There were a lot of things Death once believed to be true, one of which was that the dead should stay dead. It was pointless going against the natural order. Only humans, who thought themselves gods and sought to bring the dead back to life, could be foolish enough to disrupt this course.
But if it helped to ease their pain, was it such a terrible thing to help them? “This job hardens your heart,” Love told her once. “But that’s only if you have one.” She failed to see the irony when Death pointed it out to her.
Death knew what the other deities were saying. What could someone as powerful as Death want so badly that she had to serve a mortal king? But, unlike Love and Fate and Life, she was no goddess. She was nothing more than an errand-girl who simply had the worst job there ever was. And despite her authority over each demise, she was, in fact, quite powerless.
She was powerless against the cries of the people when they lost those they loved; she was powerless to replace the sudden emptiness in their hearts.
She wouldn’t exactly say that she was serving the emperor either. Yes, ever since he discovered her existence, he had made her comb through all the graveyards – marked and unmarked – across the land. And yes, this search for his son had taken slightly longer than expected.
But Death promised herself she would only go as far as to help him find the body, if it even existed. What he chose to do next was out of her hands. It was a critical mission, she kept reminding herself, even as her chaffed feet bled and she felt in her bones the weariness that typically plagued mortals. The emperor had to find his son, if only for the sake of his ailing nation and the millions of people under his limp-fisted rule.
Life told her it was folly, that this mission would not end well. “There are other causes worth your time. What can you possibly hope to achieve by helping a man already driven mad by grief?”
“Redemption,” Death blurted. It wasn’t entirely a lie.
Life had looked at her with the pitying gaze she had grown to hate. For someone who was celebrated and beloved, her sister had never been forced to bear the brunt of everyone’s hatred and fear. She had no right to judge Death’s decisions, even if some of them proved to be problematic. Still, she had unearthed lost cities and fallen civilisations, done her part to maintain the natural balance and ensure that the treasures of the past did not go to waste. It was the only way she could make her job less depressing.
“The sooner you learn not to get too attached to anyone, the better you’ll do your job,” Life had said. That was the last time Death had sought her advice.
Now, though, as she trod lightly over the barren ground, Death wondered if her sister was right. If she would be able to move on as soon as she could distance herself from the people affected by her takings. But this was one life she could not detach herself from.
She felt it then – the stirrings beneath her bare, soil-dusted feet. She felt the connection through the earth, so palpable it was all she could do to restrain herself from dropping to her knees and scrabbling at the dirt.
Instead, she paused. The entourage followed her lead. Death cocked her ears and listened. If the child was buried, there was a chance his soul might still be around.
“We should not dig here,” she snapped.
The emperor frowned. “Why not?”
Because you won’t be able to bring him back to life. Because you let him die. Because he’s mine.
“He’s here, isn’t he?” The emperor’s gaze searched her face. She wondered what he saw, if he could detect a hint of the woman he had fallen in love with years ago. If he recognised their son in her eyes.
But he only waited for her confirmation.
For the first time in centuries, Death felt the keen visceral ache that came with wanting and caring too much. How mortal, how plebeian of her! But she was ill-suited for this job right from the beginning, and as soon she fell in love with the young prince on that fateful day she knew she was doomed.
Everyone said nothing good could come of a deity falling in love with a mortal man, much less someone as loathed as her. Their love was built on a lie right from the start, when she told him she was just a common maiden from the far reaches of the kingdom. But then he had deceived her too, when he told her she was the only thing he ever wanted and that he had no interest in the throne.
Their child never stood a chance against the lies they told each other and themselves.
“You can’t dig here,” she said again. “What’s dead should stay dead.” She reached out for Wei’s face. “He’s gone, Your Majesty.”
“No,” the emperor sobbed. “Kai was innocent.”
She had one job then: bring those on her list to their end during the rebellion. And she had succeeded – the rebels were failing miserably in their siege and dying left, right, and centre. But in a last-ditch attempt to foil Wei’s rise to power, they had taken their son hostage. Neither Wei nor Death could prevent the inevitable.
What good is being Death when I can’t stop it?
When Wei seized the throne, it wasn’t the euphoric affair he had envisioned. There was only a mandate being intoned, and a crowning ceremony that seemed more like the announcement of a death sentence. Death had watched by the side as her sisters held her back. They didn’t care that her heart was breaking in a way that made her wish she could strip herself free of her immortality, her duties, and be by the new emperor’s side as they both mourned the death of their son.
“And my Peony…” he said now.
Her breath caught.
“Is she alive? I just need to know.”
Life would tell her not to do it. That he was just one mortal in a sea of many others with fleeting lives. Soon, she would forget him and life would go on.
But Life had never been the sentimental one. She didn’t plant a rose for everyone she loved. She didn’t visit their souls once in a while. She didn’t even cry. Death didn’t want to be like her. She didn’t want to grow numb and indifferent, even if that meant she did her job well.
She stared into Wei’s beseeching eyes and made her choice. Just for now, she could imagine that she was only a human girl wanting to be seen by the boy she loved.
She closed her eyes and focused on pulling her features into the face she had worn when she first met him. A tumble of ebony waves around her face, eyes the colour of a clear night sky. He had once said he could see their fates mapped out in her eyes, and she didn’t have the heart to correct him. Fate had little to do with how their story ended – it was Death’s own fault for breaking the rules and getting involved with him.
The emperor, his Majesty, her Wei, blinked.
“Peony?” he said, in a voice shaking free of its stupor. In that moment, she saw again that eighteen-year-old boy she had fallen in love with who had been forced to ascend the throne after his father died, not the man who later clawed his way onto it.
His hand trembled as he reached out for her – then paused. He staggered backward, retracting his hand. “What are you?”
I wish I could tell you.
“You left me. Us. Where have you been all this while?”
I never left.
His gaze hardened with every beat of silence that stretched between them. “Why are you doing this? If you didn’t want me to dig, you should never have led me here.”
At last she spoke. “I was helping you –”
“I was trying to help you move on.” She laid a hand on his arm. “Your people need you, Wei.”
He wrenched out of her grasp. “I don’t know what you are, or what you do. But I was a fool to have ever loved a liar like you.”
The breath she had been holding escaped her. She was acquainted with the feelings that mortals experienced – joy, sorrow, anger, fear, hate, and more. She had spent enough time as Death to be well acquainted with sorrow, sometimes anger, and all the forms it came in hurt. The one that she felt right then came with a serrated edge that carved her insides clean.
Later, long after the imperial entourage had left in a whirl of horses and carriage, Life found her on the floor with her palm pressed against the ground. She offered a hand to help her sister up. Death slipped her hand into hers and got to her feet.
“Didn’t I tell you?” Life said. “People change. It’s best not to grow too attached, or you will end up getting left behind.”
“No,” Death said, snatching her hand out of Life’s. “They change because of you. Because of everything they go through in their lives.”
Life shook her head sadly. “No, Death. They change because that’s what happens when you don’t have eternity to live. This is why we can never be a part of their lives, nor they ours.”
There was nowhere else to dig, nothing else she saw the need to revive. What was the point if everything was ephemeral? If civilisations rose and fall, people lived and died, loved and forgot after a while? What did it matter if she managed to unearth what she had brought to the ground?
She had spent centuries going against the very nature of her job, pointing archaeologists to dead cities and ghost towns, while leading the dead to their place of rest. But even deities had their limitations. They were all just part of the natural order, another cog to keep the cosmos in place.
Death let herself feel the last stirring of her dead son beneath her. Another mortal. One I hardly got to know.
She siphoned the young soul from the deep, packed earth and sent it on its way. She would have the dead for company, at least, for eternity.
With Life’s hand in hers, she watched as the sleeping world roused from its slumber, and waited for her heart to harden with each passing day.