We were about four days out of Macalania when I noticed the signal flags flying outside one of the little tiny hamlets that dot the landscape of Spira. For about fifteen minutes, I considered ignoring it. I knew I'd be the only one to notice; Jecht might have seen the flag, but he wouldn't have known what it meant. And Lord Braska, despite the fact that he would never show the world anything but a smile and a kind word, was exhausted. It was the kind of exhaustion that came from walking twenty miles in a day and led to walking with your head down, your face blank, lost in your own thoughts and not noticing anything past the end of your own nose.
I was worried about him. I'd been worrying about him for the past five years, so that was nothing new, but I had never seen him drawn that thinly, washed that pale. Some summoners take to the road as though they had been born for it; Lord Braska, who had lived for years on the road as a priest of Yevon, tilting at windmills to make peace with the Al Bhed, had paradoxically not been one of them. He deserved rest and peace; we would have time for neither before the end, and I knew there would be nothing I could do to change that.
And I knew that if I did not show him the signal, I would be betraying the trust he had placed in me; and so I reached out a hand to rest light fingers on his elbow. "Lord Braska."
He stopped in what seemed like mid-stride; it took a minute before he could gather his thoughts well enough to look back and blink at me. Jecht, ahead, turned around to see what the problem was. "Yes, Auron?"
I didn't speak; I didn't need to. Once he had lifted his head from the contemplation of his boots, he noticed the signal himself. The slightly more open (if blanker) face of Braska-on-the-road tightened, and with a weary sigh, Lord Braska let the face of the summoner replace it. "I see. ...Well, there's nothing that can be done about it, I suppose." With dignity, he gathered his robes around himself more firmly and strode off towards the freesteading.
Jecht trotted up beside me as I followed behind. "What's that all about?" he demanded, irritably. He'd been much easier to deal with since the shoopuf incident -- much clearer-headed without the influence of alcohol, I should say -- but despite his sudden burning interest in Spira's customs, he still didn't know half of what was going on.
"They put out a signal for a summoner," I said, my eyes fixed on Lord Braska. He was walking with more determination now, but I knew that it was not because he was any less tired. If anything, it meant that he was more tired, and determined not to show it.
Lord Braska was, above all else, an excellent actor when he needed to be.
"Signal?" Jecht scowled. "They got a temple there, or something?"
I shook my head. "No, they don't. That's why they need the summoner." When comprehension failed to dawn, I added, a bit more harshly than perhaps I should have, "To perform a Sending."
The blank look on Jecht's face didn't change. "Sending?"
"Let him see when we arrive, Auron," Braska said, just quietly enough to be heard. "He'll understand then."
When we reached the tiny village of Landsknecht, we were welcomed with open arms; this made me nervous at first. I had grown used to the half-hidden glances and sideways stares of those who were familiar with Lord Braska's history, and Bevelle had a long arm when it came to Temple gossip.
The reason for our welcome became more clear when we were introduced -- or rather, Lord Braska was introduced, with Jecht and I standing faithful guard behind him -- to the widow. Her husband and their infant daughter had been killed in an attack by Sinspawn; that day marked the third day since their death, and the Teachings dictated that burial and Sending should happen by midnight of the third day, lest the dead grow wrathful.
Lord Braska was the embodiment of kindness as he folded the widow into his arms; she had taken one look at us and crumpled, all of her strength and forbearance evaporated as soon as she realized that her loved ones would not be doomed to walk the earth as fiends. I had seen him comforting the loved ones of the dead time and time again, before, but he never treats it as a burden. Sometimes I wondered how he managed to keep such calm in the face of such wrenching grief.
When I caught the soft sound of his voice murmurring to her as he stroked her hair, when I realized that he was telling her of his beloved wife -- for it was his belief that pain, when shared, is pain that is lessened -- I signalled subtly to Jecht, and drew him out of the small cottage.
"What's going on?" Jecht asked, his face set in its usual scowl.
"There are two dead," I replied, and led him further away. Let Lord Braska and the woman have their privacy; it was not for us to interfere. "Lord Braska will perform the Sending this eve. It's a ceremony to ... to appease the souls of the dead, and to send them onto the Farplane." I looked at him and sighed. "Don't tell me. They don't have that in your Zanarkand either."
The stormclouds gathering across his face eased. "Oh. You mean like a funeral."
"Possibly." I had mostly given up hope of understanding his Zanarkand; the differences, it seemed to me, were unsurmountable. "Lord Braska will be with the widow for the rest of the afternoon, most likely."
"So we wait here." Jecht nodded as though there were no question, and I caught myself wanting to smile; given time, and now that he was no longer drinking, he might turn out to be an acceptable guardian for Lord Braska after all. Someday.
Part of any guardian's life is standing around and waiting for his summoner to be finished with whatever his summoner is doing. It was over two hours later when Lord Braska, holding on to that benevolent smile of his, came out of the cottage with his hands folded into the sleeves of his robes. He didn't seem surprised to find us standing there.
"The village chief is insisting on holding a feast for us tonight," Lord Braska said, with a sort of fond exasperation. No matter how often I try to convince him that this is only right and proper, he insists that the people of Spira are suffering under enough burdens; there is no need for them to sacrifice food that they so desperately need, just for the sake of feeding us poor travelers. "It will be held at sunset, and the Sending just thereafter."
I nodded. "What element?"
Jecht was just looking back and forth between us, confused. Lord Braska looked as though he was beginning to get a headache. "Fire," he said, almost reluctantly.
"Fire is difficult for you, isn't it," I asked in an undertone, after looking around to make sure that no one could hear me. It wouldn't do for the freesteaders to know that the summoner they had drawn to them had difficulty with anything; summoners should be above such concerns.
Lord Braska's answering smile was rueful, and he pinched the bridge of his nose with two fingers. "It always has been. You two go to the feast, and accept their hospitality; I need to prepare."
"You have to eat," Jecht said, stubbornly. Lord Braska doesn't eat enough to keep a bird alive; nearly every meal we've taken together degenerates into an extended session of guilt-tripping and pleading with Lord Braska to eat. Jecht had ignored it at first, but recently he had begun to leap into the argument full-force.
Braska only smiled a little more. "I'll eat later, Jecht. I can't now. Not just yet." He tucked his hands back into the sleeves of his robe. "I shall be in the chapel, if I am needed. You needn't wait for me; go and eat, and accept their hospitality in my stead."
Jecht looked over at me for reinforcement, expecting me to protest. I shook my head a little, enough to let him know that I would explain later. He would realize, soon enough. No matter how often I saw Lord Braska before a Sending, I knew that I could never understand what was going through his mind at that point. If I could do anything, the least I could do would be to smooth his way.
I could not have told you what the meal consisted of. It was a quiet and sober occasion; most of these feasts were. The sun's rays faded as we ate, and we did not notice until we stepped outside that the skeleton of a bonfire had been built in what passed for the town square.
I held Jecht back, with one hand on his elbow, as the others filed out into the center. "Keep quiet," I warned him softly, "and don't interfere."
He scowled at me. "Interfere with what? And why won't you people give me a straight answer?"
I sighed. "Interfere with what Lord Braska has to do; it's difficult enough for him without one of his guardians making a scene. When all of this is over, I'll explain whatever you still have questions about, all right? But in the meantime, just stand there and look like you've been watching things like this all your life, because we can not afford the time to explain right now. To you or to them."
He looked stubborn, but anything he might have said was lost in the murmur and shifting of the crowd. A pathway appeared as people stepped aside reverently, bowing and making the blessing of Yevon, and Lord Braska stepped through.
No matter how many times I see a summoner perform a Sending, I'll never grow accustomed to it. There's a certain luminosity to the features as they step forward, as though they know that they're about to touch something that normal people don't ever see. In Lord Braska, it manifests itself in utmost serenity; an inner peace that others would envy, if they did not know at what cost it was achieved.
For once, Lord Braska had shed the robes he habitually wore; he was clad only in a pair of leggings and a tunic caught close to his body by a simple belt. A departure from tradition, true, but I knew that he had difficulty enough with the fire without the additional encumberance of the much-hated robes to worry about. I could feel Jecht quizzically stirring beside me, as though to protest the summoner's being out of uniform, but he remembered my instructions to him and held fast. I would not have noticed if he hadn't; my eyes were only for Lord Braska.
And perhaps it is Lord Braska's eyes that inspire such confidence from the grieving, for in his eyes as he steps forward, each time, lie the echoes of every person he has Sent. And when you look in those eyes, you believe, for as long as it takes, that Lord Braska would reach through the flames and walk across the water to see your loved ones home.
When I die -- whether it be on this pilgrimage or years from now, in bed, at the end of a long and content life -- I can only hope that I am Sent by someone who loves me as thoroughly, as completely, as Lord Braska obviously loved this man, this child, whom he never knew. If I am, I know that I shall sleep contentedly and wake unto the life hereafter gladly.
Jecht had asked me once why any guardian would be willing to die for his summoner. I wondered if he would understand now that any guardian would be willing and ready to lay down his life to keep safe one spot of such beauty and selflessness in this world, and count it an honor besides.
Lord Braska did not speak. He usually does, at this point; but his face was set in a mask of concentration, and speech would simply serve to break him out of the light trance that his hours of meditation had given him. He simply stepped forward, his pace slow and measured, and stepped onto the center of the waiting ring of wood, taking his place between the two cloth-wrapped bodies.
A half-second passed, while Lord Braska steeled himself -- I could see his shoulders tensing, though no one else would know how to look for it -- and a rustle of anticipation passed through the waiting crowds. And then Lord Braska tipped his head back, held his hands to the sky, and breathed a single word.
The fire leapt from his open palms, catching and igniting the seasoned wood, engulfing Lord Braska in its embrace. Jecht took a step forward, one hand reaching up as though to protest. I caught his arm before he could do more than stir. He glared at me -- your summoner is standing directly in the middle of a blaze that is hot enough to cremate bodies, and all you do is stand there and prevent me from saving him? -- but I glared right back: wait, you fool, and watch.
Lord Braska's staff was in his hands as the flames danced higher. Those closest to the pyre took a step back, then another; it was burning so fiercely that I could feel the warmth on my face, even at the back of the gathering. Lord Braska's eyes closed as a woman, her voice low and rusty with age, opened her mouth and began the Hymn.
"Ieyui, nobomeno," she sang, and Lord Braska's staff whipped through the flames. He spread his hands wide as the staff whirled, forwards, then backwards; held the staff high over his head as he stepped high and bowed low. The embers crackled and popped, flying free into the heart of the gathered people.
When a swordsman has studied his craft for years, the sword becomes an extension of his arm; it whips through the air at his will and obeys his very desire. This much I know, from my own work with the blade. Lord Braska is hopeless if you place a sword in his hand; I have tried. But watching him in that fire, I knew that he understood. The staff in his hands was more of an extension of him than my sword could ever be of me. It sang and twirled and spun, and I could not see his hands moving. But the fire followed it, leaping joyfully to wreathe his hands and head, reaching for him like a lover might.
The expression on his face was one of concentration, yes, but also of sadness, and of glory. His hair flew untouched around his shoulders as he took another step, and another. His foot came down on one block of wood, then another, and the third step he took landed not on the wood but on one of the tongues of flame that burned; it held fast and supported him as though he were stepping on nothing but solid ground. The first multi-colored pyreflies began gathering around the edges of the blaze, shimmering in the glint of stars, and the fire lept higher as though to show them the way.
And Lord Braska danced.
Can any of us know what a summoner is thinking at that moment? Can any of us ever hope to reach out and touch another world so directly, so clearly, as Lord Braska can? I have never asked him what it's like, to be supported by the flames or borne by the water, and he has never volunteered. It was left unspoken, as so much was left unspoken.
He reached out his free hand, and the fire came to it as though tamed, and he took another step into its embrace. And Lord Braska danced.
There are monks who devote their entire lives to learning to do inhuman things -- surviving for weeks without eating, walking off cliffs and letting the wind catch them, seeing visions of the past or the future in smoke -- and they never seem sorrowful. On the contrary, their faces contain this look that frightened me terribly, as a child. During my time in the temple, one of the older candidates named it for me: rapture. I thought at the time that rapture must be a terrifying thing, and that I should never like to see it again. But I have found no other word for the expression on Lord Braska's face.
It is the look of a man who must perform a sorrowful task, yet is not willing to let the sorrow consume him. On the mystics it appears terrifying, because often it is forced in its intensity. Lord Braska simply looks as though, for that minute, he is the fire's beloved and it is his -- or the water's, or the ice's, or the lightning's, or whatever element has been chosen for the Sending. In that moment, he closes his eyes and lets the fire take him. He moves like the fire moves. He rises and he falls and he flickers. I believe that if the fire caught him and consumed him, he would die without even noticing, transported on its arms.
The flames rise; the flames fall. The fire burns and gives us heat; the heat sustains us and gives us life; life ends, and we are given back to the fire. And Lord Braska dances.
Sometimes, during a Sending, the loved ones of those being Sent are inconsolable with grief. The widow -- whose name I did not know, but Lord Braska would know, for Lord Braska remembered the names of all those he encountered -- simply stood and watched, her face full of sorrow but yet calm, peaceful. Her tears had been shed; the first wrenching spasms of pain had faded, and what was left, only time could purge. Her eyes were dry as the cloud of pyreflies streamed from underneath Lord Braska's watchful, half-lidded gaze and spiraled around her, once, before flying free.
Funeral pyres burn hotter when they have been ignited by a summoner's magic. As the flames died down, as Lord Braska set his feet upon the earth again, the only things left behind were ashes.
It was a long time before anyone could move, transported by the serenity of the moment. "Now, do you understand?" I finally asked Jecht, my words falling softly into the space beside us. Without waiting for an answer, I crossed the space to the bonfire as quickly as I could. It would not do for the summoner to stumble and fall from exhaustion.
Lord Braska's skin was sunburn-warm against my fingers as I laid a hand on his arm. He half-leaned against me, subtly. "Are you all right?" I asked him, nearly soundlessly.
He turned that sad smile upon me and nodded slightly. "I'm fine, Auron," he said, his voice far more raspy than usual. It was the smoke, I knew; he could give himself over to the fire well enough to keep it from burning his hair, his clothes, his skin, but the smoke still would sear his lungs. "I'm just very tired."
"I'll take him in to bed," Jecht said, from next to me, and I blinked; his voice was subdued, almost respectful. "They've given us a cottage for the night. You stay out here and do what needs to be done."
I searched Jecht's face for some clue as to what he was thinking, but found nothing there I had not already expected to see. He stepped forward and took Lord Braska's other arm gingerly, as though he expected to be consumed in flame at the first touch, and scowled at me. "Go on. I can handle this."
Reluctantly, I let my fingers slip free, entrusting Lord Braska to his other guardian, and turned to the people of the village. They would need someone to assure them that life would go on, after all.
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