It was a cold day in High Spring, in a cold city that would say its final goodbyes to the cold body of the old queen mother. The sky was grey with the promise of heavy rain and thunderstorms. The roads were muddy, and the road that led from the palace to the royal tomb was covered with dead flowers. The flowers had been white, but were now covered with ashes to make them more grey. More dead. The wind was whistling and tumbling through the silent streets. The whole city appeared dead.
The grey clad crowd in front of the palace stared and prayed as the body of the queen mother was carried down the stairs towards the low carriage that would lead her to the royal tomb, where she would rest forever. There was no casket. Instead, she was lying on a wooden stretcher that was covered with a silk cloth. The old woman was wearing a light grey dress that had been made specifically for this occasion. She wore all her jewels. These were quite personal, since a new set of jewellery was made for every new queen. They were also incredibly valuable.
It was a special day for another reason, although in Byen there were few who realized it as they saw how the corpse was placed on the carriage and followed it to the tomb. One who did realize it, however, was a young boy. He was small for a boy his age, and had more visible muscles than most thirteen-year olds. His straight hair was dark and hazel coloured, and it would have reached his shoulders if it hadn't been put in a ponytail that morning. His eyes, gray with a touch of green, looked into the distance at something only he could see. He wasn't really paying attention to the carriage and the queen mother's death. He was remembering. This was the day his life had changed, five years ago. Motomo kōun. The day of the most fortunate.
It had been five years since the last time the boy had seen his parents and home town. He never really counted the extra night he had spent in his own bed in his own house. That night didn't really count for anything. And now, after just a few years, he felt like he could barely remember anything about the life he had left behind. That was a very strange realization.
Kay ̶ or Jinan as anyone but his best friend and sister called him now ̶ followed the crowd as the carriage made slow but steady progress. A particularly strong gust of wind swept through the crowd and the boy shivered. If nothing else, he did remember that the weather had been a whole lot better five years ago.
Another boy, about Kay's age and walking next to him, wrapped his arms around himself to try to keep as warm as possible. His appearance was unusual: dark, copper red hair that was longer than Kay's was dancing in the wind as the boys walked slowly; cornflower blue eyes that were watery because of the cold wind; pale skin that was tinged pink where it was exposed to the air. By all accounts, Kay's best friend Quin ̶ who was called Niall by anyone but Kay now ̶ was an interesting boy to look at.
"It's so cold!" said boy complained. "I wish I had brought my coat!"
"Father Torin told us not to," Kay reminded him, although he had to agree with his friend. "Out of respect for the queen mother and the royal family."
"I know, I know," Quin grumbled.
"Not to mention the other reason," Kay went on. "He said it would do us good to be a little cold."
"Yeah, and that it would be good for our character," his friend replied. "And that's fine and all, but I fail to see why we have to catch a cold in the process."
"I never said his reasons were good," Kay said. "I get how this is supposed to show our respect for the royal family and their loss, but surely a little warmth won't do us any harm."
"Unless he plans to make us just like himself: an old, grumpy bully with a cane that's as long as he's wide."
Kay only just managed to hold in his laughter. Luckily for them, the old man in question was not within hearing range. The two friends had squeezed themselves past countless people to get to the front row as soon as the Morono household had reached the palace grounds. Three other boys from the household were close by. The oldest was Etzel, a quite mature fourteen-year old. He had let his strawberry blond hair grow for the past few years, and now it reached his shoulders. He used two thin braids, starting at his temples and meeting at the back of his head, to keep his hair in place. With his calm face, straight back and intelligent violet eyes he looked almost like a young nobleman.
Etzel was looking over the two youngest boys in the keji, Simba and Noboru. Simba, who was eleven years old, was a studious boy who loved going to school and was the best in his class in most subjects. Simba was a bit chubby for his age, with very dark skin and matching hair and eyes. He was a happy child most of the time, and always tried to keep an eye on his younger friend Noboru, whom most people in the keji called Bo. Noboru was nine years old and small. He was the youngest son of the Wakahisa family, a prestigious clan who had been the masters of the Wakahisa keji for many generations, and their power and influence were still as strong as ever. Noboru's eyes were almond shaped and dark grey. His black hair was longer than it had been when he came to the keji, and Kay suspected he wanted to let it grow long enough to hide behind it. Noboru was a very shy, introvert child. Reserved and polite by nature, many adults liked him, while he didn't really fit in with the other boys in the keji, most of whom were more outgoing than him. Etzel had taken a special liking to him, maybe because they were quite alike in personality.
The three boys walked closely behind Kay and Quin as the funeral procession came to a stop in front of the royal tomb. It wasn't much to look at from the outside. It was a small building made of snow-white marble. Two statues guarded the only entrance. The statues were of two humanoid beings with enormous wings that reached into the sky. They wore large pieces of marble cloth around their lower bodies, and it looked like the strong wind made the cloths dance in the wind. The upper bodies were bare and incredibly muscular, same as the creatures' arms. Their heads were covered with long, wavy hair that framed the statues' faces. The faces in question looked contorted and enraged, with open mouths, exposed fangs, and wide eyes that had bright red rubies for eyes. These were angels of vengeance, creatures that were made to torment those who dared defile the final resting places of the dead. Their spears reached high into the air and the tips were coated in real poison.
The queen mother's body was carried inside the small building, and the people could barely catch a glimpse of stairs as the procession went underground in private. The high priests and priestesses of all the important gods and goddesses started to sing hymns to guide the old woman's spirit to the next world. The sound was almost otherworldly.
The procession emerged from the tomb after about half an hour and the front doors were sealed before two heavily armed members of the Holy Guard took position in front of them. The Holy Guard's task was to protect the tombs of the royal family and the country's heroes. After one last hymn, the ceremony was over, and the people started to make their way home. The five boys from the Morono keji stayed for a little while longer to look at the statues.
"Do you think these angels really exist?" Simba asked. Kay nodded confidently.
"I'm sure of it. Bion, the god of the afterlife, was so sick of thieves and vandals that he and Dîyar, the deity of punishment and misfortune, created the angels of vengeance to guard the dead and ensure their peace. Anyone who dared to defile a grave afterwards slowly went insane."
Kay was a son of religious parents, and he never questioned the gods' actions and certainly not their existence. The only person in the keji who was more religious than him was their priest, a man named Pari. He was a bald old man, tall and lean, with friendly brown eyes and a heart of gold. He had accompanied the boys, whom he all considered his students, to the palace grounds and now he was walking towards them.
"Jinan is right," he said when he had reached them, using Kay's sathi name. "The angels of vengeance were only part of the creation, though. Along with them, Bion and Dîyar created the angels of repose. These angels were tasked with safely guiding spirits from this world to the next. And lastly, they created the angels of reminiscence. These angels are messengers, connecting the world of the living with the spirit world. It's thanks to them that restless spirits can find peace, and their human followers can communicate with the next world."
While the old man talked, he slowly walked away from the tomb, thereby starting the walk home. The boys followed him, carefully listening to every word he said.
"It is said that those who can communicate with the other world are descendants of these angels. And it's the kind of angels they descent from that determines with what kind of dead they can make contact."
"You mean that those who descent from the angels of vengeance can only talk with deceased criminals?" Quin asked with a hint of confusion. Pari couldn't suppress a laugh.
"No, child! Descendents of the angels of vengeance can communicate with spirits who still have some regrets, even if they are at peace. Those whose ancestors are angels of repose can make contact with the spirits of people who want to help a living loved one. And lastly, it's said that descendents from the angels of reminiscence can contact with any spirit. And the most gifted of these people are said to be in contact with Dîyar themselves!"
"Why is Dîyar called "they" and "deity," instead of "god" or "goddess"?" Noboru asked.
"That's because Dîyar is neither a god, nor a goddess. They don't have a gender, and neither does their sibling Duygu, deity of the arts."
"Why not?" Etzel asked.
"According to the myth, when their mother Nemesis gave birth to them, there were two other goddesses in the room: Eir, the goddess of men; and Miku, the goddess of women. These goddesses couldn't life with each other, but also barely without each other. As the moment of the birth drew near, the goddesses got into a tremendous fight with one another. They ended up attacking one another from both sides of Nemesis' bed. Just before the deities were born, their attacks clashed right above Nemesis. Their powers fused together inside her womb, and it's because of this that the newborn deities were neither male, nor female."
"That sure is a strange tale," Quin said as they reached the keji neighbourhood.
"The gods have powers beyond our comprehension, Niall. What they do doesn't always make sense to our mortal minds," Pari answered. It was then that the keji came into view. The guards at the gate nodded their heads as a greeting before letting the small group within the keji walls. The small courtyard was empty, except for a young boy. His light brown hair was dishevelled because of the wind, but he didn't seem to mind as he chased a chicken across the courtyard, running as fast as his short legs allowed him. He was laughing and giggling happily all the time. The same couldn't be said for the poor chicken.
"Oh, Mattaniah, did you open the coop again?" Pari said friendly. The little boy looked up, showing big, dark blue eyes.
"Pawi!" he said happily, unable to pronounce the name correctly. Now that his attention was elsewhere, the chicken decided now was a good time to get as far away from the toddler as possible. Simba and Noboru ran after it, while Kay, Quin and Etzel went inside the house.
"School will start again tomorrow. Have you studied?" Etzel asked, referring to the exam the other two would have the next day. Because of the queen mother's death the school had been closed for a week, but now everything would go back to normal. And the next day, Kay and Quin would have a History exam.
"Yeah, sort of," they said. They didn't study as much as Etzel, mostly because they didn't really like the theoretical subjects. Quin excelled in music, playing the flute better than most. Kay was more into línghún, the sathi's trademark art. Línghún, which was basically a combination of wordless acting and sword fighting, was a sathi's most important skill, and Kay had been in the prestigious annual línghún plays ever since he went to school. History, however, wasn't something either of them was particularly good at.
"You can't fail the exam!" Etzel reminded his younger friends. "A bad student will only harm the keji's status, and bad grades will jeopardize your future!"
"There's no need to worry, my boy," Pari said as he entered the house with Mattaniah. "I have personally seen to it that they studied well. I doubt there will be any problems tomorrow."
He was right. Kay and Quin often took some extra classes from the old priest, and under his guidance, the two friends had yet to fail a test.
"We'll go see if Simba and Bo caught that chicken yet," Kay announced, and he and Quin were quick to find their way out of the house again before Etzel could remind them of their duties. Laughing happily, the two boys had a race to the coop, only to find out that some more chickens had escaped. Simba and Noboru tried their hardest to get them all back in the coop, and Kay and Quin quickly went to help.