The Sun-King was not supposed to get nervous. So Marad said. Yet, standing in front of the Temple of the Sun on the quest he had set himself, Avad felt his hands shake and his heart race.
It had taken him five days to gather his courage. He had come here now because it would only get harder the longer he waited. He knew that, but he was still nervous.
He had gone alone, despite Ersa and Marad's insistence that he at least bring his guards. There were things even the Sun-King needed to do by himself.
The temple was largely empty. A few noblemen and women talked in a corner, pretending not to see him, and two priests stood gazing out from the mesa towards the south, towards the Spire and the Alight, the only place that was even more holy than Meridian. Five days ago Avad had buried his father there, in the family crypt.
As he approached the two Sun Priests, one turned around at the sound of his footsteps. Avad vaguely remembered his name was Irid. "Oh," he exclaimed, a little startled. "Your Radiance. We, ah, the temple is honoured by your presence."
"Thank you," Avad said quietly. It still felt wrong to be addressed as the Sun-King. He suspected that it always would. After all that title, that honour, had never been meant for him.
That was, in a sense, why he had come. "I have been directed here," he began, not at all sure how to approach the subject, "by the Blameless Marad. I- I was told that you, after the sacrifices..." His voice trailed off.
The two priests exchanged a look. "Their remains were taken to the temple, it's true," Irid said, wringing his hands. "It was by order of the, ah, the previous Sun-King, Your Radiance."
"And what," Avad asked, carefully keeping his voice low so that nobody would hear it tremble, "did my father order you to do with them?"
Now the other Sun Priest, whom Avad had not met before, spoke. "We know why you came. If you wish I can take you there."
"Namman!" the older priest exclaimed in shock. Avad could see the fear in his eyes. He did not need to wonder what - whom - he was afraid of.
"He is right," Avad said. "I do wish to... to see."
Namman nodded, knowing and understanding perhaps more than Avad would want anyone to. "This way, then," he said, already making for one of the doors. Irid stayed behind as Avad followed Namman inside.
He had never been in the temple. It was made from the same sandstone as the palace, and as they walked through wide hallways Namman told him that it too had been carved from the mesa rock long ago.
It was quiet. The few priests they met only smiled or nodded in their direction before continuing on their way. Nothing ever seemed to change in here. Until half a year or so ago, before everything he thought he knew had been turned over, Avad would have found it restricting. Now the certainty seemed comforting.
As time passed they no longer met any other priests, although they saw a few rats scurrying past. Namman apologised profusely for their presence. Avad gracefully accepted his apology and assured him that it was not a problem at all. To his surprise, it had almost become easy. Was he growing into his role after all?
They stopped in front of a wooden door on their right. "Here we are," Namman said, and added after a short hesitation, "I should warn you. It is quite a shocking sight. Are you sure you want to see it?"
"No." Avad forced a smile. "But I have to."
Without further questions Namman opened the door. Inside was only darkness. Namman walked in and, with the torch he carried, lit the lamps. Avad followed closely behind him, suddenly afraid of what he would see.
When all the lamps were lit and Namman halted in the middle of the room, Avad looked around. His heart skipped a beat.
Despite everything he had not been prepared for this. From the ground to the ceiling large wooden structures had been built, all filled with burial urns. There were rows and rows of storage looming over him, continuing ever onwards in whichever direction he looked, more than he could count.
There were so many. Hundreds, thousands. Each and every man, woman and child that had been murdered in the Sun Ring had found a final resting place here, among the countless others. Faceless, voiceless, remembered by none save the labels hanging from the urn, detailing tribe, gender and date of sacrifice. Not even a name.
They had been farmers, forgemen, hunters, soldiers. Fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. They had had families, relatives, loved ones grieving for them but never able to properly mourn and pay their final respects. Avad knew only too well how that felt.
That thought finally pulled him out of his shock. "It's not fair," he heard himself say, but he did not sound like himself. "They should- they should not be here..."
Namman remained silent, his eyes downcast, waiting for Avad to recover.
"They should be with their families," Avad continued, thinking aloud. "Namman, they- don't you think they would have wanted to go home?"
"The dead do not have wishes," said Namman quietly, "but it may ease the minds of the living. I will see it done."
"Thank you." Another thing, Avad realised a moment too late, that he was not supposed to do anymore.
Namman waited patiently while Avad studied the cards that hung from the urns. Oseram man, two years ago. Nora child, almost twenty years ago. Another Nora child from the same time, perhaps the child's sibling? At least they would have died together, instead of one having to remain, having to live on with a wound that would never heal.
Avad closed his eyes. It was no use trying to will away the memories he kept reliving.
He turned to Namman, meaning to ask, finally, whether Kadaman was there. Instead he asked, "Did Kadaman know about this?"
"I do not know," Namman replied at once.
Why that suddenly mattered so much was a mystery. Avad felt tears well up in his eyes. He did not attempt to hold them back. It would be doomed to fail anyway. "He made drawings," Avad whispered, his voice trembling, "sketches, of people he met. Or saw." Or watched die. More than once, after a sacrifice, he had found Kadaman entrusting the scenes they had just witnessed to paper. Often he had wondered, was he thus hoping to erase it from his own memory?
He was not making any sense. He knew that, but could not stop talking. "He can’t have known. If he had he would have drawn them, remembered them. I wish I could too but I cannot... I can't do that."
He failed to express what he was thinking. By drawing them, they became real. They became human. Otherwise they remained nameless piles of ash, soulless like bare rocks. Nobody deserved that. Once they had had names, faces. More than anything, Avad wished that he could give them back their identities.
It was too heavy a burden for anyone to carry alone. Yet Kadaman would have tried, and Avad would gladly have helped him shoulder it. Now he had to manage by himself, all alone, to make peace with this terrible knowledge.
Everyone here had once carried an entire, unique world inside them, but they had been reduced to nothing more than meaningless dust, stored away in thousands of identical urns. Even Kadaman.
Should two labels fall off and accidentally be put back on the wrong urn, nobody would notice. Nobody would care.
Again he looked around, now strangely detached. It meant nothing. A room full of ghosts without faces.
But he had come here for his brother. He had to see it through. Kadaman had told him not to look away.
Namman was still waiting for him. "I am ready," Avad said quietly, wiping away the wet trails tears had drawn on his cheeks. He needed to make sure he looked somewhat presentable before leaving the temple. "Take me there."
They passed a hundred burial urns. Perhaps more. Their footsteps rang hollow, dull. Instead of echoing through the open room they fell flat, smothered by the silence like that of an old library, all its tales and histories long turned to dust. Irretrievably lost.
Even we are no more than future dust, Avad thought. In a hundred years, who will remember us? Will they care, or will we too fade to nameless spirits? Would future generations miss the tales of whose very existence they did not know?
Namman stopped abruptly, near the middle of one of the storage structures. He nodded towards the second urn from the ground, without even needing to check its label. Having indicated that, he moved to a respectful distance, and turned around.
Avad bent down to read the label. It could not be anyone else's. There had only been one sacrifice on the day of his brother's death. Even if others had been scheduled, there would not have been time after hours and hours spent inflicting the greatest possible pain on one young man who refused to be broken.
He would never forget the weariness in his brother's eyes as he knelt on the stones, too weak to stand. Avad had wanted to run to him, to hold him in his arms and protect him from everything and everyone. He could almost see Kadaman’s tired smile, hear him whisper words of comfort even though he was the one hurting. He would have tended to him until only scars reminded them of that day, scars of which Kadaman would not be ashamed. He would accept them, because they showed that he had survived this, too.
But after withstanding so much physical and emotional torment, he had no strength left in his body. A line had been crossed beyond which recovery was impossible. Even if Avad had been able to reach him, all he could have done was hold him as he died.
Yet Kadaman's mind, his spirit, had remained unbroken. But this, Avad felt, staring at the label that did not even mention his name, this was not Kadaman. His brother had passed away. They had believed that they would always have each other, but now they were separated further than ever. Nothing remained of him except Avad's memories, a drawer filled with sketches, and this. All of it dust, all of it meaningless.
Avad knew what he needed to do. Slowly he walked away, resisting the urge to turn back. If he did not make this decision now, he would never have the strength to do so.
Again, he simply stated, "I am ready. We can leave."
Namman frowned, puzzled. "Are there no arrangements to be made, Your Radiance? To move your brother's remains to the Alight, I mean?"
"No," Avad said clearly. A dry lump formed in his throat, he had to swallow a few times before he felt comfortable speaking again. "Not until all of the others who were sacrificed are returned to their families, or their loved ones."
"That will take years, if not decades," Namman protested, although he already sounded resigned. "Are you certain?"
Avad almost laughed. "No," he said. He straightened his back, banning all doubts from his thoughts, for the moment. This was not Kadaman. What was left of his brother resided in the drawings he made, in his own memories, not here. Still he knew that he would come to regret this, as he regretted every decision he had been required to make over the past week. He would reproach himself, was this what Kadaman would have wanted? Was this what he had deserved for sacrificing himself so that Avad might live?
"No," Avad repeated. "I have not been certain of anything for a long time. But I have made my decision."
"As you wish," Namman said with a bow. "I will personally see it done as quickly as possible."
Avad was not supposed to, but thanked him again anyway.
He knew the chance that he would return here was minimal. As was the chance that his brother would ever leave. Whether he liked it or not, his place was with the living, under the same sun that had inspired the greatest cruelties ever known to humankind.
Yet he saw a flicker of hope, like the first ray of sunlight reaching out from behind the horizon at dawn. There was meaning after all. Although in the end everyone would turn to dust, and everything would be consumed by time so that nobody remembered its existence, until then their actions, their wishes, their deeds and dreams and deepest desires, still signified something. And perhaps, he allowed himself to hope, they would live on.