“What exactly does one wear to a Matari funeral?” Shorai asked.
Melisma quirked an eyebrow. “I don’t know that there’s such a concept as a ‘Matari funeral.’ I can tell you what to wear to a Ramijozana-Sebestior funeral, though…”
“Point taken,” Shorai said. He watched Melisma dart around their living quarters, jumping from one task to another and then another without completing any of them. She had been out of sorts since the news of Aya’s car crash reached them that morning.
Not that Shorai was much better off himself; but he had only known Aya for a few months, while Melisma had welcomed her into the clan nine years earlier. Aya was one of the few Ramijanawans that Shorai had come into contact with, as she was a project for the clan’s manufacturing company, Corovid Industries. He remembered her as being very kind, especially given that he was very much an outsider to their clan. But Aya was the sort who had a kind word and a warm hug for everyone.
“Maybe this shirt with your brown cargo pants.” Melisma’s voice pulled Shorai out of his thoughts. She was holding up a dark red dress shirt.
Shorai frowned. “That doesn’t really work with cargo pants. Besides, aren’t both of those a bit too informal?”
“This won’t be a formal event. You’ll be the only one in day clothes.” Melisma jumped when her datapad began to beep. “Oh, grief, what is it now?”
Shorai got dressed while Melisma prodded at her datapad. They were long past the time of prudishness.
“The grav-trolleys in Factory VA9 are giving me error messages,” Melisma said. “Would you mind going ahead of me to check on that?”
“Sure.” In truth, Shorai did not like the idea of going to Matar alone one bit. Maybe the first few of Melisma’s clanmates were okay with having a Caldari scientist around, but being the only non-Matari on clan lands still was not an appealing prospect.
She peered at him over her shoulder. “You don’t sound enthused.”
“Do I ever?” Shorai picked up his own datapad and started out toward the hangars.
“I can think of a few special occasions,” Melisma called after him with more than a bit of tease in her voice.
The trip from Teonusude to Pator was thankfully uneventful, and soon Shorai was descending into Ramijanawa via Corovid’s dropship. Melisma had given him access to most of the corporation’s technology in case he needed to be onsite without her, and that was proving to be a most prescient idea so far.
From there, he walked to Factory VA9. He was glad he’d thought to bring a coat, because a cold wind was blowing across the steppe. Beyond the rows of nanofactories, the small town and its pseudo-suburbs formed a line against the southern mountain range, making the distance appear much shorter than it truly was.
As usual, not a soul seemed to be around. Shorai entered the factory and started running equipment checks on his datapad. Everything seemed fine; the automata quietly went about their business. But after a few minutes of troubleshooting, he did come across an errant script. Someone, probably Melisma, had edited a few lines of code but dropped a semicolon, which of course led to the whole operation being slightly off.
He corrected the error, and heard the sound of the access door sliding open. “Just in time,” he called out, thinking it was Melisma.
There was no answer, just the click of narrow heels against the floor. Shorai closed the editor and turned to leave.
Someone was standing there, and before Shorai could react, something slammed into the back of his head, and he blacked out somewhere ahead of hitting the ground.
Death had become a fact of life for the Ramijozana clan. They were rather small for a Matari clan, and the fact that they could count ten early and unnatural deaths over as many years did not help matters. Two of those deaths belonged to Melisma: her parents, with her mother having passed away only a few months prior.
Traditionally, the role of chair of Corovid Industries was passed to the next person at around fifty years of age; Melisma inherited it at thirty. As it turned out, inexperience, grief, and alcoholism were not a winning combination for leading a company. The loss of Aya, one of her only two dependable teammates and a longtime friend, did not help matters at all. So could anyone really blame Melisma if she put her dress on backwards three times?
Finally she just threw on a trenchcoat and left, thinking that she was going to be naked in pod anyway. Besides, she had very little time before sunset over Mikramurka, when the first of the services would begin.
She was in Magiko when she realized she hadn’t heard from Shorai. The problem at the factory had been fixed, though, so she worried little about it. In all the hardship and pain she’d endured lately, Shorai was an unexpected point of light, and she liked to think that maybe her meeting him meant the spirits didn’t hate her so much.
Of course, she may have been a little bit neglectful in introducing Shorai to her clan. Aya and her husband, Kwame, had met him, as had the clan’s leader, Tiama; but the whole ordeal of having to explaining why she, a Matari, had let a Caldari into her life and business was rather unappetizing. As far as most of her clan cared, the State was only academically better than the Empire, the sole issue being the enslavement of their fellow Matari.
Anyone who willingly associated themselves with that element was opening themselves to judgment.
When Shorai opened his eyes, he found himself sitting in what he immediately recognized as Warehouse PY9. Unfortunately, his hand were bound behind the decidedly analog chair with stun cuffs. Only one light remained on overhead and there was another simple chair across from him, facts that told him his captors had watched too many Gallente holodramas.
Two figures emerged from the relative darkness. “Oh, he’s awake,” one of them said.
A small woman with greying hair sat in the opposite chair and leaned forward. She looked familiar to Shorai; he was fairly sure that she was Tiama, the clan’s chief.
Unfortunately, the recognition was not mutual. “Who do you work for?” Tiama demanded.
Shorai sighed and rolled his eyes.
“Don’t give me sass, boy!” the woman snapped. “Who hired you to spy on us?”
“No one,” Shorai said. “I’m–”
“Don’t waste my time,” the woman warned. A tall but skinny man lurked behind her. “Who is it? CBD? Lai Dai? Quafe?”
“I work–” Shorai stopped and blinked. “Quafe?”
“Aha!” Tiama snapped her fingers. “I knew it!”
“Quafe is Gallente,” Shorai pointed out. “I’m Caldari. I’m trying to–”
“Obviously,” the woman sneered. “Now, what is it you–”
“I work here,” Shorai almost yelled.
Tiama frowned. “We don’t have any Quafe employees here.”
“No,” Shorai sighed. “Please listen. My name is Shorai Aikyoraan. I’m Melisma’s partner. I’m chief of operations for Corovid Industries. I work here.”
Tiama folded her arms. “Now you’re just making things up.”
“Call Melisma,” Shorai said. “Or Renelle, or Kwame.”
“Call a grieving man on the eve of a funeral? You really are a foreigner,” Tiama scoffed.
“There’s really no winning here,” Shorai muttered.
“You’re a Caldari on the Matari homeworld. There is no good you could be up to here.” She leaned in closer. “So until you tell us who you work for, you’re stuck here. Get to talking.”
Shorai sat back and tried to look casual.
“Fine, then.” The woman started to leave, but turned around when the reedy man returned. Shorai never saw him leave in the first place. But with him was Renelle, Melisma’s best friend and Kwame’s sister.
The trio stopped in front of Shorai. Renelle looked at Tiama. Then at Shorai. Then at Tiama.
“Well?” Tiama asked.
“Well,” Renelle said. “Mel is going to be very angry when she sees this.”
Right on cue, the warehouse doors slid open, and Melisma entered. “Why is it so dark in here?” She tapped the light switch. When all of the lights came back up, her gaze fell on Shorai. “What’s going on here?”
“I think there’s been a misunderstanding,” Renelle murmured.
Melisma rushed over to Shorai, who had to hide a chuckle due to Melisma’s manner of dress. The last time he’d seen her in nothing but a trenchcoat, the night had ended very well indeed.
“Stun cuffs, Tiama? Really?” Melisma disengaged the cuffs.
The grey-haired woman shrugged. “What am I supposed to do when I see a strange Caldari man sneaking around our factories?”
“Tiama, this is Shorai,” Melisma said. “I introduced you to him two months ago.”
Tiama scratched her head thoughtfully.
Melisma turned to Renelle. “Since we’re already up to our elbows in misunderstandings here, let me ask this just to be sure. Did Kwame tell Anneka that she could go on a walk?”
“Not that I know of,” Renelle replied. Anneka was one of Aya and Kwame’s two daughters. “Why?”
“Because I just saw her heading to the caves,” Melisma replied. “And the sun is already setting.”
The cavalry rolled out in all-terrain vehicles, with two Corovid prototype hovercars at the lead. Melisma’s mother had wanted to build more affordable hovercars so that ordinary Matari could have them as well, rather than just the most elite Amarr and Gallente. Now the only Ramijanawan who could drive the cars was Melisma, who recently taught Shorai. Tiama and Renelle rode with Melisma, while Errant and Cesar, the reedy man, rode with Shorai. Half of the clan followed them, prepared for anything they might face in the wilderness.
“Really, Melisma,” Tiama began even before the hovercar lifted off. “A Caldari? Here, in our home? In our corporation?”
“We’ve already talked about this,” Melisma murmured, keeping her eyes straight ahead as she drove.
“And you’re seeing him? Were there no men good enough for you among our neighboring clans? Or anywhere in Minmatar?”
“I wasn’t looking for him, Tiama. I just kind of found him. Besides, you’re making much more of it than it is.”
“Am I?” Tiama glared at Melisma. “He’s one of them. No one wants him here.”
“Aya did,” Melisma said pointedly, though she regretted it immediately. “I could maybe understand this if I showed up with an Amarrian.”
Tiama replied coldly, “There’s not much difference, sweetheart.”
Renelle leaned in from the backseat. “Maybe we should focus on my missing niece instead?”
“It’s unnatural,” Tiama went on. “The clan is upset. The spirits are upset.”
“Grief,” Melisma muttered.
“Tiama,” Renelle said. “Are you trying to blame ten years of deaths on a guy who only showed up a few months ago? And before you answer, let me remind you that five of those deaths belong to me.”
“How are you expecting this to work, anyway?” Tiama needled Melisma. “Do you think the Caldari will be any happier to have you? What will his parents think of you?”
“His parents are dead,” Melisma said bluntly. “Just like mine.”
The car was silent for a while.
“Look up,” Renelle said.
A flock of corovid swooped down towards their caravan and then banked left and ascended again. “Let’s follow them,” Melisma decided. She guided the hovercar to the left; Shorai did the same, and the other vehicles followed suit.
“This is folly,” Tiama remarked. “The corovid will only lead us to some carcass.”
Renelle said, “Weren’t you just talking about spirits, Tiama?”
“I was,” Tiama replied. “I was saying that the spirits are angry. No good can come of this.”
The headlamps of the two hovercars swept the rocky outcroppings and tall grasses that obscured the entrances to the southern caves. A shadow flitted among them. Melisma almost missed it, but Shorai shouted her name and pointed in that same direction. She followed him to the mouth of one of the smaller caves, where they parked their vehicles.
“You’re sure?” Melisma asked Shorai as she stepped out of the car.
Shorai nodded. “I saw someone run in there.”
“Errant, Cesar, you’re in charge out here,” Tiama said, also alighting from the hovercar. “All lights up, all weapons at the ready. This is prime hunting time, and I’d rather we not be the prey. Fola, you keep an eye on the sky, and alert us immediately if anything happens. Melisma, Renelle, and I are going into the cave. Renelle, bring your stun stick.”
Everyone did as ordered. Melisma led the descent into the cave.
Inside, the air was cold, and there was a thin layer of ice on the walls of the cave. A few meters in, the cave expanded so that Melisma and Renelle were able to stand up straight. The cave was dark, but tiny beams of artificial light provided some relief.
That cave expanded into a cavern, with rooms and passageways branching off everywhere, but the three women knew the caves well. They were safety to the clan, in many senses of the word.
“Where would she go?” Melisma asked Renelle.
“To the books,” Renelle replied, and the trio took the leftmost series of caves. These went the deepest, and they were where the clan had hidden many of their precious books and records. Within that well-lit chamber, they found Anneka sitting on the floor, crying.
“Sweetheart, this is not the best time to go wandering off alone,” Tiama said, stopping down close to Anneka.
“Danaya gets to go off on her own.” Anneka pouted and shied away from the chief.
“Danaya is eight years old. You’re only five,” Tiama said gently. “Besides, we have to say goodbye to your mama tonight.”
Anneka recoiled, tucking herself into a ball, pressing her face against her knees and rocking back and forth as she cried softly. Tiama tried to wrap her arms around the child, but Anneka scooted away, backing against a wall. “No! I only want Auntie Mel.”
Tiama looked confused and mildly hurt by that, but Renelle nodded and backed away. Then it made sense: The last person in the clan to die was Melisma’s mother, and that passing was still fresh on the child’s mind.
Melisma thought she was woefully unqualified to reassure a child, but she timidly stepped over to Anneka and sat next to her. The cave floor was bitterly cold, and Melisma was glad for the thermal clothing she had added under her coat.
“Why are you sad?” Melisma asked.
Anneka pulled her knees in tighter. “Because my mama is gone. I’ll never see her again.”
“Yeah,” Melisma said. “I know the feeling.”
Anneka peered up at her. “When did you stop?”
“Crying?” Melisma shrugged. “I haven’t. I only cry less now.”
Anneka frowned. “So it never goes away?”
“It goes somewhere else,” Melisma said. “It goes to a quiet place in your heart, and you keep it there. You keep the happy memories, like how she used to read to you and how she loved to sing, and that’s how you keep her close.”
“But still crying?” Anneka sniffled.
“For a while, yes. Until the pain goes away and becomes something else. A companion of sorts.”
Anneka looked mildly confused. “A companion.”
“Yes, because it’s always there and will always be there. So you make it into something you can keep. Something that she would appreciate.”
Anneka lowered her head, and Melisma wondered whether she should have used more kiddie-speak.
“What happens now?” The girl’s voice was especially small. “Is it what… happened to your mama?”
Melisma shook her head. “No, we gave my mama a sky funeral. For yours, it will be more like the other ones, where we use fire to give her back to the elements.”
“We can’t keep her waiting too long,” Melisma said. “You think you’re ready to head back home? You don’t have to go to the funeral if you don’t want to.”
“Okay,” Anneka said. Melisma stood and offered the little girl her hand. They started out of the cavern.
“I want to go,” Anneka decided when they reached the mouth of the first cave. “But only if you sing, Auntie Mel. You can sing like Mama did.”
Tiama shook her head and growled.
Renelle nudged the woman aside. “Yes, we all know that you are the chief. You’ve conducted plenty of funerals. A little girl has a request. Maybe we should heed it.”
Everyone cheered as the group emerged from the cave. Anneka balked and ducked her head.
“Let’s head back,” Tiama said to everyone gathered. “The others should have everything ready for the service.”
The crowd dispersed, taking their vehicles back to town. Shorai was still in the second hovercar. Edging past both Melisma and Anneka, Tiama offered Shorai a thin smile. “Thank you for your help, and I’m sorry about the confusion earlier. I hope you’ll have a safe flight home.”
Shorai tilted his head, and Melisma said, “Tiama, the reason he’s here at all is for the funeral.”
Tiama whirled to face Melisma. “Young woman, I have tolerated some truly inexcusable behavior from you today, but this is beyond ridiculous. Do I need to remind you what he is? He was fed all of the old Amarrian lines about what savages and barbarians we are. Do you know one of the few things we Matari do that might actually validate that perception? Our funerals.”
“Shorai knew Aya,” Melisma replied. “He deserves to mourn just as much as the rest of us.”
Tiama replied to Melisma while glaring at Shorai. “Then he can grieve in his own way, on his own time, in his own space.”
Melisma scoffed. “What gives you the right to decide how he grieves? He’s done more for us than…”
A small cough interrupted her statement. Everyone looked down at Anneka.
There was a hard, resolute look on the girl’s face. She beckoned for Shorai to step out of the hovercar, and he did.
“Hi,” Anneka said.
Shorai took a knee to talk with her. “Hi. I’m Shorai.”
The girl took his hand and shook it. “I’m Anneka. You knew my mama?”
“For a short time, yes.” Shorai nodded.
“Then you’re welcome at her funeral.” The five-year-old turned around, shot a very meaningful look at Tiama, and then let herself into the passenger side of Shorai’s hovercar.
“We all just got told,” Renelle remarked.
Tiama eyed Melisma warily. “Are you sure she isn’t somehow your child?”
The pyre was built and the entire clan was gathered before it. Foremost among them was Kwame himself, standing quietly with his gaze lowered and his older daughter’s hand clasped in his. Renelle reunited Anneka with them and told the whole tale of how the little girl was running this shindig her way, and it brought a small smile to the grieving husband’s face.
When just about everyone was present, Tiama passed through the crowd with a bowl of mud. Each mourner dipped their fingers in and smeared their cheeks with the mud. At first, from where Shorai was standing, it looked as though the Matari were putting on war paint, but when the bowl reached Melisma and she did the same, he understood what it was: The mud covered the identifying tattoos that every Ramijanawan bore on their right cheeks, with the same done on the left cheek for symmetry.
As the night went on, the temperature outside fell ever lower. Everyone other than Shorai dressed in lengths of warm fabric worn as ponchos or cloaks or skirts, and stood next to each other to keep warm until the shaman concluded his rites, sprinkling petals and spices over Ava’s body before raising the lit torch and applying the flame to the kindle.
Melisma stood next to Kwame and his family. As the first few licks of flame rose, she stepped forward, her arms tucked into her makeshift sleeves. She took a breath. Then she let a note float forth from her lips, quiet at first, then rising, growing and flickering like the flames before her.
She sang in syllables, vocalizing, in no particular language, and the song sometimes sounded like a plea or a wail or a scream, broken only by the moments when her voice cracked under the strain of emotion. At first she sang for Aya, and for Kwame and Danaya and Anneka, and for the clan and Shorai and herself. Her voice was strongest when she pulled on her own grief too, for parents and friends long lost and for whoever had brought Shorai into the world; here, her voice soared beyond the flames, beyond the town and the steppe, lifted by the wind to cold, shimmering dark sky above.
Then she remembered Anneka’s request, so she shifted their collective grief into a song Aya would have sung. She called on Aya’s warm, bubbly personality, and she sang clouds giving way to sunshine, and heartbreak giving way to acceptance, and sadness giving way to hope; and it was then that the clan joined her.
Some had drums and reeds and strings, and they joined in with bright notes and uptempo beats as Melisma’s song became less of a dirge and more of a celebration. The pyre burned and the ashes took to the air, and Aya’s clan sang and danced in her honor, in thanks for the many days of joy and love, albeit now passed, that she had given them.
Anneka decided to try singing herself. Watching the little girl, Melisma saw that same cauterization of wounds that singing always offered her, incomplete but nourishing all the same.
Melisma slipped out of the crowd when no one was paying her much attention, and found Shorai also watching from the sidelines. She looked back, to observe her people from his point of view. It might look a bit silly to the uninitiated, she imagined, with grown men and women jumping and dancing around in their unofficial robes to music that did not entirely make sense, especially in the context of what had started as a funeral.
Her tears had smeared much of the mud on her cheeks, so she wiped off the rest with the back of her hand. “Well,” she said in an attempt at a joking tone. “I guess we’ve gone full savage now, huh?”
Shorai looked at her, and she saw in his eyes a familiar grief, one in which they were not so different, and through which he had arrived at his own conclusions.
He offered her a small smile. “Actually, I think all funerals should end this way.”
She leaned into him and he wrapped his arms around her, and all of the several Ramijanawans who happened to see them in that moment came away with a few new perceptions themselves.
for LRMD, YC57-YC117