Work Header

A Man of Bone

Work Text:

The day Damon Serlast sloughed off his mortal body, his son was at King Vernon’s side. Darien, the favorite since Navaar Ardelay’s great fall, did not often stray from the Palace.

He was twenty-two the day when the messenger arrived from the estates, bearing a missive announcing the death of his father. He stared blankly at the page announcing Damon had suffered a stroke, although he had appeared in the prime of his health.

He paused, before he immediately began cataloguing what he needed to do. There was no time to shed tears; instead, he tidied up his desk and went to Elidon, who was best equipped to assist him.

He waited patiently to be announced by the lady-in-waiting (a torz girl, likely come to court to increase her marriage chances, his mind automatically noted) to enter. The king’s first wife was in her rooms, her steady hands at the easel. Elidon was often seen as too practical for the truly elay, but she allowed herself some time every day to create art. Darien was usually loathe to interrupt her, but this was an extraordinary circumstance.

“Yes, Darien?” she asked, not taking her eyes off the paper in front of her. She was working in watercolors, a difficult task that would not benefit from distraction.

“Damon Serlast is no more,” he said, straightforward as always.

The brush slipped from her hands, and the painting of the river flats was ruined.

“How?” Elidon asked, her voice tight as she turned away from the painting without a second thought.

“A stroke,” Darien said. His voice sounded odd; it sounded normal and unaffected, and Darien did not think that was how a man who had just lost his father should sound.

But there was just so much to do. He would have to go back to the family estates to lead Damon’s last rites, and then Damon’s Will would need to be probated, and the legacies bestowed. There was so much work that came with wrapping up temporal affairs of a life, but more so in his father’s case.

Damon had been head of the house because he had been Prime, and he had not named his heir. The Grove would have to choose, and there was no way of knowing who would be called.

Elidon, too, was quiet for a moment, before she turned in her chair and rose. She stepped closer to him, resting a gentle hand on his arm for comfort. She was not foolish enough to hug him, and he appreciated that.

“I will inform the king,” Elidon said, not unkindly. “You need to prepare for the trip.”

He nodded, and thought of what he would need to bring to the family estates.

Elion would go with him if he asked, as much for his sake as for her companion Mirti’s, but someone responsible had to remain at the king’s side. With the Serlasts returning to the estate, the Court would be vulnerable to intrigues that only she could prevent from developing into crises.

“I dislike dropping this burden upon you,” he said. The Serlast estate was several days away, and many projects required his gentle touch. Had it been anyone but his father, he would have begged off for the higher duty demanded by the kingdom.

But a man owed his father his life, and it would be highly improper if Darien didn’t perform this last duty.

Elidon read his thoughts, the same way she did when they were stuck together in a trying meeting or at a boring gala. “You must go,” she said. “I will make sure the Palace is still standing when you return.”

Unspoken between them was the fact that he might not return at all. A Prime could not be a mere servant to the king.

The lands of the Serlasts had been greatly expanded as more and more people fell out of the King’s favor. As Vernon continued to isolate himself, he clung tighter to the few people he trusted, and rewarded them appropriately.

The family had never been rich, but they had always been stable. Wood and bone were the structure on which Welchin society was built on, and the Serlasts had long been the backbone of government, providing civil servants and courtiers that administered the laws of the king. The frequent complaint about them was that they were boring, since they were so predictable.

Darien spent the trip home making lists in his head, ordering what needed to be done. First, his father must be laid to rest, with the ceremonies properly observed. Darien was the only son, and it was his responsibility to oversee the process. Until the next Prime was determined, he was the de facto head of the family.

The Serlasts were honest, but not all of them perceived the truth the same way. Damon’s passing would release pent-up tension, and the jockeying for position would begin. There would be a series of headaches that he needed to deal with, and Darien was not by nature a tactful person.
When Darien arrived on the fourth day, he was road-worn and smelled like horseflesh. He wanted a bath, but instead he bypassed the main house to visit the family temple, which was in front of the family’s everlasting grove of trees. He stared into the copse of trees, knowing that his future lay in their branches.

The small temple that was only ever used by the Primes and their immediate family. The Five Families each had secrets of their own, and the Serlasts carefully guarded the final resting places of their dead. Those who wondered what happened to the Serlast scions did with their dead knew better to ask.

The Serlasts were hunti to their core, and that did not change in death. Bone was always the last part of the body to flee to decay, the final reminder that a person had once inhabited the world.

As Damon’s personal heir - not the Prime, but the heir of his own line, it would be Darien’s job to see to his father’s remains.

The temple was usually quiet, with few visitors. The temple priests all came from the Serlast line, five men who also doubled as gardeners maintaining the property. But when he entered, the place was not empty.

All of the temples started with the five elemental benches, along with the blessing barrels at the front. But this temple also served as the family ossuary, and its wooden construction was highlighted with carefully arranged skeletal remains. Generations of bones were stacked along the walls, forming intriguing patterns. In death, the Serlasts became anonymous, just one more set of bones to contribute to the greater whole.

His father’s body lay sealed in a wooden box between the blessing barrels, and Mirti sat beside it, keeping vigil. On the eighth day, the casket would open and Darien would add the first handful of dermestid bugs to establish the colony that would reclaim his father’s flesh. In a couple of months, the job would be finished and only the bones would remain. Then Damon would join his ancestors in the ossuary.

In death, there was also life. That was the balance that maintained the Welchin’s world.

Mirti’s face was tired as his own, because Damon had been her younger brother. She looked up, her eyes dark with sorrow. “It’s good to see you, Darien,” she said.

“And you,” he said, before looking at the closed casket. Inside, the body was naked, since no worldly goods could be taken into death. “Was it bad?”

“It was sudden,” Mirti said. “He was talking to one of his tenants one minute, and the next he keeled over. We called for a doctor, but Damon was gone too quickly.”

“Do you suspect poison?” Darien asked. The thought had been nagging at him, since political intrigue was never far from his mind.

“No,” she replied. “I suspect stress and your father’s overindulgence in red meats. He worked long hours, and left himself little time to rest.”

“And he never named the next Prime.”

“No. I do not believe he was ready to face his own mortality.”

Darien shut his eyes, giving himself an indulgent moment to remember his father. Damon had not been a warm person, but he had been reliable. Growing up, Darien had always known his father would make time in his schedule to answer a child’s question. But he also remembered his father’s never-ending work, and how he was never able to sit still for a moment.

“The family believe you should be the first to walk the grove,” Mirti said.

Darien thought of the plum trees that he had spent his childhood playing in, when he hadn’t been at Court. The next Prime would walk into the grove, and the trees themself would bow down to acknowledge him. Some said that the unworthy would be torn to pieces, but Darien suspected that was just a ghost story.

“I am not his heir,” Darien said firmly. For his entire life, people had been treating him like he would naturally come into the position. Darien’s nature was to be determined and steadfast, and he had always just moved upwards through his diligence.

“Are you certain? There is no one that better represents the hunti then you do. Have you ever drawn a random blessing that wasn’t hunti?

He looked at the barrels, wondering what blessing his hand would find if he reached in now. “I am not,” he said. “The grove does not call to me.”

“That’s a pity,” Mirti said, sighing. “It would be awful if some second cousin with little training is next in line.”

“We will handle whatever the future brings.”

“Indeed. For now, we will see to mourning Damon. Take it a day at a time,” Mirti advised, an eminently practical thought from a practical woman.

Suddenly, as if gifted with the clarity of the sweela, Darien knew who the Prime would be. It was rare that a Prime’s position should pass vertically, but as he looked at his aunt, he knew who would be the next head of the Serlasts.

Had Darien been the type to be troubled by jealousy, he might have wondered why it did not pass to him. It was only years later than he was graced with a revelation.

Darien Serlast was never meant to be Prime; he was meant to rule over them.