She clutched the spirit tablet in her arms. Passing a finger over the characters carved onto it, unbirdled tears fell, streaming her face. She wrapped her arms around it, closing it in a hug, as if it were a living person. As if doing so would comfort her in some way. She rested her chin over it, despite the additional discomfort it brought her, colliding with her face with each of the jolt from carriage’s passage over the rocky road. Winter solstice was in a few days. Her in-laws were expecting them. She wasn’t sure how she was going to break the news to them.
Their son was the world to them. As he had been for her. She had only recently learned of his demise on the battlefield. Without a body, taking his ashes back to his parents would be impossible. The spirit tablet was all she had. She tightened her hold on the tablet. It was the only thing that she had to represent him now.
She had carved it onto the finest wood she could find. Under his name was a carving of a Calla Lily. A plant he first encountered in his travels. It was his favorite flower. The flower that he last gifted her before leaving for battle. Also, a flower that rumors say represent resurrection. Though she knew that she shouldn’t be feeding herself false hope, she prayed each night, with tears, that they were all wrong. That somewhere out there, he was still alive and well, even if it meant that he wasn’t by her side.
Barely able to contain her own grief, she couldn’t bring herself to send an advanced notice to her parents-in-law. She couldn’t bear the thought of the elderly pair suffering the loss alone, without anyone around to care for them. She would tell them in person. But even then, she questioned her capacity to care for them, after sharing the truth. Tears continued to fall, as a memory of her husband helping his mother with the crops came to mind. He had been the light in her world, and she dreaded the thought of stealing that light away from the others that loved him.
Suddenly, the carriage lurched to a stop. She drew in a breath, and dried her tears with her sleeve. Though they were still long enough to cover her fingers, the usual colors and embroidery were absent, replaced by undecorated white. It was an inauspicious color, and under normal circumstances, she would’ve never been caught wearing it. But it was the only color that felt right since she heard of her husband’s passing. Besides being the color of mourning, it was the only color that really matched her feelings of sadness and emptiness.
“Zyil.” She called. “What’s going on out there?”
“Guards are stopping every cart going through the gate and inspecting them.” The glowing winged ball of light answered, appearing beside her and color pulsating with each word. “Should we cloak ourselves?”
“No. Continue as normal.” She answered. She had chosen the sprite as her driver, partially because that while he could take the form of a normal human being, he also wasn’t quite one. At least, this way, she wouldn’t disturb her dead husband. While she still wished that he were by her side, she didn’t want him to stir, even after death, out of worry and concern for her.
Besides, Zyil had been in her family for years. Without her husband by her side, he was one of the few that she could trust enough to travel with. Particularly now that she was alone and unchaperoned. Zyil disappeared, taking a human form beyond the curtain that separated the inner carriage and the driver’s seat outside of it. He frequently took the form out of the conveniences it offered toward his regular interactions with human populations. Although, aware of her discomfort around the form, he was also careful to refrain from appearing before her in it.
It was an action she was thankful for. Being around men, other than her husband and family, made her uneasy. An unfortunate product of her upbringing and childhood, both of which failed to take into consideration the possibility that she would one day need to live life without the man that grew up with her, predestined at childhood to one day wed her. She put on a veil, covering her face, as a hand in a metal gauntlet slipped into the curtain and flipped it open. A chill ran down her spine.
“You!” The guard said, immediately upon seeing her. “You are not permitted entry into our city. Stay to the side and wait for further instruction!”
“What is the meaning of this?” She could hear Zyil demand from the outside, after the guard dropped the curtain. “My lady has nothing on her but her travel money and a spirit tablet! There’s no reason for you to deny her entry!”
“Are you the guard?” The guard asked. “Or am I the guard?”
“Are you suggesting that people in power have the right to abuse it?” Zyil challenged.
“I’m saying that you don’t have the authority to question me.” The guard answered.
Their voices faded into the background, as she forcefully tuned them out. She was already on a tight schedule. Despite having left a few days earlier, the snowstorm that caught them in the middle of the way, put them on a trajectory of arriving just on time. Now it looked like she couldn’t even do that. With the city’s guards making things difficult for them, they only had two options, either collaborate with them, or move around the city, both of which would add extra days to their travel time.
Part of her felt infuriated. The city guard. Why was he doing this? She’d be worrying her in-laws sick, if she didn’t arrive on time. But another part of her was relieved. While she didn’t want to worry them, she also didn’t want to confront her in-laws with the horrid truth, not to mention any of the other neighbors that they might invite over to celebrate with them. She sighed. Perhaps, it was better this way. A slight concern hanging over their holiday was better than having to receive constant reminders of the tragedy by all the party-goers that become curious about her husband’s absence. It was certainly better than the feeling the hollow sensation of loss, that came with the knowledge… a seemingly perpetual weight over her shoulders that was present every hour of her wake, and lingered in her sleep. At least, this way, they could probably still celebrate.
“Zyil.” She called, noting that it had gone quiet. “Zyil?”
A lack of response wasn’t like him. Did something happen? She peered her head out of the curtain, which also served as the cart’s only entrance and exit. No one was there. Not a single person in sight. Not a person in line behind them, and not a single guard before the gate before them.
Did she really get lost in thought so long? Everyone else had already been accepted into the city. Perhaps there weren’t too many people anyways. Clutching the spirit tablet in her arms, she stepped out of the wagon, careful not to disturb the horses that were still harnessed to the vehicle.
“Zyil?” She called, as she walked around the carriage. Did he go searching for food? He was the only one capable of hunting. But then what happened to the city guards?
“I sent him to send a message to parents.” A familiar voice said behind her.
In shock, the spirit tablet fell from her arms, clattering to the ground. It couldn’t be. She took a deep breath, mustering her courage and readying herself for disappointment, before turning around. Tears fell from her eyes the moment her eyes landed on the speaker. His head was bandaged, his arm in a sling, and his entire stance at the center of the city gate seemed to be propped up by a crutch. But there was no mistaking those eyes. That face. Her husband. He lived.
Uncaring for the resulting wind that lifted her veil from her face, revealing it, she ran up to him, nearly knocking him over, before she pulling him into a hug and sobbing on his shoulder.
“Thank you for praying for me.” He said, tucking a Calla Lily into her hair with his good arm.
Everything, from the events of the past few days to the festivities to come, seemed so insignificant. She smiled, despite her tears, for the first time in days. For once, she didn’t mind a delay in the slightest. Slightly leaning on her, he lowered his face for a kiss that she gladly accepted. In fact, she couldn’t be happier for its reason. A feeling that she couldn’t help but feel that her in-laws would share.
“Thank you for coming back.” She whispered, as they pulled apart. “But promise me that you’ll never die on me again.”
“Never again.” He promised, tapping the small golden dagger that hung on his waist, engraved with his name. The country’s symbol of a retired and honorably discharged soldier. A gift that granted freedom from further conscription. Without another word, he sealed his promise to her with another kiss. She kissed him back, thankful for his survival, for the delay, and for his return. Thankful for the emperor that granted her husband freedom. Thankful for the magic of the Calla Lily. Thankful for the holiday to remember.
This story was inspired by a writing prompt from the “Promptly Written” Publication.
You are on your way to a holiday event and get stuck in traffic. You decide what the hold-up is. Write a scene or complete story. You didn’t want to go to the holiday event anyway.