The hot knife of pain in Darret's knee was back. He felt it twist with every step. He could have taken a carriage, one would have been sent for him, but he'd be damned if anyone, alive or dead, thought him weak. Nothing he could do now except grit his teeth and hobble on, leaning heavily on his cane like an old man. Why should the pain be so intense today, of all days?
Not far to his destination, two more houses down. He wanted the modest home on the end. The word modest, of course, was grossly misapplied. Money wasn't enough to live this close to the palace; you needed the Emperor's favor, but if you had that, you had money too. The grounds of these homes were so broad each covered a normal block and his knee screamed over the entire distance.
The stairs were murder; eight steps of white marble, and he was on the porch. He had to stop at the top. He wanted to reach out, steady himself on one of fluted columns, but was unacceptable. Instead he shifted his weight onto the cane and settled for a few quick, deep breaths to help control the pain before he reached for the door latch. It felt strange coming home, but this wasn't home anymore, was it? It was his parent's house; rather, now it was his mother's. It hadn't been his home for years.
He let go of the latch and rang the bell. He stepped back, rotated his shoulders so his jacket hung more comfortably, and adjusted the lace ruffles at his throat. He hadn't owned a black mourning coat, and though well-tailored, it felt different from his mage's jacket.
The door opened. "Master Darret," Ries said, stepping back and beckoning him in. "Welcome." The old butler hadn't changed a bit. Substitute his butler's uniform for that of the Light Guard and he could still be in the service. The only difference Darret could see was the black armband he wore.
"Who is it, Ries?" called a voice from inside.
"Darry!" A whirlwind of black silk rushed across the foyer and threw itself into his arms. He staggered, his knee buckling before he could straighten, but held on to Tetia, his youngest sister, and didn't fall.
"Welcome home, Darry!" She smiled up at him, most unbecoming considering the day.
"It's good to see you," he said. "And look at you. All grown up." That wasn't quite true. Tetia was fifteen, half Darret's age, and at the in-betweens, no longer a girl, not quite a woman, but still youthfully exuberant and irrepressible.
"Mother will be glad you're here," Tetia said. "She expected you sooner and was starting to worry." She lowered her voice. "I didn't worry. I knew if Aria could come, you would too."
Surprised, Darret pulled back and looked down at his sister. "Aria? Really? Did she come to gloat?"
"I think even she realized she couldn't stay away for Father's funeral."
"Then let's go say hello." But he froze, a sudden constriction in his chest making him forget the pain in his knee. The alae familia, the small alcove that held their ancestors' artifacts, caught his attention.
Father's armor now held the center. The ancient metal had been polished so it reflected the marble and crystal foyer - just as polished as Father had kept it in life.
Darret walked over, reached out, and let his hand trail along the cool steel, remembering Father lacing it on him so long ago.
"This has been handed down from father to son for hundreds of years," Father had said. "On the day you graduate from the Academy, I will give it to you."
It was the only time in Darret's life he thought he wanted to be a soldier. But I never graduated from the Academy, did I?
He closed his eyes against the tears welling up. "This shouldn't be here," he said bitterly. He hadn't cried and had no intention of doing so. "I never really wanted it, but it shouldn't be here."
Tetia swallowed. "Darry..."
"No!" He made a chopping motion with his hand. "Don't tell me it's all right. It's not all right. This shouldn't be here!"
"It's not your fault."
He turned abruptly and hobbled into the atrium, leaving Tetia to trail along behind. This was the center of the house, with a grand staircase now draped with black bunting, and all the wings, upstairs and down, joined here. It was the best place in the house to eavesdrop if anybody were careless enough to leave their door open.
The voices of the servants in the kitchen were muted, far away, and accompanied by the faint smell of baking bread. A door to his right clicked shut - Reis returning to help polish the silver or some such task for the funeral feast this evening. And up above, ever so faintly, came the rustle of petticoats. He looked up.
"I see you made it." Aria, just a year younger than Darret, stood at the top of the stairs, hand on the bannister, looking down on him.
Darret caught his breath at her light yellow dress. "You can't wear that!"
"Why not? The priests say this is a celebration, and I'm in the mood."
"Because," Tetia growled beside him, "Father is dead!"
"Oh, I know it," Aria said and gestured with her hands, presenting her festive dress.
Of Father's three children Aria most resembled Mother with her fine boned beauty, her dusky skin, and silver highlighted hair. She might have passed for pure Kallain. Darret and Tetia were more obviously half-bloods.
"All of Kalla celebrates today," Aria said.
Darret turned his face from her. "This is not seemly."
Aria laughed. "Darry, look at you, leaning on that cane. You almost killed yourself trying to please him. Don't you hate him, even a little?"
Darret slammed his cane on the floor in frustration. The crack echoed in the atrium and the voices from the kitchen stopped. "The Emperor will be there!"
"He had better be. It wouldn't do to be ungrateful to the general that enslaved Kalla for him."
"He fought a war," said Tetia.
"And he won, didn't he? Just like he wanted to win everything. Regardless of cost." Aria gripped the railing with both hands and leaned over. "I could tell you tales that would freeze your blood."
"That wasn't Father!" Tetia said.
Aria opened her mouth, but Darret heard the click of a door latch. "Mother comes."
Aria curled her lip, but had the good grace to hold her tongue.
She thinks of herself as only Kallain, Darret thought.
He remembered visiting Mother's family in Kalla as a child and the stony looks the people gave him. The only other half-bloods were street urchins, children of violence, and despised. Darret had hated the trip. Their cousins had tormented them, their aunts and uncles had been beastly to Mother, and grandfather hadn't emerged from his room for the entire visit. They never returned.
Mother came in from the garden, an older version of Aria. She wore the widow's dress with dignity, her shoulders unbowed. More silver highlighted her hair, and her life's experiences were mapped in the fine lines around her eyes and mouth. Her exotic beauty remained, though people would now call it elegance.
Darret stepped forward, awkwardly with his knee, and took her hand in his. "Mother," he said, and kissed her cheek.
"Welcome home," she said. Aria rolled her eyes, but mother didn't see. She squeezed his hand. "Now that you're home, Darry, you need to make peace."
But this isn't home, he thought. It hasn't been home since a chance blow at the Academy shattered my knee and Father's expectations. He wasn't sure which hurt more. It had been Father's terrible, accusing silence that drove him from the house to Mageholm College. And yes, to answer Aria's earlier question, he did hate Father for the burden of failure. And now he asked himself, How do you make peace with the dead?
The funeral would be that afternoon, a public service in the grand cathedral. Thousands would be there; if the Emperor favored the family with his presence, the aristocracy must as well. Father had been second only to the Emperor, and that could not be ignored.
That evening would be the funeral feast. Family and a few close friends would dine on Father's favorite foods. Father's plate would be carried from the head of the table to the alae familia to signify his change of condition.
"It has started to rain," Reis announced as the family gathered in the foyer.
Tetia groaned but Mother said, "It is fitting."
Darret leaned down to rub his aching knee. "I have neglected to bring my greatcoat."
With a discrete cough Reis said, "Your father had one he wore to funerals, if you would care to wear it. I can fetch it as the carriage is brought around."
"I suppose you better," Darret said.
When they reached the gates of the churchyard, Darret, protected by Father's greatcoat, helped Mother from the carriage, then Aria, then Tetia. The three adjusted the hoods of their capes before all four started up the slope to the cathedral.
People filled the churchyard, queuing up at the side door to view Father's body. Many would just be curious to see the famous general, but there were a surprising number of old soldiers.
Sound or infirm, prosperous or poor, they stood together in the drizzle waiting to enter the church to pay their respects. The doors would close before the service and they would remain, in the rain, until the doors opened again and the line would restart: an army of old men, shuffling forward to view their general one last time.
Such devotion, Darret thought.
Tetia sobbed, drawing his attention to a hole, sides straight, corners perfect, amongst the greystone graves. Dark earth mounded at the head. Tetia turned away, wiping rain from her face.
She really loved him. Child of his old age, when all his battles had long been fought. Was she different or was he?
And the mourners: what of them? Why are they here?
The soldiers, at least, wouldn't need to attend for the sake of their social standing, but their reasons to honor Father were not his.
He ushered Mother into the cathedral, out of the rain, but loitered on the steps, looking out over the churchyard. He let his gaze linger over the newly dug hole. Soon it would be filled, a tombstone would be placed, and grass would grow. Father's grave would be just another monument vying for the attentions of the curious.
He walked to the side of the cathedral and glanced at the corner formed by the nave and the transept. This was sacred, enchanted land enclosed by an iron and marble fence. Each post was lavishly carved with sacred symbols and magic runes, each baluster perfectly formed and placed. The coping fairly glowed with holy power. Here the Emperors were laid to rest. Without vault, casket, or urn, they were lowered into the earth and covered. They received no marker or tombstone.
In time, a tombstone would grow, like a tree. Fed by the enchanted soil, the corpse, and perhaps the soul, it would reflect the life of the person beneath it. Beautiful or grasping, the tombstone's testimony was more complete, more nuanced, than any history. Evil intent could not be hidden from the grave like it could in life.
Emperors lived in terror of their grave.
Finally he could delay no longer and entered the cathedral, shedding his dripping coat before entering the nave. Far ahead, Father lay in his coffin, waiting with the patience of the dead. An usher had already taken Mother's arm and was leading her to the front row of pews. Tetia waited, and together they followed. He leaned on his cane, and it felt like every eye watched him.
"What will you say?" Tetia whispered.
"Nothing. He is dead."
He left her at the pew and approached the coffin. The viewers, recognizing him perhaps, drew back to give him some space.
He half expected a shriveled corpse, diminished by old age and death. Father looked pale, cheeks slightly sunken, but otherwise hale. Who was this dead body who wore Father's face like a mask?
I never wanted to hate you.
Words rose in his throat, words that almost slipped out unbidden but at the last moment choked him. He could not, would not, apologize. You should apologize to me instead. This was not the time to be angry though. It makes me petty, to be angry with a dead man.
How did we come to this?
Of course Father did not answer. Growing up had been full of angry silences and that had not changed.
Behind him a murmur ruffled through the congregated people. The Emperor had arrived. Darret abandoned his reverie and went to sit with his family.
The Emperor sat in the front row, opposite the family. On this day he was regulated to the background, upstaged by a corpse; allowing an honor to a dead man that he would never allow in life.
Crown Prince Andrew sat beside the Emperor. Darret knew the prince well, for they had attended the Academy together. Andrew kept his head up, staring forward at the casket and would not look at him.
The doors closed and the priest shooed stragglers from the viewing line away so he could start the service. Darret, for whom church had never held much interest, found himself hanging on every word of the eulogy. Deeds, after all, speak louder than words, and what better way to know somebody than by their deeds?
He knew of Father's years of service, culminating in the war in Kalla. That long, bloody conflict ending with Kalla's utter subjugation and transformation into an Imperial province. He knew more than what the priest mentioned, for the priest talked of brilliant strategies, not the burning of crops or looting of cities. The priest mentioned how Father became a Marshall and second most powerful man in the Empire, but not the Kalla people spat in the street at the sound of his name.
Am I the only one who doesn't know what to feel? It would help if he knew what Father had felt. Did he ever regret the consequences of his actions?
Aria had better restraint than he thought. While she simmered next to him, she did not cause a disturbance. He glanced at his family: Mother, her face unreadable, Aria, grimly triumphant, and Tetia, sorrow dripping down her face. How did he look? Was his countenance stoic and dispassionate as a gentleman's should be - someone whose emotions were properly distant?
When the service ended, the Emperor rose to greet the family. He murmured a few words of condolences to Mother, had a sharp glance and frown for Aria's dress, and a few more words for Tetia. When he approached, Darret bowed in greeting.
The Emperor gave a small, imperial nod of acknowledgement. "Your father was very proud that each generation in his family had advanced further than the last. No doubt he had the highest expectations for you."
"As we know, Your Majesty, all expectations changed while I was at the Academy."
The Emperor exchanged glances with his son. "So they did. But you're doing well as a mage, I hear. Not as exulted a position, I grant, and no armies to command, but honorable work."
"It suits me, Your Majesty," Darret said.
"You are too modest," Prince Andrew said. "I've heard you are a marvelous healer, that your magic can heal almost anything."
Darret gave a half-bow at the compliment. "Some things cannot be healed." He glanced at the open casket. "Relationships... Knees."
The Prince turned his head to cough into his hand. "Yes. Most unfortunate."
"I will be unable to attend the funeral feast, of course," the Emperor said, changing the subject. Darret wasn't surprised. Nobody expected he would; the invitation had been a formality. "The Prince will attend in my place."
That was a surprise. The Prince would be out of place, but it was impossible to refuse. The Emperor could designate anybody he wished or nobody at all. Darret smiled. "We shall look forward to your presence, Your Highness."
Darret found himself between Tetia and Aria at dinner. The dining room glittered with china and crystal. Two-dozen guests sat at the long table, old soldiers, nobles, Father's banker, and the Crown Prince. The Prince took the opportunity to huddle with the banker at the far end of the table, which relieved Darret and allowed him to speak with his sisters.
"Why do you think Father treated you differently?" he asked Tetia.
She sniffed. "You should have visited more often. You could have asked him yourself."
"It would have meant nothing." He paused as a servant slipped a bowl of soup in front of him. "He never told me why he did anything."
"If you had talked more... Father was not a monster."
Aria leaned past him so she could see Tetia. "Not to you."
Tetia's eyes flashed. "He gave you everything - the best education, finishing school, wardrobe - everything!"
"It means nothing," Darret said quietly. "Only the wealthy value those social graces, and we are not welcome among them." He raised an eyebrow to Aria. "That was made clear, was it not?"
"Repeatedly," she said with a frown.
When he saw Tetia's contrary expression, Darret said, "The Emperor's favor does not extend into the schoolyard. Children have a way of making their prejudices known."
"It happened to you, too," Aria said.
Darret shrugged, not wishing to confirm or deny it. "But of course Father would not concede anything. It was another battle for him to win. His children would be accepted."
"If this was a war for him, why, then, did I have private tutors?" Tetia lifted her chin. "Why was I not a solider in this war?"
"He got old," Aria spat.
Darret massaged his knee. "Or some other reason." Why do I temporize?
"He got old," Aria repeated. "Old and selfish."
Tetia glared but didn't speak. She gripped her spoon like it was a weapon. Finally she muttered, "Why does it matter?"
Darret stared at his soup. "You love him." He looked at Aria. "You hate him. Perhaps I'm undecided."
"Talk to Mother."
Mother sat at the head of the table, listening to one of the old soldiers and nodding politely.
"I think," Darret said slowly, "I think it isn't enough. I can listen to strangers, I can talk to family, but I don't know the why of Father."
"He never gave anything to the enemy," Aria agreed bitterly.
"We aren't the enemy!" Tetia protested.
"Habit, maybe," Darret said. "But who's to know for sure? Only Father." After a thoughtful pause he said, "Do you know, I don't think I ever saw him laugh."
"I did," Tetia said, as a servant took away the soup bowl and replaced it with poached salmon. "All the time."
"I never did," Aria countered.
"That's because you were a difficult child," Tetia muttered.
The courses of the meal followed, one after another. Occasionally somebody would propose a toast, but to Darret they were empty words. None illuminated Father in a way he didn't already know.
Finally, near the end of the meal Aria stared over his head toward the kitchen. "Oh, no, please no," she whispered.
He craned around to look.
Servants swept into the room holding plates above their heads in each hand. A small column of blue and orange fire rose from each plate. Darret flinched back as a servant swung a plate around and placed it before him.
"Brandied prunes flambe," he said.
"They look like little burning turds," Aria said.
Tetia sighed. "How could Father like them?"
"Bury them with him and see what he says." Aria picked up a fork but made no move to use it.
"Nothing, of course, but a plum tree will grow."
Darret snapped his head up, stunned by her words.
"Darry? What is it?"
"An idea," but he wouldn't say more. He waited until the feast was over and people prepared to leave, and as he bid them farewell at the door, he sought out Prince Andrew.
"I have a request, Your Highness."
The Prince's eyebrows crawled up his forehead. "Your Father has been amply rewarded. We owe him nothing."
"That is true, Your Highness, but you owe me."
"You?" His face was blank, his eyes uncertain. "Why do we owe you?"
Darret tapped his knee with his cane, lightly, to draw attention to it. "For this, Your Highness. It was not by accident you ruined my knee while we were at the Academy. You, or your father, I suppose, feared how high I might rise given the ambitions my father had for me."
"Tread carefully with your accusations." The Prince turned red as he spoke.
Darret studied his face, the clenched jaw, the lifted chin. He read the defiance in Andrew's eyes. He sighed. "We were never friends, were we? How could we be? The difference is in our blood."
They looked at each other for a long minute before Darret turned, not even excusing himself, and hobbled away.
"What is it you want?" Andrew called after him.
Darret stopped. "I want to bury Father in the Imperial graveyard." He turned back. "A small plot, hidden in back; just somewhere his gravestone will grow."
The Prince blinked, surprised at the request. "You are that confident in what will grow?"
"No. But I need to see it. I need to..." He shrugged away the words he couldn't find. "I cannot escape him. I need to understand him."
"That ground is reserved for Emperors," Andrew said.
"It's where you'll rest one day, isn't it?" Darret asked, though they both knew the answer. He held up his hand, palm up, and with a mental incantation made the image of a gravestone sprout.
Andrew did not answer. His eyes narrowed as watched the image grow. Finally he spoke. "Your mother will allow this?"
"I'm certain she will."
"I'll speak with the Emperor." He shifted a bit. "Someday I will be buried in that magic ground. May my gravestone show I always pay my debts." He inclined his head. "Good evening." He swept out of the house and down the steps where his bodyguards closed ranks behind him.
Darret stood amongst the graves of Emperors. The dark soil marked Father's resting place; time would bring forth his gravestone. The priest stood next to him.
"And when will your family visit?"
Darret shifted his weight, not needing his cane. His knee didn't hurt as much today. "Mother will not come. She does not need a grave to remember."
"And the others?"
"Tetia will not come, for she carries Father in her heart. Aria... Aria will come. And who knows? Perhaps what grows here will change her." He shrugged. "We shall see."
"And you? Will this give you peace?"
He looked at the wet earth. Father had taken his secrets to his grave, and his grave would give them back. "We shall see."
The grave would tell Father's secrets, but it was up to Darret to make peace.