This may be the last trigger warning I need to give until the very last chapters of the entire book. You might have seen this coming. This chapter is going to be sad, but I’m sure you’ll also see the small glimmer of hope that it offers… and the peace. This chapter is about laying loss to rest, which sets it apart from chapter 17, which was raw trauma. Still, it was bittersweet to edit, and I thought that I should warn you, too. Be well, my wonderful readers.
Chapter Thirty-Two – The Stars, the Clouds, and All the Moons in the Galaxy
Nurse Iratze came to Citlally’s room early in the morning to wake her and help her prepare for the ceremony. Mannarius had insisted on helping Endan know where to go and what he should do. He told Dhruv to stay with Jalingan, to keep him out of the way. If it had been up to him, Jalingan wouldn’t so much as attend the ceremony. But it was not up to Mannarius, and Citlally wanted all of her new friends there. So did Endan, knowing that Jalingan had saved her life.
Mornings on planet Mekse were hazy, mist rolling over the sacred hills like a blanket of ghosts. It was not, however, in any way spooky or creepy. There was a peaceful calm over the landscape, and it was so deep that it was impossible not to take in the same peace that surrounded them.
One of those things that Citlally loved about the Norameni ceremonies is that they allowed the people who attended them to wear the clothing that was most meaningful to them. They had learned over the centuries that so many different species came to visit them that they couldn’t ask them to wear their own traditional garb unless they truly wanted to.
Having learned that from her research, Citlally had worked with a seamstress back on to Tanoora Station Prime. Together, they had designed a dress based upon Citlally’s ancestors. It was embroidered with traditional Aztec designs while also using the clothing style that she really loved. She also helped Endan in designing a suit that called upon Celtic traditions. It was a handsome suit, even if he was wearing it for tragic reasons.
Those participating in the ceremony, as well as those helping them, were given breakfast in a special dining hall of the temple. Citlally was surprised to see just how many people were attending the services. She learned that all of them were there to put to rest a loved one who had passed away.
“I don’t believe it,” Citlally whispered to Mannarius.
“I thought it had come up in your research,” he told her. “People come here from near and far in order to find peace.”
“But…” she began, although she was unable to finish because the priestess Liileni asked the gathering to observe a moment of silence.
Soon thereafter, it was time for everyone to rise and proceed outside. They walked around a rocky path that led them around the temple and brought them over to the stairs that led down the hill along the hot springs. At the bottom of the hill, crowds had gathered, standing in waiting, watching expectantly for their loved ones to walk down.
The stairs were also lined with keepers of the temple, some priests, some priestesses, each one with a ceremonial box and their hands, some large, others small. They met with an attendee in the line, and walked with them down the stairs, one by one, the keepers of the temple joining those seeking peace. The priestess awaiting Citlally was somewhere between the middle and the top of the stairs, for Citlally was further back than the middle of the line. She stopped to stare down as the carefully-carved wooden box, taking in the way the wood was stained so darkly, knowing what – no, who – was resting inside. She felt a deep sadness for a moment, wondering if she should reach out to open it.
Nurse Iratze reached out to take her hand. “It is okay, child,” she reassured her. “Don’t doubt everything that you’ve thought or wanted up until now.”
Citlally nodded, weakly it seemed, and she wondered whether it was even noticeable, the way she felt her body beginning to shake. She could feel her mind beginning to reel. She could hear the way her voice quavered, the tears welling up in her eyes, the weakness in her knees.
“It’s normal to feel this way at this point,” the nurse told her. “This is the moment when so many others have felt the last burden of their sadness, the one last time that it worsens before it gets better.”
“I would have wanted it,” she whispered again.
She felt Endan’s arms go around her. He remembered the way she’d wailed when he’d told her the truth in that medical room back on Station 246. They both remembered how she’d lost control.
“I know,” he whispered into her ear, close, so that nobody else could hear. “I would have wanted it, too.”
Those in line behind her were patient, understanding her sadness, the weakness that it brought. Citlally steadied herself, looking up into the eyes of the priestess waiting for her. She felt the peace around her, the calmness, as though the waiting could have gone on forever and nobody would have minded. Then, at last, she pulled in a long breath and steadied herself.
Together they descended the stone terraces, the steam from the hot springs adding to the mist of the morning. As she stepped down from the last stair, the smell of incense wrapped her in its embrace. The procession carried on through the throng of observers, all number of alien species gathered together for one solitary purpose.
They didn’t stop until they were past the crowd, between it and the woodlands, and there they stood in rows and turned to face their loved ones. Citlally wondered where Dhruv and Jalingan were among all of the others as Liileni’s speech began.
“Beloved peace has united all of us today, here on our most serene planet. I am thankful and proud for all of you who have come here to seek your peace. The Norameni understand your loss and sadness. We know how hard it is to say that one singular word: goodbye.”
Liileni paused for a moment, letting her words sink in. Citlally could feel the sadness all around her, could hear the sniffles and soft weeping of some of the attendants nearby. She looked up at Endan, and he gave her an empathetic look back. He leaned down to kiss her forehead just as the priestess went on.
“The rest that those you leave with us shall forever be sacred and serene. They shall be honored and remembered, and you will always know that we love them just as you do, no matter how far away you are. For there is no distance greater than the stars that you can place between yourself and those you love, and no force greater than that distance, no force able to cross it more quickly, than love.”
Citlally felt Endan’s fingers on her checks, wiping away tears that she didn’t even realize she’d shed. He leaned down and whispered comforting words into her ear, and she pressed her lips together, refusing to sob, refusing to disturb others from being able to hear Liileni’s words. He stood behind her, his arms sliding around her, his warmth helping to steady her.
“Let us begin with the oldest of those who have left us, those who passed on in their later years,” the priestess told them. “For every life that we remember, you shall hear their name, their age, where they are from, who has brought them to us, and how they died. Some of them are to be buried in the Forest of Eternal Hope, while others are destined for the pyre. The sea beyond awaits those who were promised to be remembered by the watery depths. No matter how your loved ones are laid to rest, know that your love and honor are not in vain. Let us begin.”
The first name that she called came with a long coffin, the pall-bearers dressed completely in white. It was from a planet that Citlally hadn’t heard of before, a male, Liileni said, of more than one hundred years who had died of old age. The second was not in a coffin at all, but covered by a sheet of shimmering cloth. She was from a planet not too far from the Heart Nebula, who had fallen ill and was now destined for the funeral pyre.
The line went on and on like that, each body just a little younger than the last, the temple-keeper guiding the mourners to where they needed to go once the name of the deceased had been said. There were not many elderly compared to the young adults. Several of them had died in battle, and Citlally gave Mannarius a startled look when she heard what some of them had been fighting.
“That’s the third one who was fighting the K’zzyrch,” she whispered. “And they were all from different places.”
The Lion gave her a knowing nod but kept quiet.
Her heart grew weak when Liileni moved on to announce the youths who had been brought to Mekse to rest, their boxes growing smaller with each passing one. Most of them had died if some illness or another. Two of them had been casualties of K’zzyrch attacks, both from different parts of the galaxy. Hearing about them made Citlally look again to Mannarius.
“They were just children…” she said.
He gave her a sorrowful look, as though he knew that it would only get worse, but didn’t want to tell her so.
The last child had only been a few days old, lost because of a terrible winter on its home-world. There were still a lot of mourners surrounding her, and Citlally worried about what that meant for all of them. That was when Liileni spoke again. Not a name, but words of sorrow.
“Beloved peace, you are needed most of all for these last rememberers. They are bereaved of a life most tender, most fragile. These are those who have lost a child before it yet had a chance to breathe the air, before the light of its star could shine upon its skin. They represent the hope that their parents once held in their hearts, and for them we wish the greatest peace, a new hope that life shall indeed go on, persevering despite the darkness that surrounds us all.”
Citlally could feel the sting of the first one to be announced, who had been hurt just days before it would have been born by a crash caused by a K’zzyrch attack on the place where its mother had lived. There were some who’d fallen still for other reasons, the unborn who had no chance to live for natural reasons, but the ones that stuck out in her mind the most were the ones who might have survived had it not been for the K’zzyrch.
“Aelonis Bexxar of Illinar Delta,” Liileni announced, “lost at thirteen weeks gestation due to k’marr pooison, buried in the Forest of Eternal Hope by his parents, Wiltir and Zyshir Bexxar.”
“That’s a K’zzyrch poison,” Mannarius whispered. “It’s a lot like the lavishta potion. Those parents were lucky to escape, if they were given that.”
Citlally stared at him, appalled, unable to respond.
Aelonis was the last baby to have been named, and only a couple after him were even given a gender. The reasons for their loss grew more and more vague, but every now and then…
“From Xanzar IV, the child of Vath and Drell Fathyre, victim of k’marr venom.”
She’d heard Drell Fathyre’s name earlier, a man killed in a K’zzyrch attack. The woman walking with the Norameni priestess was shrouded in black, but Citlally could tell by her posture that she hardly had the strength to stand, to walk with the procession and say her final good-bye.
“From planet Earth,” Liileni said at last. It took Endan to get her attention and make her realize that it was finally her turn, so long had Citlally been in thought about the lizards. “the child of Citlally Winterhawk and Endan Clarendon, lost to the effects of the lavishta potion.”
The priestess planted the wooden box in her hands, where its weight felt heavier than a thousand mountains. Citlally stared at the priestess as though to ask her why she had been given it, and the priestess looked back at her with her wide, serene eyes. She could not bear the weight of it; she could feel the lacquered wood slipping from her hands.
Then, just as suddenly, she felt the warmth of Endan’s skin steadying her. “Let me,” he said, his hands taking on the weight of the box.
Never before had Citlally understood just how strong his hands were, how big, how capable. Her mind was taken over by how incredible it was that this was her man, that these hands loved her, had caressed her, had protected and comforted her. And now here they were, bearing the weight of all her sorrows. The tried to look up at him, but her eyes refused to see, refused to do anything but flood with tears.
“We’re here for you,” Mannarius told her, his arm going around her shoulders, giving her the gentlest nudge.
Nurse Iratze guided her, helping her take her first step towards Liileni, the first step the would take her towards the Forest of Eternal Hope. “You’re doing just fine,” she reassured her.
As she walked on, weak though her knees were, Citlally could hear another name being called. “… lost to the effects of the lavishta potion,” Liileni finished.
Citlally froze. She turned around, forcing herself to meet the eyes of the mother behind her. The other one, an alien species that she didn’t recognize, stared back. They had both heard how the other’s child had died. Citlally wondered whether the other woman felt the same thing that she did just then. There was the loss, of course, but something else was starting to grow within her as well.
The fact was, nobody except for a Norameni priest stood by that other woman’s side. Citlally supposed that she had lost everybody else in her life. Her child’s father might have been one of the other names said that day, a name that she’d been too sorrowful to hear or recognize. Or he might not have been there that day at all. He might have been killed by the K’zzyrch, or she might have been too far separated from him for him to even be there that day.
No matter what, she was on Mekse all alone, and she’d had her child taken from her in a terrible way. It struck Citlally as a terrible tragedy, having not only gone through that, but having done so alone. She resolved to talk to her about it later, after the burial, after they’d both had time to rest. Just then, Endan was urging her onwards.
The Forest of Eternal Hope was cool and lush. The trees in it reminded her of oak and pine, and the moss that grew upon them was lavender. Flowers with countless tiny white petals grew between the roots of the trees, nourished by the light of Mekse’s star, Liaris, which filtered in from between the branches. The forest was so aromatic, it hardly felt like the final resting place for so many loved ones.
The Norameni priestess led Citlally deep into the woods, to a clearing where several others were also gathered. Many knelt on the ground, small mounds in front of them. There were a few deep holes left in the clearing, and the sight of them made the finality of the ceremony wash over her in a wave that threatened to drown her.
“I had no idea how hard this moment would be when we got here,” she whispered to Endan as she descended to he knees in front of the headstone marked with her name.
Endan knelt beside her, steady, the wooden box still safe in his hands. “It’s amazing just that we made it this far,” he told her. “Iratze kept it safe for us just so that we could do this… together.”
Citlally nodded, then turned to give Iratze a faint smile. “I cannot explain exactly how thankful I am to you right now. If only… if only I could express how much it means to me that you looked after it…”
“I understand,” the nurse replied, smiling back.
“Are you ready?” the priestess asked them, her voice gentle and patient.
“We are,” Endan told her. He gave his beloved Citlally a reassuring look.
“Then it is with these words that we shall lay this child to its eternal peace,” the priestess said. Then she began to speak the words, as though she’d recited them so many times before, of serenity in the face of death. “Of all the elements that grant us life, earth represents origins of stability and resourcefulness, harmony and strength, as well as vast and fertile creativity. It is a great gift to return what you have lost to the earth. Your life and love shall be forever remembered.”
When she finished, Endan leaned down to place the box down into the deep, cool hole that had been dug for it early that morning. The soil around it felt soft and rich, as cozy a resting place as he could have hoped for. When he leaned up again, Citlally clung to his arm, tears falling from her eyes.
“It’s time tae let go, my sweet lass,” he told her. He picked up a fistful of earth. “When we leave here, it will be with the closure that ye needed. We’ll say goodbye, but we will never forget.”
He took her hand and laid it on the mound of soil in his hand. Then he cupped his other had over hers and added. “It will be without regrets.”
“Okay,” Citlally whispered, giving him a nod. Together, they dropped that first handful of soil down into the hole. It fell onto the box and Citlally fell into Endan’s arms, letting herself cry the final tears that she wanted to cry for that child.
He held her, letting her sob unbidden, letting her feel his strength surround her even as his own tears fell. Mannarius had known that this might happen, had spoken to Endan about the possibility, and he knew what his friend wanted him to do. He knelt down and pushed the earth back into the hole that it had come from. He was about one third of the way done when Nurse Iratze joined him. They filled in the hole together, smiling back at the grateful looks from the bereaved couple, stopping just before the last handful of soil was in place.
“Okay,” Citlally said, her voice still not steady, but no less determined. She reached over and picked up some of the dirt. “This is goodbye, then, little one.”
She shifted, watching Endan take up his own handful, and went on, forcing her voice to calm itself. “You’re in a safe place now. Nothing can hurt you here, and like Liileni said, even though all of those stars are going to be between us, we will always love you. I may not… I may not have known about you… I couldn’t tell you that while your heart was still beating, but I’m saying it now.”
Endan watched her place her handful of soil onto the mound that they’d formed, and once he added his own to it, she patted the dirt until it was tidy, the mound formed just right.
“Ye have nothin’ tae worry about now,” he said, standing up straight. “I’m here, my beloved Aztec princess.”
Citlally stood up as well and embraced him. She remembered something just then, something that she had not even realized that she had forgotten: he used to tell her that same thing, back on Earth. Back when she’d first met him, he had walked into the room saying that very thing: “Ye have nothin’ taw worry about now; I am here.”
She had found it a little overconfident at the time, but over the years, she’d learned to like the way he said it, promising to help set things aright, to help out at best he could. Once she’d learned that he never meant it in an arrogant way, she’d warmed up to him very quickly.
Above them, Endan and Citlally could heard the whistle of several dozen rising fireworks, one after another. They popped high in the air, spreading out silvery sparkles that they could just see through the canopy above. One by one, the fireworks went off, each one representing a life that was now at peace. This was the end of the ceremony, the time that all those who’d come to mourn could at last join in the serenity that blanketed planet Mekse.
Citlally stared up through the branches as she held onto her husband, watching each and every firework light up the hazy clouds beyond. “Ni mits neki,” she told him after the last one had fallen quiet.
“Tá grá agam duit,” he replied. “I love you, too.”
End of Part Two