5550 words, short story
The Shroud for the Mourners
Kiriko frowned as she peered into her magnifying glass. “This wasn’t here last time, Hama-san.”
“Oh, please don’t tell me I have a new symptom again,” Mr. Hama said, wincing.
Mr. Hama was a man in his fifties, with a vine-like pattern at the edges of his membranes, and carnelian-colored eyes. He had a long history of suffering from allergic reactions, ever since he was a child. When he’d reached this pattern atelier for the first time as a social insurance consultant, he’d long given up on his perpetually teary eyes. That day, he was looking for something to hang over the wall of his new office, but before he could start talking about his interior decorations, the founder of this atelier, Kiriko’s mentor, pointed at the client’s eyes and said, “Let me fix that first.”
“And who would have thought you’d walk out of a pattern atelier with medication?” Mr. Hama had laughed, when Kiriko had just joined the place.
Now Kiriko looked back into his ear, just to be sure. “This is weird,” she said. “As we discussed many times, most of your symptoms are caused by when your native pattern is distorted on your soft, flexible skin, like near your eardrums. But this distorted allergy pattern is always your native pattern gone wrong—the basic structures are the same, but they expand in different manners into different directions. This new thing here now, however, doesn’t seem to have any relevance to the pattern on your other parts. Even the color is completely different.”
“Hm. Can I have a look, too?”
“Sorry, you won’t be able to see it. Only a pattern craftsperson can.”
Mr. Hama smiled weakly, mocking disappointment. “Of course. Can you make a pattern which ‘offsets’ this allergy pattern? Like always?”
Kiriko was still frowning, her hand at her chin. As he suggested, that would be something she’d normally do: make a pattern whose lines could adjust the way the blood flow and water/air currents ran around the distorted pattern, to eventually smooth the ragged edges of the distortion. But . . .
“I don’t know,” she said. “The remedy patterns for you, they need to be something that have enough affinity with your native pattern. Otherwise the remedy pattern itself can cause a different type of malfunction in some other part of your body. But to offset this new thing, which is completely out of place itself, we would need to construct a pattern that would be too . . . foreign. You may as well go see a doctor, at the clinic.”
“Oh, but the clinic could do nothing for my situation!”
The door of the atelier’s lab opened, and Kiriko’s mentor walked in. “Hama, she’s saying this might not be an allergy.”
The client turned in his chair. “Huh.” He looked at the two craftspersons of the atelier in turn. “I—I never thought I would ever have to visit them again.”
“You are old enough to, don’t you think?”
Kiriko sighed. “Hama-san, take him with you and leave him there.”
Mr. Hama laughed and then shook his head. “You two are my primary doctors, if you say I should, I will do it.”
And three days later, Mr. Hama’s two primary doctors found themselves in the office of a clinic doctor.
“Why do you look so ill at ease?” asked the clinic doctor, Sakata, whose eyes were the color of blurry iolite. When he moved his head the tips of his hair shone in the same color.
“We always thought the clinic didn’t like us,” the owner of the atelier said. “We still do.”
The doctor waved his hand in a negating gesture. “It’s just the city, they don’t like the way you seem to utilize patterns to get what you want. But as far as we doctors and nurses can see, no one’s feeling worse under your care.”
“Today you have something to say to us though?”
“I just have a question.” Sakata smiled. “You sent Hama-san our way. He said you saw something unusual. We discovered a polyp down his throat, nothing too bad, as diagnoses go. But . . . there’s something . . . weird about this.”
“Do doctors say ‘weird’?” Kiriko whispered.
To her surprise Sakata laughed heartily. “I do, obviously. Some figures of the test results aren’t matching what we see. You felt something odd about him before our diagnosis, yes? The thing is, we are having a few more patients with the same kind of polyp. Even a foreigner. Can you tell us what this thing is that you found?”
Kiriko’s mentor leaned forward. “It was a silent pattern—we call it that to distinguish it from ordinary patterns that can be found on the human body, because it’s the way currents of light, air, sound, and other things happening there summed up as a pattern, so the ordinary eye cannot see it. The silent pattern on Hama we found was too out of place. Kiriko here sketched it, but to compare it to other patients’ cases we ourselves need to have a look.”
“I see.” The doctor sighed. “I’ve heard some of our android nurses talk about how strange the way you two see the world is.”
Kiriko raised her brows. “You have ando-san as nurses here?”
“Yes, a lot more than you can imagine, I guess. Many patients don’t like being treated by them, so we never disclose which ones. Only a few doctors here know. I’m counting on your discretion with this information, by the way.”
Many civil servants in this city were androids, as everybody knew. But the city itself never talked about them, as it didn’t want to admit that there were entities with “artificial” colors and patterns on their skin, while valuing islanders with native colors and patterns in its society. And so the people of the city didn’t discuss them either—nobody was quite sure how the androids should be treated. Whereas colorless and patternless laborers like the two craftspersons were easy prey in this society.
Kiriko and her mentor could usually tell an android when they saw one—they were too perfectly moderate. The androids’ colors and patterns were always just a little bit less flashy, probably to not stand out more than the humans. But those working at the clinic seemed indistinguishable at this point. Some rich locals didn’t even like being in the care of colorless locals, so they were unlikely to tolerate being treated by andos. The city must have been very thorough about them here.
“Do you think those patients you’re talking about will gladly let us peek into their ears and nostrils? You said there’s a foreigner, too, right?” Kiriko said.
“You will be here as nurses in disguise. We’ll lend you masks, caps, and gowns, so that the patients won’t have to see much of your skin.”
Kiriko and her mentor looked at each other and then both turned back to the doctor. “All right, then,” the owner of the atelier said, “we’re on.”
And yes, they found one out-of-place silent pattern in each patient, and after having a very, very close look (one patient needed sedation for this), there seemed to be an invisible yet distinct line between the polyp and this strange pattern. And the pattern around the affected spot altered by the second, and this must have been why the test results didn’t quite match the diagnoses. But this unstable pattern was only making the patients uncomfortable, with mild coughs or stomachaches and such, nothing worse.
The foreign patient, though, had to know the exact cause of this to reenter his home country on the continent. At first this foreigner thought the strange vape that he’d bought at a local souvenir shop—which put out smoke that made the landscape look slightly more colorful than the reality for the inhaler, and thus was advised to be used outside the island to avoid confusion—was to blame and made the authority talk to the proprietor. But after various tests the vape was concluded to be irrelevant.
“One tourist, one colorful, two patterned. The patients’ lifestyles don’t seem to overlap. What did they do to get this thing?” Kiriko remarked, back at the atelier, flopping onto her back on the cushions.
Her mentor sat down beside her. “It’s not doing much to the patient, so there may be many more who are suffering unaware from the same thing or no one else at all. Too few cases so far.”
There was then a beep at the door and when Kiriko answered it was Mr. Hama. “How is it going? When can I rid of this itch in my ear?” he said, as he climbed the raised floor of the atelier’s reception.
Kiriko grumbled and her mentor looked away without a word.
“Okay, I see,” Mr. Hama said. “Here, have some sweet things. Sugar makes your brains work better, as they say.”
Kiriko went off to make tea immediately.
The client laughed and placed the small box on the low table. “We got some of these from our own client, and they tasted quite good. So I went to the shop and bought a packet myself.” He lifted the lid of the simple but carefully wrapped thing. “Very savory and beautiful, and the texture . . . ” he trailed off when he saw the expression on the face of the owner of the atelier.
“Apprentice,” he called to Kiriko, “turn off that stove now and come back here.”
“But sensei,” Kiriko came out of the kitchen almost pouting, “we always need some tea when we—”
She stopped right beside her mentor.
“What’s wrong?” asked Mr. Hama.
“Hama-san,” Kiriko said, “you have to tell us where you got these candied agar pieces, now.”
The confectionery shop that made the candied agar, the bar serving a glass of smoky-purple liquor, an auntie who wanted to give her nephew some inks to play with, and a florist who experimented with the color of their roses, they all had procured their pigment from the same place—the community bulletin board. The clinic pinned the exact source after a day, and a nurse got back to the atelier with some air of . . . embarrassment.
“She is . . . a mistake,” said the nurse with a feathery deep-blue hair, perched neatly on the edge of the raised reception floor.
“A mistake? Who is?”
Rui the nurse sipped his tea. Kiriko wondered if his real name was Ruri after his hair color, one consonant omitted for easier pronunciation for the foreigners. “We call her Ash, we don’t know her real name. She is the person in charge of the crematorium’s lab. She is an ando, and she is, we believe, a little bit broken.”
“Rui-san, are you ando-san, too?” asked Kiriko.
“Yes. How can you tell?”
“Just the way you talk about this Ash character, I guess.”
Her mentor cut in. “The city crematorium has a laboratory?”
“Of course, do you think the city would let patterns that can be found on bones just go to waste?”
“We would think you’d do just that, yes, rather than violating somebody else’s body,” said Kiriko, not trying one bit to hide her disgust.
Rui looked embarrassed, for a moment. “Only those with patterns are confiscated, just for a day or so. The city wants to archive any rare patterns and colors, even those found on the bones. We’d have liked to collect the colors on them, too, but we’ve never seen colored ones.” He shook his head. “We haven’t. But I cannot speak for Ash.” As if he didn’t want to count Ash as one of them.
Silence hung for a while. “Would you go see Ash,” Rui said at length, “and find out where she is obtaining these weird pigments?”
“Why don’t you do that yourself?”
“I—” Rui bit his lip. “We don’t get along. Please.”
And the two craftspersons had to say yes.
The craftspersons saw immediately what Rui had meant by a mistake. Ash was a very mildly colored person, her pale skin having very, very slight shimmer as she changed angles, like there were tiny crystal grains deep down. Too subtle even for an ando.
“Rui called and said I’d be interviewed by two colorless people!” Ash beamed as she opened the door to her office for them. “How can I help you?”
“About the pigments,” the owner of the atelier said.
Ash clapped her hands as if this was the most surprising thing she had heard all day. “Oh yes! All the colors are confiscated now. How unfortunate.” There was no remorse in her tone, apparently. Kiriko wondered if this, too, was a reason for Ash to be called a mistake by her peers.
Her mentor cleared his throat. “We are just here to see how you got those strange pigments.”
“Oh, that. They are the by-product of the pattern extracting process. I wasn’t sure how I should be rid of them, and also, they are lovely, aren’t they? I wouldn’t have liked to just drain them down the pipe and let them go to waste.”
“Why didn’t you ask the city what to do with them?” asked Kiriko.
“They didn’t tell me to, did they? All they said was to find the patterns to archive them.”
The owner of the atelier cleared his throat again, eyeing his apprentice. Then he said, “Can we have a look at your equipment? We just want to make really sure that your pigments are what is causing this fuss, and . . . that . . . nobody is tampering with them, so to say, on purpose.”
“Hm.” Ash didn’t seem to understand what he was implying. “Okay, I’ll give you a tour of this tiny room. So, let’s start with this cupboard, where we put the ingredients . . . ”
The procedures and the chemicals Ash used were unfamiliar to the craftspersons, but as far as they could see, there seemed to be nothing that implicated Ash’s wrongdoing. She was using some kind of marker chemical on the pattern and a custom-built camera to reproduce how it would appear were it drawn on a flat surface instead of bones of various shapes. It seemed the chemicals were somehow washing the pigment grains off the bones when they were exposed to the camera. Kiriko picked up a piece of bone out of a tray, and Ash chuckled. When the craftsperson cocked her head inquisitively Ash said, “No human ever held a bone like that.”
“Oh. When you put it like that. I’m just, well, seeing this as an object of research right now.”
“I know, I know!”
Kiriko smiled and then looked at the bone again. “Sensei,” she said to her mentor, “I have this feeling . . . ”
He took another piece without a word. The two examined the bones for a while, from this angle and that, as round-eyed Ash silently watched. “Can we study these in our own lab?” he finally asked, “we promise we won’t do any damage.”
Ash shrugged. “Go ahead.”
After looking at them through their own microscope, the craftspersons agreed that the submerged pigment presence through the bones were strangely uneven. If they’d come from one single person—they certainly had to—the trace of the impression of the color should have been present more or less homogenously. But with these bones, the pigment was scattered in a few places where it was very strong, while other parts were completely devoid of them. It was as though someone had injected them, though there was no needle scar or anything of the kind.
And for that matter . . . they had been, in fact, thoroughly surprised to find any pigment in bones at all. They’d seen people with patterns on their bones and teeth, yes. But never anyone with homogeneously colored bones; they’d have seen those appear on teeth, or through thin and soft skin, if there ever were. They’d both assumed, without saying it aloud, that bones were too hard to retain enough pigment portions. Even after finding these uneven spots, they were finding it hard to believe it.
The clinic obtained the medical history and other reports about the deceased in question, but they could find nothing that might be relevant.
“Meanwhile,” Sakata said on the phone, “the city decided to just dispose of the colors extracted from the bones. The colors they confiscated so far don’t seem to include those worth archiving, over the risk of putting them into one place and making them more harmful. As they are at the moment, the worst thing that can happen is a few people experiencing mild discomfort. And even that’s only when the affected actually touch the pigments. Down the river, or deep within the soil, the strange pigments won’t do much, the city reasoned.”
Kiriko scowled. “But you don’t know enough about these pigments to just let it pass. For once, I don’t think we colorless will be affected by them. Looks like they stir the balance of elements just when they collide with colors and patterns on human body. For that one foreign tourist, we are guessing here that the residual phantom colors from the souvenir vape reacted with Ash’s pigment, and we islanders, either colorful or colorless, never take those smokes in ourselves.”
There was a pause, and Sakata sighed. “I guess you’re right,” he said. “I’m sure you’re right. I’ll try to talk them out of it. Will you help me if they need any evidence or proof?”
“Any time, Doctor, though I don’t think they’ll listen to us colorless folks.” She laughed bitterly and hung up.
The owner of the atelier was drawing something on the low table of the reception, sipping his tea. “Sakata looks like a man who knows what he’s doing,” he said. “And he has very nice colors. He might be able to talk sense into those lazy city officials. Especially if the colorful and patterned are more prone to damage in this particular case.”
“Hopefully.” She leaned on the pillar. “Those bones. I still cannot believe these dead pigments come from the person’s native color. Can you?” She saw her mentor shake his head slowly. “The extracted pigments are the by-product of the lab’s work, as Ash said? If the color is so easy to leak out of bone, it should also be as easy the other way round—for one to have colors in bone. But clearly things we’ve seen over the years indicate otherwise. Where did Ash’s dead pigments come from, for real?”
Her mentor placed his elbow on the table and rested his cheek on his knuckle. “Hm,” he said. Then he said, “Hm.”
The first thing the next morning, Kiriko was heading for the crematorium’s lab, to return the bones; they argued all night, but decided there was nothing more they could do with the actual bones, anyway. Now that they were no longer the research subject, it felt so wrong to be holding them. The receptionist at the crematorium waved her into the lab annex, and when she walked through the door, Kiriko heard someone shout. Alarmed, she sprinted toward Ash’s office.
Without knocking, she slid the door to the full, and found Rui the nurse ready to strike Ash. “Hey!” Kiriko yelled at the top of her already exhausted lungs.
Luckily that was enough to pull Rui back to himself, it seemed. He looked more surprised than either of the other two in the room, blinked at his own hand as if he couldn’t believe it was where it was, midair over the other ando.
“Ash, do you want me to report this?” Kiriko said, still panting.
“No no, please, let me explain,” Rui’s voice was shaken like he was the one who was almost hit.
“I didn’t ask you!”
Ash raised her hand. “Craftsperson! Please, there is an explanation for this!” Then she cocked her head. “I mean, he does have one!”
Kiriko glared at Rui. “Whatever it is, I don’t want a nurse in our clinic who is ready to hurt someone else!”
“Tea!” Ash screamed. “Let’s talk over a cup of tea!”
Ash duly made tea and poured a cup each for the very perplexed Kiriko and tired-looking Rui. When she sat down with her own cup Ash said, “Rui says I’m violating.”
“Because you are!”
Kiriko put a hand between the two andos. “Violating what?”
“Rules,” replied Rui, “and a corpse.”
The craftsperson hastily put her wrapping cloth with the bones in it on the table and pushed it a little toward Ash. “A corpse?”
“I’m not violating it! I’m just dividing it into chunks, so that I can give it proper cremation.”
“What are you two talking about?”
The two andos looked at each other, then at the craftsperson. “Ash is hiding a body in her fridge,” Rui said. “The body of an android, it’s not like she’s a murderer.”
“Oh all right,” Kiriko said through her teeth, “it is so reassuring to hear that she didn’t murder anybody, thank you. But I’d appreciate if you’d elaborate just a little more.”
“It’s an old friend of mine.” Ash didn’t seem to hear Kiriko’s sarcasm. “A very old model, the city terminated it a long time ago. I wanted to give it a respectful funeral, but they wouldn’t let me.”
“Who wouldn’t let you?”
“The city, of course.”
“So you made your friend into chunks and . . . ?”
Ash spread her hands. “Put them one by one into someone’s coffin. That way it wouldn’t cost too much energy.”
Rui sighed loudly.
Kiriko’s brows were starting to ache. “And you never mentioned that to the city—the owner of this crematorium? Or the family of the deceased?”
“No. Should I?”
Kiriko looked at Rui. He shrugged. But then he sobered and said, “That is very obscene, Ash, I think. You should stop doing that immediately, as I’ve said many times before. I knew it would all come down to this, sooner or later. I’m sure the craftsperson here agrees.” He cast a meaningful glance Kiriko’s way.
“Why? How so? I don’t understand.”
The craftsperson pushed the bundle of bones farther toward Ash. “Okay, now I think that is how those pigments got into the bones. Been burned in, so to speak. You ando-san have a body part for collecting organic colors, right? Many of you—at least those who work for the National Archives—have color receptors hidden in your body.”
Rui looked bewildered. “How do you know that?”
“I’ve worked with one of you before.” That was how the city clandestinely collected the information on what colors and patterns the islanders bore on their skin, to know the current situation, and to store color/pattern compositions and structures in their secret database. “Ash, were you aware that your friend’s chunks were contaminating the locals’ bodies?”
Ash blinked a few times and looked down at her cup. “No,” she finally said, “I wasn’t.”
Kiriko and Rui both had to believe that.
“So you’ve recently started putting the parts around the color receptors in, I presume?” Kiriko said at length.
“Yes.” Ash was now looking at her hands.
Rui sighed again. “Ash, are you looking worried for those humans who were affected, or are you just sad because your friend might have caused something bad?”
Kiriko turned to the nurse. “Rui, you don’t have to be so harsh!”
“No? Ash was just lucky that those dead pigments are not harmful enough, right?”
“Oh come on, she works here as a researcher. Surely she would have known if something went too wrong.”
Rui had nothing to say to that. They sat in silence for a while, after which Ash said, “I might have missed something on purpose.”
“Hmm?” Kiriko intoned, her cup to her lips.
“I mean . . . I would have liked my friend to go on. In a way, in other people’s bodies, as the dead pigments spread over the city. If I couldn’t give it a proper farewell.”
Rui snickered, but Kiriko laughed, just a little. She couldn’t help it. “You are talking like a very, very sentimental human being.”
“They shouldn’t have terminated my friend. It did go a bit insane toward the end, yes, but that was mostly due to the program the city made it install on itself. That’s not fair.”
Nothing was fair in this city, Kiriko thought, but kept her mouth shut.
“We have to report this,” Rui said, as if grinding his teeth on the painful silence.
It was Kiriko’s turn to snicker. “What, and let them realize that their damned colorful and patterned dignity have been tampered with, for who knows how long?”
“But we cannot let her go on like this!”
Kiriko looked at Ash, who was still staring at her own hands. “Give me and my mentor some time to consider this,” she said and extended her hand toward Ash, so that the ando would see the craftsperson’s hand instead. “Ash, listen. Please stop doing what you’ve been doing, just for the moment. We’ll come up with something.”
Ash nodded. Kiriko had known andos could be sentimental, yes, but this really wasn’t fair—now Ash was making Kiriko sentimental and even protective, too.
Back at the atelier, Kiriko found her mentor waiting right behind the door, looking very pleased. “How long have you been standing there like a fool, sensei?” she asked him.
“I’ve been talking with Sakata,” he said. “We were saying, we could have a joint venture, to develop some kind of filter, to completely detoxify those dead pigments. This will be an ongoing project, which might bring us a lot of money on a regular basis, and reputation as the city’s important supplier!”
Kiriko considered this, as she involuntarily made a face.
“Oh, come on. Whatever you found out today at Ash’s place, this detoxification surely needs to be made, right?”
Kiriko said, “Tea?”
Her stomach was already heavy with it, but she forced herself to drink, anyway. Her mentor emptied his cup in one gulp. “We don’t have to report that to the city,” he said sullenly, after hearing his apprentice out. “Ash can just keep on doing what she’s doing, while we sell those filters to the city and the clinic.”
“Rui knows. I don’t think ando-san are generally built to lie. And do you think that is what Ash wants? Burning her friend chunk by chunk?”
He glared at the dregs of his tea. “But . . . ”
“Sensei.” She patted his arm and made him look at her. “If it were me dead in the fridge, would you be happy throwing my body secretly, bits by bits, never having the proper moments of mourning?” She swallowed. “Because if it were you, I wouldn’t.”
At that, he averted his eyes and then closed them for one moment. “No,” he said, “No, I wouldn’t.”
As soon as Sakata gave them the name of the city’s representative, the craftspersons went to the city hall itself, to see this person for themselves. They never talked to this person, of course, but took notes of the person’s colors and patterns, which were the flashes of mosaic of many intensities of champagne. These colors appeared only when the person’s skin wrinkled, around their eyes or wrists and parts like those. One of the atelier’s clients overheard this person complain at an izakaya, after drinking too much, that they should be treated as a more colorful person, not as a tepid civil servant.
On the big day, Sakata was frowning as he walked out of the city hall after the meeting. “I did my best,” he said when he saw the two craftspersons seated on a bench on the pavement. “I was surprised to hear that the city used to dump the broken ando parts onto a landfill like some unburnable trash until quite recently, those that they cannot reuse. That’s what would have happened if this Ash ando didn’t refuse, right?” He took a breath and shook his head. “They did say they don’t even terminate andos anymore, so something like Ash’s friend won’t happen again. Still, I couldn’t help but show the surprise.”
“That’s okay, of course. We aren’t asking you to deceive them.” The owner of the atelier slowly stood up. “You did tell them to choose between Ash having her way this once or taking us in as their regular, long-time supplier of the detoxifying method, right?”
Sakata nodded. “They argued they could just replace Ash and be done with it.”
“Oh,” Kiriko said, rising to her feet, too, “how did you retort to that?”
“I thought about how Rui and other ando nurses talked about Ash. Like she was a mistake. No other department with ando staff will be able to find another use for her, I told them. And that if they don’t keep her in place and properly watched, she’ll just wander about telling people of the bone violating—by her, and by the city, too.” Sakata rubbed his brows. “Not that I think it’s right, but I suppose it’s true.”
“I know.” Kiriko smiled and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “Thank you, Doctor. We knew we could rely on you.”
Sakata laughed. “I really did wish you two were there with me.”
“If we were there with you the city person wouldn’t have listened, not even to you.”
“So you two think it all worked? That they’ll let Ash do what she wants?”
Kiriko’s mentor sighed. “They want to think they are so much different from us, in a much higher place than us. They’re bound to choose an ando over us having our way.”
“I hope so.” Sakata sighed back. “Again, not that I think it’s right.”
And that was what happened of course—a few days later Ash received notification from the city, their permission for her to use one of the incinerators just for her friend. As per Sakata’s recommendation, the city ordered the pattern atelier to create a solution to prevent the leaking of the dead pigments fromthe coffin. The National Archives had the blueprint of Ash’s friend, and Ash remembered precisely what parts of her friend had already been consumed along with strangers. Kiriko and her mentor didn’t have to look at the body in person or touch it directly—it didn’t feel right to cut into the privacy of Ash and her friend, and also, it would have been quite a thing, actually seeing defrosted parts of an almost-human body.
The craftspersons made an embroidered shroud, with a pattern that would sooth and supplement the wavelength of the shadow of colors left in the body. The threads used were also absorbed in a specifically prepared concoction of inks, and an agent; they would add viscosity to the leakage, making it harder to flow away and be lost in the environment.
“Would you be there?” asked Ash when she came to pick up the shroud at the atelier. She personally paid for it. “I don’t want to be alone.”
Kiriko could feel that her mentor wanted to say no straight away—they’d managed to evade interacting with the corpse by using the blueprint and Ash’s memory, why would they want to be present at the crematorium with the mutilated body among them, after all? “Of course we would be there with you,” she said, before her mentor could utter a sound, “to see your beloved friend off. After such a long time.”
Her mentor didn’t protest. He knew that she wanted him, or herself, to have a choice between being alone and not, when the time came for themselves.
On that day, Rui was there, too, still in his clinic clothes. He probably sneaked out between shifts. “You fools,” he said and placed a hand on his hip.
Kiriko had to laugh to that. “Thanks to you, too,” replied the craftsperson, being sarcastic but also meaning it. “For not getting in our way. I know you could have.”
Rui looked away and said, “It’d just be a waste of time, arguing over this.”
To the craftspersons’ relief, Ash had already wrapped the body with the shroud by the time they all gathered around the coffin lined with the filters. Kiriko and her mentor drew small patterns around the edge of the wood as finishing touches, just in case. The body was arranged there like a specimen, with a lot of its parts missing but otherwise in perfect order of a human body. Its face was intact, and it looked as though Ash’s friend was just sleeping—not the figure of speech but like really just . . . sleeping. Kiriko thought she might understand why Ash couldn’t simply get rid of it, just a little.
While they waited for the incineration to finish, Ash talked ceaselessly about her late friend. Rui rolled his eyes many times, Kiriko laughed a lot, and her mentor quietly listened and refilled their teacups. There was no ceremonial air, no real speech, no crying involved. But it was as proper a funeral as any other.