Reyan picked and poked at the incongruous assortment of food on her plate. There were two versions of the same type of fish—one brown and saucy, one dry and covered with green flecks. There were both orange and white mounds of pulp, and a pile of berries that melted apart when she touched them. There was one slice each of black and white bread, and the hard roll—one half of which had gone soft where she’d carried it in her mouth. These discordant notions of wake food clashed fiercely if they met on her tongue, so she did what she could to keep them apart.
As she fussed with her dinner, something began arranging itself in the back rooms of her mind. She didn’t realize it was happening at first. But soon she began to sense distant creaks and scrapes like workers shifting the furniture about in a closed room on the other side of a featureless wall. Then all at once she found an entrance.
As she fell deeper into her own thoughts, Reyan’s head slowly listed to one side, her jaw relaxed, her mouth hung open, and her breath came in slow. If anyone had seen her, they would have said she was staring at the planks of her solitary triangular wall, but by now she couldn’t even see the wall. She was staring inward.
Her mind used visuals like others used words, with real-world shapes and images mixed in and overlaid with vivid impossible notions that managed to somehow form a clearer image of the truth.
Rolf’s supine body came to her mind. The firelight cast deep and shifting shadows down his face. The flickering stopped and the shadows faded leaving only a steady warm golden light, which quickly overwhelmed all the other light in the room.
She found herself looking over the smoking chimneys and bristling tree tops of Orloton and the surrounding forest. Rolf’s light became a golden dome encompassing the whole town and radiating out into the cold darkness.
Rolf had been powerful but never forceful. It was his nature to pull and shape and smooth. He changed the world around him but did not bend it to his will. And he drew pleasure from being kind like no one else Reyan had ever met. Inside his protective hemisphere was the only place where she had ever spoken aloud without shame or fear.
The glowing light of his goodness expanded like an inflating soap bubble. It enveloped the snowy caps of the mountains, and reached down the other side of the pass. It encompassed all the towns on the northern spur of the circuit until the whole world seemed to be overflowing with his light.
And then the bubble popped.
Her mind rushed back to the reality of this cold and joyless house and the waxen man lying still before the fire.
She examined him again in her mind, she gave herself time to pick through the memory without the expectant pressure of eyes upon her. His chest did not rise and fall, the lumps of his eyes did not lurch behind their closed lids, his fingers did not twitch to grasp whatever his dreaming mind placed before him.
She realized that a part of her had decided that Rolf was only sleeping. It was the same delusional part that had stuffed a roll in her mouth and left the room with out a word. But now every part of her knew Rolf was dead.
She felt something that wasn’t quite pain. It didn’t poke or pinch. It was the feeling of a collapsing void, like the very moment a rock punches a hole through the surface of a pond and the water comes flooding back in. She felt the blow of the rock and the emptiness and the rushing drowning feeling all in the same moment.
As she sat there, letting her mind go slack, picking distractedly at the remnants of her food, she felt this new emotion soak into her, like rancid butter melting into a biscuit. It didn’t go away, but it became an indistinguishable part of who she would always be.
This new version of her, grew curious about what was happening in the room down the ladder and down the hall. The professors were still here. She could hear the rumble and wobble of a male voice and the hissing high notes of Lyssa’s sparse replies, but she could not pull any meaning from the whiffs and sniffs of the conversation.
She wiped her greasy mouth on the sleeve of her tunic. She lay down on the floor and pressed her ear against the boards. The deeper voice traveled well through the house’s wooden skeleton. It was louder now, but no clearer. Lyssa’s high tones were lost altogether.
Reyan took off her damp boots, and clinging socks, set the boots side by side and lay the socks flat on the floor to dry. Barefoot, she carefully and quietly inched down the ladder from her loft carrying her dinner plate in one hand.
She crept into the kitchen and gently set the plate on the counter by the sink so as not to draw unwanted attention. Then slid along the hallway wall toward the living room. She waited until Lyssa’s voice sounded as though her head were turned away, then chanced a quick peek around the corner. Just at that moment, Lyssa turned back to face Reyan. She looked directly at the girl, but her eyes were focused elsewhere and she did not see her. Reyan decided to stay mostly hidden behind the wall, but kept her head peeking around the corner so she could see what was happening.
By now, most of the mourners had gone home to their families, but there were still a few gathered in the room. Lyssa was exactly where Reyan had last seen her, sitting in the chair close to her dead husband’s head. The lesser town leaders—the butcher, the water man, and the local keeper—were gathered around the recent widow holding their near-empty plates in front of themselves like shields against her grief.
The professors stood in a clutch a few paces away from the others. The three seemed to want to lean in to provide solace, away to show respect, and forward to the business at hand. These opposing forces guy-wired them into a stiffed-back formality, which struck such a perfect balance between concern, deference, and competence that Reyan was certain the posture was taught at the University as part of a professor’s practice and art. It was what made them perfectly suited to any occasion best approached with a thoughtful pout and a furrowed brow.
The young novice professor, Kavianhar—the one with the dirty blond hair and twisted lip—stood furthest from the circle of town leaders. He was tense and on his toes as though at any moment he expected one of his superiors to send him off to fetch something and be quick about it. Until then, he seemed resigned to stand at his awkward distance, listening intently.
Lyssa drew in a deep breath. There was a stuttering sound when she let it out. “Early in the day tomorrow,” she said, her voice suddenly too steady and strong to be believed.
The lanky gray professor—Sevv she thought—looked questioningly at Parr who nodded with his black eyes more than his head. Sevv moved over and knelt on one knee next to Lyssa facing Rolf’s stiffening corpse. “If you’re sure that would be best, Leader.” In his voice there was the peculiar practiced pattern and tone of one well-versed in dealing with grief. It was a mixture of sympathy and firmness that, until now, Reyan had only witnessed in doctors, veterinarians, and Rolf himself when he had to tell a father that his child had been swept down river while tending a fish trap. Sevv waited for a moment to make sure Lyssa understood whatever decision he had just helped her make.
Lyssa affected an air of strength by forcing herself to look steadily at the kneeling professor for a moment. But then sorrow weighed down her head and she returned to slouching and staring slackly at the floor. Sevv reacted as though it had been a nod and, like an obedient dog finally released from his held position, went to work. “Kavianhar,” he called and the young blond professor straighted up more if such thing was possible.
“Professor,” Kavianhar replied as he approached. Sevv stood up to meet him. The old man leaned over and said something to the novice that was too quiet for Reyan to hear. Kavianhar nodded his understanding. Reyan stepped back from the room’s entrance and out of Kavianhar’s way. She caught the quick sour smell of his discomfort as he hurried past.
Sevv gathered the other professor over to a corner for a quick whispered discussion. Sevv placed his hand on the other’s shoulder as he leaned his head down to talk. The other listed, but neither his expression nor his words revealed any emotion, only offering a single nod once Sevv finished speaking.
Kavianhar rushed back into the room with a writing pad and a pencil and walked over to the Professors. “Ready,” he said, and the professors rejoined the group of lesser town leaders that was gathering around Lyssa.
Sevv began gently, “Where shall the event take place, do we think? I would image that this room is too small. I know that it is cold, but should we consider the square out front?” When Lyssa didn’t react, he looked at the keeper, the waterman, and the butcher who each nodded in turn. Sevv then looked impatiently at Kavianhar who dutifully jotted something on the pad. Reyan couldn’t imagine what part of that idea risked being forgotten if the young man hadn’t committed it to writing.
“And for food, Butcher, will you be helping with that?”
“I’ll dress a pig this evening,” the looked over to Kavianhar, “You’ll need to work with others to get the rest of the food. I would talk to Manisha. Blue house, third on the right on the road south of the square. I know it’s late, but go to her tonight.” Kavianhar nodded and wrote that down.
“As for the ceremony itself,” Sevv began. There was a tip-toeing lilt to his voice. “Who will be…”
“Leonid will do it.” Her eyes came up from the floor and focused on the keeper. Leonid nodded. Lyssa declared with unshakable certainty. “Orloton’s leader will have his final day in Orloton’s town square, faired-well by Orloton’s keeper. And then all our people will show their respect and receive his gift.”
“His ‘gift’ Leader? How do you mean?” the tension in Sevv’s question apparent.
Lyssa straightened her back and frowned. “Partaking of the gift has been a custom in Orloton since the year of the scab. During the worst of it, a woman came to Orloton from the East. They all thought she was a professor at first, she seemed wise, and just as foreign.” She looked at the professors and her lips tightened into a smirk. “But she wore no robes, and when she left, the scab left with her. So I guess she wasn’t much like a professor at all.” Her voice cut like a blade of grass. “She said that, for the dead and dying it was too late, but within their blood they held a final gift that could save everyone they loved. She collected their blood and extracted their gifts. The leader had the keeper write down everything that the woman did and said so that we would not forget. And we never have.”
Sevv stammered, “Rolf died of an infection. Surely a wise leader such as your husband, would not wish to be honored with anything so ill-advised as sharing an infected man’s blood.” He laughed uncomfortably as though hoping to bring others along and make a joke of it. He was uncharacteristically flummoxed for a professor.
“If you’ll forgive my saying, Professor Sevvran, this has nothing to do with you, or your notions of propriety. You professors roll into town for few days every year. You tell us how to be systemic and proper. We, for our part, do our best to listen and show respect. But do not for a moment think that we do not respect other things as well. In Orloton, we show respect to our beloved dead by giving them one last chance to show their generosity and bestow a gift of protection upon us. As professors you are honored guests. You are welcome to partake in Rolf’s gift. If you choose not to, no one will be offended. No one would even notice.” Her words turned hard, “But by The Eye, if you have a mind to disrespect our town’s greatest leader in any way, I suggest you consider how far from your University you are.”
Sevv’s jaw stiffened and he drew his old frame up into a caricature of principal bravery and honor, “I’ve heard about your gifts. It’s all heretical Erynite nonsense!”
With a glance, Parr moved Sevv aside to go stand next to Kavianhar. The dark professor came forward to take Sevv’s place and spoke to Lyssa, his voice deep and quiet and clear so that Reyan did not have to lean in to make out his words. “How many are you, Leader?”
The fire left Lyssa’s eyes and she became businesslike. “Orloton has a population of four hundred thirty-seven.”
Thirty-six as of today. Reyan said under her breath.
Lyssa lifted her chin to give the impression of strength, “Thirty-six as of today.”
Professor Sevv jaw was flexing and lips were squirming as he listened to Parr calmly discuss preparations with Lyssa. He turned his expression on Kavianhar which seemed to break the boy free from some distracting thought and the novice began to take notes again.
“We have seen so many children playing in your streets,” Parr said. “It is a shining testament to Rolf’s quality that his time as Leader was so fruitful.” This seemed to sooth Lyssa to the point where she was able to offer a sad smile. The professor continued. “Still, it is late in the evening now, and the ceremony will be early tomorrow. Will the butcher have sufficient time to prepare a meal for so many? If we send Kavianhar out now, would there be time for your people to forage and boil and bake enough to feed everyone? Perhaps it would be better…less disruptive to your town…if we selected a representative sample of adults to attend the ceremony, and receive Rolf’s final gift.” There was something unwavering in his tone, like he was willing this idea to become her opinion.
What tranquility the professor had managed to impart upon her had vanished, and was replaced with a cold calm anger. “Anything less than the town’s full measure would be disrespectful, Professor,” she snarled.
Parr’s face gave away no opinion or emotion on the matter. “Of course it is up to you and your wisdom, Leader,” he conceded. “They are now your people. It is now on you to help them chose how best to fulfill the Governing Assert, to improve life.”
“Rolf was a leader among leaders.” For a moment her voice lost its forcefulness and wobbled like a kite in flagging wind. She paused for a moment, and when she continued speaking her firmness restored. “He was loved by his people. He turned enemies to friends and collaborators.” Here an idea seemed to occur to her, “Thinking on it now. Perhaps we should wait another day or so, and send word to our neighbors in Bar and Rowe and invite them to pay their respects as well?”
“No, leader,” the professor said quickly as though he had already considered the idea and was simply waiting for Lyssa to bring it up. “I’m afraid there will be no time for that. You said the gift was in Rolf’s blood,” there was an apology folded into his words, “a person’s blood will thicken beyond extraction within a day. Rolf has been gone most of the day. Orloton’s neighbors will not have time to come, nor should you wait for them.”
Lyssa appeared to be searching for a trap in his words. Not finding one, she agreed. “Then we had better drain some blood tonight before it thickens and prepare it for tomorrow. Butcher, sharpen your knives.”