Atiena Imamu lay propped up in her bed with a book in her hands and a garden 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 good-will wishing. As much as it pleased Atiena to know that the other tribes were aware of her green thumb and that they cared for her, she knew that there was another reason behind the attention and gifts. To remove suspect. 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, because they had all chosen to deliver the gifts, they had all made 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,” Atiena sighed, lowering her book.
The book was leatherbound in red and its pages were still crisp and new. In black letters, the cover of it 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 Ophiucian Literary Department for incitement to violence”.
She raised the book up again to tap it against her lips and swept her gaze 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 grew twisting vines that spilled out onto the floor and ate up the ground halfway to her bed.
Stretching out her arms and then cradling the book to her chest, Atiena 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 outside at the left and the right of the bucket.
The rays of light streaming lazily down from the sun were obscured by a haze of fog that hung loosely along the canopies of the forestry that dotted the area. The rays also caught onto the man’s and the woman’s shaven heads. In this foggy haze of light, both squinted around the clearing and gripped tightly the spear conductors in their hands. The bright blue and green shawls that were thrown over their shoulders caught the dew drops that dribbled down from the roof.
“Hello, my faithful guards.” Atiena greeted them both with a smile as she placed down her book and leaned over the windowsill.
“Miss Atiena!” The guards stuttered in unison before forming their left hands into an M shape and placing it over their hearts.
Atiena returned the gesture with a polite smile. “How are your mornings going, 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 and raising a brow, “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.” Atiena 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.”
Sefu nodded agreeably at this although he rubbed his chest with a grimace. He then studied Atiena 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 Atiena. 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—
Atiena dispelled the odd streams of thought with a slight chuckle that 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.”
Atiena 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.”
Atiena hid a laugh with her hand again. “Alright, Sefu. An apple for you.” She raised a coy brow at 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, Atiena 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 herself 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 carefully etched with a smile. Paintings of moons and suns frequented the walls.
She was just rounding the corner when she was suddenly assaulted at her neck and at her legs by. Arms, wrapping tightly. She was used to such assaults, however, 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 Atiena turned to find her sisters blinking at her expectantly. 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 Atiena 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.
Atiena 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 hips — the sight of which caused Kamaria to swallow.
“My, my, it really touches my heart to see both of my beloved sisters saying they miss me and visiting me here out in the hall,” Atiena 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! We even snuck past the healers — the doctors!” Kamaria protested. “But you were too knocked out to notice!”
Atiena 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. “Well, that’s…”
Atiena glanced down at her youngest sister instead and raised her brow. “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 laugh from just behind her.
Atiena 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?” Atiena asked.
“Well, this time Kichea had a stomachache that was so terrible that she just had to go see the resident healer. 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, Atiena, you remained in the classroom. You were reading books instead of paying attention to my lessons but still.”
“I’m still sorry about that,” Atiena chuckled apologetically before turning her eyes on her sisters. “But I must say that I’m very jealous of my little sisters’ craftiness.”
Kamaria rolled her eyes.
“Come on,” Atiena sighed good-naturedly, inclining her head down the hall. “It’s only half an hour more 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, Atiena,” 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,” Atiena returned, 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.”
“Oh, I’m sure there’s nothing that I know that they haven’t found out yet,” Atiena murmured sheepishly. “You know I’m not very good with large groups.”
“Ah, by nature or by choice?” Usian smile.
Atiena 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 aid. Your father did vote in favor of them. He was in the minority, but you know how the people view your father. If given the right tools, he could sway them—”
“I don’t think it’s right to make assumptions just yet.” Atiena frowned somewhat. “It might start—”
“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?”
Atiena started 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, Atiena.” 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 alright, Usian,” Atiena 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.
Finally, 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 towards her. “You’re visiting your mother today, right?”
Atiena answered quickly, “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.
Atiena 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 her bare 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 barebone black trees interspersed with flimsy tents. Above her head unfurled a gray and cold skyline that looked as if it was about to weep.
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 dark periwinkle colored 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 suddenly stepped in front of her and in front of the soldiers. The man was tall and pale. His facial features were sharp, his slicked-back hair a platinum blonde, and his eyes an icy cold 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, a voice whispered—
“Werner Waltz?” She tried.