∴ A Forward Payment ∴
The chanting deepens, a low murmur of mourning bouncing softly against the glassy black vaults. You scrunch your eyes shut, wishing you could clamp your black-gloved hands over your ears to block out the gentle insistence of sorrow. You daren’t, though. Your father would see, and would think you weak.
You dart a glance at the stately, somber man, and as if irritated by your very gaze, he flickers his hawkish features toward you. He inclines his head only slightly – first toward you, and then in the direction of the black stone dais. You know what he commands.
At once your legs become jelly, the little step up to the platform a suddenly insurmountable feat. The echoing chants of mourning surge nauseatingly in your skull, underscored by your racing pulse. Your grip tightens around the wreath you carry, and you wish you could crumble it to dust between your fingers and undo the death that it must mark.
On the dais lies your father’s personal guard. A great grinning hero of a man, with as many stories as he had scars. When your father admonished you it was Aster who would escort you from the hall, full of little jokes to ease the sting. When you struggled with swordcraft, he would practice with you in the orange gardens.
With swaying steps you cross the seeming chasm between the safety of the crowd and the strangeness of the funeral pyre. Aster lies atop it in his splendid black armour, no trace of his usual smile on the stillness of his face. His dark hair streams around his shoulders, dotted with little white blossoms, and atop him lies his sword.
You remember holding that slender rapier some years ago, curiously touching your fingertips to each of the four silver discs that marked the rings and quillons of its guard.
“Do you know what those are?” he asked.
You shook your head.
“Those are my coins for the ferryman.”
You scrunched your nose with confusion, peering again at the polished carvings.
“Where I come from, we cross a river when we die, to reach the Eternal Lands. There’s an old ferryman who’ll take you across if you can pay. I like to keep them on me, just in case.”
“Why are your coins on your sword, then, and not in your pocket?” you asked him, still staring wide-eyed at the flowing black bars of the guard.
“Why do you think, child?” Aster chuckled, tousling your hair. “I need to be sure I have them on me when I die. And I intend to go down with my sword in my hand.” Continue reading