The Rogue QueenBy: Emily R. King
The burial starts at daybreak, before the heat of the jungle evaporates the dew and suffocates the morning breeze. Our solemn group congregates in the stern of the riverboat and watches Deven and Yatin finish tying heavy stones to the body’s ankles and wrists. Indah has already washed the deceased in almond oil, a ritual in her homeland, the Southern Isles. Pons, her beloved guard, helped her wrap the departed with white bedsheets.
Natesa slips her arm around my waist. I hold on to her, shifting my weight off my sore leg. Prince Ashwin stands to the side, his head down, but I can still see his red eyes and nose.
Deven straightens slowly, as though every part of him aches. I recognize that feeling, that sinking heaviness like quicksand. Everyone aboard moves with the same cumbersome slowness, as though we are all tied down by millstones.
The rush of the River Ninsar fills the silence. If only life could be as constant as a river. Although I believe death is not the end and our spirits live on, I am never fully prepared for life to dry up.
Deven bows his head and offers our traditional Prayer of Rest. “Gods, bless Brother Shaan’s soul so that he may find the gate that leads to peace and everlasting light.”
Yesterday afternoon, I found Brother Shaan slumped over in his chair outside the wheelhouse. For the past fortnight, since we fled the city of Iresh, he prayed diligently for the gods to preserve us in this dire time. Indah said his heart merely failed, as aged hearts do. But I think his fear put him in an early grave.
Deven finishes by adding his thoughts. “Brother Shaan was a dedicated, loyal, and loving member of the Brotherhood. He exemplified the five godly virtues in every way and served Anu with his whole heart.” His ragged voice catches. “He will be missed.”
Yatin, his brother-in-arms, squeezes Deven’s shoulder. The soldiers slide the body to the edge of the skiff. Pons helps them push the remains overboard, and the water splashes in finality.
Tears sting my eyes. The body floats for a heart-wrenching beat, and then the stones drag Brother Shaan below the surface of the murky river.
“Enki,” Indah says, praying to the water-goddess. “Send your sea dragons to ferry Brother Shaan’s soul to the Beyond and wash away any memory of pain or anguish from this mortal life.”
Her burial prayer is unusual to us Tarachandians, who worship the sky-god Anu. Indah’s people believe sacred creatures of the deep, sea dragons, ferry their souls to the Beyond or the Void when they die. In this moment, when we cannot stop to dig a grave for Brother Shaan, as is our custom, her words are a much-needed comfort.
Pons is the first to leave, going to oversee our navigators, the pole pushers. I should rest my injured leg, but I linger near Deven. The river leads us along, and the place where Brother Shaan sank drifts away in our shallow wake. A mangrove forest crowds the riverbanks, thriving in the brackish wetlands between the rain forest and the Sea of Souls. The tree roots, partially submerged in the muddy waters, ascend from the surface like knobby stilts. We are nearly to the river delta. Brother Shaan was so close to viewing the sea . . .
Yatin steps to Natesa’s other side. “Are you all right, little lotus?”
She runs her hand down his chest. “Yes.” Her burly soldier with a thick beard came aboard the skiff very ill. Indah, the most experienced Aquifier aboard, cured Yatin’s ailment, and Natesa has finished nursing him back to health. Yatin slimmed down while he was unwell, though he is still the biggest man on board. We were so concerned about his recovery and my tournament injuries, we neglected to care for Brother Shaan.
We all bear the weight of that guilt.
Natesa and Yatin take the walkway around the side of the boat. Ashwin has left, having snuck off when no one was watching. He and I have not spoken since Iresh. I spend my time with Deven—and Ashwin avoids us. This was the closest the three of us have been in days.
Indah comes to my side. “Kalinda, it’s time.”
Given the solemnness of the morning, I consider canceling our session, but Indah’s healing powers are the only reason I can stand right now.
Deven has yet to look away from the river. I consoled him the best I could last night, but Brother Shaan was his mentor. Some losses leave behind holes that cannot be filled.