The dead Queen was paraded through the streets of Draemin City. Most of those who came to watch her pass were poor. She lay behind a thick glass coffin, looking serene, poised, and beautiful, her hands placed one on top of the other on her chest. She wore the deep green satin gown she had been crowned in. A circlet of gold and jewels encircled her head. Her hair was arranged on top of her head. Her feet were bare, as she had preferred while alive.
Moyen rode his bahil beside the coffin, his hand on the thick, cold glass. The procession moved slowly through the crowded streets. He listlessly lifted his eyes and saw many of the citizens openly weeping. It filled his heart and soul with warmth. The coffin was followed by two gorgeous carriages filled with Malida’s family, including her children. All but Toyus, who still hung in the balance between life and death.
Moyen wanted to die. His life stretched out before him, long and lonely. He knew he would do nothing, though. Not until the kingdom was safe. He sighed and turned his head to face forward. The boulevard stretched out for sepek upon sepek, ending at Draemin Castle, where they would slide Malida’s coffin into the waiting crypt.
Around the coffin, the Sentinels rode bahil, heads held high, faces marred by sorrow or shock. oun D’jir rode a lirtah, for he was too large to ride the smaller bahil. He wore flowing robes, the cowl of the robes over his head and head bent in mourning. His tail was wrapped around his waist as if he were hugging himself. Moyen was daily awed at the depths of affection the Sha’jeen showed towards them all. He had expected heartless, cruel beings, but that is not how it was turning out. Perhaps the fact that oun D’jir carried kits had done much to soften him to others. Moyen was unsure. Yes, they could communicate, but the nuances of each specie’s emotions still eluded them. Sha’jeen and humans were much alike but also quite different.
Perhaps Moyen would ask permission to follow oun D’jir to the colony and live there for a while, learning of their culture and ways. The entire city of Draemin was filled with memories of Malida and Moyen was not sure he could live here with her ghost. He could make a pilgrimage to the city once a year and visit her sepulchre. He sighed. His children would protest, but he needed to heal from the loss of his wife, and he already knew he could not do so here.
The procession took up most of the day. By the time the wagon bearing the coffin rattled over the moat bridge, Moyen was parched and aching from being on a saddle for hours on end.
The wagon came to a stop before the entrance to the castle. Moyen groaned as he dismounted, stretching his lower back to ease the tightness there.
Six burly guards took hold of Malida’s heavy coffin and bore her into the castle. The double doorway leading to the crypt was situated to the left of the grand foyer. Numbly, Moyen followed the coffin. They passed through the double doors and down the wide stairwell into the dimness of the catacombs. Malida’s resting place lay open, waiting for the coffin. The gold arching hatch closing the resting place would be soldered shut, the body safe from grave robbers and looting.
His children clung together, while Moyen stood to one side with Malida’s brothers and their families. The only one not present was Malida’s younger sister, Sjona, who now lived in a monastery in South Torahn.
Itina hurried to where Moyen stood and wrapped her slender arms around his waist. She clung to him, sobbing. He gently rubbed her back and cooed to her nonsense words like he had done when she was still a babe in arms.
“Becalm yourself, daughter,” he murmured. “We will pray your mother has been reborn to a kinder life.”
Itina pulled back and gazed into his eyes. “I think she will be reborn as one of oun D’jir’s kits, Eda.”
He smiled indulgently at her and wiped the tears from her pale cheeks. “Perhaps, my child. That is beyond our ken. It is with the Goddess.”
Itina stiffened. “The Goddess? And why did the Goddess take aya?”
He stroked the hair back from her forehead. “Perhaps the Goddess needed your mother’s warrior spirit for another task, child. We are not to question the ways of the gods. We are given life as a gift and only for a finite time. Don’t forget that.”
She pulled away from him, her face a mask, and turned to return to her siblings.
He watched her retreating back, worried.
oun D’jir came to stand next to Moyen.
“Her body will remain in the dark?” the Sha’jeen asked quietly.
“Her spirit is gone,” Moyen replied. “She won’t know.”
oun D’jir inclined his head. “Your ways are strange.”
“What do the Sha’jeen do?” Moyen asked.
“Burn the bodies in a furnace to release their spirits,” oun D’jir told him. “But we may have developed that ritual because our arks had a limited amount of space.” His left ear flicked his impatience. “I have to go back further into our religious tomes to see what our original burial rituals were.” He hissed softly. “There is much to do.”
Moyen noted that the Sha’jeen’s midriff was rounding as his kits grew in his womb. Kaster had told him oun D’jir carried six kits, all latched to their teats. There were ten teats in all and Moyen could not conceive of the amount of energy it would take to carry ten young.
His wife’s coffin was placed into its final resting place. With a sigh, he watched as the golden latch was sealed and then soldered shut. The entire process took close to two hours.
The guards led the procession back upstairs. The Ekesj family moved as one to Moyen’s suites on the fifth floor. They sat around the sitting room, sharing stories of Malida’s life, and drinking ekila or mi’disj. oun D’jir sat next to Moyen, head cocked as Malida’s brothers and their wives shared stories. Ishel translated everything for the Sha’jeen and sometimes the Sha’jeen would huff or hiss his humor.
Servants brought food and water and the family ate as they continued to share stories.
oun D’jir, plate of raw meat on his lap, turned to Moyen.
“How did you and your mate meet?” the Sha’jeen asked. “Did your scents attract?”
Moyen’s lips quirked. “I came to Court from a campaign down at the southern border, against the Isemi. I had earned honors and came to Draemin City so my Queen could promote me. My intent was to return to the skirmishes down south. I am a man of action, oun D’jir. I don’t like being idle.”
The Sha’jeen’s ears flicked and he inclined his head.
“Anyway,” Moyen continued. “I wore my finest parade uniform and was presented to Queen Malida Ekesj with the others who were being promoted.” He swallowed thickly upon recalling how beautiful and poised Malida had been that day. She had worn a gold gown and an emerald-studded crown that made her honey-colored eyes pop. She had taken his breath away.
“She was exquisite. I fell in love with her right then.”
oun D’jir cocked his head. “You find attraction visually, I am learning. Quite fascinating.”
Moyen smiled at the alien. “You have mates, oun D’jir?”
“I”ve had bed mates but no permanent mate,” he replied. “We were concerned about conceiving and increasing our numbers, so we went with many different mates.” His tail flicked against the leg of the low table, creating a tapping. “I never conceived until now.”
“But now you carry six,” Moyen reminded his friend.
“Ye,” oun D’jir huffed. “Six.”
Moyen lowered his voice and oun D’jir leaned closer. “I would like to go with you to your colony, oun Shi’ehl. I cannot heal from the pain of losing my mate while living here.”
oun D’jir cocked his head. “I will ask the Council for permission. I am no one now, aun human. You know this.”
“I have a feeling you are,” Moyen disagreed. “Yours are the first kits conceived on Audesei.”
“Oh-deh-see?” oun D’jir pronounced, tail vibrating.
“That is our name for the world,” Moyen told him.
oun D’jir took a breath and released it. “Ahndesu. We will call the world Ahndesu.”
“What does the word mean?” Moyen asked.
“It is a derivative of ‘oundeso,’ meaning ‘womb.'”
“That is befitting,” Moyen told his friend.
oun D’jir flicked his left ear. “You come with me when I go. I will ask the Council to allow you to remain until my kits are birthed. By then, the Sha’jeen will have become used to you.” He hissed his laughter.
“Clever oun Shi’ehl,” Moyen praised.
oun D’jir preened.
Sol strode to where Moyen and oun D’jir sat side by side and went down upon one knee before them.
“I am going with you also,” he told them.
oun D’jir huffed. “You heard us?”
“I have enhanced hearing,” Sol stated, as if it were common knowledge.
“As do we,” oun D’jir commented. “Why do you wish to come, Sentinel Sol?”
“I want to learn your ways and your culture and your psychology.”
oun D’jir cocked his head. “Sai-co-lo-jee?”
Sol smiled faintly. “The way the Sha’jeen think and behave.”
“Curious,” oun D’jir murmured. “You come, Sentinel Sol, but the Council has to decide if you can remain.”
“Of course,” Sol murmured and sat crosslegged at oun D’jir’s feet.
“Sentinel Kaster says your kits are healthy,” Sol told oun D’jir.
The Sha’jeen puffed noticeably. “Healthy, active, competitive already. I would like at least one oun Shi’ehl.”
Sol nodded. “That will probably be the case, oun D’jir. Your body knows by instinct what it must do.”
“Ye,” oun D’jir agreed.
Moyen watched them, a smile on his lips. Then he recalled Malida was dead and his smile died. Sorrow crashed upon him like an icy wave. He sat back and rubbed his eyes, pushing the tears away. She would have liked to live with the Sha’jeen, learning from them, teaching them, holding younglings. He would have to tell his children he was leaving, even before Toyus recovered. He needed to leave for a while.
“How is Toyus?” he asked Sol.
“There are signs he is recovering,” Sol told him.
The Sentinel was not telling him something and Moyen scowled. “What is it you’re not telling me, Sentinel?”
Sol opened and closed his mouth. Finally, he said, “I am not supposed to say anything. If you have further questions, you will have to take it up with Ariahl or Mariel.”
Moyen opened his mouth to protest when he noted a disturbance at the hallway door.
Warlord Rien Tholten strode through, looked about until his gaze found Moyen.
Moyen stood up and embraced Rien.
“I’m sorry for your loss, my friend,” RIen murmured against his ear. “It is a great loss for our nation.”
“Yes,” Moyen agreed. He stepped back from his friend. “Can we talk for a few minutes?”
Moyen turned to oun D’jir. “This is my closest friend, Rien Tholten, oun D’jir. Rien, this is oun D’jir of the Sha’jeen.”
oun D’jir rose and bowed. “An honor, aun Rien Tholten.”
Rien ran his widened eyes over the Sha’jeen and bowed. “The honor is mine,” he replied when Moyen translated oun D’jir’s words.
“Excuse us,” Moyen told oun D’jir and Sol and took Rien’s arm.
He led Rien out into the hallway and closed the door, leading him down the hall to the curving stairwell.
“I need you to find out what the Sentinels are keeping from me about Toyus, Rien,” Moyen said without preamble. “Something is wrong, but they are not telling me what it is.”
Rien brought his fist to his chest and bowed. “I will do so, my lord.”
“I would like you to leave your second-in-command in charge and I want you to lead our small entourage to the Sha’jeen colony. We are traveling on a shuttle, so the journey will only take a number of hours.”
Rien cocked his head. “Sh-shuttle?”
“The flying wagon,” Moyen replied with some humor.
“Ah. Very well,” Rien said, sounding excited. “I would like to fly and see the aliens up close. They are exquisite beings, aren’t they?”
Moyen smiled fondly at his friend. “Your openness and acceptance always surprise me, Rien. You are a good person.”
They clasped forearms.
“I’d better start skulking about and finding an answer for you, my friend,” Rien said. “I’ll report back to you in a couple of days.”
Moyen nodded. “We leave within a fortnight for the colony. Find me the answers by then.”
“Consider it done, my friend.”