I remember the funeral of Lord Ashiro-han's sixth wife very clearly. My mother had taken me, because Father had been home ill, and could not risk standing outside in the cold, wet air while he was ill. I looked up at Mother, trying to spot a glimpse of her face behind the wood mask she wore. I could barely see through my mask, and, despite the chill of the late autumn, my face was growing uncomfortably hot.
The drums from the rooftops of the city beat a single note repeatedly in unison, their sound carrying through the still air. I wanted to take off my mask, but to do so would be a sacrilege to the ceremony, and I would risk having the soul of the deceased wife try and seize my little body instead of moving on to Agi-a like all souls are supposed to do at their passing.
"Yoshi-han," I said to my brother, who was standing behind me with his hands on my shoulders, "why did Lord Ashiro-han take a sixth wife when he knew they were all going to die?"
"Hush, Yori," Mother said. "That is no way to speak at a funeral."
"But Mother, surely he would not have so many wives if he knew they were all to die."
Mother made a sign with her fingers—the first two fingers of her left hand crossed, and the tip of the first finger of her right hand touching them—that immediately silenced me. To speak under the summon of the spirit of silence would get me in much trouble. I lowered my head, looking back over the railing of the balcony at the heads of the peasants in the street below, clutching the lilies I had to my breast. They all wore their masks, the blank pieces of wood marking their status, making it seem like an army of faceless ghosts had invaded my home city.
The seven priests of our city's temple led the procession; each one carried a lantern on a long pole that they held above their heads, humming as they prepared to sing the Guiding Song. Mother made the sign over my head—reversing the fingers—to rid the spirit of silence so I could sing.
I had only been to two funerals in my life—my mother's mother, and my father's father—but I knew the words of the Guiding Song well enough to sing as the priests opened their mouths and began the tune.
Little soul, like a light
You have passed your gates
Of mortal flesh
Carry on, little light
Candle flame through the night
To Agi-a, your home
I looked over at Mother to see her reaching up under her mask, and I remembered that Lord Ashiro-han's wife had been her childhood friend.
The procession continued on its way to the temple on the hill where the dead woman's soul would be laid to rest. Long lines of Lord Ashiro-han's soldiers followed the priests, all on black horses, each one with his right hand over his heart in a sign of mourning. I wondered if they felt sadness any longer, or if the sixth funeral for them to attend in a matter of almost ten years left them with a feeling of emptiness. I could see nothing of their faces or the masks they wore over the tops of their plumed helms.
Next were the servants of Lord Ashiro-han's house. There were so many of them that I hurt my brain trying to imagine how he went about paying them. I wondered if his house ever felt crowded.
The servants all wore masks and black robes, making it difficult to see which were the men and which were the women.
"Yori, get away from the edge," Yoshi-han said. "You'll fall."
I took a step back, throwing a glare at Yoshi that I hoped he could see in my eyes. He wasn't looking at me. I was eleven, yet he still treated me as a baby.
I looked back down, watching as the last of the servants passed through. Seven generals of Lord Ashiro-han surrounded the horse of the lord himself, but the lord did not ride atop his horse. He walked by foot, leading the horse, which had a small wooden box strapped to the saddle, and a lantern hanging from either side as well. I knew, without explanation, that the box contained the ashes of the sixth wife.
The deceased were cremated to prevent their souls from attempting to return to their bodies.
Everyone was to bow when Lord Ashiro-han passed through. Yoshi put his hand on the back of my head to make me bow; I swatted his hand away and bowed myself, still able to see the procession from my vantage point.
We were supposed to bow with our eyes away from those we revered, but I let my eyes wander to the lord. A great wave of sadness hit me, so strong I fell to my knees, dropping the lilies. I heard a sound from Mother; something like a gasp.
I looked back at her and Yoshi, wondering if they had felt the overpowering sadness like I had, but they were still standing, Mother reaching for me to help me up. I got up myself, weak from the feeling, gathering the lilies back into my hands.
I gasped myself as I rose, seeing the procession below. Lord Ashiro-han was looking up as he approached the building from which my family and I watched the funeral. As I stared, not bowing, my eyes instead rooted to the snarling bronze mask that Lord Ashiro-han wore, a shiver ran through me when I realized that he was staring at me.
The lilies slipped through my fingers once more, and I struggled to catch them, but they drifted down over the edge of the balcony. Lord Ashiro-han reached out a hand and caught one, his face still raised to mine. I clutched the railing as I watched him pause for a moment, tucking the lily into the cord that held his armor together, over his heart. He looked at me one last time before facing ahead and continuing on his walk to the temple.
"Mother, he looked at me!" I cried.
"Lower your voice," Mother commanded.
"You dropped the lilies," Yoshi said. "He looked up because of that."
"I dropped them because he looked at me. He was staring at me."
"Nonsense," Mother said. "He would not have looked up at you. A lord does not look up at his subjects."
Despite the words of my mother and brother, I knew in my heart that Lord Ashiro-han had looked at me—had looked directly at me. For what reason, I didn't know.
Even when we returned home and finally pulled off our masks, I was convinced that Lord Ashiro-han had looked at me and no-one else. As I prepared broth to bring father while he rested, I wondered about telling him, but decided against it. It would have been foolish to tell it to an ill man.
Had Lord Ashiro-han looked at me because of the wave of sadness? Had he felt it hit me, and looked at me because he found someone who had felt such a strong emotion?
Whatever it was, it was my memory to keep. I vowed to never forget it.