Chapter Forty-Seven

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"We can't wait much longer," Rue said in a soft voice.

She laid a tender hand on May's shoulder. May, who had been gazing out the window for hours. May, who had given up sleep to keep watch. She was waiting for Emandi, hoping they would come and, ideally, that they would do so before the funeral pyre was lit.

It had been Em's idea to give Welkin an open air funeral. Despite the Star's love of life on the planet, she argued, they had never truly felt at home here. It only made sense that their human body, the one they had loathed with every breath they needed to take, should be released skyward instead. Connor and Dominic had busied themselves with building the pyre, while Rue offered to draw upon her astromancer druidic heritage to perform the funeral rites. For such a terrible, unthinkable situation, it was the best the lot of them could hope for.

Still, May had begged them to wait. She had no idea if Emandi was coming, or how long it would take them to get there if they were. It had only been two days.

But that was still two days of Welkin's body resting in the farmhouse's cold root cellar. Two days of Emanthy, broken with guilt and grief, keeping constant vigil at their side. Two days long enough to know Welkin as they knew them was really and truly gone.

May sighed. She tipped her forehead against the cool window glass and closed her eyes.

"I know. You're right. Let's do it."

Rue gave her shoulder a light squeeze. "I'll get started preparing their body. Perhaps you could help me with Em?"

The house was eerily quiet. Rue collected her supplies and then motioned for May to follow her to the basement stairs. As she passed the kitchen, May caught Priva and Lety huddled together at the table, talking close in low voices. Beyond them, the vibrant red of Jeremy's hair was just visible through the screen door. He sat on the back steps, watching Connor and Dom work. He had barely spoken since they brought Welkin back.

"Have you ever done this before?" May asked as she and Rue descended the stairs. "Prepared a dead body, I mean."

A few steps ahead of her, Rue paused for a moment and looked back over her shoulder. "I have. In my culture, we believe in giving our people a good death. When one of our own passes, we all have parts to play in sending them off."

May wasn't sure what a good death meant, but she nodded anyway. She had never even been to a funeral before, let alone seen a dead body.

At the bottom of the stairs was a half-finished living space where Jeremy spent most of his time. May and Rue stepped over his mess of files and notes to the cellar door on the far side of the room, and followed the stairs it concealed deeper underground. Unlike the basement, the cellar was essentially a glorified hole in the ground. Once used by the original homestead's owners for cold storage of foodstuffs, the cellar had never been fitted with electricity, nor had its flooring ever been finished. That was why, when May and Rue stepped into the cool, dank chamber, they found a smattering of candles burning low, surrounding two figures laid out on the hard packed earth. The first was that of Welkin, whose body rested under the cover of a modest cotton bedsheet. The second figure was Em. She lay curled in a ball at Welkin's side, her head resting on her arm and her unblinking eyes trained on their shroud.

Lips pursed, Rue stepped into the flickering candle light and placed her supplies gently at Welkin's side.

"Em, honey," she whispered. "I'm sorry, but it's time."

"Please, I just need a little more time," Em said. Her voice was feeble from being unused. She reached out and laid a hand on Welkin's chest. "I just..."

She trailed off.

May swallowed the hard lump that had formed in her throat. She wasn't ready to say goodbye either. Knowing Welkin's body was lying lifeless under that eerie sheet made her chest ache. But she knew her pain didn't come close to what Em was suffering through. She made her way around Welkin's body and knelt at Em's side.

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