Tribal Council Hall, Virgo
Atienna had yet to memorize all of the rooms within the Tribal Council Hall. When she first came to the Hall years ago, she thought she would be able to memorize the entire layout of the building within the week since there were only twenty-four rooms at the time.
Currently, she sat within the reception room on one of the many chairs that circled a small black tree growing at its center. The tree was about two meters tall and was barely beginning to bud flowers amongst its glass-like leaves. Admiring it would be so much easier if there weren’t a crowd filling out the floor in front of her.
When she had come here for 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 the path of the vitae streams that flowed there. Atienna wondered how the room would look tomorrow. Different, sure. 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.
Atienna was drawn out of her thoughts by a loud sigh. She turned her head just in time to see Safiyah throw herself on the chair beside her.
“Your brother is impossible,” Safiyah said, arms crossed, glaring through the crowd that stood around them and in the direction where Atienna assumed her brother stood. Her expression then became sympathetic, and she turned to Atienna 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?” Atienna 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, then spoke like a schoolteacher: “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?”
Atienna 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?”
“A feeling, my friend.”
Atienna 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 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 that could 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—Atienna could only wonder.
“Honestly, you even seem to enjoy my rants.” Safiyah nodded before she took Atienna’s hand in her own and bowed her head. “Someone who will actually listen to me curse the heavens—Atienna, may I take your hand in marriage?”
Atienna 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 flushing.
“Were you and Bachiru discussing the Sagittarian issue 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 supporting the Sagittarians is not enough. Says that our isolation has caused us to turn on one another. That…”
“That my poisoning was a stab at my father who was promoting Sagittarian support and that not supporting the Sagittarians would be giving in to the other side.”
“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.” Her gaze became distant. “We both know that.”
Atienna 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…” Atienna murmured.
“What was that?”
“I was just wondering to myself,” Atienna 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?” Atienna smiled as she leaned forward.
Safiyah responded with a 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 through together, he’d go so far as to call me a black-hearted ELPIS sympathizer.”
Atienna 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?” Atienna pinched the bridge of her nose and shook her head. “I’m so sorry, Safiyah.”
Safiyah matched her frown. “It was rude, but it wasn’t…”
But Atienna was already on 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, Atienna made out her brother in the crowd. He stood 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 P.C. Sies.
But at the sight of them standing beside each other, Atienna faltered.
Bachiru and Usian. A student, a teacher. They were two dots to be connected. Or perhaps they were already connected. And what would she do if they were?
Around the two crowded a group of fellow sons and daughters of chieftains. There was an intensity in their eyes.
The scene was all too familiar—
“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 toward the commotion. The words were flying between two young men who looked around Bachiru’s age. One young man wore a scarlet scarf that fell 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 zig zags and green polka dots.
“I spent a good portion of the last school year going out to each of the tribes’ lands and studying the flora native to each area.” A wide swooping finger was pointed. “Have you heard of sorrowheat? It’s 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!”
Atienna 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’d 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, my dear, then why do you not intervene?
Atienna 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 dark brown curls and a white smile.
And suddenly she found herself between the two men. The two looked down at her, startled, before they quickly inclined their heads reverently. In unison, they asked about her well-being before sending each other tantalizing glares.
“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 let her question sink in as they lingered in silence.
The door to the hall cracked open and a guard announced the chieftain meeting had concluded. By the way her father muttered to himself under his breath on their way home, Atienna supposed the meeting turned out similarly to the ‘strengthening of tribal relations.’
* * *
Despite the itch of her fingers, as soon as she arrived home, Atienna 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 one that towered over her even now. So, the least she could do was overcome this physicality.
Atienna pushed forward through the door and entered the room. It was a quiet room. At the center of it was an occupied bed hidden by drapes reaching 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 earlier in the morning. Unblemished skin marred only by a pale scar at her temple. Ebony eyes staring at whatever scenery played out beyond the windowpane. Ebony eyes that did not rise to meet Atienna even as she approached.
When she reached her mother’s side, Atienna placed a hand over her mother’s.
She rolled her mother’s chair out of 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. 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 outside the house, through the back door, winding down a forested path that lay just beyond. There were no buildings here, and the sounds of nature—chirps, buzzes, distant pattering—filled in the pockets of silence. This path was far from the path Atienna took last night under the cloak of darkness. The path here was well-trodden and the trees that grew along it on both sides reached up to meet each other overhead. The vines that hung from the brambles had been carefully trimmed and tucked away by gardeners that morning, yet the vines seemed to be drooping down toward them again. The gardeners would be back soon to cut away the overgrowth.
As they walked on, the air became gradually warmer 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. Immediately, light spilled into the shade provided by the canopies. Atienna nodded in thanks before turning forward to face the blinding light.
When her eyes adjusted, she found a great white tree rising above a marsh of pools and light. The tree had a thick trunk as wide as her house. Where its reach ended for the sun-setting sky 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 glass-like leaves that reflected light from below.
The Great Tree of Virgo.
At the tree’s base was a pool of vitae. Out from it flowed streams of light that wove their way through the marsh. Alongside the vitae streams were normal ponds and rivulets that too reflected the brilliance of the vitae.
Ringed around the edges of the bank were thin, silver poles with glass tubing wrapped around them. Generator conductors. Smaller than the ones she’d seen in the books. Despite Virgo denouncing excessive reliance on vitae reservoirs, it seemed even they couldn’t escape occasionally harvesting it for power.
Atienna rolled her mother to the edge of the riverbank. After locking the chair in place, she aided Nia and Sefu in setting up the music player. With much effort, she convinced both guards to take a half hour break. She knew that they obeyed not out of desire to rest, but to allow Atienna and her mother some privacy.
When the two were out of earshot, 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. 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 into the distance.
How boring, came a thought she knew was not her own. But she couldn’t spare the time to think about such things. In her mother’s presence, she couldn’t 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 justice.”
In silence, her mother gazed past her toward the soft glow emanating from the pool of light beneath the tree’s roots.
“He thinks he’s being selfless, but I think he’s being selfish. But he’s probably neither.”
Again, no answer.
“He wants to be like you, but I can’t let him. Is that wrong of me?”
There was a crunch from behind her. The sound of a twig snapping.
Atienna 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.
In contrast to the grayness of the woods that unfolded around him, the man’s ice-blue eyes seemed to glow as a conductor would.
Smiling at him, 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. But we don’t worship her like the worship Ancestors. They’re not saints to us. To us, Virgo was a teacher.”
She felt another pair of eyes on her, but she didn’t turn to look.
“There’s an old Virgoan belief that when you die, your vitae doesn’t burn away into nothing like they teach you in books. The belief is that your vitae leaves your body and becomes a part of the soft vitae in the world around you. The essence of vitae 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 stored in your vitae also become shared with the vitae in the world around you,” she continued. “That’s 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, don’t you think?”
“But I didn’t learn that from Virgo’s teachings. Not from any of her books at least.” She blinked up and traced her mother’s jawline with her eyes. “Those books never taught me what would happen if you were stuck like this. Not quite alive, not quite dead. Where would your vitae fall in the cycle? You can only wonder…” She smiled thinly. “Is an ideal really worth something like this?”
On that day six years ago, Atienna had come with her mother to this vitae reservoir just like this. At the time, her mother had brought her close to her side, murmuring with a smile, “This is the symbol of Virgo’s version of peace.” She’d gestured to the tree then. “The Great Tree was planted right when the war ended, and it has sprouted beautifully. Sturdy. Standing in place forever.”
Atienna had frowned then in confusion, book forgotten loosely in hand. “Standing sturdy in place? Isn’t that the opposite of what you are trying to do, mother? Pressing for Virgo to leave isolation in order to aid Aries after that ELPIS attack is the opposite of that, isn’t it? If this is some metaphorical lesson, mother, I don’t understand.”
“You never get tired with the questions,” her mother had chuckled before looking up at the tree. “Standing firmly in place about our beliefs. Acting on those firm beliefs. That is the metaphor.”
Atienna had only frowned deeper. “Mother, that is a very convoluted metaphor.”
Her mother had given a light scuff on the head as Usian appeared behind them. “It’s time,” was all he’d said.
They had gathered in front of the Council Hall then, arms linked defiantly, blocking the entrance of the tribal chieftains trying to enter. Most of the chieftains stayed as far away as possible from the human chain, while others came close and openly derided her mother for hypocritically standing with the people who supported an ideology that the Council voted against despite being a chieftain herself.
No one knew who threw the first punch but, in the end, everyone was throwing them. A mass of bodies tangled up with each other. Pinning each other to the floor. Swinging at each other blindly. Pulling people off each other. Shouts. Screams. Blurs.
Atienna had always been glad that she’d managed to squeeze her eyes shut just before her mother’s head cracked against the floor.