The Funeral Shroud

Eglistanes Secondary School, Leidenstad

Tap, tap, tap.

The playing tiles clicked against the table, playing along to the sound of Saga’s fist impatiently rapping on the thin metallic surface.

“Ninety-eight, ninety-nine… one hundred!” Kera proclaimed, with complete obliviousness to her friend’s mounting boredom.

They were friends, weren’t they? Saga wasn’t sure if she hated that idea more than she might hate the possibility that they weren’t. Or perhaps that wasn’t quite right? No, it wasn’t. She just hated that after six months at Eglistanes, Kera was probably her only friend, and in her worst moments Saga imagined it was mostly because nobody else wanted to spend much time around the Vhydaszi girl either.

Kera looked up and beamed, her odd, furry ears twitching excitedly as her finger hovered over the last tile.

“Well?” she asked eagerly, “Shall I?”

”Tüüniig unakhyg zövshöör,” Saga said. “Let her ride,” she mumbled, when she saw Kera’s puzzled look. The heavy, accented Cryrian made her cringe on the inside. Everyone could hear it, she knew. And they’d never laugh about it, not to her face - but Saga could practically taste the condescension in the air at times, even from the teachers when she had to stumble through some stupid textbook reading in front of the whole class.

It was the same sort of polite disdain they showed Kera, though the Vhydaszi never seemed to care. Why didn’t she care? Didn’t she know?

Was she stupid?

In older and perhaps wiser times, Saga would come to understand the answers to these questions - Of why a nonhuman from some half-drowned village on Aisis who had come to a place like Eglistanes by dint of luck and lottery would happily ignore any slight and bury any anger.

But today she only felt a sullen, stubborn sort of bitterness at it all. Home was in Gazny Khot, with Zamira and Timour and all her friends, Grandfather’s endless stories and all the things she’d grown up with.

To stop being angry would be to forget all of that. To forget that home was there, and she was here, sitting in some quiet corner of Eglistanes and waiting for lunchtime to wind down. All because the people everyone called her parents had decided to shuffle her to Leidenstad, trading her back and forth in their stupid fights that she didn’t care about, like one of Kera’s playing tiles.

She hated it. She hated how Turlan seemed to be doing just fine, because of course her brother was perfect at everything here. She hated how she couldn’t be the same. She almost felt like she should hate Kera too, just for being there, but… no. The thought of doing that made her stomach twist.

The Vhydaszi poked the tile, and one after another they collided, clattering to the table as neighbor struck neighbor. It was a magnificent little structure they had built, really - Though they had mostly consisted of Kera, with Saga’s occasional contribution. The lines of black-and-white tiles stretched across the table, rising up to a winding tower before falling back down again.

All would come crashing down now.

“And after us, the silence.” Saga quoted the day’s History reading with such an air of drama that Kera nearly collapsed into snickers.

Amid the rubble, one last tile stood defiant, inadvertently positioned just far enough from its nearest neighbor that it remained untouched. It began to sway as a wind whistled between Eglistanes’ buildings, only for Kera to snatch it up, and then offer it out to Saga.

“For your service,” the Vhydaszi said, her voice a perfect mockery of some high roller in a restaurant from one of those weird foreign shows she liked to watch.

Despite herself, Saga’s face broke out into a grin as she accepted the piece with a mock bow. A moment later the lunch bell rang, and two girls hastened to clear the ruins away.

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Sultana’s Palace, Bingol

“Another fine read, Reader.”

The Chief Reader’s private collection always brought out a hushed tone. It made little sense - The little, half-forgotten room was always quite unoccupied. Saga imagined that the Reader very much preferred it that way. The woman’s position was a decidedly unique one, and often beyond the usual bounds of Packilvanian censorship and the dogma of Paxist orthodoxy. Even so, there were more than a few texts on the shelves that could raise decidedly awkward questions if viewed by the wrong eyes.

Still, despite its emptiness, the place held the quiet air of any library, and who was the Sultana of Packilvania to argue with a librarian’s scowl?

“I had feared that this one might bore your majesty,” Fahmida admitted as she lifted the surprisingly narrow book from the Sultana’s hands. “Poetry did not seem to hold your liking before.”

“It didn’t,” Saga’s lips quirked up into a smile, “Never has. But poems are short, and these days… I am busy.”

Busy! That was a pleasant way to describe it. Busy was important. Busy was good. Busy people were involved, useful, hard to ignore and easy to rely on. People who were not busy, Saga knew, were doomed to be irrelevant. This was a lesson hard learned from a long career in the Cryrian Upper Chamber, where every position was a meaningless sinecure by default, and a potent tool if placed in energetic hands.

And she had been quick to occupy herself, from the moment the Coronation ended. There were so many quiet things to tend to - The workings of the court, the operations of innumerable incidents of pomp and circumstance. The establishment of the Bedon Family Foundation.

All of these, sinecures on paper.

But in energetic hands…

“Perhaps short stories may interest you more,” Fahmida mused, gliding away in a whirl of colored robes. The Chief Reader did like her colors. She had made this little section of the Palace her own, richly covered the floors in red-patterned carpets and the walls with emblazoned book spines, a comfortable armchair in every corner and cocobolo desks. It was not an unusual style in Bingol, a city which seemed positively revelrous when compared to the muted tones of Cryria. It had taken some time for Saga to realize that this place was perhaps the most honest sort of self-expression the Chief Reader could create, here where few would ever intrude. To be invited, she supposed, was something of a friendship.

“I think I may have a reprint of Haladir’s writings. You will enjoy those,” Fahmida went on, now seeming to speak to herself more than anyone as she examined a few tomes, “A seafaring man - Styled a missionary at his time, though I do not think any modern Paxist would recognize what he preached. He wrote often of his journeys on the Cerenerian… though with a fanciful mind. I liked them very much as a child.”

The Chief Reader looked up with a guilty start, “Though, I do not mean to say that I am giving you a children’s book!”

Saga raised her hands in reassurance, “Please, Reader,” she said wryly, “I have discovered a love for literature very late in life. You may ply me with your childrens’ books as you like.”

“Truly?” Fahmida asked, “I would not have thought that the case.”

“I had poor teachers,” Saga’s smile turned steely at the memory of some of the more humiliating days in Eglistanes, “And credit where it is due. I was a poorer student.”

“There are no bad students,” Fahmida said idly as she returned her attention to the shelves, “Though teaching is no easy task. I once considered it myself, you know? But I lacked the temperament for a real classroom, I think…”

Saga chuckled, and slowly followed after the woman, “You forget that I have listened to your readings, Chief Reader,” she remarked, “You would have done a fine job. But I will consider this palace blessed that you did not find your calling in pedagogy!”

Fahmida dipped her head with a smile at the compliment, “I do love my work,” she said quietly, “Most would consider religious prose to be an… inane niche, and lecturing it at women and children to be little more than playing nursemaid. But there is a beauty in the things people have done, when inspired by the divine. Page-length illuminations, etched by hand over a year. Poetry marveling at the world. That is the real blessing of Noi, I think - Inspiration… and a captive audience to share it with!”

The Reader paused, then finished sheepishly, “Apologies, Sultana. You did not come here for one of my orations.”

“As I say,” Saga offered a mock applause, “You do a fine job of it.”

The Sultana sometimes wondered if the Reader knew the sort of influence she’d already had. It had been nearly a full year now since Fahmida had first invited the Sultana-to-be to this collection, and all but guided her by the hand to the levers of religion she would pull in favor of modernity. Saga expected that the Chief Reader was as canny as any of Bingol’s political operators when she wished to be, and cannier still to stay clear of those same intrigues.

Her phone buzzed.

Tshk,” Saga muttered when she saw a message flicker up on the screen, “It seems I am wanted. Do send me that children’s book of yours when you can, Chief Reader. In fact, I’ll come to your reading tonight. Perhaps I can be a decent student yet.”

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