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, Atiena couldn’t help but say, “How cruel.”
Surprisingly, Werner seemed to react to her words and he shook his head.
Could he hear her…?
Atiena perked up at this and drew nearer to him. “Fear is a teacher but not a good one.”
He 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 towards 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 resolidified 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 placed front and center. Before this stage stood a boyish-looking girl who was dressed in a loose suit that looked one size too large. Upon closer inspection, Atiena found that the girl was, in fact, a young woman. The young woman had unruly red hair that was barely tamed by her hat. Her round cheeks were dotted with freckles. The young woman did not seem to notice Atiena’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 Atiena knew this, she did not know.
Out of pure curiosity, Atiena tried in the common language, “That’s a lovely piano.”
The flirtatious smile she was greeted with was amusingly charming enough for Atiena to engage with it. Thus began a short conversation that was interrupted only by a voice that seemed to belong to someone standing behind her― a bartender it seemed: “Who are you talking to…?”
She 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 own mother language and too far away from common. But for some reason, as she listened to the bartender’s question, she could comprehend him completely.
Ah. It seemed as if she could not be seen here by others either. Wherever “here” was.
The scenery flickered again and began to melt away, but this time Atiena 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 ginger-haired 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 whackjobs in this city.” The woman looked at her up and down. “Even if the hallucination is a pretty lady.”
“Oh, I’m very real,” Atiena chuckled. “In my point of view, I should be the one denying your existence.”
The young woman blinked at her. “I ain’t having 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 Atiena’s shoulder; and in the blink of an eye, her expression of displeasure melded into one of playful lightheartedness. It was such an instantaneous change that Atiena was left wondering if the woman had truly felt disturbed by Atiena’s presence at all.
“Just ventin’ my frustration with work,” the woman said 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? You sure ain’t doin’ anything in here. No customers.” She then reached into her pocket, pulled out a wallet, and tossed it. “Here, you can get yourself somethin’ nice too 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 smoothly off from her face, and she regarded Atiena 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.”
Atiena hid her smile again which caused the young woman to cock half a grin. “How about instead of choosing to label whatever is happening as reality or delusion,” Atiena said, “we just talk?”
The young woman did a double-take. “Talk?”
Atiena 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,” Atiena continued, extending her hand out. “I can see this bar like it’s right in front of me.”
The young woman cocked a brow before cracking a sly grin and extending her hand out to touch Atiena’s own hand. Their fingers brushed up against each other. Static at the touch. The woman’s eyes widened as her breath hitched.
Atiena took a step forward out of curiosity. She peered into the young woman’s face and studied it. Realization dawned a beat later. “Can see where I’m standing? My house ― the hall?”
The young woman pulled back, shook her head.
Atiena frowned at her worriedly and leaned in close. “Are you alright?”
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 Atiena―more curiously than flirtatiously. “What is goin’ on here?”
“I’m not sure,” Atiena said with a thoughtful frown before she extended her hand once more. “But what I’m sure of is that I am Atiena Imamu, and I’d like to understand this — and you — better. Real or not.”
The young woman quirked a brow before she seemed to snicker to herself. Extending her hand and accepting Atiena’s gesture, she said, “Cadence Morello.”
Cadence Morello and her dimly lit bar were gone in the next instant.
“Cadence?” She tried.
The green-painted halls answered her silently.
When Atiena arrived in front of the large, wooden doors that guarded the kitchen, she was greeted by muffled shutting. 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.
“Atiena!” 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 healers said you were recovering, but…”
“Much better, father,” Atiena replied before she smiled gently. “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.
“Atiena, I cannot 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.”
Atiena 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 your people!”
“I am choosing my family!” Her father bellowed.
Atiena’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 tempted her 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. Atiena and Bachiru took a step forward to aid him but he waved their efforts off.
“Father,” Bachiru tried, “I just meant…”
“Atiena, Bachiru,” her father sighed. “You should both retire to your rooms. We still do not know if there will be another attempt made.”
“Enough, Bachiru.” Her father shook his head. “Atiena, take him to his room. Please.”
Before Bachiru could make another stand, Atiena 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. In a daze, 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. And so, she continued down the hall in a stupor.
She could not face her mother like this. No, she could not.
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? Atiena 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…” Atiena murmured to herself as she studied the book in her hands. “Or maybe it’s just that I…”
Her fingers itched. Much like the fingers of Cadence when Cadence stood in front of that piano. However, Atiena knew her fingers did not itch for something as lovely as that piano. No, what her fingers itched for was…
“Ah, I forgot the apples…”
When night fell, Atiena slipped out of bed and 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 spilled the paint out onto her fingertips 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, 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 deftly climbed on top of her bookcase. From there, she reached for a latch that was hidden in the corner of the ceiling. When she gave the latch a tug, it opened up a crawl space where 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 consumed dirt and stone building 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 this path 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 an open 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 faces painted similar to her. 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 wore 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.
Atiena 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.”
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. Face painted bright red with streams of white running down their cheeks from their 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.
Atiena regarded her opponent, and her opponent regarded her. A beat of silence passed, and then her opponent swung at her with a fist. Atiena deftly 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 their legs out from underneath them. Before they could fall, she sent out another kick that sent them toppling sideways. Once again, she did not let them 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 upwards 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 did not know how long it was before she stopped throwing punches and kicks but when she finished her opponent lay motionless on the dirt floor. Heaving and panting, she wiped the sweat that was dripping from her brow and felt the paint smear onto her arm.
Distantly, she heard the noise from the crowd. Somewhere in-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. It was a wonderful relief.