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Part I: Shattered
The world was lit with the full force of a radiant sun, the air clear and fair, on the day they burned Liara's sister.
The heavens remained as aloof as ever, shimmering and revolving in the unending dance of the skies, oblivious to the goings-on of the land below. Liara cursed the audacity of that great burning orb for shining with naked brilliance, cursed the impertinence of the wind for carrying the mocking trill of birdsong so sweetly to her ear. They stood resolute in flaunting their beauty, refused to acknowledge that Liara's entire world had shattered into innumerable shards. Her life littered the ground around her in pieces, glistening and perilous.
Her sister was dead. Her closest companion since the womb, her other half, her mirror twin. Daphne.
Liara hadn't even begun to comprehend the immensity of what that meant, but she stood in horror of the coming realization. An abyss of darkest dread yawned before her. Knowing that the worst had happened and that, someday soon, it was going to hit her. She wept for that future self, when the truth had finally seeped into all of her pores and lodged inside of her body.
Today offered something of a reprieve. Today she could actually find something to do with herself, force her limbs to move and act alive. Today they burned her sister.
Liara mounted the stone steps of the Sacellum Mori. The shrine, with its commanding facade and pillars carved into the shapes of blindfolded angels, belonged to the Theolites. Daphne had never identified herself as a member of that religious sect. However, the business of dying fell under the jurisdiction of the government, and the Theolites wielded great influence within the administration, as they had for the last few decades. If you wanted your death to be official, and legal, you had to submit yourself into their hands for your final rites.
Liara's vision was plunged into a murky haze when she crossed the threshold into the Sacellum Mori. The only sources of light inside the building were flickering torches arrayed around the perimeter, and a hole gaping in the center of the roof. As her eyes adjusted, Liara saw that they already had Daphne's body, wrapped in a simple unadorned shroud, laid out on boards across the top of the pyre. Kindling had been stacked in a depression hollowed out in the ground directly beneath the smoke hole. Two acolytes, one male and one female, circled the pyre. Both brandished censers hanging from bronzed chains, dispersing incense with each measured swing as they made their circuit.
The thick scent hanging in the air went straight to Liara's stomach. At least it will help mask the smell of burning flesh, she thought.
That flesh was Daphne. Had been Daphne. What had once been entwined with Liara in their mother's belly and had been an indivisible part of her life ever since. Burning. Transforming. Crumbling away to ash and smoke and never to be embraced again.
The only other inhabitant of the sanctum, a priest in gray robes, approached Liara and held out a burning torch. Hers would be the honor of lighting the fire that would release the last of her sister from this world. Liara faltered, her breath catching in her chest, before closing her hand around the torch's handle. The priest began chanting, intoning some prayer that Liara neither recognized nor cared to know. She turned to the pyre, the torch's flames tracing patterns of color in its wake.
Liara stared at the motionless bundle arranged on top of the pile of wood. Bile climbed the surfaces of her throat. She knew her sister was not there anymore, knew that Daphne would laugh at her for feeling nostalgic about a vacant husk of muscle and bone. It was almost unbearable, though, knowing that the body she had shared so much of her life with was about to no longer exist. Suddenly she felt as though she couldn't get any air. Her lungs were filled with heavy perfumed smoke, and she choked.
The droning of the prayer continued behind her. Liara focused on timing her breaths with the rise and fall of the priest's voice. In and out, until she had convinced herself she wasn't really suffocating. Willing her mind blank, she whispered "Light of love, help me," and thrust her arm forward, tossing the torch down into the pit. The flames caught almost instantly, licking at the dry wood that had been treated with an emulsion. They climbed quickly.
Liara stayed put when the others backed away from the blaze. Most of the smoke streamed upward through the hole in the ceiling, but still the chamber grew more stifled and Liara's eyes began to sting. She watched the fire consume what had once been her sister. She felt like an amputee, unable to tear her eyes from the sight of the wound being cauterized. No, she felt like the limb that had been sawn off, left behind and useless by itself. Letting loose a soft moan, Liara leaned forward and pressed a fist against her lips. Realizing what was going to happen only seconds beforehand, she heaved and splattered the contents of her stomach onto the floor.
Straightening up, the back of her hand held to her mouth, Liara looked again to the fire. The idea of leaping over onto the pyre and joining her sister in the flames flitted through her mind. She knew, though, that even in the depths of her grief she lacked the fortitude to stay still while she burned to death. No, that was not the way to go.
She struggled to think of what was left for her to live for. Daphne, her mirror twin, was no more. The only other person she had once considered spending her life with, who still clung to his place in her heart despite everything, was serving a life sentence in prison. So really, what was left for her in this life?
But thinking of him brought a measure of composure, suffused her with a feeling of calm. He smoothed over the jagged surfaces in her mind, just like he always did. Liara was self-possessed once more. Wiping at her face, she continued her vigil, but even she eventually had to retreat from the intensity of the heat. She watched, she waited, feeling trapped in the circumstances of her life. And when the fire burned on and there was no longer anything recognizable as her sister to be made out within the flames, she turned around and walked away.
The others stood at the doorway, and as she passed them she handed the priest his payment for officiating. "Peace be upon you, Sister," he said, dipping his head.
"I am not your sister," Liara answered, as she stepped back out into the fine air and sunshine of a world that had forsaken her.