The scent of the juniper resin and parch-salt prickled at her nose, pungent and ripe. She breathed carefully through her mouth, doing her utmost to ignore it, as her careful hands wrapped strips of white linen around a man's stiff, cold arm.
Hakeem Sulayman had been a wiry old man for most of his life, with calloused fingers and lean strength; but the long months of his illness had not been kind, and convalescence had taken its toll. Now, he remained thin as ever, but more in the manner of a skeleton sheathed in dark, papery skin.
The stone crypt was cool and dimly lit; it was difficult for her to imagine how much time had passed since she'd descended into the darkness. She could only judge by the weariness in her arms, and remembered hunger pangs, that it had been - ...a while.
Somewhere aboveground, it was spring - a time of new beginnings, and a farewell to winter months. The changing of the seasons had always been a source of quiet pleasure for the woman, but not this time. She felt a strange sense of nostalgia for winter, now - for the winds that raged in the north, the snow that stung her cheeks and the bitter cold that defined the season in High Rock. In Skaven, the change wasn't as noticeable...
The woman blinked, realizing that her hands had fallen still, her head had begun nodding to her chest, eyelids sinking closed -
"My apologies, Na'im; my thoughts must have wandered..."
The tall, slightly pot-bellied man eyed her sidelong, lips thinning and brow creased. His hair was kept closely plaited to his skull, and his features were narrow, eyes just a bit too widely spaced for him to be regarded as handsome - it was said by some that he bore a resemblance to the horses he traded. But in spite of his poor looks, he was kind and he was wise for his years - if a bit prone to a businessman's grasping hands, looking for profit in every crevice. Good-hearted, but perhaps a bit greedy where coin was concerned. Now, he was looking at her with concern in his eyes, lips thinning and brow creasing.
"There is no need for you to continue. You've done your duty; great-uncle Hakeem is in Tu'whacca realms now. The Far Shores wait his presence, and there are other hands to do this work. You should rest so that you can offer the proper farewells when it is time."
If he knew Daniyah was his half-sibling by their father, he'd never said as much... but over the years that the knight had drifted in and out of their father's estates and services, he'd come to treat her much as he did his own kin. And whether he did so knowingly or not, most of the time his inclusive empathy was something she felt grateful for.
Today, though - she silently wished he cared a little less. She didn't want her aching arms or bruised heart to be buffered by anyone's kindness right now.
She shook her head, feeling a stone lump of stubbornness in her chest. "Only a thought, Na'im. I will not drift again."
Do not weep for your father, for he goes to join his father, she chided herself with a verse of Tu'whacca's creed. Hakeem would not have wished for her to become despondent over his passing. There was nothing to weep for - his crippled body would no longer be a cage to his indomitable spirit. Perhaps he would find Athmir, and relay her sorrow at his passing. Perhaps he would at last reunite with his father, and the two might finally reconcile... or gain the enjoyment of their many arguments all over again.
Her arms were trembling, but her eyes were dry, features composed. Redguard warriors did not weep for death. Death was a part of life. Her hands brushed the linen, and she continued wrapping, counting her breath by verses of prayers.
Lead him along the path of the stars, the air was dry and her lips were cracked. Show him the way. A gentle hand touched her elbow as Lawahiz reached for the resin and guided her back a pace.
Prepare him for the life to come, she sank to sit with her back to the wall, palms pressed together in silent prayer as her half-siblings carefully painted Hakeem's wrappings with more resin. She bit the inside of her cheek to keep vigilant, but felt her thoughts drifting as if through a sand storm. Her eyes still open, it was impossible not to dream.
As our honored ancestor, with his sword at his side...
She watched them seal the crypt, the torchlight flickering as Tu'whacca's priests murmured their final benedictions, the sweet scent of burning sage carried on the breeze. Overhead, the stars were a thousand candles to light the path to the Far Shores, and she took comfort in their vastness, feeling as small as a grain of sand against the mightiness of the desert.
It was done. Hakeem Sulayman, a knight of the Ansei traditions, was laid to rest in the Alik'r, his body entombed in a sarcophagus made of sword iron.
Mahomet Sulayman, aged and round, sought her out as the small assembly began to trail off, his gaze searching her face as he drew her to the side.
"Daniyah, I --"
And though the crowd was small, she sensed danger in his words, quickly bowing low - as if she were merely a wandering knight, and he, a man of stature. That is how it was, after all, and that was how it had to be. That he had fathered her was irrelevant.
"How may I serve, my lord?" Her voice was low, but lacked its usual sweetness - she realized with a start that it had been hours since she'd spoken. Her body was weary, but her mind was at ease; Hakeem's had been a good burial. He would find his way to the Far Shores.
The fat old horse trader stared at his daughter and all but cringed at her humility. For a moment, she thought he might object - his mouth opened, then shut, then opened again... and shut. A big meaty hand gripped her shoulder as she rose, and his body sagged in defeat. Nothing had changed. Still, he squeezed and let go; it was as much affection as she'd ever had cause to receive from the man who was her father.
She might have found the gesture more significant if she weren't so weary.
"He named you his heir. There are some... personal effects which must be gone through. Most of what he had, he sold when he came to stay with me. And though you are not kin by blood..."
His eyes spoke where his words failed him, measureless sorrow at the loss of his own uncle, and the bitter taste of necessary lies on his tongue. It had never sat well with the man, to do so poorly by his bastard daughter.
"... not... kin by blood..." He repeated, gathering his stubbornness, "You are his heir, and that makes the Sulaymans... family of yours. If there is anything you need, anything we can do... Hakeem thought highly of you, Dame al-Amin. He spoke of you often."
The man couldn't quite meet her eye now. She felt the briefest touch of a younger woman's bitterness, but let it fade as she reached to grip his arm with as much strength as she could muster, smiling and seeking his gaze.
"Thank you, Mahomet. You do me great honor."
He met her gaze and offered a small, sad sort of smile - and they bowed to one another, and moved away, as was proper. It was a nice sentiment, after all, but it was as hollow as a blown egg. She was already as close to family as she could come, without her father's old infidelities being revealed. Being Hakeem's heir changed nothing, but she was content with her place.
She dreamed in shades of grey, of a mighty boat with sails made of beetle-wings ascending through starry currents.
And on the deck was Hakeem, standing at the prow. His sword hung at his hip, his hands shading his eyes as an unseen force breathed life into their sails. He peered into the great beyond, his features proud and his lips pulled into an unguarded grin.
She wondered what he saw as she watched him sail away, the boat becoming little more than a luminous pin-point of light in the sky... and then it was gone.