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Prayers for the Dead

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Lieutenant Skaaiat Awer is in the middle of watching an entertainment when the news arrives. The irony will come to her immediately. The entertainment won't become a favorite, she knows that from the start, but it's new, and sometimes novelty is worthwhile.

She's seen the same story a hundred times before, differently clothed. A ship and its captain are assigned to the expanding borders of the Radch. They run into the uncivilized, that much goes without saying, except their foes possess a certain barbaric cleverness. Through the usual combination of fuck-up and tragedy, the ship loses its captain. An entire episode focuses on the captain's death, interlaced with flashbacks showing the prestige of her house, how well she showed her breeding since childhood, the absolute certainty with which she pursued justice, propriety, and benefit. None of which did her any good as she bled out; but it's a very pretty death, as these things go.

As for her ship, it goes mad, as ships do when they lose their captains, and flees into the black reaches beyond the Radch. And there the entertainment ends, on a picturesque shot of a nebula and its flamboyant blaze of starfire.

Skaaiat almost takes it for a prank when one of the Seven Issas informs her that the Justice of Toren has vanished. Ships don't vanish these days, any more than they go mad with grief. But no one would benefit from such a rumor, and if there's one thing Skaaiat has learned in her time on Shis'urna, it's that very few people do anything unless they stand to benefit in some way.

Skaaiat shuts off the entertainment and goes for a walk in the streets outside her residence. On the way out, one of the Seven Issas looks inquiringly at her, but she waves her off. Skaaiat isn't interested in extra company, not tonight. And as for safety--she doesn't fear for herself, although perhaps she should. No one has forgotten the massacre at the temple of Ikkt. Still, if someone was going to punish her for her association with Lieutenant Awn, it would have happened by now.

Outside, the heat and humidity cause her uniform to cling even more uncomfortably to her skin. It will rain soon, bringing more water, and an effusion of swamp blossoms, and temporary relief from the heat. People pass her by without meeting her eyes. There aren't many abroad at night nowadays, and the locals are even less easy around Radchaai than they were before.

All that reconciliation for nothing, Skaaiat thinks, remembering Awn. Wondering, as she gazes up at the sky with its shroud of clouds, if Awn is still, impossibly, trapped on the Justice of Toren. She can't imagine Awn running off beyond the end of the world, but with a mad ship, it wouldn't have been a matter of choice.

Her feet take her around the block. A few fine drops of rain meet her upturned face. She pauses, waiting; but that is all.

Skaaiat makes discreet inquiries as to Awn's fate. Their association was no secret. She knows as well as anyone that there are few secrets in the Radch. Planetbound, she's not as closely watched as she was when she served on the Justice of Ente, with Ship monitoring her every reaction. On the other hand, she never tried to hide the relationship. Before, she had no reason to.

Still, she is a daughter of House Awer, which affords her a small degree of protection.

No one knows anything, or admits to knowing anything. As far as anyone knows, Awn was reassigned to the Justice of Toren, and there her trail ends. Finding Awn would mean having to find a ship that has simply vanished.

It occurs to her more than once that the local authorities' pointed lack of interest in her could just as easily mean that they're trying not to alert her as to the suspicions of other, more powerful interests.

A year to the day after the Justice of Toren's disappearance, Skaaiat goes to have a memorial token made. There's a shop in Kould Ves that makes them. More than one, actually. Skaait goes not to the most expensive one, but to one run by a quiet, sagging individual with three sullen children.

Money is no object, not to an Awer of good repute. She could afford a memorial token made of the finest platinum and gemstones, the name engraved by an expert jeweler. But as much as she longs to honor Awn with something splendid, such a token wouldn't be true to Awn's memory.

Awn was always touchy about her humble origins. That touchiness, however, also was the source of her passionate interest in justice, propriety, benefit. She pursued them more truly than a lot of the entertainingly stuck-up scions Skaaiat has dealt with as an Awer. What Skaaiat seeks is a reflection of Awn.

People will gossip when they see her wearing a simple machine-stamped tag. This doesn't bother Skaaiat in the slightest. Of course, it's easy not to care when one comes from one of the oldest houses.

The proprietor names a price, only modestly inflated. Skaaiat negotiates not because she needs to but out of habit. She spells out the full name to be stamped onto the simple gold disc: Awn Elming. While she's buying a cheaper token, she doesn't intend disrespect to her former lover.

The proprietor lets Skaaiat check over the spelling. There's no mistake. Skaaiat gestures her approval.

The machine stamps out the disc. It's faulty: the leaf-border is off-center around Awn's name. The proprietor affects not to notice. Skaaiat gestures her indifference to the imperfection. It seems oddly fitting. She pins the token to the cuff of her right sleeve, so it will serve as a constant reminder.

Her hand trembles as she does so, and the pin bites into her skin. She has no doubt that it drew blood. Removing it verifies this, and she draws out a handkerchief so she can wipe it clean. Her next stop will be the temple, so she can have the token purified, because that is what propriety dictates.

Privately, she thinks that the slip of her hand is, while unplanned, also appropriate.

A true lover wouldn't have had a token made at all, in absence of a funeral. A true lover, especially the kind in the entertainments, would insist on seeing a body and a definite death. But Skaaiat, for all her bloodline, is practical about these things.

The priests at Ikkt greet her with barely concealed hostility. Skaaiat shows no sign of discomfort. It's not difficult; discomfort isn't what she feels when she comes here.

Skaaiat does, however, recognize the flower-bearer, Daos Ceit. The child stares at her, wide-eyed with alarm, and has to be reminded to recite the verses of welcome. Awn was kind to the temple attendants, especially the young ones. She can do no less.

That's not the only thing that catches Skaaiat's eye. Daos is wearing a Radchaai pin, almost buried within the folds of fabric wrapped around her thin waist. Disgraceful, if she knew any better, which she doesn't. Especially with this particular pin, a four-petaled flower, each petal enameled with an Emanation's symbol. It can only have come from the Lord of the Radch when she visited Ikkt.

"Flower-bearer," Skaaiat says, taking Daos aside.

Daos freezes.

"Might I adjust your pin for you?" More softly: "It's a beautiful piece."

From behind Skaaiat, one of the priests speaks with an undertone of bitterness. "Many things are, if you don't look too closely at them."

Skaaiat can only imagine what's going through Daos's mind, to say nothing of the priest's. To wear the pin aligns Daos with the conquering Radchaai--with the Lord who ordered a massacre in this very temple. It is either brave of her, or cowardly. She doesn't blame the child for it either way.

Skaaiat arches an eyebrow at Daos.

Hesitation. Then Daos nods.

Stooping just slightly, Daos unfastens the beautifully made pin. Refastens it so it can be clearly seen. "When you're older," she says, meaning, When the fashion for impractical Radchaai clothing sets in, "you should wear that on your collar." She fingers her own, to illustrate.

Daos murmurs a hesitant thanks, then turns to the next visitor.

Skaaiat doesn't expect the child to understand, perhaps not for years. But when she does, Skaaiat will be waiting to offer her further guidance as to how to thrive in her new world. It's not the way Awn would have done it. But Awn is no longer around, and Skaaiat will honor her as she sees best.

She doesn't have to improvise the purification for the pin at her wrist. The Radch has a staggeringly long history of adapting local custom to its religious observances. In a less provincial region, she'd go to a temple to Amaat, purchase incense, speak with a priest.

Here, not all the priests are comfortable with the way the Radchaai have coopted their rites. She decides not to trouble them. Instead, she goes to the basin of water and removes her gloves, then washes her hands. An attendant silently brings a cloth, and she dries herself. Then she passes the token over the water and recites the familiar prayer: "The flower of justice is peace..."

When she is done, she pulls her gloves back on with practiced motions and returns the memorial token to its place. Through the gloves' fine material she can still feel, like a ghost of sensation, Awn's stamped name. I will not forget.