Atiena had yet to memorize all of the rooms within the Tribal Council Hall. When she first came to the Halls years ago, she had thought that she would be able to memorize the entire layout of the building within the week since there were only twenty-four rooms total and at the time she had visited the Hall every single day. Looking back now, she realized the very thought had been childish folly. The idea that one could conquer something no matter how large that ‘something’ was—perhaps, it wasn’t so much as childish folly as it was human folly.
Atiena pondered this as she sat within the reception room on one of the many chairs that circled around a small black tree that grew at its center. The tree was only about two meters tall and was barely beginning to bud flowers amongst its glass-like leaves.
When she had come here for the dinner several days ago, the room had an entirely different layout. There had been no tree growing from the center then. Instead, there had been patches of flora crisscrossing the ground following along the path of the vitae streams that had flowed there. Atiena wondered how the room would look tomorrow. Different, surely. Unrecognizable maybe.
This was because the rooms of the Council Hall changed alongside the shifting currents of the vitae streams that trickled in from the outside and swirled around the floor in different patterns every day.
Atiena was drawn out of her thoughts by a loud sigh. She turned her head just in time to see Safiyah throw herself back on the chair beside her.
“Your brother is impossible,” she said, arms crossed, glaring through the crowd that stood around them and in the direction where Atiena assumed her brother stood. Her expression then turned sympathetic, and she turned to Atiena before reaching out and squeezing her hand. “As are you. If I had been poisoned, I would be locking myself up in bed.”
“To escape from these meetings or to rest and recover?” Atiena wondered.
“To escape these meetings of course.” Safiyah threw her hands up in the air. “If we are to be required to come here, I would at least like to take part in the meetings!” She then cleared her throat and then spoke like how a schoolteacher would. “Family members of the chieftain are not allowed to take part in meetings as they have not earned their positions. Nepotism. And yet our purpose here is to ‘follow tradition and facilitate peace amongst the tribes’?” She crossed her arms and shook her head. “Facilitate peace—half of us can’t sit in the same room without throwing fists with one another. And isn’t that nepotism anyway?”
Atiena concealed her smile with a hand. Safiyah’s rants were always interesting to hear.
Safiyah glanced at her before relaxing back in her seat. “Why do I always get the feeling that you actually enjoy being here?”
“What makes you think I enjoy it?”
“It’s the only time I see you smiling like that other than when you’re gardening or reading.”
Atiena supposed that was true. The smooth snip of her garden shears as they snapped shut on the neck of damaged parts of her favorite bush. The muffled flaps of her new book as the pages ruffled against up against another. The many changes of expression that fluttered across a single person’s face in a single conversation. All of these were things that she found relief in. These things and—
And the crack of her knuckles against bone and flesh. This too was something she felt was able to wrestle out the tension in her shoulders. It would leave her fingers raw as a paper cut or a prick of a thorn would but it was not unpleasant.
But Safiyah did not know this. What sort of expression Safiyah would make if she knew—Atiena could only wonder.
“Honestly, you even seem to enjoy my rants.” Safiyah nodded before she took Atiena’s hand in her own and bowed her head. “Someone who will actually listen to me curse the heavens—Atiena, may I take your hand in marriage?”
Atiena inclined her head in turn and gave her hand a squeeze. “Oh, I was about to ask you the same. But are you and Bachiru not—”
“It’s not like that!” Safiyah snapped, pulling her hand away with a huff and flushed cheeks.
“Were you and Bachiru discussing the Sagittarian issue once again?”
Safiyah’s expression soured once more, and she pulled away with a roll of her eyes. “Even worse. Your brother has become convinced that aiding the Sagittarians is not enough. Says that our isolation has caused us to turn one another. That…”
“That my poisoning was a stab at my father who was promoting Saggitarian aid and that not aiding the Saggitarians would be giving in to the brewing conflict.”
“I do know my brother.”
“Convoluted ideas, don’t you think?”
“Is that what you think?”
Safiyah thought on this and crossed her arms. “Getting involved in the affairs of others doesn’t always lead to a joyous revolution of hand-holding. Sometimes it’s better to let people resolve things themselves for all parties.” She met Atiena’s eyes, and her gaze became distant. “We both know that.”
Atiena felt her fingers ache.
Safiyah’s expression then became wry. “Besides, thinking that you can just swoop into other’s problems and solve them just like that is… egotistical.”
“So averting one’s eyes…” Atiena murmured.
“What was that?”
“I was just wondering to myself,” Atiena replied with a smile.
“If only Bachiru was as quiet, and thoughtful as you.” Safiyah sighed. “I’m pretty sure that all of your family’s good traits were passed onto you.”
“And what of Kichea and Kamaria?” Atiena smiled as she leaned forward.
Safiyah responded with an immediate huff. “I love them to death but I swear sometimes they are evil incarnate.”
“They are mischievous.”
“You were too now that I think about it. We all were. You, me, Bachiru.” Safiyah shook her head. “Bachiru… to think after everything we’ve been together, he’d go so far as to call me a black-hearted ELPIS sympathizer.
Finally, Atiena found herself frowning. The word burrowed into her temple and kick-started a dull headache. “He said that?” Her frown deepened when Safiyah nodded in confirmation. “What in the world is he thinking?” Atiena pinched the bridge of her nose and shook her head. “I’m so sorry, Safiyah.”
Safiyah matched her frown as she registered Atiena’s expression.“It was rude, but it wasn’t…”
But Atiena was already rising to her feet. “I’m going to have a word with him.”
While right and wrong were subjective, there were certain things that were not tolerable.
After sifting through a jungle of brightly colored garments, high-towering headdresses, and daring flashes of bare skin, Atiena made out her brother in the crowd. He was standing at the corner of the room in his usual formal attire of a deep green sash thrown over a loose gold-gilded robe. But he was not alone. Beside him stood Usian in his deep purple. Green and purple were colors that went well together—or so said ‘Color theory by PC Sies’.
But at the sight of them standing beside each other, Atiena faltered. Her heart skipped a beat.
Bachiru and Usian. They were two dots to be connected. Or perhaps they were already connected. And what would she do if they were?
“Oh, you have a lot to say for being part of a tribe that is the prime suspect for the poisoning!”
“Prime suspect? How dare you!”
She averted her eyes away from them and turned her attention towards the commotion. The words were flying between two young men who looked around Bachiru’s age. One young man wore a painfully scarlet scarf that fell short only an inch or so above the ground. At his ears hung fang-shaped earrings. The other man was draped in a loose yellow shawl patterned with blue zigzags and green polka dots.
“I spent a good portion of the last school year going out to the different lands of each tribe and studying the flora native to each area.” A wide swooping finger was pointed. “Have you heard of sorrowheat? I suppose not. It is a very rare and deadly plant that causes intense fevers that can lead to death. And do you know where such a plant is found?”
There was a gasp amongst the crowd gathered.
“Are you serious? How dare you imply that!” The fang-earringed man snapped. “How dare you! The Imamu tribe and the Jino tribe have had close relations for years after we held the Shala line during the War!”
Atiena observed them and unconsciously flexed her fingers. She wondered if they truly saw a point in this confrontation. Where did they think their words would carry them? Speaking as if they had experienced firsthand the bonds forged between the tribes and as if they had the power to bend and break the bonds just like that. Ah, but that was fine wasn’t it?
If you are so annoyed by them then why do you not intervene?
Atiena paused but she did not panic. Instead, she carefully scanned the area in search of someone who was out of place. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a flash of deep brown curls and a white smile.
And suddenly she found herself in-between the two men. The two looked down at her with startled expressions before they quickly inclined their heads reverently. In unison, they asked about her well-being before sending the other a tantalizing glare.
“There’s no point in pointing fingers,” she said before she smiled gently. “Besides, I was the one who was poisoned, wasn’t I?” She left what her rhetorical question implied up to the others to determine, and the action allowed a thoughtful, hesitant silence to fall over them.
The door to the hall cracked open, and a guard stepped in to tell them that the meeting had concluded. By the way her father handled himself on their way home, Atiena supposed that the meeting had turned out similarly to how this “strengthening of tribal relations” had come out.
Despite the itch of her fingers, as soon as she arrived home, Atiena strode to her mother’s door. There she paused, pressing her palm against the white-painted wood. Cold to the touch. As any divide should be. And even if she crossed this physical barrier, there would still be another one to cross. An insurmountable, unseeable one that towered over her even now. So, the least she could do was overcome this physicality.
Atiena pushed forward through the door and entered the room. It was a quiet room. At the center of the room was an occupied bed hidden by drapes that reached down from the ceiling. Thin, pale, white curtains hung in front of an ajar window that allowed in a small breeze and setting sunlight. At this window sat her mother, as beautiful as always. Dark rope of hair smoothed and tied back by the attendant probably earlier in the morning. Blemishless skin glowing in the soft light. Ebony eyes staring out at whatever scenery played out beyond the windowpane. Ebony eyes that did not rise to meet Atiena even as she approached.
When she reached her mother’s side, Atiena placed a hand on her folded hands.
Atiena rolled her mother’s chair out the room. She passed by Bachiru who averted his gaze at the sight of them and then Kichea and Kamaria who were holding each other’s hands. Kichea looked on with curiosity while Kamaria stared on blankly. Nia and Sefu trailed behind her at her feet. Their conductors were deftly held in their left hands while in their right they held a collection of records and a dismantled music player, respectively.
They continued on outside the house through the back door, winding down a forested path that lay just beyond it. There were no buildings here, and the sounds of nature—chirps, buzzes, distant pattering—filled the areas in-between what was allowed by the blanket of humidity. This path was far from the path Atiena had taken the previous day under the cloak of night. The path here was well-trodden, used often, and the trees that grew around it reached from either side and met each other above their heads. The vines that hung from those brambles had been carefully trimmed and tucked away by gardeners that morning. Still, the vines seemed to be drooping down towards them again. The gardeners would be back soon to cut away what they deemed was an unwanted overgrowth.
As they walked on, the air became warmer and warmer, lighter and lighter.
It was an hour and a half before they reached their destination marked by a gate of ferns. Through their green leaves bled shifting, psychedelic light. Blues, reds, greens, and whites in-between.
Nia stepped forward and parted the ferns with an inclination of her head. Immediately, light spilled into the shade provided by the canopies. Atiena nodded in thanks before turning forward to face the blinding light.
When her eyes adjusted, she found a great black tree rising above a marsh of pools and light. The tree had a great, thick trunk that was as wide as the width of her house. Where its reach for the sun setting sky ended was unknown. Its branches spider-webbed across the horizon forming cracks along the skyline. But the cracks were not empty. Glittering on their tips were transculescent, glass-like leaves that reflected the light from below.
At the tree’s base flowed streams of light that wove their way in-between the arched roots of the tree. Alongside the vitae streams were normally bodies of water that too reflected the light from them.
Atiena rolled her mother to the edge of a riverbank. After locking the chair in place, she aided Nia and Sefu in setting up the music player. With much effort, she insisted that both guards take a break for half an hour. She knew that they obeyed not out of a desire to rest but out of a desire to allow Atiena and her mother some time for themselves.
When the two were out of ears reach, she placed the needle of the player on the record and waited for the static whine to lull into a tune.
The tune that rolled out from the record player was slow and melancholic, nostalgic. A tune that had been popular near the war’s end nearly two decades earlier—for whatever reason. One would think war-end tunes would be joyous, celebratory. Then again, politicians saying ‘war is over’ — was there any meaning behind those words?
“Mother,” she said, sinking to her knees beside the woman, “are you comfortable?”
As always, there was no answer. Only a listless stare that was not even directed at her.
How boring, came a thought she knew was not her own. But she could not distribute the time to think about such things. In her mother’s presence, she could not wonder about anything at all.
“Bachiru thinks he’s following in your footsteps. I can see it in his eyes,” she said as she gently laid her head across her mother’s lap. “Trying for fairness and peace.”
In silence, her mother gazed past her towards the soft glow that emanated from the pool of light behind the trees.
“He thinks he’s being selfless, but I think he’s being selfish. But he’s probably neither, right?”
Again, no answer.
“I think he wants to follow in your footsteps.”
There was a crunch from behind her. The sound of a twig snapping.
Atiena turned her head.
But instead of finding her guards emerging from the fern doors, she instead found a matchstick patch of jet-black brambles rising from sodden, frosted ground. And beyond the matchstick work—
It was that man again. The soldier. He was an odd one—this soldier. He stood out from the others flanking his sides like a sore thumb. It wasn’t so much his appearance that stood out—they were all in dusted uniforms, all in boots that were caked with mud, all lugging along some baggage or weapon—but his demeanor that did. Tight and stiff despite the fatigue that hung over them. Unshivering and steadfast despite the frost that was collecting on their clothes. Sharp eyes focused squarely at her. Not seeming to appraise her—rather seeming to appraise whether she was appraising him. Those eyes…
In contrast to the grayness of the woods that unfolded around him, the man’s ice-blue eyes seemed glow as a conductor would.
Those eyes stared out past the haze of fog that seemed to roll out from beneath his feet. Stared out at her. She met his gaze before glancing at those around him. They were exhausted—she could tell. Poor things. Some were hovering close together while others strayed from each other distantly. And the blue-eyed soldier was one of those who strayed. It seemed as if despite whatever arduous journey they shared together prior, there was still a distance that could not be crossed.
How relatable. This mirage of a man.
Smiling at this, she told him her thoughts on their shared matter before turning her attention back to the tree.
“They say that memories are stored in vitae. That’s what our Ancestor Virgo taught us at least. We don’t worship her like the people who follow the Monad way of life worship their Ancestors, their saints. To us, Virgo was a teacher.”
She felt another gaze on her but she did not turn her gaze in the direction.
“There is a Virgoan belief that states that when you die, your vitae does not dissipate out into nothingness like they teach you in books. The belief is that your vitae leaves your body and becomes a part of the world around you. Whether it merges with hard vitae in rocks or soft vitae in plants—it doesn’t matter. Because the entire thing is a cycle. Neither created nor destroyed—just returned and retaken.”
Another shadow flickered out of the corner of her eye. Another curious observer, maybe.
“The memories that are stored in your vitae also become shared with the vitae in the world around you.” She continued. “That’s the reasoning for why your life flashes before your eyes when you have a near-death experience. It’s your vitae leaving your body and taking your memories along with it to rejoin the rest of the vitae in the world. Romantic, right?”
“But I didn’t learn that directly from Virgo. Not from any of her books at least.” She blinked up and traced her mother’s jawline with her eyes. “She never taught me what would happen if you were stuck like this. Not quite alive, not quite dead. Where your vitae would fall in the cycle. It’s not written in any books either so you can only wonder…” She smiled thinly. “Is an ideal really worth something like this?”
Finally, she lifted her head and glanced around her. She couldn’t help but smile at the emptiness that surrounded her. But she too eventually averted her eyes away from this.
Atiena wondered if the ‘others’ could see her now. And if they could, she wondered if they too were averting their gazes. Would they avert their gazes when she re-entered that ring of fire later tonight as well?