Chieftain Imamu Estate, Virgo
Atienna Imamu lay propped up in her bed with a book in her hands and a trove of flowers at her feet. There were twenty bouquets total, each from a high-ranking member of the twenty other tribes. With them came words of condolences and goodwill wishes. As much as it pleased Atienna to know that the other tribes were aware of her green thumb and that they cared for her, she knew there was another reason behind the gifts. To remove suspicion. To do away with the idea that their particular tribe had been the one to slip the poison into her wine. That much was obvious.
Unfortunately for them, they had all chosen to deliver the gifts, therefore making their play at innocence null and void. Not only that, but the delivery of gifts highlighted suspicion as well.
“I can’t focus, after all.” Atienna sighed, lowering her book.
The book was leather-bound in red and its pages were still crisp and new. In black letters the cover read, Vitae & Conductors: Who is Using Who? by P.D. Oran. Right below the title, faded tape had been pasted. The writing on the tape read, ‘Redacted by the Ophiuchian Literary Department for ELPIS propaganda.’
She raised the book up again to tap it against her lips as her gaze swept across her room. A large set of bookcases consumed her entire left wall. Thick tomes to thin novelettes to hardcover texts—all were displayed in a colorful rainbow arrangement on the mahogany shelves. To her right was a long and open window. At the sill blossomed an arrangement of psychedelic flowers. Some sprouted out petals like stars, others frilled out like snowflakes. In-between their growth were twisting vines that spilled out onto the floor and ate up the ground halfway to her bed.
Myosotis alpestris. Trachelospermum jasminoides. Adenium obesum.
Stretching out her arms and then cradling the book to her chest, Atienna approached the overgrowth with a fond smile. She extended a hand to cradle the head of a star-petaled flower. Poor thing looked as if it needed watering.
She reached over the windowsill for the water-filled clay bucket that rested on the grass there but paused halfway through the motion. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted a man and a woman standing on either side of the bucket.
The rays of light streaming lazily down from the sun were obscured by a haze of fog that hung along the canopies of the forestry that dotted the area. The rays also caught onto the man’s and the woman’s shaven and tattooed heads. In this foggy haze of light, both squinted around the clearing and gripped their spear conductors tightly in their hands. The bright blue and green shawls thrown over their shoulders caught the dew drops that dribbled down from the roof.
“Hello, my faithful guards,” Atienna greeted them both with a smile as she placed down her book and leaned over the windowsill.
“Miss Atienna!” the guards stuttered in unison before forming their left hands into an M shape and placing it over their hearts.
Atienna returned the gesture with a polite smile. “How is your morning, Nia? Sefu?”
“We are both doing well, my lady,” Nia answered first, bowing her head. “It is very kind of you to ask—”
“Well,” Sefu interjected, twirling his conductor, “actually, standing out here in this weather is—”
Sefu did not finish as per courtesy of Nia, who jabbed him in the ribs.
“It must be awful standing guard out here in this humidity.” Atienna frowned sympathetically. “Is there anything I can do?”
“We are fine, my lady,” Nia replied. “It is our duty to serve the chieftain family of the Imamu Tribe regardless of comfort.”
Sefu nodded agreeably at this, although he rubbed his chest with a grimace. He then studied Atienna with scrutiny before rubbing his chin and suggesting, “Are you trying to win us over so you can make an escape?”
For an odd moment, the thought of sneaking out did tempt Atienna. To escape. To run away. To run away from these two-faced people who pretended that everything was right in the world. Tiptoeing around things and averting their gazes. All of it was such a pain—
Atienna dispelled the odd streams of thought with a slight chuckle which she hid with her hand. “So, you’ve figured me out, Sefu.” She moved to pick up the clay pot again and sprinkled some water onto the plants. She then picked up a pair of garden shears and snipped off a thorny vine that was growing into one of the flowers.
She cleared away the debris.
“Be careful with those,” Sefu said, gesturing to the shears and then to her fingers that were raw and red. “You keep cutting yourself, my lady.”
Atienna hid away her hands in embarrassment and flashed a smile. “Ah, yes, I’m so clumsy.” After a beat, she leaned forward again and folded her hands behind her back. “I was planning to escape down the hall and grab a snack,” she pressed. “If you would kindly let me escape, I could maybe bring you something in exchange.”
“Well, since you’ve offered,” Sefu cleared his throat with an amused smile. “An apple from the kitchen sounds very inviting.”
Atienna hid a laugh with her hand again. “All right, Sefu. An apple for you.” She leaned toward Nia. “Nia, and you?”
A beat of silence passed, and Nia’s belly grumbled.
“An apple would be most graciously accepted,” Nia said with defeat.
With that promise made, Atienna swept out into the halls with another book in hand. She greeted the guards stationed in front of her room and offered to retrieve food for them as well. They politely declined but offered to attend her down the hall. She politely declined in turn and continued on her way. The walls in their home were painted a mossy green and were decorated with various hand-carved art pieces. An ivory horn painted with geometric shapes. A wooden mask etched with a hungry smile. Paintings of moons and suns frequented the walls.
She was just rounding the corner when she was suddenly attacked at her neck and at her legs by two pairs of thin arms, wrapping tightly. She was used to such assaults and held herself straight.
“Kamaria,” she sighed to the one wrapped around her neck. “Kichea,” she sighed to the one wrapped at her feet. “You two aren’t little anymore. You’ll really kill me one day.”
The strangling pressure around her neck and legs released, and Atienna turned to find her sisters blinking at her. Kamaria stood five heads taller than Kichea and was dressed in her usual attire: a deep green and beaded silk dress that skirted above her knees daringly. Her hair was box-braided and tied into an elaborate updo that made it look as if a lotus flower was blooming from the top of her head. Kichea, on the other hand, was in a simple white dress. Her hair was a wild bush.
“Excuse me for being happy to see my sister not bedridden.” Kamaria rolled her eyes. She looked Atienna up and down before placing her hands on her hips. “Aren’t you supposed to be in bed though? Do you feel better? Did you sneak out?”
“I missed you, Ati,” Kichea interjected, closing the distance between them with outstretched arms.
Atienna slipped down into a crouch and took Kichea into her arms. After an embrace, she released her younger sister and raised a brow at her and then Kamaria. A smile tugged at the corner of her lips—the sight of which caused Kamaria to swallow.
“Well, it really touches my heart to see both of my beloved sisters saying they miss me and even visiting me here out in the hall,” Atienna said, resting her head onto her propped-up hand. “I wish I saw them doing this when I was in bed.”
“W-We did visit you! A lot!” Kamaria protested. “We even snuck past the medical Conductors—the doctors! But you were too knocked out to notice!”
Atienna tilted her head. “Yes, thank you for that. But since you’ve visited me so many times, I feel bad to keep you from what you’ve been doing—ah, and what is it that you’ve been doing?”
Kamaria averted her gaze and cleared her throat. “We’ve been…”
Atienna glanced down at her youngest sister. “Kichea?”
“I missed you, Ati,” Kichea repeated, stretching out her arms again for a hug.
“It seems as if your sisters who managed to deceive me cannot deceive you,” came a deep laughing voice from just behind her.
Atienna rose and turned to find a large and bulky middle-aged man coming down the hall. He was dressed in a loose, purple-and-sage-colored robe that billowed at his approach. His well-trimmed beard was graying, and his smiling eyes were wrinkled at the corners.
“What excuse did they use this time to escape from your lessons, Usian?” Atienna asked.
“Well, this time Kichea had a stomach ache that was so terrible that she just had to go see the resident medical Conductor. And her kind older sister Kamaria offered to escort her to them,” Usian explained, coming to a stop before them with crossed arms. “At least when I was tutoring you, Atienna, you remained in the classroom. You were reading books instead of paying attention to my lessons, but at least your physical presence remained.”
“I’m still sorry about that,” Atienna chuckled before turning her eyes on her sisters. “But I must say that I’m very jealous of my little sisters’ craftiness.” She squeezed Kamaria’s shoulders. “Giving you so much trouble despite you returning from beyond the borders barely over a week ago. Not a moment’s rest”
“Well, you would think that going through the Twin Cities of Gemini would help me have a better eye for when I’m being swindled, but alas.”
Kamaria rolled her eyes.
“Come on,” Atienna sighed good-naturedly, inclining her head down the hall. “It’s only half an hour until your lesson ends, isn’t it? That’s not that long.”
Kamaria rolled her eyes again before taking Kichea’s hand and heading down the hall.
“I’m glad to see you’re doing all right, Atienna,” Usian said when the two were out of ears’ reach. “I heard they’re having a hard time identifying what type of poison was used.”
“Yes, I’ve heard the same,” Atienna said, turning back to him. She tapped the book in her hand and frowned. “I’ve been looking into it, but I haven’t been able to find any poison that has similar side effects. A fainting spell paired with a flash fever and hallucinations? There’s nothing. Nothing with symptoms that disappear so quickly, at least.”
Usian gave a half-hearted smile. “Perhaps you should join the investigation team. You sound like you know everything.”
“Oh, I wish I knew everything. I’m sure there’s nothing I know that they haven’t found out yet,” Atienna murmured sheepishly. “You know I’m not very good with large groups.”
“Ah, by nature or by choice?” Usian smiled.
Atienna merely returned the expression.
Usian’s smile, however, soon slid from his face. “This… event… I believe it has to do with the recent Sagittarian request for support. Your father did vote in favor of standing against the Aquarians and Capricornians. He was in the minority, but you know how the people view your father. If given the right tools, he could sway them. If not that, he could—”
“I don’t think it’s right to make assumptions just yet.” Atienna frowned somewhat. “It might start—”
“And it is right to not think at all? To sit back and watch things progress? Bow to Ophiuchian regulation and follow what they deem is just? There is no hope for the future of Virgo in that path.”
Atienna startled at this but did not allow her surprise or hurt to make their way onto her face. Usian seemed to sense her emotions, however, and pulled back into himself.
“Forgive my rudeness, Atienna.” Usian cleared his throat. “So much has been going on lately. It’s been hard to keep easy with this and what’s been going on beyond our borders…”
“It’s all right,” Atienna returned, smile back in place. “I understand.”
His eyes widened for a fraction of a second as she said this, and he seemed to look her over. What he was searching for, what he was hoping to find, what he saw—she did not know.
He pulled back and cleared his throat. “Well, I should go back to your sisters then. Before they concoct another plan of escape.”
Right. It was better to brush these things under the carpet. Addressing them any further would simply lead to conflict. To avert the eyes was the best option.
“Oh.” Usian paused and turned toward her. “You’re visiting your mother today, right?”
“Yes. A bit earlier this evening since I haven’t seen her in a while.”
Usian’s smile returned at this. “Perhaps I shall join you then. If your sisters don’t swindle me again.” And with that he went down the hall after her sisters.
Atienna watched him go before turning down the opposite direction. With a sigh, she studied the cover of her book as she continued down the hall and then spied at her fingers. They were still raw and red from—
A sudden chill nipped at her neck and her bare arms and legs. A draft from somewhere, it seemed. She looked up from the cover and stopped cold in her tracks.
The hallway. It was gone.
In place of the green walls was a forest lining of bare-boned, black trees interspersed with flimsy tents. Above her head unfurled a cold and gray skyline on the verge of weeping.
She took a step back in confusion and turned her head. Just behind her stood a line of uniformed men and women. None of them seemed to acknowledge her as she drew nearer. Perhaps they couldn’t see her? But their uniforms—she’d seen them once in one of her history books. Certainly, that periwinkle uniform belonged to a Capricornian soldier.
“Well, this is strange,” she murmured to herself and rubbed her arms. “An effect of the poison still…? But the doctors said it should have been cleared from my system…” She waved her arms in the air but received no response.
Frowning, she drew closer only to be cut off as a man stepped between her and the soldiers. The man was tall and pale. His facial features were sharp, his slicked-back hair a platinum blonde, his eyes an icy blue. The air around him seemed frigid.
Curiously, she studied him.
His name… Somehow, despite never seeing him before in her life, she knew it. In the back of her head, like a memory, a voice whispered—
The man did not turn at her call and instead addressed a thin adolescent who stood quaking before him. Ah, it seemed as if the poor boy was in trouble. As the man named Werner Waltz continued to coldly condemn the boy in front of the other soldiers, Atienna couldn’t help but say, “How cruel.”
Surprisingly, Werner seemed to react to her words and shook his head.
Could he hear her…?
Atienna perked up at this and drew nearer to him. “Fear is a teacher but not a good one.”
Werner seemed to stiffen at this. It was for his own good. There’s no room for error or weakness in the field.
Although his lips did not speak the words, she heard them echoing through her ears. How peculiar. She took a step toward him. She tried, “Then why not say that to begin with?”
The man froze suddenly and did not continue any further.
Hesitantly, she reached for the man’s shoulder. But before she could make contact, the scenery around her melted away. When her surroundings re-solidified around her, she found that she was no longer in the field nor was she back in her home’s green halls. No, before her was a wooden stage with a grand piano, front and center. On this stage stood a boyish-looking girl who was dressed in a loose suit one size too large. Upon closer inspection, Atienna found that the girl was, in fact, a young woman. The young woman had unruly red hair that was barely tamed by her hat, and her round cheeks were dotted with freckles. She didn’t seem to notice Atienna’s presence because her eyes were focused on the piano in front of her.
The young woman’s fingers itched for those piano keys. How Atienna knew this, she did not know.
Out of pure curiosity, Atienna tried in the Common language, “That’s a lovely piano.”
The flirtatious smile she was greeted with was amusingly charming enough for Atienna to pursue conversation. Thus began a short talk that was interrupted only by a voice that seemed to belong to someone standing behind the woman—a bartender: “Who are you talking to…?”
Atienna had studied the languages of the twelve countries for many years now, despite the fact that Common had become the most spoken language. She knew many viewed her studies as useless. Regardless, Geminian was one of the languages she found hardest to learn. It was just too far away from her Virgo’s base languages and too far away from Common. But for some reason, as she listened to the bartender’s question, she could comprehend him completely.
Atienna realized after hearing the bartender speak that she could not be seen here by others either—only by the red-headed woman. Wherever ‘here’ was.
The scenery flickered again and began to melt away, but this time Atienna did her best to hold onto it. The stage with the piano re-solidified in front of her eyes as did the wide-eyed face of the young woman.
“No, no, no.” The young woman shook her head and waved her hand in the air. “Go back. Go away, go away, go away. I’ve got enough stressors in my life. Don’t need ta start hallucinatin’. Got enough whack jobs in this city.” The woman looked at her up and down. “Even if the hallucination is a pretty lady.”
“Oh, I’m very real.” Atienna chuckled. “In my point of view, I should be the one denying your existence.”
The young woman blinked at her. “I ain’t havin’ an argument with my imaginary friend.”
In the background, the bartender pressed again, “Seriously. You’re freaking me out. Who are you talking to?”
The young woman glanced over Atienna’s shoulder. In the blink of an eye, her expression of displeasure melded into one of playful lightheartedness. It was such an instantaneous change that Atienna was left wondering if the woman had truly felt disturbed by her presence at all.
“Just ventin’ my frustration with work,” the woman replied to the bartender. “I’m sure you don’t want to hear me run my mouth. Why don’t ya go take a cig outside? Ya sure ain’t doin’ anything in here. No customers.” She reached into her pocket, pulled out a wallet, and tossed it to him. “Here, you can get yourself somethin’ nice in the meantime.”
A thud resounded as the wallet was caught, and it was followed by a pause of silence.
The young woman cracked an even wider grin. “Empty just means it’s perfect for bein’ filled.”
A grunt followed by footfalls and the sound of a door closing.
The young woman’s smile fell from her face, and she regarded Atienna apprehensively. “So, what does my subconscious wanna tell me? That I should stop doin’ underground work?” A laugh. “Sorry, but if you’re my subconscious, you’d be arguing for me to continue as I please.”
Atienna hid her smile again which caused the young woman to frown. “How about instead of choosing to label whatever is happening as reality or delusion,” she said, “we just talk?”
The young woman did a double take. “Talk?”
Atienna nodded before clasping her hands together. “Whether this is real or not is dwarfed by the fact that this experience is something very out-of-the-ordinary, right?”
The young woman squinted at her and then rubbed the back of her neck. “Er, yeah.”
“Even though I’m standing in the middle of this hallway right now in my house,” Atienna continued, extending her hand out. “I can see this bar like it’s right in front of me. It’s a bit like astral projection, don’t you think?”
The young woman cocked a brow before cracking a sly grin and extending her hand out to touch Atienna’s own hand. Their fingers brushed up against each other. Static at the touch. The woman’s eyes widened as her breath hitched.
Atienna took a step forward out of curiosity. She peered into the young woman’s face and studied it. Realization dawned a beat later. “Can you see where I’m standing? My house―the hall?”
The young woman pulled back, shook her head.
Atienna frowned and leaned in close. “Are you all right?”
The young woman straightened and shook her head again before pinching the bridge of her nose. “Saints be damned. I feel like I’m havin’ a really bad morrowheat trip.” She studied Atienna―more curious than flirtatious. “What is goin’ on here?”
“I’m not sure,” Atienna said with a thoughtful frown before she extended her hand once more. “But what I’m sure of is that I am Atienna Imamu, and I’d like to understand this—and you—better. Real or not.”
The young woman stared before she seemed to snicker to herself. Extending her hand and accepting Atienna’s gesture, she said, “Cadence Morello. And I gotta say, ya sure sound like ya know everything.”
“I wish I did—”
Cadence Morello and her dimly lit bar were gone in the next instant.
“Cadence?” she tried.
The green-painted halls answered her silently.
* * *
When Atienna arrived in front of the large wooden doors that guarded the kitchen, she was greeted by muffled shouting. They were arguing again. With a sigh, she pressed a hand against the cool surface of the door and pushed it open. The shouting stopped immediately.
Their kitchen was a modest one. Nothing as spectacular as the well-equipped and extravagantly decorated kitchen of the Council Hall. A stove was built into the corner with a hearth crackling just beside it. At the center of the kitchen stood a rectangular table that could sit six people. At the ends of this table stood her father and her brother. Panting, breathless.
“Atienna!” both men exclaimed at her entrance.
“My dear, how are you feeling?” her father pressed, crossing the kitchen and placing his hands on her arms. “The medical Conductors said you were recovering, but…”
“Much better, father,” Atienna replied before she smiled. “I hope I wasn’t interrupting anything.”
Both men exchanged looks and said nothing.
Her father raised his hand to touch her face. His eyes were tired. She remembered when they used to be bright with laughter. She took his hand in her own and gave it a squeeze.
“Atienna, I can’t allow you to be harmed any more than this,” her father murmured. He side-glanced at Bachiru. “None of my children should be put in danger like this! If anything, what has happened to you just highlights my poor decision to remain on the Council.”
Atienna and Bachiru exchanged looks.
“Father…” Bachiru frowned. “You can’t possibly be suggesting that you step down from your position as chieftain.” He shook his head and took a step forward. “That would just be doing what they want! Obviously, someone wanted to scare you off because of your support for the Sagittarians!”
“You are choosing fear over what’s right!”
“I am choosing my family!” her father bellowed
Atienna’s heart skipped a beat. Her head swam as her father’s voice rang in her ears.
“You’re going against everything mother worked for if you do this!” Bachiru snapped before he recoiled at his own words. “I-I meant…”
The world blurred around her. A vague memory tugged at the corner of her mind, but she refused to look at it. Instead, she squeezed her fists tight and bit the inside of her mouth. She glanced at her father and found that his face was drained of color. She tasted iron.
Her father stumbled backward and fell into his chair beside the table. Atienna and Bachiru took a step forward to aid him but he waved their efforts off.
“Father,” Bachiru tried, “I just meant…”
“Atienna, Bachiru,” her father sighed. “You should both retire to your rooms. We still don’t know if another attempt will be made.”
“Enough, Bachiru.” Her father shook his head. “Atienna, take him to his room. Please.”
Before Bachiru could make another stand, Atienna placed a hand on his shoulder and looked him in the eye. His words died as did the flame in his eyes. In response, she offered him a smile. Dazedly, she led her brother out of the kitchen and down the hall and dropped him off to his guards stationed there. He looked as if he wanted to say something more to her but made no move to.
She continued down the hall away from him in a stupor. She could not face her mother like this. And so, she passed by the corridor that led to her mother’s chambers without sparing it a glance.
But was that the correct choice? Atienna did not know. Too many choices, too many consequences. It was more complicated than what was right or what was wrong. Everything, that was. Poison. Purpose. Politics. Even peace.
Her vision of Werner and Cadence from only half an hour earlier seemed like a faraway dream.
“Maybe there is no correct choice…” Atienna murmured to herself as she studied the book in her hands. “Or maybe it’s just that I…”
Her fingers itched. Much like Cadence’s fingers when she stood in front of that piano. However, Atienna knew her fingers did not itch for something as lovely as that piano. No, what her fingers itched for was—
“I forgot the apples…”
* * *
When night fell, Atienna slipped out of bed, walked over to her bookcase, and selected a black tome from the highest shelf. It was a hollowed-out book and within it were several small glass bottles of paint and a roll of linen-bandages. She dipped her fingertips into the paint and dragged it across her face. A dot here, a dot there, a long stroke, and then she was unrecognizable. After wiping the paint off her hands, she carefully wound the linen around her fingers and palm. A perfect fit.
She hid away the paint and the roll back into the tome and stored it back on the shelf before she climbed on top of her bookcase. From there, she reached for a latch hidden in the corner of the ceiling. When she gave the latch a tug, it opened up a crawl space that she pulled herself up into. After she made sure to close it behind her, she crawled forward into the darkness until she reached a dead end. She then reached above her head and pushed. The ceiling gave way, and she broke out onto the rooftop. She nimbly, quietly pulled herself up onto the roof and crept to the edge of the building. Just beneath her view, she could see the guards standing resolute.
It was not difficult to slip past them, as she’d done it many times before. She did feel bad, however, for their hard work going to waste, but she set the matter aside as she’d always done.
Through the dimly lit streets of town, she stalked twisting down alleys and through trees and vines that overgrew dirt and stone buildings alike. Down into the depths of darkness, she went until the trees completely consumed the buildings and the chatter of town became lost to the cries of crickets and other wild nightlife. Very few knew this path, but she knew it deep in her heart. She had engraved it carefully there as to never forget. A couple more steps and—there. She broke out from the thrushes and overgrowth into a clearing marked by the silver light from the full moon.
In the clearing was a ring lit by torches. Around the ring stood individuals with painted faces, like hers. Bright splotches of red, blue, green obscured and twisted their features strangely in the flickering flame light. Others wore masks that made them look beastly. Perfect in this setting.
At the center of this ring stood a shirtless man wearing a long and wooden mask carved into the shape of a snake. The fangs of the snake curved down his cheeks and touched the base of his neck.
Atienna slinked down through the crowd that parted for her and entered the center of the circle. The snake-masked man nodded at her, and she nodded back in turn.
“No names. No tribes. No conductors,” the man in the long mask bellowed out. “This is how it is meant to be. No bad blood, no good blood. The Night Circle.”
With that, the people around the ring began to chant, to stomp their feet, to clap their hands to a steady rhythm. Thump. Thump-thump. Thump. Like a beating heart.
Into the ring stepped another figure. A man. Face painted bright red with streams of white running down his cheeks from his eyes. Painted tears. How ironic.
The snake-masked man stepped out from the ring and then let out a shout that tore through the night. It had begun.
Atienna regarded her opponent, and her opponent regarded her. A beat of silence passed, then her opponent swung at her with a fist. Atienna dodged it with a lean to the right before she swung her leg up and cracked her opponent’s head with her foot. She followed through the momentum of the spin and used the force of it to power her punch which connected with her opponent’s skull again a second after.
Her opponent stumbled backward in stupor, but she did not relent. She swung her leg out again and swept his legs out from underneath him. Before he could fall, she sent out another kick that sent him toppling sideways. Once again, she did not let him fall.
“And it is right to not think at all? To sit back and watch things progress and hope for the best? Like we’ve been doing all these years?”
She cut upward with her fist.
“I am choosing my family!”
Again and again.
“You’re going against everything mother worked for if you do this!”
Punch after punch. Kick after kick.
She didn’t know how long it was before she stopped throwing punches and kicks, but when she was done, her opponent lay motionless in the dirt. Heaving and panting, she wiped the sweat dripping from her brow and felt the paint smear onto her arm.
Distantly, she heard the noise from the crowd. Somewhere between her punches, they had stopped chanting and had instead started cheering—“Queen of the Night! Queen of the Night!”
Their cheers rang in her ears as did the blood rush from a complete victory.
The itching in her fingers and the buzzing daze in her mind subsided. No uncertainty, no choice, no consequence. A wonderful relief.