Atienna continues to tiptoe around the brewing conflict surrounding her poisoning even after she witnesses her brother Bachiru discussing something of obvious political dissent with her former teacher Usian. She goes to the Great Tree of Virgo with her mother who was injured six years prior and encounters Werner Waltz through their psychic link. A voice is egging her on at the back of her head—urging her to move. Everything ugly is bubbling to the surface.
Imamu Estate, Virgo
“Can you hear it? The pulse of syzygy?”
Atienna stopped and turned.
There was nothing behind her. Only the long, familiar stretch of green walls she had known her whole life. What an unpleasant thought. Recently they had been occurring more often. She looked away.
“What is it, Atienna?”
Safiyah was giving her the usual look of concern. Despite meeting one another just the other day, Safiyah had insisted on popping in for a wellness check.
“The walls. Do you think we should repaint them?” Atienna wondered, moving over to the wall and pressing her hand against it. “The green is a little suffocating, don’t you think?”
Something terrible twisted in Atienna’s stomach at the thought.
“Well, maybe not white—”
“Atienna!” Safiyah rushed forward and grabbed her hand. A surprisingly tight grip. “What happened? Did someone do this to you?”
Atienna startled in alarm. When realization dawned, she could not help but smile. Safiyah always worried incessantly.
“I was gardening again,” Atienna replied, slipping her bandaged hand out of her friend’s grip and then holding it sheepishly. “The roses are very pesky.” She dropped her hand and flushed. “Even though I’ve been at it for years I still—”
Safiyah threw back her head and let out a dramatic sigh. “You’re so clumsy! You need to take better care of yourself! Every single time I see you, you always have on new bandages! If I didn’t know you, I would think you were out getting into fights with your hands like that. Who would’ve thought gardening was so dangerous.”
The irony was not lost on Atienna, but instead of addressing it in words or in mind, she mimicked snipping scissors loosely with her hands as they continued their stroll down the hall. “Gardening. I don’t think it’s really fair coming out of it unscarred. To help, to hurt, to cultivate—whether it’s either of those intentions—it’s a change. And change always results in pain one way or another, don’t you think?”
Safiyah stared at her before shaking her head. “You say the strangest things sometimes, Atienna.”
“And I’m grateful you’re still my friend despite it.”
“I’m your friend because of it.” Safiyah elegantly rolled her eyes. “I know what to expect from you.”
“Do you?” Atienna grinned devilishly.
“Of course.” Safiyah huffed. “With the Council, at the moment they’re saying that they’re refraining from international involvements due to the current internal affair, but who knows what they will say next? We might be off to fight in that silly Capricornian-Aquarian conflict tomorrow after they suddenly declare they suspect outside involvement with your poisoning. Well, not tomorrow. They’ll probably sit on it for another couple of years or so before we hear anything of it.”
“I thought you’d be happier about that. About the continued isolationism, I mean. Well, I hope you wouldn’t be happy about my case.”
“Oh, stop teasing me.” Safiyah rolled her eyes. “What I’m saying is that other people change ‘at the tip of a hat,’ as the Ariesians say. But you never change.”
Those were words meant for comfort, but for a moment Atienna felt something flare up in the pit of her stomach. Her palms itched, but the sensation only lasted for a second. This was not the place, after all. She could wait. She needed to.
Atienna chuckled. “Being around a boring person all the time must be a hardship.”
They passed through the halls, speaking about everything except what Atienna presumed was on their minds. When the front doors were within their sights, they found Nia and Sefu waiting for them at their posts. The guards turned almost immediately at the approach and gave their usual salutes.
Safiyah nodded at them with an air of nobility that she seemed to draw from thin air. Under her breath, she whispered, “They’re not going to search me again, are they?”
“I bribed them with food made by my father’s personal chef,” Atienna whispered back. “Kupika. He’s served the chieftain family of the Imamu tribe for generations. Apparently, he gets requests to cook outside of Virgo.”
“I don’t mind being bribed as well.”
After sharing a hug with Safiyah, Atienna watched as Nia escorted her out the door and through the pathway outside leading to the gate. Sefu remained posted by the door
“You look tired, Sefu. Did you have a late-night shift again?” Atienna asked.
Sefu turned his head toward her, but his face remained impassive. Rigidly, he looked over his shoulder at the twisting walkway and back down the hall behind her. Almost immediately the tightness in his shoulders loosened. He hung his head. “Miss Atienna, I’ve been posted here since midnight! I am near fainting!”
Atienna covered her mouth in shock. “I’m so sorry. You’ve been here for that long? Without food?”
“Well, no. I did take a lunch break an hour earlier,” Sefu admitted. “And a breakfast break before that, but there have been so many guests coming in and out of the estate that—”
Atienna hid her smile. “Worry not, Sefu. I am at your service.”
With that, she made her way back through the halls and found her way to the kitchen doors. She reached for the handle but paused as a muffled voice echoed from within.
Probably raiding the fridge again in an effort to procrastinate his homework from Usian.
Sighing, Atienna pressed her hand against the door and pushed it open an inch.
“—tonight at the Great Tree.”
Atienna froze and peered down at the gap beneath the door. The light spilling out from the crack was smeared by shifting shadows. One, two, three, four, five—
Just how many people were inside? And with so many people present, why was Bachiru the only one speaking?
“All the Council does is speak about their beliefs about what is right, what is moral, what is good for this country. But beliefs alone do nothing. They are merely the spark, and a spark that does not catch flame is meaningless. Actions are the tinder to the flame.”
Atienna’s vision swam.
Those were the exact words. The words that she had engraved into her heart. The words that her—their—mother had spoken to that crowd on that day. That day that—
“I already have the support of the Mkuki tribe. Although they have close ties with the Ra who have strictly voted against Sagittarian support, I have managed to convince their eldest chieftain son of our cause. We will stand together in front of the Great Tree—the symbol of stagnation for our country—and we will burn down the conductors and the tree itself! We will show those old men and women sitting on their chairs that it is time to do away with the old. That we must reach out! If —”
Atienna peeled away from the door.
Should she intervene? Stop him from starting something that could become something irreversible? Was the irreversibility good or bad? Would Bachiru be in the right, in that case, or the wrong. Both? Ideals were never wrong as long as they were viewed within the right frame of mind, but… No. She didn’t know. What was right, what was wrong. Both.
Abruptly, a woman appeared right in front of Atienna’s eyes. Out of thin air. Like she had been dropped from the sky. Vaguely, Atienna was reminded of the sensation of skipping pages in a book and being taken from a tragic scene to a happy reunion. Startling, but not quite out of place nor unwanted.
The woman was very tall with broad shoulders and a posture that radiated confidence. Her deep green eyes were determined, looking straight ahead without reluctance. The smile she wore was charismatic and fearless. Perhaps an author may have spotted her in passing and then crafted a heroic princely figure in a novel out of inspiration. Yes, that was the impression Atienna got from this woman. An unearthly, impossible person.
“For you to drop by so suddenly, you must be very bold,” Atienna said, meeting her eyes.
“Oh! You can see me!” The woman let out a laugh that filled in all the corners of the hallway. She stepped forward and clasped Atienna’s hand in her own. Warm. “Are you a spirit too, then?”
Atienna opened her mouth to reply, but—
“Well, I suddenly found myself with that other one, yes? The short, angry child? Well, it was very boring, so I left that place. And then I was somewhere else and now I am here.” The woman rocked back on her heels and nearly stumbled back toward the door. She caught her balance on the balls of her feet, however, and rocked forward. “But you’re the first one to speak to me like this! Say, why is that, spirit? You are a spirit, yes?”
This was a bit too much. But perhaps this was just the way this person was.
“Well, although I can’t confirm or deny your interesting theory on spirits, I can’t say I feel very much like one,” Atienna responded.
“You just denied my theory, didn’t you? Why are you saying you can’t? When you speak like that, I get really confused, you know?” The woman’s gaze pierced through her like an arrow. It was unnerving. Those unsettling eyes paired with that sparkling grin.
Atienna covered up her smile of discomfort with her hand. “Well, when you put it eloquently like that, I guess I have to confirm that I am not a spirit. I doubt the others you’ve encountered are either.” Atienna then did her best to explain what little she knew of their current situation. The connecting thoughts. The mirages. The feelings.
After the lengthy explanation, Maria Gloria-Fernandez tilted her head and stared at Atienna, puzzled. And then she broke out into another dazzling grin and gripped Atienna’s shoulder. “I don’t really get it, and I definitely have never felt anything but emotions that are my own,” she said. “But from what I am understanding, we are currently experiencing something that no one has experienced before, yes? In other words, this is amazing!”
Atienna was rather taken aback. Even Cadence hadn’t reacted this positively. Atienna couldn’t help but wonder if people like this truly existed. She wondered—
“What are you doing?” Asking this, Maria suddenly popped up only inches away from Atienna’s face.
Atienna stepped back and smiled. “I’m sorry if this comes off as rude, but I could ask you the same thing.”
“I told you. I’m here because I’m bored,” Maria answered. She leaned back against the door behind her and paused when Atienna froze. She gestured backward and cocked her head. “You want to go inside, don’t you? Or is it that you want to walk away? I don’t really get what’s going on, but whatever you do is much better than just standing here, no?”
Atienna’s palms itched. Had she not dressed them properly before?
“It’s very kind of you to be concerning yourself with my current situation, but from what I gather, you seem to be at a crossroads yourself.”
And then Maria frowned, perplexed. “Huh? What are you saying? What does that have anything to with what you want to do?”
This Maria was—
“Your body is strong. I am sure if you tried to punch me now and I let you, it would definitely hurt. But your eyes…” Maria lifted her hand, brought it to Atienna’s face—just barely brushing over her left eye. “At first, I thought you were like the boy, but you’re not even looking in any direction. Not a path of escape, not a path forward.” She cracked a grin again. “Well, regardless, I still like you.”
Leaving that statement in the air, Maria Gloria-Fernandez promptly disappeared from Atienna’s sight. But the itch remained.
There was a sound from behind the door. Someone was approaching. Atienna swiftly backed away and headed into the bathroom two doors down. Once inside, she approached the stone sink carved from the wall and ran the water. She rinsed her face before shutting off the spout and headed to the window on her left. She could barely make out the pathway leading to the gates from this angle, but she could still see the sunlight splattering through the overhanging canopies.
She glanced down at the sill. Her heart sank at the sight of it. With all the commotion going on, she had forgotten to water her flowers here and they had begun to wilt. Virgo was in the middle of a heat wave, after all. She picked up the pitcher that was in the corner of the room, filled it up in the sink, and took to watering her neglected plants.
Worrying did nothing. It was better not to think about it. It was all useless anyways.
Atienna held her lightly throbbing temple as a heaviness suddenly pressed down on her chest. The feeling of déjà vu that she had become familiar with followed shortly after.
And then she felt it. That sensation again. Like with the woman. Something startling but not out of place or unwanted.
Atienna turned her head.
And just like that, a young boy appeared there in the mirror above the sink. He was sitting on the edge of a windowsill, staring out. There was another person sitting next to him. A friend? No, it didn’t seem that way.
Just like Maria, he did not seem alarmed at her appearance.
As she spoke with him, Atienna couldn’t help but wonder what it was that made Maria think they were alike initially. It was a little ways into their conversation that she noticed the third person. A girl. She could vaguely make out the girl’s thoughts, but everything about her was surrounded in a haze. When she addressed the boy about the girl, he gave an unexpectedly emotional response. There was desperation in his eyes and anger and guilt. But before she could address it—
—like a lightning bolt, an unexplainable rage throttled through her core.
It bubbled up in her chest and rose upward where it lodged in her throat. Her vision blurred.
Bachiru. How dare he? After everything that had happened, after everything their father had suffered, after—
“Ah!” Abruptly, Atienna found herself doubled over, cradling her stomach. Her hands were wet, warm. She tried to move them away from her abdomen to assess the damage, but even the slightest movement caused excruciating pain to shoot through the area. Grimacing and blinking the tears out of her eyes, she looked down. Red seeped between her fingers.
Yes. And no. This wasn’t her pain, she realized. Not her wound. This was—
Atienna looked up at the mirror above the sink. “Jericho.”
A coldness gripped her insides as she spoke the name and the feeling closed in around her chest. She gasped for air as the iciness gripped tighter, making each breath even more painful than the last. Black dots flooded her vision.
And then the coldness released her.
It took a moment for Atienna to catch her breath. When she looked back up at the mirror, the boy was gone. The pain was gone too.
She glanced down at her stomach.
But the feeling remained. Lodged in her throat.
What in the world was that pain?
She leaned against the windowsill and wiped her brow. After taking a minute to collect herself, she stood and glanced around the bathroom. Rubbing her arms, she asked quietly, “Are you all right?”
Silence answered her. The quiet sent a chill down her spine.
Taking in a deep breath, Atienna made her way back out the hall and then found herself right in front of the kitchen doors. Maria’s words echoed inside of her mind again and paired with that feeling, they were almost unbearable.
Atienna reached toward the door, but it swung open abruptly.
Bachiru stood there, startled. “Oh, Atienna. Did Safiyah leave already?”
Atienna remained silent and peered behind him. The kitchen was empty, but the tabletops were cluttered with crumb-filled plates and used utensils.
“Did your friends leave already?” Atienna smiled pleasantly.
Bachiru’s eyes widened and his body tensed. “I—Wha—Yes.” He swallowed. “I invited them over to make bets on the Olorun Game Festival this fall.”
Atienna walked forward and did not allow her gaze to leave his face even as he backed away. She closed the door behind her. “What are you doing, Bachiru?”
“Wha—what do you mea—”
“Arson is a bit extreme, don’t you think?”
A long stretch of silence.
“So you have heard then,” Bachiru said. “You’ve always told me it’s not polite to eavesdrop.”
“Nor is it polite to destroy something that thousands of people rely on.”
Bachiru lifted his chin. “If we don’t do something, then they will win.”
“The people who hurt you, Atienna.”
“I am perfectly fine, Bachiru. What happened to me has nothing to do with what you’re doing. Using what happened as an excuse is a bit irresponsible, don’t you think?”
“It has everything to do with you! You heard what has been said—what everyone knows! You were poisoned because Father wanted to support the Sagittarians! It was a threat!”
“And if it really was a threat, is destroying the conductors and the Great Tree the correct way to respond? When the one who did it is not even known? Who is to say that the people you’ve allied with aren’t the ones who did it? It’s an endless spiral of conspiracies. Why spread distrust to others when there’s already enough of it? It doesn’t fit together, don’t you think?”
Bachiru opened his mouth and then closed it.
“These issues that are happening—I think you are justified in your feelings,” Atienna said gently. “But I’m not sure you’re going about it the right way. Are you certain your actions are justified? Think about it, Bachiru. Do you believe that no one will be harmed if you go through with this? Will you be able to live with it?”
A soft, wry chuckle escaped Bachiru’s lips as he shook his head. “That’s always how you are. Not even addressing what this is all about. Question after question after question. Dancing around everything.”
Ah. There it was again. That accusation.
Averting her eyes? What was wrong with that? It was better than choosing something and hurting others, wasn’t it? Right. No matter where it landed on the scale, a choice always ended with suffering. Not only that…
Her palms ached, her knuckles cracked as she clenched her fists.
No. No. No.
Keep calm. It wasn’t right to be angry now. Bachiru was justified in his thoughts from his point of view, but she was also justified in hers. No one was right, no one was wrong. And what she was feeling right now was only for the night. That was a choice for no one to see.
“Seeking to offer peace to another country by promoting violence in your own—don’t you think that’s just a little bit strange?”
“Atienna. You know that speaking about beliefs does nothing. Acting on those beliefs is what matters. Just speaking about it lets problems fester. Mother—”
Something snapped. A dam broke.
“Wait, I didn’t mean…”
The feeling that had been bottled up near her throat suddenly released. The red, hot anger spilling out into her fingers, out from her mouth, coursing into her veins.
Did she scream? Yell? She didn’t know. What she did know was that there was now a deep dent in the wooden table beside her and—
—that in the petals of wood that fragmented outward from the dent’s center, her closed fist now rested. There was a dull throbbing at the side of that fist, but it hurt no more than it hurt when she threw a bad punch in the ring.
Bachiru was wide-eyed. Concern? Fear? She didn’t know.
“What makes you so sure that you’re right?”—whether she was shouting or whispering, she didn’t know either—“What kind of arrogance do you have that you think your version of justice is so much better than mother’s, than anyone else’s?”
Bachiru was stumbling backward, but she continued toward him.
“After everything she fought for, after everything that’s happened to her—to us—because of what she fought for, how dare you do all of this? How selfish can you be? Calling me indecisive? I have been thinking of this family every single day since mother became like this! What to do and what not to do so the same mistake never happens again—it’s all I ever think about! And you—you have the gall to—”
Bachiru was up against the wall now, and she was mere centimeters from his face.
“You told all of those people in here that beliefs were meaningless without action. Using mother’s words so easily.” Atienna clenched her pounding fist. “Do you know what I hate most, Bachiru? You do, don’t you? It’s when people speak with such vindication without having a clue what they’re talking about!”
Atienna released all of her righteous, burning anger and punched the wall right next to his head. The picture frame that had been hanging there shattered and the wall behind it splintered. Glass shards rained down onto the floorboards as the picture within the frame became loose and fluttered downward.
Out of the corner of her eye, Atienna caught a glimpse of the photograph.
It was the six of them. Before they became the chieftain household of the Imamu tribe. Before—
The anger, the heat, the rage disappeared in an instant, leaving Atienna with a cold emptiness. Atienna stumbled backward, cradling her bleeding hand. She looked away from where the photograph now lay on the ground and up at her brother who flinched at her gaze.
Her brother slid to the ground shaking, and her heart fell with him.
“Miss Atienna? Yes, she’s a very nice, respectable young woman. Very kind. Always looking after her siblings.”
“Right? She’s always so considerate. I don’t think there’s a bad bone in her body. In fact, I think she intimidates some people with her gentleness. That’s Imamu tribe upbringing for you. Plus, she always sneaks us food—“
“Sefu. That’s inappropriate.”A conversation between Nia and Sefu, guards of the chieftain family of the Imamu Tribe