Zero (6/7)

Atienna Imamu, Virgoan Daughter of Sixth House Chieftain

They were arguing again. 

She watched them as they slammed their fists against the tablecloth and pointed their utensils at each other’s throats.  Despite their raised voices, they did not draw the eyes of those seated around them. It was difficult to hear anyone in this large dining hall, after all. The clay walls that rose around them ended in an arch above their heads. It was an arch that threw back their voices at them tenfold. A whisper became a shout. A pleasant comment, a booming exclamation.

Needless to say, with the ten families lining the long white table to her left and another ten families to her right, the entire room was filled with an almost headache-inducing cacophony. Paired alongside the idle words of conversation were the clicks and clacks of spoons against porcelain bowls and knives against clay plates.

Atienna glanced back down at the book she’d hidden under the cloth. It rested on her lap open, alluringly beckoning her to delve into its pages once more. One more page, it said. If not that, one more paragraph. Or one more sentence.

It was a bit difficult to read in this dimly hall. The only light present came from the parallel streams of vitae that ran along the floors of the hall beside the wall. At the bank of the rivers of light grew vibrant star-shaped flowers and twisting vines.  Atienna knew that these rivers ran out from the building to a large vitae pool just around the back. The streams would continue out from this pool and stretch out into a river that reached all the way to their neighboring country of Gemini.

Legend had it that their Ancestor had purposefully built the dining hall around the vitae streams. For what reason? Atienna wondered about it quite often. Perhaps it was in order to not disturb the natural balance of things. Or perhaps it was for something else.

“What do we look like now that we’ve chosen to do nothing?!”

Atienna slowly lifted her gaze up to the one who sat across from her. Despite the brightly woven and beautifully patterned yellow and green formal robes her brother wore, he looked anything but elegant and courtly.  His eyes were wide and irate, his dark skin glistening with sweat.

“The Sagittarians have aided us whenever we were in need! How can you agree with the Council’s decision to deny their request for aid!”

“We never asked them for assistance!” The young woman beside him snapped, shaking her head so hard that her high, cone-shaped headdress nearly fell straight off her head. “And you can’t compare sending a handful of volunteers to help with wildlife restoration to assisting a war effort!”

“It’s not a war effort!” came the aggravated sigh. “They’re defending their lands from those skirmishes between Capricorn and Aquarius. They only seek peace and to protect their people.”

“So, you would have us risk our own people for theirs?” 

A pause. And then a spit. “You have no heart, Safiyah!”

“You have no head, Bachiru.” 

And then the young Safiyah laid eyes on her. And then her brother laid eyes on her.

Oh, bother.

Atienna shut her book and awaited the full brunt of their words. The storm of breathless shouts. The demands. And come the words did.

“Atienna, talk some sense into your brother! He’s been hanging around Usian for far too long. That man has clouded your brother’s empty head with foolishness!” Safiyah pressed, swinging her fork in Bachiru’s direction.

“Atienna,” Bachiru retorted, fending her fork off with a fork of his own.  “Talk some sense into your friend! She knows nothing of empathy or sympathy! She has sold her heart to some devil!”

Atienna glanced in-between them and waited a beat. In the lull in conversation that hung there, she could hear their heavy panting.

“Bachiru,” she addressed her brother first. “If you feel so strongly about this, why don’t you take it to the Council instead of wearing yourself out here? Our father is a chieftain on the Council, isn’t he? Is it not better to speak to him about these things?”

Bachiru opened his mouth to retort, and Safiyah did as well. Their faces were creased with confusion. She could read their thoughts like the pages from her book— whose side was she on?

“Safiyah,” she addressed her friend next. “The Council has already made their decision, and it’s a decision that coincides with your beliefs.  And you and I both know that Bachiru is too stubborn to ever change his opinion.” She smiled gently, almost sheepishly. “Forgive me, but I’m having a hard time understanding exactly why this argument is happening to begin with. You’ve disagreed about this subject with members from other tribes, but I’ve never seen you reach this level of anger.” After a pause, her smile turned impish. “Unless there’s another reason for this…”

Their brows furrowed with confusion and then rose with realization. They tried a glance in each other’s direction but paused halfway and instead settled back into their chairs and began to busily shove their mouths with the spiced rice.

Offering an even more impish smile, Atienna gently opened her book on her lap again and thanked the server as he came over to refill her glass cup with wine. She lifted the glass up to her lips and took a sip as she turned the page. The next chapter. Finally.

She blinked.

That was odd.

The words were a bit hard to read. Fuzzy. Out of focus. 

“Atienna…?”

Now that she thought about it, everything seemed out of focus. The noise around her. The movements of her brother and friend across the table. Her own movements. 

The wine glass slipped from her fingertips and shattered onto the floor in a great explosion of red and translucent petals. She followed it to the ground not so long after. As she lay cold on her back, she blinked up at the archways in confusion and studied the intricate designs that had been carved there centuries ago. The archways, in turn, echoed back the shouts of alarm from those seated around her.

Dark faces ringed around her like a halo. The lights cast by the streams of vitae twisted strange shadows across those faces in a way that made them look foreign, strange. 

Beside her, the wine bled out onto the tablecloth and into the pages of her book. 

Was this—

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