urns were inlaid with colored accents to offset their white brilliance, including a large marble sphere nestled in a shallow bowl-shaped depression at the top.
Sakaane trailed her fingers lightly over her mother’s urn. “When I was growing up, my parents would admonish me for my ‘fire’. ‘Not right for a proper stoic Intaki’, they would say.” She smiled, just slightly. “I never paid it much attention. After my brothers were born it turned into something of a joke. Kiraeni would tease Maekari about ‘having his head in the clouds’, so”—she gestured to the small urn on her left, with yellow accents—”he became ‘air’. Maekari would retaliate about Kiraeni’s tendency to be more realistic and grounded, so he became ‘earth’.” The other small urn was green.
She lifted Ilaayda’s urn out of the box. The accents were a rich azure blue. “Mom was graceful, always moving fluidly, and calm like a lake on a late spring day. I remember her laugh being light, like the sound of water flowing in the stream we sat beside earlier.” Sakaane reached forward, carefully balancing the heavy urn in her hands as she tried to position it over the upper terrace. “There’s a sweet spot—”
Her arms shook from the weight and the urn started to slip from her grasp. Then Bataav’s hands were supporting hers, helping to guide the urn into position. They each felt it pull slightly as it locked into the right place, its bottom tip spaced about a hand’s breadth above the pedestal.
“Thanks.” Sakaane sat back briefly, then reached out again to lift away a stray leaf that had settled into the bowl atop her father’s urn. The urn was inlaid with burnished silver accents, still shiny despite years of outdoor exposure. “My father mainly focused on studying Ida and teaching us what he knew.” She bit her lip.
“You still don’t remember much about that, do you?” Bataav asked gently.
“No. Look.” Sakaane pointed into the valley.
At first, as the last sliver of the red sun slipped behind the mountains, he saw nothing in the expanse below them. Then, a glint of light in the trees caught his eye, followed by another, then another, then thousands of others. In the span of a few breaths the valley filled with clouds of light, swirling and colliding into each other before breaking apart and whirling to and fro. As the sky steadily darkened these clouds grew brighter until their soft glow permeated the air and cast the most delicate of shadows on the sleeping forest.
“The fireflies are out, Kamjai,” Sakaane whispered.
Just then, the pedestal began to hum slightly. Gentle light emanated from each end of the four urns, while the marble spheres started to rotate slowly and floated up a short distance. At once, fire erupted from the bowls the spheres had been sitting in, leaping up to surround the globes. Each urn had fire colored to match its accent. The fire for Nasiir’s urn was white; the silver sphere began to heat up and radiate light like the other three.
Sakaane’s face was wet but she made no sound as she gazed upon the markers. The sky had nearly gone completely dark, leaving them sitting only in the light of the urns’ fire and the glow of fireflies, when she said, “The other urns are basically empty. When the liner’s passenger compartment decompressed… They never found anyone. So instead I used whatever I could find at home… Hairbrush, a favorite shirt, some other important memento…”
For a while they sat together in silence. When the chill of night began to creep in, Bataav gently pulled her to her feet. “Come on, hon. We should get our own fire going and have some supper.”
Once she’d eaten, Sakaane’s spirits seemed to improve and she told Bataav more stories of her youth until the campfire had burned down to coals and the couple retired for the night.
Bataav woke later to the sound of rumbling thunder and gentle pattering of rain. The night was black save for the lingering glow from the memorial pedestal fire, nothing more than a pale smudge of light on one wall of the tent. He groped to his side and found Sakaane curled up with her back to him; scooting closer, he wrapped his arms around her.
“What are we going to do about Darac Rin?” she asked, her own arms hugging his.
“Haven’t you slept?” he mumbled against her neck. “Don’t worry about him.”
Despite the fact she could hardly see, Sakaane rolled over to look at him. “I can’t stop thinking about it.”
His fingers found her cheek, stroking reassuringly. “It’ll be fine. We’ll figure it out.” She cuddled into his embrace.
Thunder rolled through the forest.