Hilo took careful steps over the grass, wondering how angry Kyanla would be that he's gotten mud on the hems of his pants for the second time this week. He supposed it was his fault; he ignored the morning's weather forecast and the previous four days of light but steady rainfall. Now the Widow's Park grounds were soft, as though the caretakers had just come by watering, and clinging to the bottoms of his shoes.
"Uncle," Little Niko's hand made fists against Hilo's shoulders. "I know the way from here."
Even if she knew Niko was not the type to track dirt carelessly through the house, Wen absolutely would not have the boy muddied up when Hilo brought him back, so he made sure to carry his son piggy-back past the puddles and silent Green Bone graves. If Hilo was being honest, anyway, he missed the feeling of holding the boy in his arms. It seemed every time Hilo found the time to put down his paperwork or leave one of his interminable meetings, he found Niko grown even further from the affectionate toddler he'd once been. He was learning to handle a lot of his own problems himself, and—only when he really needed to— approached Hilo to ask for help respectfully, almost like a Finger did to their Fist. As it was, his eight-year-old would have refused to be carried if they had been anywhere else. At the cemetery Niko's somber mood mirrored Hilo's own and he knew to quiet his protests.
"I know you know the way, son." Hilo hiked Niko higher up on his back and returned his arm under Niko's knees. "But you know your Ma hates when your clothes get muddy. How about you hold onto the umbrella for me?"
Niko grasped the umbrella handle in both hands and his little breaths tickled the hair by Hilo's ear. The Kauls' ancestral burial grounds were hard to miss, even in the gardens of the more affluent Green Bone families who could afford bigger marble headstones. Their family monument stood out taller, suggesting to the visitor the image of a proud Green Bone postured stoic on the hillside. Still, Hilo counted his way up the hill the way he learned to when he was younger, and was hardly tall enough to see over the gravestones. The Iyns, the Teijes, then around the back of the Hamis with the giant birds of paradise shrubs. There. Kaul Lanshinwan, Beloved Son and Brother, Pillar of His Clan. The black marble gravestone had a withered white bouquet of flowers and an old bowl of dumplings. He set Niko down next to it.
Niko straightened out his clothing and knelt briefly before both his grandfather and great-grandfather's headstones before turning to the newer one beside them. Hilo watched as the boy stood for a moment, staring at Lan's epitaph as if he contemplated the one missing word— father . He returned to Hilo's side and reached up to grip his hand.
Hilo squeezed Niko's hand. He and Wen had taken great care to make sure Niko understood who Lan was. They considered holding back the truth until he was older, so as not to confuse him, but Hilo knew he couldn't do this to his brother's memory. To Niko. Even now, a tiny shard of guilt made itself known in his chest. Niko could not visit his mother's grave, so the least Hilo could give him was this. Hilo frowned. He imagined Lan observing them in his quiet, stoic manner, as if he already knew every bad decision Hilo was going to make and had a plan for every contingency.
He pictured this boy, not the baby he'd taken home from Steppenland, laughing in Lan's lap where he belonged. He pictured how Lan's face might brighten up at the sight of Niko curled up in the living room, asleep around one of Shae's old business journals, or Wen's art books. He doesn't get enough sleep, Lan would tell him. Always looking for something to read.
Lan would never know how Niko, then aged four, had befriended Mr. Une at the Twice Lucky by accidentally spilling vinegar dipping sauces down the (thankfully understanding) man's shirt, and was now in charge of calling in the family's takeout orders for their lazy Fifthday dinners. He would never see the book of crayon drawings and perfect test papers Hilo kept in his desk, or hear how Niko's voice softened when he was cradling a crying Jaya. He wouldn't know that Niko would take his framed pictures and any old newspaper that mentioned Janloon's beloved peace-time Pillar, may the gods recognize him , and hid them quietly away in his room like he was afraid of Hilo or Wen discovering them there. Trying, as Hilo once did at Niko's age, to honor the father he couldn't remember, to make sense of the enormous legacy he was meant to continue.
Well, what would you have done in my place, Lan? Hilo thought, the taste of the now-old question lingered in his mouth, bitter like burnt sugar, something that used to be his comfort now become his burden. With your son, with your job, with our family?
As always a tableau came to him, the same one he'd imagined since his youth at Kaul Dushuron Academy. Shae as the Weatherman, Hilo as the Horn and Lan as the Pillar, all sitting around a low table in the office back at the estate, having drinks late into the night and arguing over clan matters. For a moment, Hilo was overcome once again by a wave of grief. He never voiced this particular image out to anyone, not even Wen. Whenever he felt like his family's last choice, like he had to fight to be useful and wanted, he returned to the three of them in his mind's eye. No Kaul Sen, the perfect set of checks and balances, acting like siblings for once. All with the same purpose and equal footing. He waited so long for that hope—and they'd been so painfully close.
Now, surrounded by the graves of his family members, far enough away from his Duchesse where Tar waited, Hilo could not Perceive a single jade aura around him. He closed his eyes, alone in that second world where green meant life, instead of death. He stretched his Perception as far as it would go, reaching like it was still Lan's funeral vigil, and he might suddenly have something to say to his brother after all these years. What did Hilo want to find?
The impossible. This is impossible.
"Uncle," Niko tugged on Hilo's hand, this time giving him a look so stern and so like Lan that Hilo kissed his forehead. He was waiting for Hilo to start the prayers.
Hilo took out his handkerchief and wiped rain droplets from a low marble bench before the graves. Niko knelt on the bench and bowed his head close to the ground as Hilo began the prayers, knowing Niko memorized them and was simply waiting for his uncle to join him. Afterwards, they knelt together in silence as had become customary on their visits to the Kaul plot.
Hilo looked up at the overcast sky, squinting for a moment against the rain and light. It was not good to hold his anger at fate. Neither was it practical to prowl through Janloon's streets looking for a fight as if he was still Horn, so every once in a while he came here to try and let it go. Maybe find strength in seeing Lan's name in stone. More than that, he spilled his pride for Niko out onto the grass between him and his older brother like an offering. When Tar drove him back home he'd be Pillar again, but for now he was just Lan's kid brother, reporting back.
Your boy is growing so fast, Lan. You wouldn't believe it. I think I'm getting even less sleep than you did! Just the other day I caught him gluing together the broken pieces of one of Wen's vases, and he tried to take the blame—well if you'd seen Ru's face when he said that, you'd know...