Look at them all, crowding round him, wanting to be the first to welcome the ‘lost son’ home. They’ve cornered him in the entrance hall of the House, blocking the exit with their too wide smiles. Uncle Cathan’s face is screwed up in his signature scowl, his t-shield tight like a gloved fist. I want to push my way to the front. I want him to see me and forget all the rest. But I know that look and so I hold back, on the edge, where I can watch him.
He’s surrounded now. They press close: uncles, aunts and cousins, each one dressed in pure white stained with fractured rainbow light, their raven hair cut short to the shoulder and left loose. I hate the way they all look so perfect, as if mourning is just another fashion to master. I want to shout: he was my grandfather. Spikes of disapproval stab at me: the boy in riding blacks, stained with mud and sweat, still panting from his run from the stables. A flare of guilt presses my lips tight, but then I shake my head, no, grandfather wouldn’t have cared, he would’ve run to meet Uncle Cathan too. I imagine the look on grandfather’s face at the sight of his youngest son back home and a vice clamps hard around my chest.
Excitement ripples through the communal t-net, fluid under the icecap of grief, and I shiver in its grip.
Prowling the perimeter of the crowd I catch slices of Cathan through the shifting bodies: snow white hair falling loose over black leathers, long fingered hands twitching reflexively for a non-existent sword hilt. He doesn’t belong here, just like me. I see the storm building in his clenched jaw and stiff shoulders and wonder why the others can’t sense it, or maybe they can and just choose to ignore it: a big mistake.
Edging back into the shadows by the stairs I let the blade slide from its sheath and into my hand: his last gift to me. Something arrived for my birthday every year he was away: all kinds of music, some totally prost but most real shiny, and all sorts of techy tikriks, each one from a different planet, a different sector of the galaxy. Okay, it was always late –– days, weeks, months sometimes –– but he remembered and that’s what counts. The blade is cold in my hand, with an edge that can slice bone. I can’t wait to show him what I can do with it.
But he’s been away a long time. If the stories are true he’s spent five years fighting and drazting his way around the galaxy, doing all sorts of hammastah things. His life is full of new people: interesting, shiny people. Not like here. Here is always the same; here is a stagnant backwater full of the blank-eyed and backward looking. It hits me in the chest then, the chance, the opportunity: after the funeral, when he goes back to the Baytra, I can go with him. I can’t stop the grin, sharp as the blade, at the thought of raking round the galaxy with Uncle Cathan. Worlds bright with colour, like the posters cramming the walls of my quarters, invade my senses: the dust deserts of Korb, the mountain eyries of Praxia, the endless tracts of jungle choking Skogur. And in each one I’m fighting at Uncle Cathan’s side as part of the Baytra’s crew.
He’ll take me. I know he will. I whisper the words out loud; it makes them more real.
The massed ranks are beginning to falter, the murmur of their formulaic greetings sounds strained and I almost laugh out loud. People bump past, a ragged retreat, and I slip the blade out of sight. I can see him better now. By the Keepers, I’m almost as tall as he is.
Uncle Cathan’s eyes strafe the thinning crowd, but they miss me.
Five years. I was just a kid when he left. I used to stalk him around the estate, and he used to growl and chase me off and I’d keep coming back and coming back until he’d laugh and say ‘come on then, show me what you’ve got’. It was a game we played, a bit like Hide and Hunt, only I was never sure, afterwards, who’d been the hunter and who the prey. I’d challenge him: rapier or short sword or sometimes just hand-to-hand, and if I was lucky he’d show me a new trick or technique: to disarm or disable or to make a quick kill.
A static tang hits the back of my throat making me swallow hard. Uncle Cathan is walking towards the door with an even, unhurried stride. His movements are relaxed, loose, but the crackle of crystal energy around his body is a warning. Stragglers melt out of his path, some nodding their respect before hurrying away. I look closer, he’s different: darker, quieter, I can’t really explain it. Before he was loud and exciting and a bit dangerous; now I think he’s just dangerous, but with a whole new level of deadly. I remember Uncle Cathan as he was and I want that memory to walk back into my life, whole and grinning.
The hunter catches sight of the shadow lurking by the stairs and turns. I’m pinned by those silver-blue eyes. I can’t breathe. I want to shout ‘it’s me’, but my throat’s too dry, and anyway that’s a prosty thing to say. His scan pierces my t-shield and I feel him tense. For a split second I consider flicking out the blade, my stomach full of ice. This time it isn’t a game. Then he looks at me, I mean really looks, and says, ‘Felan,’ though it’s more of a question than a greeting. Something like joy bursts out of me, and then we’re both grinning and punching each other and saying each other’s name over and over.