Through a somewhat convoluted route, this story was the inspirational root from which sprouted Consider What Becomes of the Ashes and Happiness.
part 3 of Threshold
There are so many steps through Tsenoble that the funeral procession is an uneasy negotiation. The weight on his shoulder is an unfamiliar ache. It does not bear similarity to the weight of his armour, left off for this day.
The casket should not weigh half as much, for it is wood and his mother withered before her final surrender. His fingers remember lacing through the knots of her spine when she lay, patient at last, in his arms. To his hands, to his hopes, her eyes were fogged. He wishes she could have seen his face, to know he still loved her even with all the words between them, yet the sight of him would have burned her.
Perhaps everything passes precisely as it is meant to, his mother truly blinded those final days as she had been in Landis to not see what would pass. Gabranth holds as steady in pace as he had back then when Landis burned, fates guiding him, never stumbling, even here, up each damned flight of stairs that graces Tsenoble's highest walks, to where he will burn his mother's remains to ash.
Gabranth learned to never look in the mirror lest he startle at what he would sight: a man where he once knew a boy. Strange that distance had made a man of him where everyone vowed it would be time.
In Archades, there is no need for mirrors. It is simpler to find a youth to shave him, another to dress his hair.
Unusual that a son would bear one corner of his mother's casket, but in Archades, it is unusual that a son should have so little left that the cost of a shoulder would have meant the cost of a casket, and his mother's stick-dry body wrapped only in oil-slick rags, wet kisses to dry skin. Gabranth signs with the undertaker, chooses to bear the casket with three of his more sympathetic and less costly colleagues. It will not hurt him to walk that processional.
His mother tried to fly here, reclaiming her house when she had no moneys to keep it. Playing a game whose rules she had forgotten; for all the expenditure she had no friend at the end. Gabranth bears it instead, her failure, her casket, and also the bland eyes of the gentry. He wears garb of a make more expensive than he can afford, that they will attribute his labour to his foreign blood. They will not forgive his breach, of course, but they will tolerate it with only further annotation to the great web of intrigue that ties each to the other.
Gabranth makes his own notes, whose eyes flick away and whose brighten at sight of his measured pace. He is nobility without money behind him, he is a broken thread. He must tread with care, lest he fall.
At the prayer hall on Tsenoble's lowest tier, the casket sits open that Archadian nobility can offer their last farewell to his mother's face, her features — so bare in death when life had seen her masked with cosmetics, veiled with lace. The line is curious, courteous. They offer false prayers to Faram the Father. Gabranth has no prayers left for the father of any, or all.
Gabranth does not join the line. He sees only his mother's nose above the lip of the casket. An Archadian nose, proud, straight, defining. He sees that nose everywhere he looks, every House, Solidors from father down to third-born son, Bunansas from grandfather to third-born grandchild. Gabranth does not have that nose. His features are his father's, his brother's. His mother gave him nothing but his name.
And of that name, when Gramis Solidor presents himself to offer his condolences, he still startles to hear, 'Lord Gabranth—'
Yet for that he professes no claim, no desire to pursue his mother's vagary, for she left him no Archadian means, no Archadian moneys, not even an Archadian nose.
'I hear you are in your last year at the Akademy,' Vayne says, in Gramis' place, painstaking conversation from a youth, viciously polite from a Solidor. 'Well of you to come so far from such daunting circumstance.'
When Noah shoulders his mother's casket to bear her to the pyre, he feels the murmur that stirs the onlookers more than hearing it, a flutter of fans against wrists, lace against throats. He thinks he knows what they think of him. It makes him sick that it does not make him sick.
How so very far he has come, much further than Basch could have run.
Gabranth could have run with Basch from Landis' final days. He could have, and never would. He paced himself when Basch wasted himself on sprinting up impossible hills, to fall before he could reach half-way.
Gabranth does not have wings like these Tsenoble Archadians, to live and die so high. He is Landisi, son of angry summers and cold, cloying earth. Without wings they think he cannot soar, but he has feet, to scale and climb by slow degrees, each aching step.
'Do not fear risk,' Gramis says, 'for all this is calculated.'
'Of all who have graduated,' the eldest Solidor tells him, 'you understand calculation the best.'
'And risk,' Gramis appends. 'All risk is calculation, all calculation involves risk. And you, Gabranth - you understand the balance inherent, the balance necessary in that equation.'
'Will you serve?' the eldest asks, and the second, assured, 'In this great role, of course he will.'
Yet strangest of all, as Gabranth retreats down that mirrored-stone aisle, he finds this new mask, this new helm more restrictive to his sight than the other. Gabranth hears the echo of his pace rattle through armour as though the suit stood empty. It weighs, this magister's helm, unfamiliar, to mark months of strain across his shoulders within a day.
'Do not fear risk,' Vayne Solidor tells him. 'All exploration, expansion must be calculated, Gabranth. You, of all, should know the care and consequence of expansion. We must avoid growth, cancerous, consuming, for growth would devour us. Instead we must progress, move forward instead of spreading, consuming. Only if we are willing to walk over that edge, the divide between progress and possession, can we become what we were born to be.'
'And that is?' Gabranth asks, for Vayne is a youth and bargains with insanity, to set a sword against his brothers. To listen even thus far contradicts every day of servitude passed.
'Men are not born to be bound by the fates, to a path fixed, invariable—'
'To be free of fate is a lie,' Gabranth interrupts, scathing. 'To avoid one's future requires that the past be voided, and who would change history but a vainglorious god?'
To that, and to everything Gabranth ever wanted, Vayne gives easy affirmation.
There are waking nights full of remembrance, of his mother's death, of Landis' destruction, long years of building destroyed in a day. There are waking nights full of speculation, of his own death, if he will fall as did Landis at a Solidor's hand. The waking nights tire him, but they are never near as wearying as those nights he must sleep.
When Gabranth sleeps, he dreams of Vayne and walking a thousand new paths, only to wake and find the old path, this same path, a well-measured tread.
There is a familiar weight across his shoulders, and a sword hilt against his palm.
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