Archive of Our Own: http://archiveofourown.org/works/5117996
deviantArt: http://fav.me/d9f20neTil Death Do Us Start
In the dark of the night, a young couple approached a hidden grave.
As far as Hye knew, though, she was being led by her fiancé towards his family's gardening shed. "Um, what are we doing out here?"
Tomoshibi glanced around nervously. "Quiet. I don't want my parents to hear."
"You know," Hye said, wondering about her fiancé’s intelligence and planning capability, "my Grandma took my sisters with her on a Blessing visit, so my house is empty-"
"No, we can only do this here." Tomoshibi unlocked the shed door, and motioned her to follow him inside.
Holding back questions, Hye did so. The interior of the shed, it unsurprisingly turned out, was very shed-like. There were gardening implements, sacks of seeds, spare pots, and all the things that usually could be found in sheds. There wasn't a whole lot of space, further prompting questions about what Tomoshibi intended here. She turned to ask, but found him kneeling at the back of the shed, in front of a-
It was a shrine.
A death shrine, to be exact. It wasn't like the ones with which Hye was familiar, and she had seen quite a few while helping her Grandma perform Blessing rituals, but there was no mistaking it- there was an ink drawing of a woman on a little shelf, with a small tablet on one side of it and an incense-stick holder on the other. Strangely, a three-pronged throwing blade was also resting on the shelf; this woman must have been a warrior, then, and the red coloration of the blade made it clear for whom she had fought. No wonder the shrine was kept hidden, even here in the colonies, even so many years after the war ended. Hye dropped to her knees behind Tomoshibi and bowed her head respectfully.
It was a long moment before Tomoshibi spoke. "This is my sister, Mai. She died when I was very young, before my family left the Fire Nation." He motioned to the small tablet, where the character for the name was inscribed in the top half; the bottom half was blank, indicating that Mai had died unmarried.
Hye looked at the character, and frowned. "That's an unusual pronunciation."
"True. My father's family comes from the Outer Islands, and they have a somewhat different culture, there. That's why the shrine is also unusual. My mother assured me that mine will be properly decked out in dragons- although how she intends to guarantee that, I have no idea- but since Father named Mai, he got claim to how she would be honored." Tomoshibi smiled. "Mother named me, but Father still snuck in some influence- when I was little, my family called me 'Tom-Tom,' according to how the Outer Islanders nickname their babies."
Hye smiled back, but then returned her gaze to the shrine, examining the picture of Mai. In life, she must have been a very striking young lady. Long dark hair framed an angular face with piercing eyes, and Hye couldn't help but want to shrink from the imagined glare. "Do you think she would have liked me?"
"Probably not. My mother says that Mai didn't like anyone, even me." He offered a wry smile. "I can only take her word for that, because I remember absolutely adoring my sister, and I can't imagine I would have taken to her if she was mean to me."
"And would she have cared that I am of Earth blood?"
Tomoshibi had to think about that. "I'm not sure. She- well, I mean no dishonor to her, but she was a servant directly to the Royal Family. She and the Fire Lord's daughter were close friends, from what I understand. Mai and the Princess both died defending the palace during the Retaliation. But then, Governor Ty Lee of the Kongqi province also defended the palace, and she's married to a man who fought in Earth colors in that same battle."
Hye brought her hands together and bowed again- very low- before Mai's shrine. "I ask your blessing to marry your beloved brother, Mai of the Fire Nation. Also, I beg your help in attaining the approval of your parents." She hummed the Spiritual Note handed down by the people of the Northern Earth Kingdom, and willed her emotions- her respect for Mai as a warrior, her love for Tomoshibi, her desire for peace and happiness- into the sound. After she finished, she kept her head down for another heartbeat before beginning to rise-
-there was the sound of metal on dirt, and Hye opened her eyes to find that the three-pronged blade had fallen off the shelf to the ground. "T- Tomoshibi-"
He reached out and picked the blade up, examining it. "You must have brushed the shelf."
"Then the ground shifted. An Earthbender farmer is probably doing work nearby."
He leaned over and gave her a quick kiss, grinning that
grin as he pulled away again. "If it is my sister's ghost, it must mean she likes you, because everyone who ever spoke of her to me agreed on one thing: she never missed with her blades. That you remain living and uncut shows that Mai is purposefully disarming in front of you. That’s a great sign of trust." He put the blade back on the shelf, and rose to his feet. "Hopefully, my parents will take the news of our engagement half as well."
Hye rose to her feet beside him, keeping her gaze away from the shrine. Tomoshibi liked to joke about inappropriate things, but Hye just wanted to be out of this shed, even if it meant admitting their engagement to her hard-liner Fire Nation soon-to-be-in-laws. "Come on, let's go."
"Bye, sister! Be nice to my fiancé and I will bring you more incense sticks!"
Ukano could count the number of things he had brought with him out of the Fire Nation on one hand.
The first two were the most important: his wife and son. Getting Michi and Tomoshibi to safety was more important even than defending the Fire Nation against the united Earth Kingdom and Water Tribe invaders, especially after Mai's death. Ukano had given up everything- wealth, reputation, power, loyalty- to preserve the rest of his family.
The third item he had brought out of the Fire Nation was the tablet containing his daughter's ashes. He had kept it safe throughout the journey, in a cushioned Funeral Box he carried everywhere. He had brought that tablet across the ocean and into the colonies (which were the former
colonies by the time he reached them) only relinquishing the tablet when he had been able to build a shrine to his daughter in the tradition of his people.
The fourth thing he had brought was one of his daughter's blades. It was a dangerous journey, after all, and the best kind of reminder was the kind that also had a practical purpose.
The final thing he had brought with him out of the Fire Nation was the pile of gold pieces that he had hidden in the false bottom of the Funeral Box. After all, he had a family to provide for in a strange new land where being too Fire Nation could cause trouble, and keeping his daughter's tablet close to him would be an excellent excuse for never letting the gold out of his sight.
Hours after Tomoshibi revealed his engagement to Hye (most of those hours spent dealing with Michi's sobbing that she was losing her son to an Earth Kingdom peasant) Ukano sat alone in kitchen with a single candle to hold back the darkness, contemplating that pile of gold. He had exchanged some of it for more mundane coinage early on, fueling the trip across the former colonies and eventually buying a nice little house with a garden for Michi to play with. Now, some of it would pay for Tomoshibi's wedding- or it would, once Michi calmed down- and probably fund a dowry to Hye's family to soften allowing despised Fire Nation blood into their peasant line. This despite Michi being a full-blooded noble and Hye's grandmother being some addled witch woman.
For his son's happiness, Ukano could deal with that. Maybe at one time, he would have balked, but now that Mai was gone-
Ukano still had something he could do for his daughter, as well. Mai had died unmarried (despite Michi's best efforts), and now her little brother was preparing to wed. Maybe the culture on the Home Island allowed that type of thing, but on the Outer Islands where Ukano had been raised, children were married in the order of their birth, lest chaos descend on the world. Mai's Hun
spirit must have long ago reincarnated, but to allow her bound Po
spirit to spend eternity alone would be unthinkable.
But there was still gold to spend, and death wasn't necessarily an obstacle to marriage.
Ukano sat in the dark with his lone candle, thinking the idea over. He'd have to move fast, if he wanted to get it done without delaying Tomoshibi's own wedding plans. Getting a broker involved would be necessary, as there was no other way to quickly identify good candidates. It would be tough enough to find a worthy Fire Nation corpse here in the colonies, and that would undoubtedly inflate the prices. But then, Mai had never been the type to get worked up over a person's station, so long as they were clean and didn't touch her. In that way, a ghost marriage would be ideal for her, since she was now just a pile of ashes in a clay tablet, and so she could go for all of eternity without ever touching her husband.
Yes, it would take gold, but Ukano would make it happen.
What else could a good father do?
The candle flame jumped, even though the air was still.
Pianqu the Nail, professional arranger of marriages, offered his signature smile to his latest client. "Just get your gold ready, sir, and I'll bring in the father of your future son-in-law." The client, a Fire Nation ex-patriate named Ukano, nodded and pulled a small but delightfully heavy sack from his belt. The sack made a lovely clunky sound when it was dropped on the table. Pianqu gave a small bow and stepped out of his little 'office.' Of course, it was really the corner of his tavern- mostly empty now that the dinner hour was passed- but the table at which Ukano was sitting was set off from the rest of the room, allowing some privacy while ghost marriages were arranged. Pianqu moved away from that table now, heading up the stairs to where he kept some rooms for rent, and popped his head into the first room in the hallway. "Showtime."
When Pianqu returned to his 'office,' he was followed by a man who was the very picture of a poor lonely farmer. "Sorry to leave you waiting, sir. This is Lee, a local farmer who, like your respectful self, was forced by circumstance to flee from the Homeland. It's terrible what those barbarians have done to our great nation, but at least we can look out for each other here, eh?"
Ukano just blinked, looking slightly distracted. You'd think his daughter had just died yesterday, rather than fifteen years ago.
Lee the Poor Lonely Farmer sat down opposite Ukano, and nodded. "I'm told that we might have a suitable match."
Ukano sat up for the first time since Pianqu had me him, and said, "I hope so. My daughter's name was Mai, and she- it's time she was married, even if it's in death. Tell me about your son."
"Well, my boy Wang was a good lad. He helped work my farm until he came of age, and then joined the Army like any loyalist would. He was assigned to the Home Guard, and bravely defended us from the Two Incursions, until the Retaliatory Invasion came. He died on the shores of the Home Island, cut down by a Water Tribe sword. I know my line ain't much, but my Wang served
, and he deserves the Honor of a good wife."
Ukano nodded. "I'm sorry for your loss. Mai grew up in the Capital, thanks to my wife's family and my own contributions to the war effort. She was a companion to Princess Azula herself, and died fighting with the Princess on the steps of the Fire Palace. I- I don't know how she died, but- they wrapped her for her funeral, and I never got to see her face again before she was ash." Ukano lowered his head and covered his face with a hand.
That was Pianqu's cue to step in. "The sacrifices of both your families honor our Fire Nation legacy. Since Lady Caldera Yu Mai is undoubtedly of the greater line, Wang's remains should be placed on her shrine, but given his honorable military service, I see no reason to oppose this match. Do you consent, Lee?"
Lee the Poor Lonely Farmer nodded. "Mai sounds like a right good young lady. I'd be honored to rest my son on her shrine."
Ukano lowered his hand, revealing a newly composed face. "Thank you, Lee. I will take your son into my family, with respect and gratitude."
Pianqu clapped once. "Then it sounds like we have a deal, gentlemen. Lee has already paid for my services and given the urn containing his son's bones to my care, so I only need Ukano's payment..." He trailed off and smiled.
Ukano pushed the sack of gold across the table.
Pianqu the Nail made the sack disappear into his sleeve, and stood up. "Then I will fetch the urn." He trotted away and back up the stairs, to the same room where Lee the Poor Lonely Farmer had been waiting. Waiting there now were rows and rows of urns. Pianqu grabbed one at random and chuckled. He hadn't always been a tavern owner and matchmaker, and while those certainly paid better than his old job, it didn't hurt to supplement his income. Of course, that had required a bit of foresight, back when he had been cleaning corpses off of battlefields. Some of those bodies could be identified, and so sent back to their families, but others... well, it was reported that they were honorably burned and place in an anonymous mass grave, but it wasn't like anyone checked
those things. And now those old bones provided a nice side-business for Pianqu the Nail and his brother 'Lee.'
After all, it wasn't like ghost marriages were real.
Michi wasn't sure if she should be elated or devastated. It was technically her daughter's wedding night, but both the bride and the groom had been dead for over a decade.
It still hurt to think of that. Her daughter was dead.
That fussy baby, that quiet tot, that stressed little girl, that obnoxious young lady- Mai was dead. One day, she had gone off to consult with the Princess about the defense of the Fire Palace, and then forty-eight hours later, Ty Lee was at their doorstep carrying a wrapped body and sobbing inconsolably. Michi hadn't even known what to think for the first few days. The entire Fire Nation was falling apart and an angry Waterbender woman was being given rulership of the Homeland, but all Michi was concerned with was telling herself that Mai wasn't just wasting time upstairs again, that there was a lifeless body in the basement's ice room waiting for a funeral. It wasn't until Michi had been given the tablet with the character for Mai's name on it that it finally became real, and to this day she couldn't remember the next week after that. The only memory was of Ukano telling her that they should escape to the colonies for Tom-Tom's sake.
And now, over a decade later, Mai was getting married. Maybe it made Ukano happy, but these Outer Island customs were insane.
Michi and her husband were hidden from prying eyes in the garden shed. Outside, it was a moonlit midnight, the perfect hour for conducting a Fire Nation ceremony in a land where reminders of the Fire Nation brought anger and suspicion. A pair of rakes dressed in old robes was standing in as effigies for the bride and groom, with Mai's tablet tied to the head of one and this Wang's urn of bones tied to the other. Ukano had wanted to hold Mai's rake, but Michi had been adamant: "You got to name her, she wore those stupid ox-horn buns they like so much in your hometown, and now you're marrying her ghost to the bones of a boy you bought in a tavern. I'm going to at least hold my daughter's rake at her ghost wedding!"
And so they had gone through the steps. Mai's rake had spent the night in her parent's bedroom, and then proceeded to her wedding place by way of circling the house a few times and then heading to the shed. (Michi was relieved that none of the neighbors were around to see her marching in circles around her own house holding a rake.) Ukano and Michi had spilled the traditional wine on the rakes, just a splash to represent the binding sip, and faking the bows was easy enough. Now Ukano was reading the Binding Words from a scroll, and finishing, "So by my authority as the Governor-in-Exile of Omashu, I bind Private Wang to the line of Lady Caldera Yu Mai, long may it burn. Please bow." Michi rolled her eyes and angled the rake again in a fake bow. "Excellent. That completes the ceremony. Our daughter is married."
Michi wanted to say something withering, but she couldn't get anything past the lump in her throat.
Her daughter was now a wife.