All the recruits in the Sun Castle were allowed to venture outside its walls for one day. The reason was Lan’s funeral, which would be held in the city at the Shrine of the Dead.
Akira had no problems with the late lad, but attending the funeral was just an excuse to spend as much time as possible away from this prison. He would quickly reconcile his parents and siblings, and after that, he would find the nearest tavern to drink what the lips of the Soldiers of the Light were prohibited from touching. A simple plan, it was. But it almost failed because of Kim.
“The pain is unbearable.” Clutching her blanket with both hands, she explained to Akira why she wouldn’t be able to attend Lan’s funeral. “That’s why I sent for you. I need someone around just in case, you know.”
Standing by his cousin’s bed, Akira glanced at the other empty ones in the dorm room. All the girls here must have left already lest they miss the funeral. What was he going to do now? He couldn’t leave his cousin just like that.
Unless he found a volunteer. Yes, there must be, at least, one person who wouldn’t go to Lan’s funeral for any damned reason. The lad was not that popular after all.
“What will the others say after they find out that I didn’t show up?” Akira warily asked.
Kim arched an eyebrow. “You fear they might judge you? I thought you stopped caring about anything related to Sun Castle.”
Akira heaved a deep sigh. “It doesn’t matter how I feel about anything, Kim.” He shrugged. “I just have to do what I’m supposed to do, right?”
His cousin clenched her jaw, certainly because of the colic. “The damned red mantle.” She took a deep breath, and then she went on, “You won’t get over it, will you?”
Akira wasn’t in the mood for this conversation for the time being. Not now, not ever.
“You know what’s funny?” Kim smiled wryly. “None of us got what they wanted, did we? I guess that’s how this world works.”
Footsteps approached the dorm room, and it was Minjun Sen who entered. “You still here?” he chided Akira, his hands clasped behind his back as he slowly approached Kim’s bed. “The last coach is about to leave.”
Akira exchanged a silent look with his hurting cousin before he said to the slender, dark-haired tutor, “I’m staying, Minjun Sen. Someone must look after her.”
Minjun’s eyes betrayed his concern. Kim’s complaint must have reminded him of the novice that had died in his hands yesterday. No one would be ready for another shock like this.
“What’s wrong?” Minjun asked her.
Kim feigned a smile. “I guess it’s last night’s dinner.”
“Nobody had problems with last night’s dinner.” Minjun laid his palm gently on Kim’s forehead. “You are slightly feverish. Did you take any medicine?”
Kim shrugged. “I drank some anise to alleviate the colic.”
“Anise?” Minjun Sen curled his nose in disdain, then he turned to Akira. “You should hurry to that coach before it leaves. I will take care of her.”
Akira wanted to thank Minjun Sen heartily for saving his day, but come to think of it, he realized how that might sound to his cousin. “I know you will, Minjun Sen.” Akira bowed to the Red Cloak, then gave Kim an apologetic look. She seemed irked that he was abandoning her in such a condition, but that didn’t stop him from striding to the door and across the hallway outside the dorm room.
Yes, Kim was right about him. He had stopped caring about anything related to Sun Castle.
* * *
The Shrine of the Dead, where the funeral was held, was more crowded than Akira had imagined. Family, friends, peers, tutors, even the Archmage himself; all of them had come today to bid Lan farewell before his soul started its journey into the spirits’ realm, all of them donning white cloaks to remind themselves that when death came, all colors and ranks became obsolete.
So many familiar faces surrounded Akira in the yard outside the shrine, where the clerics would soon perform the salvation rituals, but only a few bothered to greet him. His ‘dear’ uncle Kungwan Sen was not one of these few, though. Maybe he is just busy, Akira thought, his eyes fixed on the short, gray-haired lady talking to his uncle in a low voice away from the crowd. What was Hanu Sen, the former Head of the Imperial Court, doing in a mage’s funeral?
There was a moment when Akira felt the weight of stares on him. Scanning the yard, he found a bunch of people pointing and nodding their chins toward him as they murmured. While Akira was wondering what that was about, a broad-shouldered man split off from the burbling group and approached him.
“They say you were by his side when he died,” the broad-shouldered man said bitterly. From the concern on his face, whose similarity to Lan’s couldn’t be mistaken, Akira safely presumed he was talking to Wei Sen, Lan’s father.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t save him.” Akira pressed his lips together. Maybe he should say no more to the grieving father.
“It was fated.” Wei Sen waved dismissively, then sighed. “Lan’s mother and I will be grateful if you join the coffin carriers.”
Because I was close to Lan in his last moments in this life, Akira reflected. It was an old tradition that belonged to the people of Hokydo. Did Lan’s family have roots in that wretched island? Anyway, now wasn’t the time to discuss their origins.
Akira thanked Wei Sen who ushered him to the door of the shrine and closed it behind him. Plainly, the man couldn’t stand the sight of his son in the wooden box resting on the ground.
Akira’s boots echoed in the vast, empty hall as he advanced toward the coffin. Nobody was in the shrine except the carriers and the monk, of course. Though Akira recognized none of the eight men in the hall, the monk called out to him, “Come here, Akira son of Chiaki.”
Akira was taken off guard, he had to admit. “You know my mother?”
“She used to teach my niece in the Foundation School.” The monk motioned for Akira to come closer to the coffin. “Take your position. About time the people outside gave their deceased one last look.”
Akira couldn’t help staring at Lan, who was clad in a white cloak, his head shaved, the scent of cinnamon bark wafting out from his bathed body. It wasn’t Akira’s first funeral, but he had never been this close to a ‘processed’ corpse.
So, this is what it will be like.
“Akira?” the monk called, and at once Akira did as instructed and took his position at the back from the left side. Following the monk’s lead, Akira and the seven other men lifted the coffin up together on their shoulders as they exited the shrine. The crowd outside made way for the monk and the carriers to advance across the yard toward the pyre at its end, which was a long walk with this hefty wooden box almost dislocating Akira’s shoulder.
Akira and the carriers placed the coffin carefully on the pyre and stepped back, leaving the monk to intone his prayers right in front of it. After he was done, one of the shrine servants standing at the back scurried to him and handed him a torch. As the monk set the pyre on fire, a woman started sobbing, the people around her trying to comfort her. Akira hadn’t seen that woman before, but he would be surprised if she was someone else other than Lan’s mother.
Reconcile the parents and leave as soon as possible; that was the plan. However, Akira found himself standing still, staring at the flames that ate through the coffin with Lan’s body in it. Even when people started to leave, he didn’t abandon his spot, unable to dismiss from his mind this intrusive image of his corpse instead of Lan’s. It is my inevitable fate, isn’t it? he thought to himself. Back in the day—which was not a long time ago anyway—when he still had hope to don the red mantle, he used to claim he was ready to die in the War of the Last Day for his nation. Was it some boyish gibberish? Perhaps. Easy for you to brag you are a swimmer when you are in the heart of the desert.
A gentle hand on his shoulder startled him, and then he realized it was the monk who knew his mother’s name. “Is your mind still troubled, son?”
Alright, this monk knew too much. “It seems that you and Mother still talk, Your Radiance,” Akira said, not so politely though.
“You are as smart as she says, Akira.” The monk grinned. “And yes, we still talk.”
“Clearly, she has told you too much.”
“Your mother is a good woman, Akira.” The monk’s smile faded. “And you gave her all the reasons to worry about you.”
Worry about him? The only thing she cared about was her name among her peers in the School. “I am fine,” Akira curtly said. “Tell her that the next time she comes here.”
Before Akira would walk away, the monk gripped his wrist tightly. “You will never find peace unless you understand, son.” The monk’s voice was firm yet too low to be heard by anybody else in the yard. “The Light has spared you for a reason.”
Akira looked from the pyre to the monk. “You say I would have been in Lan’s place if I took the red mantle?” he scoffed. “You say the Light did me a favor by denying me the most thing I wished for?”
“You have been denied for a nobler mission, Akira.”
Nonsense, Akira would say, but he would be damned forever if he did. “What mission could be nobler than fighting the Light’s holy war?”
“Fighting the holy war is something, winning it is something else, son.” The monk gestured toward the pyre. “You can be one of its heroes if you save the Light’s soldiers from this fate.”
Akira was relieved when the monk let go of him and went to Lan’s parents. Such a waste of time, Akira thought as he strode out of the yard. He hadn’t escaped from the Sun Castle to listen to the same hollow speech his mother had given about becoming one of the heroes of the War of the Last Day. Plainly, that monk did some decent effort to memorize and recite her words.
Wait. What if it was his mother who was reciting the monk’s words?
Akira was already getting away from the shrine when the thought struck him. Who are you really, Your Radiance? Akira wondered, heading toward the nearest tavern to entertain his restless mind a little bit. Had he just talked today to the very seer who had told her mother that the Last Day was sooner than they thought?