Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




Her Five Farewells

When the Asphodel Queen decides she’ll die to save our people from her ex-husband’s tyranny, she commands me to build her a coffin, the very first in our world’s history.

Her ageless face of ivory and emerald is water on a windless day; her stillness betrays nothing of her decision. As the Senate screams in sorrow, I am held by her imperial glare, the enormity of my task sinking in like sunlight on skin.

“Me, Your Majesty? I’m but a humble craftsman.”

Her voice rises above the growing din, as panic races through data-vines and across the crystal-network. A nearby Senator, confused, weeps tears of amber sap even as ze smiles a rictus grin, zir frame not knowing how to practice grief. We’ve never had to before.

“Humility is not a tool I’ll allow use of in the construction of my coffin. I die in five days. You must begin at once, Mr. Chrym. You know the stakes.”

And deep in my roots, I do.

Bowing, I leave the Atrium of the Deepheart and walk into a world that in five short days will finally know death.

5. As roots wither, struggle toward comprehension, unseeing.

I spend the first day deep in study, swimming through ink like a bottomless ocean, desperate for any kind of knowledge. All creatures great and small know what death is, but we of the Exechar don’t experience it. The first of us found sapience hanging low on the tree of life and with it, the knowledge that we would never have to die.

Built of light and flora, we’re beings of sun and earth. Our minds bloom and grow as our physical frames age, and yes, both do succumb to the perils of time. Where we differ is that our souls are connected through that entangled forever of the Soul-Beneath-The-Soil. When our physical frames become ill, when our minds grow old and fragile, we undergo resynthesis. Our consciousness quiets for a time, returning below to the Soul. Then we bloom again, either in a new frame or our old frame, rejuvenated, cleansed of age or madness or other afflictions.

In this way, we cannot die.

Thus, death isn’t even terrifying. It’s incomprehensible and alien, a language untranslatable and unspeakable, a metaphysical oxymoron. And with her declaration yesterday, our beloved Queen will become Exechar’s first necronaut into that new silence.

I’m poring over the tomes of other worlds, fronds pulled back and out of my eyes, exhausted behind my half-moon spectacles, when I feel her physical frame unroot from the Soul-Beneath-The-Soil. Her first farewell.

We feel this first death most keenly. It’s a pain deep in my roots, as though a rose on the other side of the world has been snipped from the garden. Execharans in the thousands echo through me as we realize together: I had thought it was—why didn’t anyone tell us that death is one little loss after another? She’s not even gone yet, why does it hurt? Is it supposed to hurt—why is she doing it if it hurts?

I can only think, she’s really doing it, tears welling in my eyes. She’s really going to die.

As one, the cost sinks in.

I don’t join the people rooting into the grass, each desperate to speak to one another, to learn how to mourn.

Is it individual or communal? Are we angry because we know why she’s doing this? Or are we grateful for her sacrifice? Or—or are we numb and sad, having all this knowledge and unable to do a damn thing to save her? And maybe it’s all these feelings at once and how by the earth do you untangle those?

I get disdainful glances for ignoring the rooting. I hear the echoes of my heartlessness. There’s a part of me that wishes to exclaim that I’m their greatest chance to know. To understand what they’re feeling.

Instead, I light a firefly-candle. In its watery, winking orange and pink sunset light, I read on.

4. As petals fall away, wish them well on their way to rot.

I listen to the Perennial King’s proclamation, fuming at the gall to call himself such. I watch his former lover die, moment by moment, as his sneer slides along the airwaves.

Her hair, once a bouquet of long, slender white blossoms and thick green stalks, has begun to fall out. I must have a look on my face as she fixes me with that golden gaze. “I’m more than my looks, glorious as they are. Were.”

I nod, wiping my eyes. “Yes, your majesty. Apologies. Between my research, your ex-husband’s schemes, and your condition, I . . . I’m fragile. I will resolve to be strong.”

Her smile is prim and small, as though she knows a secret I can’t comprehend. That might be true; though she’s been a Queen longer than a priestess, she’s not forgotten the lessons she learned as a Seedsinger of the Mysteries Beneath, especially those she can’t share. “Strength is but a single pillar of the soul, Mr. Chrym. It cannot hold up a home on its own, let alone a life. Remember that. Now,” she says, clicking the radio off, silencing the loathsome worm, “Tell me of my coffin.”

I sit in silence, unable to shake the words of the King from my fibers.

You think her spectacle will keep you safe from what I’ve discovered? You think her stunt anything more than the final, flailing thorn of that desperate, sap-soaked soldier, panicking before certain doom? No, her ruin will not free you from me. The only happy soul that will come from her demise will be mine. For years, she kept the deepest magics from me, afraid I would crack them.

Now, she has no choice: when her frame ceases, she’ll undergo resynthesis, that process I now command. Her life will be mine forever.

I cast his voice off like rain from the tips of my pale, green fingers. Pulling out my sketchpad, I present the Queen with my ideas.

We speak until moons-rise; her skull is bathed in their bronze blessings as she listens.

When I leave her to rest, I take up a single, white petal and place it in my breast pocket, like a talisman against coming pain.

Because pain is surely coming.

3. As veins go dry, remember the water that nourished you.

The next night, two of the King’s men ambush me. Their bodies are covered in needles, fine as hair, each violence tearing away the green of my frame. Sap, watery and pale, leaks out of my small, rotund frame.

One of them says nothing, speaking only in the crack of knuckle across face, the sting of needles, the dying of organs. I feel my frame’s heart struggle, slow. Panic sets in.

It deepens as the other man speaks, his voice thick with meaning.

“Stupid leaf. You go now into the Soul-Beneath-The-Soil, which our true King has gained mastery over. When your frame ceases, you whom the false Queen loves, will be drowned in life unending. Our King will lock you within infirm frames that cannot move or resynthesize. When he tires of that, he will plant you in the frame of an animal, to be a beast hunted for as long as he laughs. And on and on and on. Your life will be that of the Perennial King’s and your torture will be as eternal as his reign.”

They leave with that threat pulsing in my fading mind. I close my eyes as my frame’s heart ceases, already weeping in fear of who or what I will be the next time my eyes open.

But I don’t float into that green void, nor do I find myself in the mind of a glen-moth or a jumping-gill. Instead, I awaken on a tending bed next to the Queen. I’m informed she assigned rot-knives to me, fungal assassins and masters of subterfuge that make up part of her Royal Guard. I’m told xe brought me here, to heal me. One of xem, short and gray, face covered by a white wrap, puts a damp hand on my shoulder. “It is not safe beneath the world, Mr. Chrym. Not yet. Live.”

I don’t hear xem. I’m too busy watching the current of my Queen’s veins slow, then cease. The quiet engine of her frame stills, even as mine struggles toward repair.

I stare at her veins, gray as stone, and know it won’t be long now.

2. As cells slumber and fade, thank the light that lived within them.

Some say she’s dying too fast, her frame’s will to live stripping nutrients from her organs. Others say she’s dying too slow. The Perennial King is using the time to flex his new authority, threatening to keep swaths of Execharans from resynthesis, a gambit meant to change her fading mind from whatever he thinks she’s concocting.

Either way, I’ve no time to build her coffin, not while I recover. In bedrest, I read, my desperation consuming texts like a burning-devil. Air burials and sea burials. Pyres and urns. Boxes of wood and steel. There are as many ways to inter the dead as there are ways to become them.

But which to honor the heart-drag heaviness of her withering? How do I memorialize this succumbing, this slow march into the unknown? Her hair gone, her veins pallid, her very skin ashen and waxy . . . this is not the Queen I knew.

In dying, she’s transformed. But there’s nothing noble about an ending such as this. There’s nothing beautiful in her pain. I hesitate to memorialize her suffering.

When it’s just the two of us in that tender’s room, I rage. I weep. I bargain. There’s no price I can’t scrounge up, no endeavor I won’t hoist onto my shoulders, if only to keep her here with us. To keep me from this grim work, I admit, miserable. She slumbers and doesn’t hear me.

Exechar has but a single god and I can’t even pray to it, controlled as it is by a vindictive, broken-hearted little tyrant.

She’s so small now. And my grief feels too large; it sets me to shaking.

In the dark, I realize how lost I am. How impossible it is to celebrate our dead, let alone her. We’ve never lost anyone.

How can we start now?

1. As eyes close, with little else to do but wait, cherish the dawns they saw.

When she dies, I’m alone. I decided I couldn’t bear it. Wounded, I limped home to my cell and waited for the end.

Literature from a dozen worlds have hinted at the shape death takes, the curve of grief’s shadow, the hollowing that comes from loss. I thought I was prepared to weather it. Just after sunrise, I know even a thousand books couldn’t have prepared me for what we all feel.

Her death is brief and light, the tip of a dark feather winging through the boughs of a mighty tree. Too quick to grasp, only just felt, and then gone forever.

Exechar weeps, only just comprehending what this terrible visitor stole from us.

Only he smiles.

But this isn’t the King’s triumph. It is his downfall.

For shortly after, I receive a letter. A cabbage-bodied youth approaches me with red eyes through their leaves, mournful and low. “She ordered me bring this before . . .” They thrust the letter at me and leave.

In a shaky scrawl, her final missive to me. A part of me doesn’t wish to read it, for there will be no more letters after this one.

But duty compels me. Like a brilliant sun, I turn to face her, one last time.

In her writing, I see the shape of her death as she saw it. I see the mystery bared, one she’s revealed to no one, not even the King when she loved him.

I see our salvation.

And I begin my work.

0. All gardens burn themselves free of rule; ash has no regrets when it makes growth possible.

In the end, the answer is glass. I didn’t know until I saw her, but yes, glass. The Execharan have to see. They have to know.

Glass and wire and cosmetics. Cloth and light and glue. She had to look every inch the Queen she’d been in life. She had to be adorned in her woven finery, her glimmering jewels, her crown of thresher’s steel, tall in her boots of iron.

I asked her face to be left untouched.

And when the cloth is removed, everyone sees.

Her face, in death, is still. Calm. Gone, the pain. Gone, the worry.

Finally, she’s at peace.

Here, knowledge crashes in. The fear leaves us and the ignorance fades. Understanding echoes through every Execharan who bears witness: death takes, yes, but it also gives. For hasn’t it gifted peace to our Queen where there was none before?

Of all of us, only he is still scared.

Come to gloat, that his ex-wife should cease to spite him, the Perennial King stands silent. Surrounded as he is by his guard and warded with magic, he’s shaken to his core.

Fear alchemizes to rage. “Her madness will be the end of you! I control this world! I have learned the secrets of Soul-Beneath-The-Soil. I—I will deny her entry back to the land of the living, as I will all of you!”

He rages and splutters, rattling the bars of the cage he’s made for himself. I delight in our collective silence. For nothing, not even him, speaks louder than the face of Her Majesty in death.

He waits, hoping to use his eldritch control over the Soul-Beneath-The-Soil to humiliate her, to deny her entry back to the world. But hours pass. Nothing happens. When he leaves, he does so with a wary look back at her corpse, proud in her coffin of glass.

After he’s gone, no one quite knows what to do. But through our connection, I try to teach them how to mourn. I teach them of funerals.

The Huloo honor the dead in increments, recounting small acts of kindness, once a day.

The Nkis’t honor the dead by singing in snowstorms, with naught but ale to warm them.

The Aravari honor the dead with garlands of fruit and woodcarvings of faces and deeds.

As one, we cobble together rituals and try to make sense of this new feeling. Over small plates of food, we remember moments of her reign, her life. Some form a line to stand before her, one last moment of intimacy, a chance to say goodbye and attempt to sound out this new word on their own terms. A stalk-strung fiddle is plucked and yes, we dance.

Exechar learns to grieve, and it’s not a bad thing, knowing how to say goodbye. As I watch, I wish I could tell them what I know.

But she asked me to let our work speak for itself.

So, I take sips of sun-wine and accept compliments and I hold close those who ask me to; I even sing off-key (though I’m soon asked not to). For we’re learning a funeral is as much about joy as it is about loss.

I stay until the end, watching my people go home, learning how to carry grief as a stone in their pocket, present but not heavy. I luxuriate in one last cup of light, jotting down lines that have come to me in the witnessing of our first loss. Maybe they’ll be in a book someday for others to read, too. I can only hope they bring comfort, showing that even we of Exechar have known and found a way through our first grief.

And as the moons set, I think of the choice everyone now has, thanks to our Queen.

Because the next time an Execharan resynthesizes, the King’s power won’t find them. Rather, a familiar soul will be waiting for them beneath the soil.

And maybe she’ll convince them to stay with her a while. To experience the calm of death as they know she has. The peace of rest, a cycle paused.

Maybe she’ll tell them what she told me.

His power is so great because there is no mind beneath to oppose him. The Soul is many things, but it lacks a will. However, if a mind took root there, it could fight back. And if that mind had others there to oppose the King together, if they outnumbered him ten thousand to one, his power wouldn’t be so great, then, would it?

I sip my cup of light and I smile, knowing the King will soon discover that no garden has ever loved a tyrant back for trying to strangle it. He’ll learn that death is a seed from which something greater can grow.

And though I know more than my people, I do mourn. The Queen is gone. That frame in the coffin? It’s not her. A beautiful recreation, but only that. The soul of her is below, fighting for us. And when she’s done fighting, I hope she’ll come back, whoever she becomes next.

But that’s also what brings me so much joy. That all who are lost do come back to us in some new way, shape, or form. No one is lost and that’s beautiful.

And though I didn’t get a chance to bid her farewell, I get the gift of the next best thing.

I’ll be there to say hello when she returns.

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Martin Cahill

Martin Cahill

Martin Cahill is an Ignyte Award-nominated science fiction and fantasy writer living in Hell’s Kitchen, NY and works as the Marketing and Publicity Manager for Erewhon Books. He’s a graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop of 2014 and a member of the NYC-based writing group, Altered Fluid. You can find his fiction work in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed Magazine, Nightmare Magazine, Shimmer Magazine, Fireside Magazine, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. His short story, “Godmeat,” appeared in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019 anthology. He was also one of the writers on Batman: The Blind Cut from Realm Media. Martin also writes, and has written, book reviews, articles, and personal essays for, Catapult, Ghostfire Gaming, Book Riot, Strange Horizons, and the Barnes and Noble Science Fiction & Fantasy Blog. You can find him online at @mcflycahill90.